Endgame in the Western Sahara: What Future for Africa’s Last Colony? 
by Toby Shelley.
Zed, 215 pp., £16.95, November 2004, 1 84277 341 0
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Some of the words we use about Africa die hard. No African civilians on the run from injustice, war or hunger can bide their time in mere ‘camps’. They have to be ‘makeshift camps’. And there is no hearing about the armed conflicts from which many of them have fled without reference sooner or later to ‘Africa’s forgotten war’. The conflict in Western Sahara, the subject of Toby Shelley’s book, was often referred to as a forgotten war. It also displaced a large number of the territory’s inhabitants, whose camps are in no sense makeshift: the Sahrawi refugees from former Spanish Sahara have been stranded across the border in Algeria for thirty years now.

Western Sahara is interesting chiefly because the territory, which belonged to Spain, passed directly from European domination to occupation by its neighbours, when it was ceded by Madrid in 1975 to Morocco and Mauritania. Morocco took a good and profitable slice of the north – phosphates were the main economic enticement – and Mauritania, the poorer neighbour abutting the south, took the rest. Spanish Sahara, in other words, was never properly decolonised.

The difficulty for the new owner-occupiers was twofold: first, their presence contravened international law; second, a liberation movement was already in existence. The Polisario Front, which evolved from a pro-independence organisation formed in 1969, had fired the first shot against the Spanish in 1973. There was now no reason for it to end the armed struggle, any more than there had been for Fretilin in East Timor, when Indonesia seized the former Portuguese colony after the collapse of the Caetano dictatorship. Polisario was backed by Algeria, a formidable ally with ample weapons stocks, which nursed a long-standing animosity, reciprocated by King Hassan II and his government, towards the largely pro-Western monarchy on its western border.

East Timor and Western Sahara are post-colonial narratives in the proper sense; and how badly they read. General Franco’s death followed within a year and a half of the April revolution in Lisbon, but dancing on the graves of Iberian Fascism was not the objective for Fretilin or Polisario, so much as a brisk ceremonial walk through the cemetery, ending with a formal handover at the gates. Both movements saw their hopes dashed. East Timor had to survive more than twenty years of Indonesian occupation before the referendum in 1999 that gave it independence. It is thirty years since Western Sahara was overrun by a new set of masters and, despite prolonged attention from the UN, there is no resolution in sight.

The key to the difficulty lies in the suggestion that Western Sahara and therefore the Sahrawis are ‘really’ Moroccan by virtue of a history that predates the settling of formal colonial boundaries – a hollow claim in terms of modern international jurisprudence, but one on which Rabat has always insisted. The Sahrawis themselves are a people of mixed descent – Berber and Arab – whose ancestors, the Beni Hassan, left Yemen and drifted west about eight hundred years ago. Sahrawis speak an Arabic dialect known as Hassaniya. They also speak Spanish, the language of the former colonial power. Traditionally, the main Sahrawi tribes have lived as pastoralists and traders, working vast stretches of desert including parts of Morocco, Algeria, Mauritania and beyond; all this in addition to Western Sahara itself.

In the distant past, some tribes, or parts of tribes, pledged allegiance to the sultan of Morocco. More recently – in 1904 – the pledge was given by a famous leader known as Ma al-Ainen (‘Water in the Eyes’), who sought the sultan’s support for an anti-French insurrection in the south. Ma al-Ainen was not from Western Sahara, though he founded the Saharan town of Smara at the end of the 19th century. He kept the French busy until he was crushed in 1910, a few years after the sultan himself had signed most of modern-day Morocco into colonial control.

The Spanish acquisition of Western Sahara as it looks today took place in 1924, at which point the lineaments of a Sahrawi national identity begin to appear. Parts of the picture remain frayed, however, since many Sahrawis were to be found outside this slab of territory when it was demarcated. Thirty years later, during another uprising, the Sahrawis were supported by contingents of fighters from Morocco (by now independent) and eventually crushed by a joint French-Spanish operation; at the end of the uprising, many found themselves in southern Morocco, where they were disarmed and eventually integrated into the Moroccan army. Perhaps the alliance of the Sahrawis and Moroccans against the French and Spanish at this time lends force to the Moroccan thesis, even if it carries no weight in law. One of the main notions of the day among Moroccan nationalist intellectuals was that the end of colonialism would allow Moroccan hegemony over an enormous tract of north-west Africa – including parts of Mali – which they referred to as ‘Greater Morocco’. That was not possible, but twenty years after Moroccan independence (and after twenty years of Spanish rule in Western Sahara which served to put the finishing touches to Sahrawi national consciousness), there was still a formidable consensus among Moroccan political parties that the territory was theirs by rights. It is a tribute to Moroccan tenacity, and to the power of Morocco’s friends, that this vision, mostly derived from pre-colonial Islamic concepts of fealty, has been able to prevail for three decades in the face of a modern, secular international order that has now begun to weaken.

Toby Shelley focuses on the situation in the territory since the ceasefire of 1991, though he also provides a synopsis of the war and the political forces that gave rise to it. The ceasefire itself was the result of a military stalemate, although for a time Polisario had enjoyed the advantage of a small, mobile guerrilla army with a better knowledge of the terrain than either of its adversaries could claim. In 1979, three years after partition, the Mauritanians were humiliated: Nouakchott recognised Polisario’s non-existent state-in-the-offing, the ‘Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic’, and watched from the sidelines as the Moroccans moved into the areas it had relinquished. What followed was a tough and costly struggle between the remaining two protagonists.

Well, not quite two. There was always Algeria, with its ‘unstinting’ support for the Front, including a good quantity of matériel – supplemented by equipment Polisario had taken from the Moroccans and Mauritanians – and its provision for the tens of thousands of Sahrawi refugees who’d fled the Moroccan incursion in 1976, a little after the handover by Madrid. These people required food, water, tents and – as time wore on – more sturdy facilities built in cement and breeze block, in the windswept rubble desert of south-west Algeria to which they’d been confined.

Polisario made life hard for the Moroccan army. The Front’s units were sometimes able to raid beyond the Moroccan/ Western Saharan border, in Morocco proper, and at the time of the Mauritanian withdrawal, settling in for a full-scale siege looked unappealing to Rabat, which was racking up its external debt with every day the war drew on. France had supported the king, diplomatically and militarily, during the first phase of the takeover and would remain the most obstinate of Morocco’s allies. The US, too, was an important patron and when the Moroccans eventually hit on the idea of a long militarised sandwall to protect their demoralised troops, and the productive parts of the territory, from Polisario raids – a vast and expensive project entailing far larger commitments than it had made thus far – Washington rose to the occasion with a sixfold increase in the value of defence equipment supplied to the kingdom. The wall, which eventually stretched for 1200 miles north-east to south-west across the territory, swung the military situation against Polisario. The valuable phosphate mines and the main towns were now enclosed. So were most of the inhabitants who’d remained in the territory after 1976: there could be no fraternisation between Polisario – with its bases in the refugee camps in Algeria – and resident Sahrawis, now under foreign rule, who appeared by and large to support the Front. The so-called ‘liberated’ areas beyond Moroccan control were of little value. Polisario was free to operate in them and from time to time it launched attacks on the wall. Morocco, meanwhile, was filling the cloistered parts of the territory with settlers. This was full-on annexation, hard to undo by negotiation if the time ever came, and impossible to disrupt by military pressure.

The United States remained Morocco’s superpower supplier for the duration of the Cold War and Morocco was a trustworthy ally. In the late 1970s, it had helped to put down anti-Mobutu movements in Zaire (in Shaba province in 1977 France and the US co-ordinated an airlift of 1500 Moroccan troops). King Hassan’s entourage was on cordial terms with Jonas Savimbi, the Angolan contra, and was said to do business with Renamo, the opaque insurgency in Mozambique. At home, dissent and inappropriate political sympathies were discouraged – Driss Basri, the king’s minister of the interior, was alarmingly good at this – and when Reagan was in the White House, his Rapid Deployment Force got stopover facilities in Morocco. In 1986, Shimon Peres made an official visit to the palace at Ifrane: some of Hassan’s admirers in the Arab world were secretly relieved; others worried that the king was loyal to a fault.

With the completion of the sandwall, Hassan felt he was in a strong position to dictate terms. Both belligerents appeared ready to talk and it was agreed in principle that there should be a ceasefire followed by a referendum in the territory. Sahrawis would be asked whether they wished to accept the fait accompli of ‘integration’ with Morocco or become citizens of a new and independent state, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, as Polisario proposed.

Where Shelley takes up the story in earnest, he tells it very well, and his is the only full-length, readily available account in English that covers the years of failed diplomacy. Even so, you can’t help feeling it requires the talents of a comic genius – perhaps a Mark Twain, whose satire on King Leopold’s Congo was so astute – to lay the thing bare in all its painful absurdity. A modern-day Twain might have received the following outline from his researchers and gone on to embellish it with more wit than they (or I) could contrive.

The ceasefire was possible only because of the intervention of other parties, notably the UN. It insisted, as did the Organisation of African Unity, that the fate of the disputed territory should be resolved by a vote. The result would either confirm the annexation or return the Western Sahara to the Sahrawis. When the parties agreed to this, many hands were shaken and solemn pledges given. The territory would shortly see the sublime principles of the UN unfold in practice: commitment to the rule of international law and the right of self-determination; also to the right of large numbers of people – above all, to the UN’s way of thinking, people in Africa – to place marked and folded papers in sealed boxes. The UN announced the creation of a mission to the territory (Minurso) and began dispatching staff. The referendum was scheduled for 1992.

But who was entitled to take part? The Sahrawis felt that the only fair way to determine this was to look at the census drawn up by Spain before it left. According to their calculations, there would be about 75,000 people who could vote, some in the territory itself, others in exile; most of them, if not all, would favour independence.

King Hassan did not see eye to eye with the Sahrawis. There were many more, in the royal view, who lived within the legal borders of his kingdom but who had originated in the annexed slab of desert: these, he was sure, would favour ‘integration’. The vote was duly delayed, and Minurso personnel kicked their heels for a year or two, at some cost to the UN’s 179 member-states.

Two years after the referendum should have taken place, a possible solution was still being framed in terms of the highest UN ideals, self-determination and democracy; the king now agreed with everybody else, including the Sahrawis, the UN and many seasoned observers, that the old Spanish census was, subject to reasonable debate, a basis for establishing who could vote. (Impartial estimates for the number of voters were close to the figure suggested by the Sahrawis: between 80,000 and 85,000.)

The long process of ‘voter identification’ at last got underway, again at some cost to UN member-states, of which there were now 185, though the Sahrawis, whose burning desire was to have a state of their own, and accede to the great organisation itself, were if anything a little further from their goals. That this was the case became clear within a year of the voter-identification process starting up, when King Hassan made a modest amendment to the voter-base by proposing an additional 100,000 voters from outside Western Sahara. Minurso staff, exasperated but cornered, duly made arrangements for about forty new identification facilities. The process was now sure to be held up for a very long time as the new loyalist applicants were considered.

A few weeks later came a second royal petition to include tens of thousands of additional applications from the so-called ‘contested tribes’ – a vexed category of three tribal groupings (out of 88) which had puzzled the Spanish at the time of the census and which the Sahrawis thought, correctly as it turned out, would give the king another eligibility gap through which to feed thousands of debatable applications.

The royal stratagem was quite clearly to bog down the identification process to such an extent that the UN lost patience and the Sahrawis lost hope. But the long and costly business of establishing the right to vote continued and by 1996, the mission had identified 60,000 eligible voters, although thanks to Hassan, there were still 164,000 files to be processed.

The following year, James Baker, Bush Senior’s former secretary of state, was appointed as special envoy to Kofi Annan and matters began to proceed with more vigour, even though the referendum was now six years behind schedule. Hassan had got his way with some, at least, of the initial 100,000 voters he wished to add to the list. Minurso, meanwhile, was working ceaselessly on voter identification. Under Baker’s stern eye, Phase One was completed, with some 85,000 eligible voters identified. As the process entered Phase Two, the king began lodging appeals: 79,000 in the first instance, most requiring the lengthy procedure of a hearing with witnesses. Even Baker reeled at the prospect. And now an additional set of petitions was launched – about 65,000 – pertaining to the contested tribes. The mission, hurried along by Baker, upheld roughly 2000. Mohamed VI – King Hassan having died the year before – expressed ‘dismay’ and lodged a further sheaf of appeals, in the order of 54,000.

The success of the royal stratagem was by this time beyond doubt. The UN could not keep a mission in the area for very much longer without passing on the costs to its grumbling member-states, whose number had increased to 189, though the Sahrawis were still no closer to having a state of their own.

And now the UN began to reconsider its steadfast commitment to the self-determination of colonised peoples everywhere, but especially to the Sahrawis. Might it not be acceptable, under the circumstances, to abandon this hallowed precept in favour of something called ‘autonomy’, or even ‘enhanced autonomy’ within the monarch’s sway? After all, another noble and inviolable principle would still be in place: somebody would still mark and fold pieces of paper and place them in a box, which was impressive surely, even if the decision the Sahrawis had wanted to make was, on the face of it, unavailable to them; and even if quite a lot of people beside the Sahrawis would now be stuffing papers into boxes?

The timing and figures in this gloomy narrative are Shelley’s, although the cynicism might be anyone’s. Minurso, the UN mission to the territory, receives shorter shrift than its personnel deserve. Many of them were distressed about the failure of the process. Some resigned. What does a bunch of oppressed tribespeople matter in the greater scheme of things? Yet it is fair to think of the Sahrawis as an identifiable group of people over and above the constituent tribes, homogeneous inasmuch as they are stateless and persecuted, just as it was fair to think of the East Timorese or the Eritreans along the same lines. And the Polisario leadership, secular, fluent diplomats, realists despite the ugly reality that confronts them, are no less sophisticated than the members of a British political party in opposition or an African liberation movement swept to power by favourable circumstances.

As for the way events turned out, the referendum set for 1992 seemed finally to have been laid to rest ten years later, when the Settlement Plan, as the original UN/OAU-brokered scheme was known, was superseded by something known as the Framework Agreement. Yet, as Shelley explains, it is not a straightforward matter of burying the referendum without honours.

Morocco did indeed force Baker and Annan to abandon the Settlement Plan, but the Framework Agreement includes the deferred possibility of independence, on paper at least. According to the plan, the occupation of Western Sahara would be made legal – horror of horrors for Polisario and the Sahrawis, who had clung to UN principles, if not UN deeds, for 27 years: the territory would become a Moroccan province, and the Sahrawi refugees in Algeria – by now about 160,000 – would return home. Those Sahrawis that the UN mission had found eligible to vote in the referendum would then elect a provincial authority, with power over the local legal system, policing and natural resources, among other things. Morocco, as the new lawful sovereign, would remain in charge of external relations and defence. Its army would remain in the territory. Within ‘four to five years’ of the authority being voted in, there would be a referendum in Western Sahara. Its inhabitants would be asked whether they wished to remain members of an autonomous province within Morocco, opt for full integration or become properly independent.

When they heard the plan outlined four years ago, it struck the Polisario leadership like a blow to the head. The Moroccans must have been delighted with the first draft they saw: indeed, there’s a story that they suggested most of it to Baker in a fax, on which he then went to work. The referendum was being pushed back another five years and in the unlikely event that it ever came to a vote, there were now three options rather than two, which could, with a little judicious campaigning, enable the nationalists to be split. Finally, gloriously, there was the crucial term ‘inhabitants’. This meant that the indigenous Sahrawi population, refugees included, would no longer be the only voters: the tens of thousands of settlers who had been poured into the territory from the late 1970s would surely help to swing the result Rabat’s way. Polisario reckoned that 65 per cent of the voters would be Moroccan, and so Sahrawi self-determination was no longer on offer in any intelligible sense.

Years of cleverness and prevarication had been so amply rewarded that, between the first and final drafts of the Framework Agreement, Rabat decided to dig the ditch it had prepared for Polisario a little deeper. Why, it now asked, with its nose in the air, should this new and commendable framework be cluttered with the debris of the dreary Settlement Plan? Why bother, in other words, with a referendum at all? And suddenly Baker and Annan looked like witnesses waiting outside a rainswept register office for a couple that would never show. The surprise came when Polisario, pushed by Algeria for reasons of its own, swung around and agreed to discuss a new draft. The Front’s situation had become so dismal, in Shelley’s view, that its best option was to leave Morocco looking isolated and unco-operative. As of now, there is no move to implement the Framework Agreement, because Rabat has refused to countenance it. Supporters of the Sahrawis are pleased to see Morocco isolated, but as Shelley says, Polisario’s victory was ‘tactical rather than strategic’ and anyhow it’s a desolate sort of pleasure: delay has always been Morocco’s strongest suit. It is doubtful, too, how real this ‘isolation’ is.

Morocco was a little out on a limb between the end of the Cold War and the start of the ‘war on terror’. It was one of several pro-Western Cold War allies which imprisoned people, including pro-independence Sahrawis, in extreme conditions: ‘whole “sentences”’, Shelley writes of 17 or 18-year detentions in solitary confinement, were passed with the prisoner ‘unable to get up from the floor’. Crouching in darkness by royal decree for a third of one’s life was not the worst of it: according to Amnesty International, other, more refined forms of torment were inflicted; the record as a whole was briefly frowned on by the Clinton administration. But the war on terror has given dungeon-culture a new lease of life, as our own tinpot administration can attest: see the story of Binyam Mohammed, an Ethiopian student in Notting Hill flown to Morocco to have his genitals cut with a scalpel during interrogation (Sunday Times, 11 December 2005). A friend who tortures US and US-surrogate referrals under rendition is a friend indeed.

Shelley hints that Polisario is even more isolated than Morocco; certainly it has less to offer Bush and Blair. But he also points up the movement’s isolation in the refugee camps, from where it can have little power over events in the occupied territory. He has visited Western Sahara and wrung a lot of interesting detail from towns where media access is strictly controlled and troublemakers – pro-independence activists or the families of detainees – are kept away from visitors. His sense is that much now hangs on what Sahrawis in Western Sahara can do to challenge the occupation.

Building an independence movement under the noses of Moroccan security and military is not at all straightforward, however. At the end of the Cold War, human rights pressures led to a generous release of political prisoners, including about 320 Sahrawis; 59 others, it transpired, had died in detention. Sahrawi activists told Shelley that there are still about five hundred people whose fate is unknown. The figures don’t seem especially high until one recalls how very small the adult Sahrawi population of Western Sahara is: in percentage terms, this is not so far from the levels of repression in which men like Elliott Abrams (now Deputy NSA and special assistant to Bush) and John Negroponte (now National Intelligence director) connived during the 1980s in Central America.

The brazen persecution of Sahrawis is once again common, after a three-year interval of relative calm, following Hassan II’s death. In 2001, Mohamed Daddach, a staunch Polisario activist and a powerfully symbolic figure for Sahrawis, was released after 22 years in jail. Crowds in the capital, Laayoune, turned out to greet him chanting: ‘East Timor, Western Sahara’. Four days later, in the smaller town of Smara, a demonstration against unemployment was violently broken up by police. It marked the beginning of the end of the new king’s patchy desert spring down in the occupied territory.

Shelley’s sense that there are growing signs of ‘civil society’ under occupation – expressed forms of resistance – comes down, in the end, to a handful of publicised activities, including demonstrations, hunger strikes by prisoners, visible campaigning by the families of the disappeared and a range of gestures including ‘graffiti, distributing nationalist leaflets, hanging out flags at night’. What levels of organisation, if any, underlie these actions is hard to say: the territory is stuffed with security police and it may be that Sahrawis themselves must, for their own safety, operate strictly on a need-to-know basis.

The culture of intimidation is long-standing. Minurso was powerless or unwilling to do much about it, even at the height of UN activities in the territory, and Sahrawis wishing to register to vote were forced to go through Moroccan rather than UN procedures. Anyone trying to make direct contact with mission staff in UN compounds surrounded by spooks, plainclothes men and informers, was denounced, when they weren’t actually filmed at the gates, and reprisals followed in short order. More generally, with numbers of Sahrawi adults and numbers of army and security personnel fairly similar, the situation might – statistically – be described as one-on-one surveillance. Meanwhile the Sahrawis themselves are now outnumbered by Moroccan settlers. The annexation has cost Rabat a fortune, but it has been cleverly managed.

Recouping the costs is impossible, although there are benefits to be had from the plunder of the territory, just as there were for South Africa when it ran Namibia – and for any fleet that got to fish Namibian territorial waters. The illegal use of Western Saharan ports, in which Brussels connives by purchasing licences worth millions of dollars from Morocco, has been ‘a major employer and provider of revenues’, according to Shelley. Much of the money is reinvested in Moroccan fleets that now fetch in a high proportion of the total catch – 40 per cent and rising, for as long as the depleted fish stocks last.

Phosphate deposits, purchased by fertiliser and detergent companies mostly in Australasia, the US and Latin America, are also a major source of wealth for Morocco. The combined output of its own mines and those of Western Sahara, modernised by Spain in the early 1970s, makes Morocco one of the biggest phosphate exporters in the world.

The novel dimension to the geography of this dispute is offshore oil. Shelley, once the energy desk editor for Dow Jones Newswires, has the story at his fingertips. In 2000 Morocco was the second largest oil importer in Africa (‘the Ottomans stopped at Algiers,’ Moroccans like to say, ‘and so did the oil’). Over the years, various surveys on and offshore have come to nothing, but the discovery of viable deposits off the coast of Mauritania in 2001 suggested a promising future in Western Saharan territorial waters – more promising than anything further north in Morocco proper. Towards the end of the year, Rabat ‘parcelled out the entirety of the Western Sahara’s waters’ to the French multinational TotalFinalElf and the Texan Kerr-McGee.

With the scent of smoke still lingering in the air from the Ogoni affair, Polisario and Sahrawi support committees in the US and Europe responded aggressively. Since Shelley published his book, Total has pulled out, claiming to have ‘found no oil or other hydrocarbons that can be exploited’, but the company may also have been concerned about the legal status of the venture. Kerr-McGee, a Republican Party donor and a favourite of UK fund managers (notably Legal and General), has not been dissuaded from ‘reconnaissance’ – a new, Moroccan approach to awarding licences which allows companies to explore on a semi-speculative basis with a much reduced outlay, though new agreements must be drawn up for drilling to begin.

The UN’s legal counsel has given an opinion on the controversy that appears to favour the Sahrawi cause: no drilling without the consent of the people who may or may not get to vote on the fate of their own territory. But the same legal advice goes on to conclude that the reconnaissance contracts awarded by Morocco were within the law inasmuch as they did not extend to the drilling phase. It also suggested that resource exploitation in ‘non-self-governing territories’ carried out ‘for the benefit of the peoples of these territories, on their behalf or in consultation with their representatives’ was ‘compatible with UN Charter obligations’. Shelley remarks: ‘Who has the right to declare oil operations to be beneficial to Sahrawis? Is it Polisario or the government in Rabat or the local government installed by Rabat, or could it be a tier of government introduced under an autonomy arrangement put in place either by the international community or by Morocco acting unilaterally?’ The legal advice, in other words, goes to the heart of the question and smatters it with fudge. In the meantime, a smaller oil company, Fusion, has decided to throw in its lot with Polisario and accept a promissory licence issued by the Front, with exploration starting once the SADR has come into existence. Last December Polisario awarded a further batch of licences to six British oil companies that would sooner gamble on the likelihood of independence than paddle around in semi-legality, on or off Saharan shores.

Morocco’s ingenuity and flair, throughout this story, have been remarkable. The tone was set by the famous Green March of 1975, after the International Court of Justice advised against Morocco’s claim on Spanish Sahara. Hassan responded by bussing 350,000 loyal subjects down to the territory in a show of irredentist longing for lands detached from the sultanate during the regrettable interval of European colonialism. At the same time, the Moroccan army deployed to the east and within a month or so the air force was bombing Sahrawi refugee columns headed for Algeria.

That combination of old and modern – pre-national claims, on the one hand; well choreographed, media-sensitive stunts and the use of mass-destructive technologies, on the other – has been the hallmark of the kingdom’s success. The huge defensive wall embodied the same creative balance: a primitive rubble bulwark, bristling with sophisticated detection systems acquired from companies in the West such as Racal. (Polisario was forced into a similar position. Their tried-and-tested method of combat, the ghazzi, or desert raid, was used in the name of a modern aspiration: not tribal, but civil identity, couched in terms of the UN Charter and the fashionable idiom of decolonisation.)

In this context, Morocco’s readiness to hold everything up is not simply a tactic but the attitude of a deeply conservative political culture confident that it will prevail, once the sands have buried the last traces of an inconvenient idea: that of the independent sovereign nation defined by the boundaries its colonial masters gave it. In managing to violate these ‘inviolable’ boundaries for more than thirty years, Rabat has let it be known that it sees ‘national liberation’ as a blip in the longue durée. Meanwhile, as Baker told Polisario in 2000, Western Sahara is ‘not Kuwait’: there is no question of a military intervention to uphold the rule of international law.

Asked to bet on the outcome in north-west Africa, you might not put your money where the more cautious oil companies have put theirs. Yet one way or another, the fact that oil is perceived as scarce only increases its influence on events: it’s as though this miraculous sediment that has shaped so much recent history now has the power to saturate it – and it is sure to have a bearing on the future of Western Sahara. One of the main issues here is America’s need for a spread of petroleum sources and it is this, as Shelley observes, that could give renewed impetus to the search for a settlement in Western Sahara, even if Kuwait isn’t the model.

There is, too, the endless search for markets, which assumed a new ideological force after the Cold War. In the Maghreb the EU competes directly with the US, but for both of them the inward investors’ dream of a single market is impossible while tensions between Morocco and Algeria preclude anything resembling an open border. Europe and the US need stability for market penetration to succeed and in addition the US needs Morocco as an ally in the war on terror. Markets, then, are another reason that Western Sahara may remain in focus, but not one that Sahrawis should necessarily welcome. For the time being it is to the Europeans’ advantage, but even more to Washington’s, to appear even-handed in all dealings with Algeria and Morocco. ‘If the aim is to create a stable single market safe for US investors,’ Shelley writes, ‘alienating one or other of the key partners is not the path to follow’ – which, in turn, may mean that the US becomes increasingly cautious about initiatives for Western Sahara. For as long as caution means inertia, it tends to favour Morocco.

Twenty years ago it was thought that Morocco could collapse under the pressure of the occupation, a huge cost burdening a ramshackle economy, in a repressive state with high levels of poverty. Only the levels of repression appear to have diminished. A reparations scheme, now run by a body called the Equity and Reconciliation Commission, was introduced after Hassan’s death to compensate the victims of his dungeons, the idea being to ‘close the file on past human rights violations’. There are also efforts to protect the rights of women. In 2004 there were 33 ‘royal pardons’ for prisoners, some of them political. But the war on terror is a big proviso and it’s clear that after the Islamist bomb in Casablanca in 2003, it was back to business in the interrogation centres, with more than two hundred sentences handed down the following year. And of course there’s work to do for the US and Britain. The lesser proviso is that very little of this tenuous liberalisation applies to the Sahrawis. None, Shelley says, referring to an Amnesty International report, had received compensation for detention at the time he was researching the book and many were at risk of being seized again.

Polisario must hope, as it always has, that the Moroccan economy continues to groan and the conversation among Moroccans turns increasingly to open disaffection with the way they are governed. These were, approximately, the preconditions in Indonesia for East Timor’s long-awaited independence. From the rest of the world there is not much the Sahrawis should expect – or that is Shelley’s view.

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Vol. 28 No. 6 · 23 March 2006

As Jeremy Harding’s essay illustrates, the conflict in Western Sahara remains one of the most misunderstood by outsiders (LRB, 23 February). The confusion stems from the fact that many observers consider the conflict a colonial issue, alleging Morocco’s occupation of the territory. But the conflict was fabricated by the Algerian military during the Cold War, with the support of some of the Communist bloc. It has been made to appear a war of liberation in order to garner support and sympathy from NGOs and anti-colonial activists. Those who claim that the Sahara belongs to Polisario forget that something similar occurred in the north of Morocco, which was occupied by Spain. According to their logic, Morocco should hand the Rif to the Berbers in the north. The colonial powers played with territories at will, enlarging countries at the expense of others, creating new identities and claims to territories, leaving behind bloody conflicts and irresolvable issues. Harding portrays the members of the Polisario Front as victims, yet Polisario held more than a thousand Moroccan soldiers and civilians captive for more than twenty years in tiny cells in one of the most inhospitable climates in the world. Harding does not mention this, or the use of torture and forced labour in the camps, or that many innocent Moroccans died in them. He says nothing, either, about Polisario’s terrorism, especially when he writes that ‘the Front’s units were sometimes able to raid beyond the Moroccan/ Western Sahara border, in Morocco proper.’ Aren’t these raids, conducted in Morocco, acts of terrorism? Do I need to add that the leader of the Polisario Front was born in Morocco proper? The game will not end in ‘Western Sahara’ until the international community is able to understand the reasons for Algeria’s active involvement in the conflict.

Zakaria Fatih

Vol. 28 No. 7 · 6 April 2006

Zakaria Fatih’s criticism of Jeremy Harding’s review of my book on Western Sahara repeats several of the contortions integral to the Moroccan government line on the conflict (Letters, 23 March). The Sahrawi struggle for self-determination began several years before Algeria started supporting Polisario. Indeed, Polisario (and its precursor) began life struggling against Spanish occupation of the territory, only turning on Morocco after the 1975 invasion. Algeria has supported Polisario and the Sahrawi refugee community diplomatically and materially but holds little sway in the bulk of Western Sahara, which Morocco occupies. Yet it is precisely in the areas nominally under Rabat’s control that opposition to Morocco is currently at its most intense, with a civil uprising that began in May last year. My visits to the Western Sahara and interviews with civil rights activists there have convinced me that the Sahrawis under Moroccan rule are autonomous political actors. Some of them are closely aligned to Polisario, but many are critical of the movement. However, as far as I can tell, the majority support the demand for self-determination. The issue is not whether the territory belongs to Polisario, but that it belongs to the Sahrawis: their claim to it continues to be frustrated by indifference and partisan interests on the UN Security Council. Morocco has never been able publicly to concede that there is Sahrawi opposition to its rule. Thus, resistance in the occupied territory is ascribed to Polisario, while Polisario has been depicted variously as imported Cuban and Vietnamese fighters, Iranian Revolutionary Guards, allies of Ahmed Jibril’s PFLP General Command, an opportunity for al-Qaida to gain a foothold in the Sahel – in other words, any bogeyman Europe and the US might buy.

Toby Shelley
London SE1

Vol. 28 No. 8 · 20 April 2006

Zakaria Fatih believes that the conflict in Western Sahara was ‘fabricated by the Algerian military during the Cold War’ (Letters, 23 March). But there is more to it than that. In the early 1960s, Morocco took up a lowly Cold War role as an independent African state with respectable pro-‘liberation’ credentials, though firmly in the Western camp. Algeria pursued a different course when the French withdrew in 1962. Beneath the ideological differences lay the more dangerous matter of the common border. Toby Shelley hints that the argument, which hinged on a Moroccan claim to territory within Algeria’s colonial boundaries, might have been settled amicably had Ferhat Abbas, leader of the Algerian provisional government, not been replaced by Ben Bella at the point of independence. Ben Bella, it turned out, was not for giving anything away.

Would Fatih want to say that what happened next was simply evidence of Algerian Cold War provocation? In 1963, Morocco’s most distinguished anti and post-colonial party, Istiqlal, reissued its map of so-called Greater Morocco, a fantasy – shared by other political parties – of Moroccan hegemony over north-west Africa. In all its legal absurdity, it may as well have included southern Spain, northern Nigeria and Sicily. Much of Algeria, on this accounting, belonged to Morocco.

The tension grew until diplomatic relations snapped. A brief but not so small border war followed. A ceasefire was brokered by the OAU, which made a final determination on the dispute in 1972. It took another 17 years, as Shelley points out, for Morocco to concede that Tindouf, the old caravan town which has now turned into a Sahrawi refugee camp, was legally part of Algeria.

Did Algeria really create the Polisario as a thorn in Morocco’s side, as Fatih implies? Algeria may well be a difficult, scheming neighbour, but so is Morocco. It made sense for Algeria to support the move for an independent Sahrawi state, if only because it would serve as a buffer – and proof that there were limits to Moroccan pre-colonial claims. Impoverished Mauritania went halves with Morocco on the annexation of Western Sahara until it was hounded out by Polisario. But Mauritania’s original enthusiasm for partition had much to do with putting a bit of desert between itself and Morocco, whose taste for a border dispute was always a worry. (Moroccan political thinking is far too sophisticated for the Greater Morocco idea to have survived. At the time, however, it was to include the whole of Mauritania.)

I’m not sure what Fatih means, in relation to Western Sahara, when he says that ‘something similar occurred in the north of Morocco.’ Is he thinking of Spain’s handover of the so-called Tarfaya strip in 1958? Or of Ifni 11 years later? Both are in fact in the south, not the north, unless you extend the Moroccan border around Western Sahara, as Thomas Cook used to do a few years ago when advertising camel treks and other invigorating breaks in North Africa. Tarfaya and Ifni are distinct from Western Sahara inasmuch as there was no Tarfaya or Ifni national identity to warrant an argument about where the territories belonged. Everyone – and rather crucially, I imagine, the inhabitants – agreed that they were Moroccan. This is not the case in Western Sahara.

Fatih is right to speak about Polisario’s poor treatment of POWs (though he carefully avoids using the category prisoner of war, which might compromise his liberal use of the term ‘terrorism’). In Tindouf, Moroccan POWs were regularly spruced up and wheeled out for the foreign press – and it was obvious, if you made more than one visit, as I did, how quickly they were deteriorating. That Morocco was treating Sahrawi POWs as badly and very likely worse was no excuse. Fatih is correct, too, to speak about human rights abuses by Polisario in the camps in Tindouf. This reached its height during the late 1980s. Refugees had to toe the leadership’s line or take the frightening consequences. Subsequently there was a brisk, unilateral ‘truth and reconciliation’ phase in which Polisario gave notice of its crimes, just as the ANC (and even Swapo) managed, in their hour of victory, to acknowledge their own atrocities.

The trouble is that some of the worst abusers have ‘defected’ from Polisario to Morocco, where they’ve been lavishly rewarded as net contributors to the Moroccan war effort – the conflict is technically over, but the propaganda war goes on. Every so often, Amnesty reminds Morocco of its responsibilities under the Convention against Torture. To understand why investigation and prosecution of these thugs are unlikely, go to www.amnesty.org/library for Amnesty’s 2003 briefing on Morocco and Western Sahara to the UN Committee against Torture.

Finally, Fatih’s suggestion, at first sight rather footling, that Polisario’s sorties into Morocco proper 25 years ago were ‘acts of terrorism’ seems to imply that military clashes in Western Sahara itself were not. A very convoluted way of agreeing that Western Sahara is a legal entity independent of its neighbours – but at least it’s a start.

Jeremy Harding
St Michel de Rivière, France

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