You may or may not know who the Sahrawis are. Well, that is because, since 1991 they have been forgotten by the rest of the world.
Who are the Sahrawis and why should we care?
The Sahrawis are the nomadic indigenous inhabitants of Western Sahara, also commonly referred to as the ‘Last Colony in Africa’. They number approximately 600, 000.
Western Sahara is a region on North Africa's Atlantic coast bordering Morocco, Algeria, and Mauritania. It was colonized by Spain in 1884 and remained part of the Spanish kingdom for more than a hundred years. It is an arid region where less than one-fifth of the land is used for agriculture. Western Sahara is home to phosphate and iron ore reserves and is believed to have untouched offshore oil deposits.
The Fight for Western Sahara and the Parties Involved
The fight for Western Sahara is an age-old conflict that can only be compared to the Gaza one. Colonisation of 'Africans' by their fellow "Africans" has become a more resented pill to swallow for many Sahrawis because the very same people who yester years cried foul when Europeans dehumanised them are doing the exact same thing to their fellow brothers and sisters.
The 40-year-old fight for Western Sahara involves predominantly three parties: Morocco on one side, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Río de Oro (Polisario Front) on the other, and Algeria by proxy. The Polisario Front is an indigenous Sahrawi movement founded in 1973 to campaign for the independence of Western Sahara.
In 1975, Morocco effectively annexed Western Sahara by staging the Green March—a peaceful procession of 350,000 Moroccans who walked into the region and claimed it as their own. Spain subsequently transferred control of the region to Morocco and Mauritania despite a World Court ruling that upheld the Sahrawis right to self-determination. Morocco gained the northern two-thirds of the area and, consequently, control over the phosphates while Mauritania gained the southern third.
Aggrieved by the result, the Polisario Front (which was supported and based in Algeria) launched a guerrilla struggle against what it saw as the Moroccan-Mauritanian occupation of its indigenous land. In 1976 the Polisario Front declared a government-in-exile of what it called the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic (a government recognized by some 70 countries), and it continued to raid Mauritanian and Moroccan outposts in Western Sahara.
Mauritania bowed out of the fighting and reached a peace agreement with the Polisario Front in 1979, but in response Morocco promptly annexed Mauritania’s portion of Western Sahara. Morocco fortified the vital triangle formed by the Bu Craa mines, Laayoune, and Semara while the Polisario Front guerrillas continued their raids.
During the struggle, Mauritania renounced its claim to the region and Moroccan authorities gradually built a wall through the territory, annexing two-thirds of the country and leaving a dangerous no-man's land between the two that is now patrolled by a U.N. monitoring force.
The 1991 Ceasefire and Resultant Effects
The conflict subsisted until a United Nations (UN) peace proposal was brokered in 1988 and a ceasefire agreed to in 1991. The peace proposal which specified a referendum for the indigenous Sahrawis to decide whether they wanted an independent Western Sahara under the leadership of Polisario Front or for the Sahrawi territory to be integrated into Morocco was accepted by both Morocco and Polisario Front.
However, it is noted that since the ceasefire in 1991, thousands of Sahrawis have been displaced into refugee camps across the Algerian border in Tindouf, where they remain to this day. While The U.N. Refugee Agency estimates 90,000 people are living in the camps, the Algerian government contends that the figure is higher and puts it at 165,000.
Human Rights Violations
South African Human Rights Defender Catherine Constantinides notes that the Sahrawis continue to be violated daily through the injustice taking place in the region. She argues that the EU and the corporate involvement of multinationals who continue to trade and do business ‘illegally’ with Morocco on the Sahrawi territory are part of the problem.
According to Constantinides:
One of the most recent cases are New Zealand-based fertilizer companies that continue to trade with Morocco. They are importing the phosphate rock of Western Sahara, also dubbed ‘blood phosphates’ by the Saharawi people. The trade of this natural resource, as well as fisheries, continues to fuel and fund the illegal occupation and oppression of the Saharawi people," she said.
Despite more than 100 UN resolutions calling for the Sahrawi people’s right to self-determination to be respected, the conflict and occupation persist with no amicable solution in sight.
In December 2016 the European Union Court of Justice determined that Morocco and Western Sahara are ‘separate and distinct’ territories, and ruled that trade agreements [between the EU and Morocco] do not cover the territory of Western Sahara. Yet, over the past few years alone, Morocco has earned around US$200 million annually from the export of minerals from the territory.
Why Won't Morocco Leave Western Sahara?
Constantinides notes that the reason essentially boils down to natural resources. As previously indicated, Western Sahara is rich in phosphates and other mineral deposits. That being said, it is not difficult to see why Morocco continues to maintain its occupation of the region. After all, it is one of the primary reasons why Europeans set out to partition and colonise Africa.
According to Western Sahara Resource Watch (WSRW):
The Moroccan state earns massively from the mine it controls in the occupied territory. The maths is easy: multiply the volume exported by the international phosphate price. The value of exported phosphate has been stable at around US$200 million a year. This is in comparison to the value of annual humanitarian aid to the Saharawi Refugee Camps, which sits at approximately 30 million Euros."
According to Constantinides, the natural resources ought to be used by the Sahrawi people to build and develop their own economy, allowing them to take ownership of their own development and future. She contends that Sahrawis should manage and have the right to trade, invest, harness and develop as they see fit.
The Human Rights Defender further argues that the exploitation of Western Sahara's phosphates by Moroccans and other parties will economically disenfranchise Sahrawis when they eventually realize their right to self-determination. When that time comes, she notes that there will be no more phosphate to mine, as Morocco will have already sold all of the high-quality phosphates.
According to Dr. Mohamed Sidati, Minister for Europe of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic:
The benefits of EU trade do not extend to the more than 174,000 Saharawis exiled in refugee camps, and those living under occupation in their own land. Morocco has no right to negotiate agreements on behalf of the Saharawi people, just as Israel has no right to negotiate on behalf of the Palestinian people.”
Interestingly, Morocco is one of the world's largest phosphates suppliers controlling at least 71% of the global phosphate reserves. This large reserve is made up of its own phosphorus reserves and those of Western Sahara.
The WSRW tracks all shipping traffic in the waters off Western Sahara on a daily basis and routinely publishes reports on Moroccan exports from the occupied territory. For the year 2017, the total exported volume of this precious rock was estimated at around 1.6 million tonnes.
What the Rest of Africa Thinks
Within Africa, the independence of Western Sahara - or what is known as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), according to the Polisario Front -is said to be widely acknowledged. The status is recognized by the Southern African Development Community (SADC) members led by South Africa and Namibia. Nigeria and the African Union also support the Sahrawis demanding an end to the decolonization of the last African colony.
The AU's position has always been contentious for Morocco, which withdrew from the AU's predecessor the Organization of African Unity in 1984 over the Western Sahara dispute. Two years ago, it re-joined the AU following a 33-year absence from the regional bloc. The Western Sahara issue still remains a matter of dispute between Morocco and some AU members.
Some scholars have contended that while they do not envision Western Sahara's attaining total independence from Morocco, they argue that at the very least, Sahrawis should have the right to decide what they want.
The growing feeling of helplessness of the Sahrawis is candidly captured by the late internationally renowned Ugandan poet Okot P'Bitek's poem "Song of Prisoner" where he states:
I plead sicknessI am an orphanI am diseased withAll the giantDiseases of SocietyCrippled by the cancerof UhuruFar worse than The jaws of colonialismThe walls of hopelessnessSurround me completelyThere are no windowsTo let in the airOf hope!
Header Image Credit: How Africa