North Africa’s Forgotten Occupied Territory

by Bill Weinberg, Middle East Policy

Book Review:

Endgame in the Western Sahara:
What Future for Africa’s Last Colony?
by Toby Shelley
Zed Books, London, 2004

After a multi-generation guerilla struggle has become moribund, an intifada breaks out. A colonized Arab people revolt against a western-backed government which occupies their land in defiance of UN resolutions. Thousands have languished in refugee camps since the occupation began. The occupying power has divided the territory with a security wall to contain the resistance and protect settlements. Unemployment and human rights abuses have long been rife. Despair explodes into anger.

Yes, this could be the West Bank. But it could also be a far larger stretch of desert and coastline two thousand miles across North Africa: Morocco-occupied Western Sahara.

Financial Times reporter Toby Shelley’s Endgame in the Western Sahara is the first real study of this obscure conflict in over twenty years. (The last was Tony Hodges’ Western Sahara: The Roots of a Desert War in 1983.) The timing might prove fortuitous for Shelley, if not necessarily for the Sahrawis, the indigenous inhabitants of the territory.

After two years of calm, a new intifada erupted in Western Sahara in May 2005, and the contested offshore oil exploration zones hold potential to become strategic as global prices remain escalated. But Shelley’s book largely documents how the post-9-11 re-alignments in the Maghreb present new challenges for the Sahrawi.

A more hopeful analogy to Western Sahara is East Timor, and JosĂ© Ramos Horta, East Timor’s independence leader and Nobel Laureate, writes the introduction to Shelley’s book. In 1975, that same fateful year that Portugal ceded and Indonesia (illegally) annexed East Timor, a similar drama played out in what was then called Spanish Sahara. As Spain withdrew, Morocco and Mauritania illegally divided the territory between them. And (as in East Timor) the anti-colonial rebels continued their guerilla struggle against the new masters. In 1980, Mauritania pulled out, and Morocco’s King Hassan II quickly annexed their portion of the territory. Another ten years of war followed before the Polisario Front guerillas signed a ceasefire, but the promised UN-sponsored referendum on independence for Western Sahara has fallen victim to global power politics. The country remains occupied, divided roughly east-west by the Moroccan army’s sand berms. With South Africa’s 1990 withdrawal from Namibia, Western Sahara is now Africa’s last colony.

Not one country on earth recognizes Morocco’s claim to sovereignty over Western Sahara. Some 60 (including, of course, East Timor) recognize the Polisario Front’s exile government. But this hasn’t done the Sahrawis much good.

Since 2001, the UN’s pointman on Western Sahara, former US Secretary of State James Baker, has been pushing various versions of a plan under which Morocco’s settlers in the territory would be able to vote in the referendum. This is unacceptable to Polisario, which wants the vote restricted to the 74,000 native residents counted in the last Spanish census and their descendents. Morocco has named 100,000 applicants to participate in the vote, and views the referendum including an option for independence at all to be an onerous compromise.

Baker is alleged to have told Polisario diplomats in London in 2000 that Western Sahara is “not Kuwait”—the world would launch no massive campaign on behalf of its sovereignty.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Sahrawis remain in a harsh exile at refugee camps around Tindouf, an old caravan town across the Algerian border, in one of the worst parts of the Sahara. Morocco protests that Polisario has been holding hundreds of Moroccan prisoners of war at the camp since the 1970s; the Sahrawi protest that Morocco remains unaccountable on the status of hundreds of “disappeared” from the occupied territory. Morocco exploits the territory’s phosphate mines and fisheries, and has invited international oil companies to chart (not yet drill) in Western Sahara’s claimed offshore zone. The US company Kerr McGee and the French TotalFinaElf have taken the bait, while still claiming “neutrality” in the conflict.

The Polisario Front—especially in its period of war with Morocco in the late ’70s and ’80s—has been sustained by Morocco’s rivalry with Algeria. When the crisis began, Algeria was at least nominally socialist, a leader of the Non-Aligned Movement, an OPEC price hawk and symbol of Third World nationalism. Morocco was a conservative monarchy and Cold War ally of Washington and the West. When Sahrawi refugees fled to Algerian territory in 1975, Algiers naturally became Polisario’s sponsor. (They had previously had a friend only in Libya’s Moammar Qadaffi.) So it seems inevitable that Polisario’s fortunes have fallen victim to the recent Morocco-Algeria rapprochement prompted by the shared threat of Islamist militancy—and avidly encouraged by the West.

The rapprochement is by no means complete; it is Morocco which is leading the way into free-trade agreements and “anti-terrorist” cooperation with the US, and the two regional powers remain ostensibly at odds over Western Sahara. But Algeria is now thoroughly post-socialist, and as ideological differences have eroded new interlocking enemies have emerged: the (now somewhat dormant) Islamist guerillas in Algeria, the (increasingly active) Islamist cells and networks in Morocco. Polisario has to an extent outlived its usefulness to Algiers, which has softened its opposition to the Baker plan.

Morocco accused Polisario of being Soviet pawns in Cold War, and now of being in league with Islamist militants. In fact, they seem to be fairly non-ideological ethnic nationalists. Polisario itself turned post-Marxist in ’90s; in its camps at Tindouf, class distinctions, petty crime, the practice of Islam and such once-outmoded traditions as dowries are all growing. Polisario’s followers are demoralized by the stalemate, the state of “no war, no peace.”

Protests in Laayoune, the territory’s capital, in 2003—and again in May 2005—have somewhat reinvigorated the struggle. Morocco likes to claim that Sahrawi protests over civil rights and unemployment are unrelated to independence sentiment, but the 2005 protests began with a small march demanding freedom for detainees and quickly mushroomed into days of overtly pro-independence demonstrations that filled the streets and led to widespread clashes with security forces. The regional political balance, however, remains far less favorable to Sahrawi independence than it was a generation ago.

Shelley is deft at untangling the knot of geo-strategic interests that has bound Western Sahara’s destiny (despite a few minor flubs like naming Clinton’s Defense Secretary William Cohen as a member of the Bush administration). Unfortunately, he provides little and late discussion of the ethnic dimension to the conflict, or the “deep history” that animates it. (This material was given in-depth treatment in Hodges’ long out-of-print work.) We are on page 109 before Shelley mentions Hassaniyya, the Sahrawis’ regional dialect of Arabic, a key wellspring of their identity. We are on page 170 before we are told that Polisario stands for the “Front for the Liberation of Saguia el Hamra and Rio de Oro,” and we are never told exactly what these entities are. (They were the old Spanish administrative divisions for the colony.) In fact, Shelley leaves the word “popular” out of the title, making the first syllable of “Polisario” mysterious.

Shelley’s non-linear patchwork of the territory’s history begins in 1885, when Ma el-Ainin took up arms to resist the newly-arrived Spanish—a Berber Sufi warrior who fought both the Spanish and French with aid from the Moroccan sultanate. We are given the briefest sketch of the career of this fascinating harbinger of anti-colonial struggle, and even less about the way of life he sought to protect. Shelley recognizes that the conflicts of the region are those of “nation-states attempting to formalise and solidify relationships that, prior to the arbitrary territorial divisions of the colonial era, were malleable, or to express inter-communal relations in terms of territorial sovereignty.” But he tells us little about what those “malleable relationships” were.

In 1975 the World Court, ruling in a case brought by Morocco and Mauritania, found that both had historical links to Western Sahara, but these were insufficient to justify a claim of sovereignty over the territory. There were ties of allegiance between some local tribes and the Moroccan sultanate, but not enough to constitute “exclusive state activity.” Mauritania and Western Sahara had both been part of Bilad Chinguetti—lands loyal to the religious city of Chinguetti in contemporary Mauritania—but this did not constitute a “corporate entity.” Yet neither was pre-colonial Western Sahara terra nullius—land governed by no-one. So Spain’s old claim had also been illegitimate.

The Sahrawis ceased to be nomadic in the colonial era, we are told. One wonders if some remnant nomads persist, or what economic models may be possible for the Sahrawi other than handicrafts for the modest NGO market (which busies many in the Tindouf camps) or selling phosphate and oil rights to multinational corporations.

The heirs of Ma el-Ainin fought on into the 1930s, when they were finally subdued by combined French and Spanish forces. Resistance re-emerged as the struggle for Algerian independence was intensifying in 1958. That year, the French intervened to back up Spanish forces with air power in crushing a rebellion by Sahrawi desert tribes. In 1965, the UN General Assembly called for self-determination for the territory. Later resolutions determined that only native inhabitants should be able to vote (a principle now betrayed by the Baker plan). The 1963 Sand War between Morocco and newly-independent Algeria over Tindouf set the template for the new regional struggle.

In 1973, the Polisario Front launched its guerilla struggle. When Francisco Franco’s death in 1975 precipitated Spain’s pull-out, the hastily-reached “Madrid Accords” sanctified the partition of the territory by Morocco and Mauritania, and in turn precipitated Morocco’s “Green March,” as the invasion of that year was called. Thousands fled to Tindouf as Moroccan forces used napalm and slaughtered livestock to pacify guerilla-loyalist villages. (Hodges informs us, but Shelley does not, that the Madrid Accords were brokered with the aid of Henry Kissinger and the CIA’s Morocco pointman Vernon Walters.) By 1976, the US was responding to Rabat’s requests for increased military aid—although the grisly nature of the Western Sahara campaign prompted Carter to cut off arms shipments, albeit briefly and ineffectively. By 1977, French aircraft were back in the picture—this time pounding Polisario positions on behalf of Rabat. By 1981, the year after Mauritania capitulated to Polisario’s pressure and pulled out, Morocco’s sand berms were under construction.

The war continued until 1990, when Polisario accepted a ceasefire brokered by the Organization for African Unity, calling for the referendum the UN had endorsed twenty-five years earlier to finally take place. But the referendum was delayed time after time, with neither Polisario or Rabat able to agree on terms—and time would appear to be on Rabat’s side. French President Jacques Chirac, welcomed in Algiers for his historic 2003 visit, has adopted the official Moroccan language for Western Sahara: “provinces in the south.”

The vying claims of the post-colonial Maghreb are replete with ironies and hypocrisies Shelley could have had a better time with: Spain demands the return of Gibraltar from the UK, but still maintains the enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla on the Moroccan coast. In the slightly farcical 2003 military showdown between Spain and Morocco over a barren patch of rock off Ceuta known to the Moroccans as Leila and the Spanish as Perejil, Morocco accused Spain of colonialism—even while practicing it in Western Sahara. Nearly forgotten are the Canary Islands, Spanish-held homeland of a Berber people just off Western Sahara, which, Shelley briefly notes, saw a “flurry of pro-independence activities” in the 1970s. Algeria, in turn, sponsors the Polisario rebels for its own purposes, while suppressing the national ambitions of its own substantial Amazigh (Berber) minority—something Shelley refers to only obliquely as “unrest in the Kabyle regions.”

One wonders if Shelley’s title is all that apt. Is this long struggle really approaching an “endgame”? In a bid for international legitimacy, Polisario’s exile government, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), Shelley tells us, has invited in the Australian oil minnow Fusion to explore the maritime zone it has no real control over. More recently, SADR has announced a new round of licensing for this zone, which has also failed to attract any industry majors.

Especially given Polisario’s post-socialist posture, even their best-case scenario—an independent state—is fraught with risk for the Sahrawi. SADR’s own success in wooing oil majors could ultimately harm (or, as in the case of southern Mexico after the ’70s oil boom, devastate) local fishing economies. Polisario’s own repression of protests in the Tindouf camps in 1988 also points to potential post-independence challenges. So does the fact that Polisario’s longtime leader Mohammed Abdelaziz is likewise president of the SADR, an echo of Yasser Arafat’s dual role as PLO chairman and Palestinian Authority president. Shelley’s final sentence warns: “In the case of a negotiated return as part of a peace process that led to independence, those who worked for civil rights under occupation would have to ensure their values were nourished in a Sahrawi state.”

Only if the struggle in Western Sahara is somehow brought to the world’s conscience is there much chance that the Sahrawi will have the opportunity to face this challenge any time soon. And even that necessary start will likely prove insufficient. Widespread media attention hasn’t done the Palestinians much good either.


This review originally appeared in the Fall 2005 issue of Middle East Policy

See also:

“Oil and Occupation in Western Sahara”
by Jacob Mundy
WW4 REPORT #113, September 2005

From our weblog:

“George Galloway betrays Western Sahara”
WW4 REPORT, Sept. 19, 2006


Reprinted by WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, Nov. 1, 2006
Reprinting permissible with attribution