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Light In The Darkness

Western Sahara
Light in the darkness

Suddenly, unexpectedly, peace seems possible. But will Morocco let it happen?
And what would an independent Western Sahara look like?

‘Have you heard the latest from Lisbon?’ Everyone was on tenterhooks while I was in the refugee camps in the high Saharan summer – nobody let too long pass without listening to a radio. After six depressing years of stalemate something was happening again and people’s future was being determined in far-off European capitals. Back in 1991, when the original UN Peace Plan was launched, some people were so convinced that they were about to return to their homeland that they started packing up their tents. They know better now: six years of Moroccan obstructionism and delaying tactics have made them wary.

At the beginning of this year the UN operation seemed likely to be abandoned as an ignominious failure and the Saharawis started to screw their courage to the sticking place for a return to war. But then came the appointment of James Baker, followed by his visit to the camps. And now Polisario leaders were talking directly and officially with the Moroccan Government and apparently making headway.

What brought about this miraculous turn of events? Why did Morocco suddenly start talking instead of actively derailing the peace process?

We can only speculate about motives on the Moroccan side: they do not talk to the Western press (I requested an interview with the Moroccan Ambassador to Britain but he declined). One possibility is that King Hassan II, who is increasingly aged and rumoured to be seriously ill, does not wish to hand the poisoned chalice of the Western Sahara issue to his son Crown Prince Sidi Muhammad. Another is that Morocco cannot face the economic drain of a renewed war.

But the most likely scenario is that Morocco has been forced at least to appear to jump through the right hoops by international pressure, as it should have been at the very beginning of the UN peace process in 1991. Over the years King Hassan has been an autocratic bulwark against communism and Islamic fundamentalism in North Africa. He has also cleverly cultivated an image abroad as a peacemaker, pursuing a course in the Middle East more favourable to Israel (and thus to the US) than just about any other Arab leader. This has led successive US administrations to regard him as a key ally and to turn a blind eye to his appalling record on human rights and democracy.

But times change. Communism is now no longer a threat and the flavour of the moment for the US is promoting multi-party democracy (and the free market, which it sees as going hand-in-hand), especially in Africa. King Hassan’s feudal regime is thus more of an embarrassment than it used to be – and his mediation in Israel/Palestine is no longer required when the PLO administers Gaza and the West Bank.

Even this background might not, however, have been enough if it had not been for an entirely coincidental change in the cast list of the international political establishment. History, they say, is not made by great men (leave alone women) but great men can certainly do a great deal to mess it up.

The reason things have been unlocked in Western Sahara is nothing to do with the justness of the cause and everything to do with a change in the US State Department. When Bill Clinton won the White House it was actually a setback for Polisario because his Secretary of State Warren Christopher took a more pro-Moroccan line than had his Republican predecessor. Western Sahara is still beneath President Clinton’s notice but his appointment of Madeleine Albright as Secretary of State for his second term has had an immediate impact in North Africa. Albright was formerly US Ambassador to the United Nations and thus cares about the disrepute into which the Western Sahara fiasco had brought the international organization. Her former post may also have lent her some sensitivity on the issue – when Morocco’s Crown Prince Sidi Muhammad visited Washington recently it is rumoured that she refused to meet him.

Sad to say, the US rules the waves. If the US wants something to happen it generally does. This is why the support of the US Administration – embodied by James Baker – has been arguably even more key in unlocking the door of Western Sahara than UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s decision to launch a new initiative. After all, the UN headquarters official who dismissed the evidence that Morocco had undermined MINURSO as ‘not serious’ (see article, Catastrophe and Cavalry) was actually Kofi Annan...

The frustration for the avid radio-listeners during my visit to the refugee camps was that the Baker talks were barely mentioned. For once this did not reflect the international media’s lack of interest in the issue but rather the news blackout Baker had imposed so as to help an agreement take shape.

Particularly on tenterhooks were the members of Polisario’s National Secretariat (effectively the Cabinet Government of the fledgling Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic) on whose shoulders the responsibility for any deal done with Morocco would ultimately fall. I met about a third of these while I was in the camps. Each had different personal styles and approaches but in general they seemed remarkably free of the self-importance that usually goes hand-in-glove with political power. Of course as poverty-stricken refugees they have had little opportunity to accrue any of the trappings of power but, all the same, their informal, egalitarian approach seemed both engaging and convincing.

This was never more true than on my last day, when the Landcruiser that was ferrying me about made a special stop to pick up a Spanish visitor headed for the airport. I was invited into the one-room building where she’d been staying, which seemed indistinguishable from all the other such homes I’d visited. It was only a few hours later that the Spaniard chanced to mention that this home in which she’d been staying had been that of the Prime Minister. Even more impressive than the utterly ordinary nature of the Prime Minister’s home was the fact that no Saharawi thought it worth telling me that I’d been sitting inside it.

A family I returned to stay with more than once was that of a member of Polisario’s National Secretariat: the wali or Governor of Aoserd, Mustafa Sid el Bashir, a burly, thoughtful man with a surprisingly poetic turn of phrase – a bit like a bardic bear. We enjoyed our ‘official’ interview so much that it continued after supper in his tent into the small hours. Mustafa is deeply committed to this egalitarian approach to political leadership.

Tea is the universal consolation for Saharawis, including poetic politician Mustafa Sid el Bashir.

‘Anyone can come to my tent any time – if we went back there now we would find people making tea. There is honestly no distance here between the people and those in power. And a woman hitch-hiking might as easily be picked up by the President in his car as by anyone else. We have no guards, no servants – and nor should we have.

‘After we have gained our independence? I agree that will change things. If I was Governor of Aoserd town instead of Aoserd camp and I had a foreign dignitary visiting I couldn’t really receive him the way I do you. But many of us in the Government say that we will refuse to be guarded even then because if we were there is no way we could understand people’s lives and problems. There is an old Saharawi saying: “you must look for truth in the tents of the poor”.

‘I’d like you to promise me something: that if after independence I have been given some powerful position and am abusing it, you will come both as a journalist and as a friend and give me hell.’

So what are these principles that Mustafa and other members of Polisario’s leadership are promising not to betray – and what kind of country would an independent Western Sahara be? One of the original US reasons for supporting Morocco was that Polisario was said to be a Marxist movement. Polisario always denied this, claiming that they were secular nationalists. But they were damned at least by association – their primary supporters beyond Algeria were Cuba and Libya, not exactly the US’s favourite bedfellows.

It is also fair to say that in the early years they showed no special interest in democracy except in so far as it applied to a free vote on the question of independence. In the 1970s and early 1980s Polisario rallies had something of the flavour of the one-party states in Africa and beyond which supported them.

It is all very different now. Polisario has committed itself to multi-party democracy and a market economy, and has established a new constitution in the interim in which an elected parliament acts as a check on the executive branch of government. Cynics would say that this has only come about because of the need for a movement craving Western support to fall in with the rising tide of multi-partyism. My own sense is that, while public relations have obviously played a part, Polisario’s leaders understand how essential democracy and human rights are to their future independent country – not least by looking at the absence of democracy and human rights in Morocco.

If independence comes, it will of course bring all kinds of problems. Saharawi society is at present one of the most homogeneous in the world. A traditional nomadic culture has been forced into the modern world with a war of liberation as the only midwife. As a result differences between people have not had a chance to emerge from beneath the powerful imperative of regaining their homeland. There is next to no crime: instances of theft or rape in the refugee camps are counted on the fingers of one hand, extraordinary events remembered for years afterwards. There is also no sign of religious zealotry: people all seem broadly to subscribe to the same mild, liberal form of Islam but there are not even any mosques, let alone any sign of fundamentalism.

In an independent Western Sahara people would diverge from each other; the current unanimity would fracture and people’s long-postponed longings, not least perhaps for the trappings of consumerism would come into play.

But at least Western Sahara would start from a strong and unified position – and its leaders would have the mistakes of all the other newly independent African countries etched clearly before their eyes. And in a world starved of success stories theirs would be an adventure well worth following: the birth of a vibrant new state in North Africa with a government committed to democracy and human rights should have more than mere novelty value.

I heard many sad stories while I was in Western Sahara’s refugee camps – everyone has somebody they have lost or not seen for 20 years. But among them was that of a Moroccan, a prisoner of war who has been held in the desert by Polisario for the last 20 years. He specifically asked me not to reveal his identity in case Morocco took exception to his speaking to the press. And I could see that he was in a desperately difficult position – unable to say something that might rile his captors, Polisario, but also unable to say anything that might anger his own government and cause him problems if he ever returns home.

Polisario currently holds 1,890 Moroccan prisoners of war. It seems clear that in the early years they were treated fairly brutally and were certainly required to do hard labour, building the refugee camps. But conditions improved from about 1985 onwards and especially from 1989 following a visit by the Red Cross, at which point they began for the first time to be able to send and receive mail. Conditions remain pretty good now, according to a report by Human Rights Watch: the prisoners are accommodated in groups of six or seven, each with its own kitchen, and they have access to radio and TV.

But even if conditions are as good as could be expected, this prisoner’s story still seemed inexpressibly sad. He had hangdog eyes and a gentle manner. He was in his twenties and simply doing his obligatory 15 months of military service when he was captured; now his youth has gone. He scribbled a short letter for me to send on to his mother, a poignant addition to the letters home shown in the photo on the left. It is a cliché that there are victims on both sides in any war but it was never clearer to me than when I was in this man’s company.

The irony is that Polisario this year released 65 sick and aged prisoners but Morocco has refused to accept them back, as it did 200 such prisoners between 1981 and 1986. In refusing to accept them they are breaching international law and their reasons for so doing seem strange, to say the least: they claim that all Saharawis in the camps are Moroccan citizens who are being held under duress by Polisario. There could be no crueller example than this of the power games played by politicians at the expense of their own people.

Mustafa said to me one evening in words of characteristic resonance: ‘War is like a painting: you have to be at a distance from it to think it beautiful. Close up it is ugly.’ Refugees and prisoners of war stranded in an alien desert; families blown apart; an occupied land ruled by fear: you would have to retire to a very great distance before you could think the war in Western Sahara ‘beautiful’.

The next year could see a sorry repeat of the Moroccan intimidation and UN capitulation that has prevailed since 1991 – a lot depends on the assertiveness and integrity of the person appointed as UN Special Representative to oversee the process (James Baker is not prepared to take on this role). Or perhaps as early as next August there could be a free and fair referendum in which Saharawis at last determine their own destiny.

Now is the time for the international community – and that includes you and me – to play its part. When Namibia was in a similar position in 1989 8,000 journalists and workers from non-governmental orga-nizations flooded the field to ensure justice was done: there were as many people present from international civil society as there were UN officials. Namibia was then erroneously called the continent’s last colony. But let’s marshal the same vigilance, the same enthusiasm, the same concern, as was applied in Namibia so as to ensure that the people of Western Sahara, truly the last colony in Africa, receive their due.

1997: eight steps towards freedom

March, New York UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan appoints former US Secretary of State James Baker III as his Personal Envoy for Western Sahara. Baker is asked to visit the region and establish whether the existing UN Peace Plan, which originally envisaged a referendum taking place in 1992, can be salvaged. It is seen as a last-ditch attempt to rescue the MINURSO operation, which is otherwise liable to be wound up.

Late April, Western Sahara James Baker visits both the Moroccan-occupied territory and the Saharawi refugee camps in Tindouf, Algeria. He concludes that the original settlement can still be rescued but that direct talks between Morocco and Polisario under UN auspices are needed to address certain thorny issues, most notably how to identify legitimate voters in the referendum. Polisario wishes to keep the electorate as close as possible to the Spanish census of 1974 on the grounds that this was the population which should have been given the right to self-determination. Morocco, however, wishes to introduce around 120,000 extra voters which it claims are Saharawis missed by or absent for the census. The first formula would more or less guarantee a majority vote for independence; the second a majority vote for integration into Morocco.

10-11 June, London Baker meets Morocco and Polisario separately and invites them to direct talks in Lisbon. The talks are to be private, away from the glare of the media, and no issue is to be regarded as finally agreed until all outstanding issues have been settled.

23-24 June, Lisbon The first ever official direct meeting between the Moroccan Government and Polisario under UN auspices takes place – Morocco previously felt this would legitimize Polisario’s cause. At the end of the first day Baker submits a proposal aimed at bridging the differences between the two sides on voter identification. After consulting back home, both parties accept the compromise.

19-20 July, London The details of voter identification are settled together with the mechanics of preparing for the return of the refugees from the Algerian camps.

29-30 August, Lisbon Agreement is reached on the release of prisoners and on reducing and confining Moroccan and Polisario troops in the run-up to the referendum.

14-16 September, Houston In the final round of talks, Morocco and Polisario agree on a code of conduct for the three-week campaign leading up to the referendum guaranteeing freedom of speech and movement. The two sides formally sign up to all elements of the agreement. In a press conference afterwards, James Baker indicates that he expects the referendum to take place within a year, possibly in August 1998. He gives his own estimate of the eventual voter roll at 80,000, an estimate which pleases Polisario a lot more than it does Morocco.

24 September, New York The UN Security Council accepts the Secretary-General’s report on progress and extends MINURSO’s mandate until 20 April 1998 so that identification can proceed.

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