10 May 2009, President Abdeleaziz Mohammed, president of the Saharawi Republic speaks during an interview at the Saharawi embasy in Pretoria on Sunday May 10. Picture: Shayne Robinson
10 May 2009, President Abdeleaziz Mohammed, president of the Saharawi Republic speaks during an interview at the Saharawi embasy in Pretoria on Sunday May 10. Picture: Shayne Robinson XSR003

Liberate Africa’s last colony

By Shannon Ebrahim Time of article published Jun 3, 2016

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There is an urgent need for tangible action by African nations to free the Western Sahara from Morocco, writes Shannon Ebrahim

On Tuesday this week the Mandela of Western Sahara – Mohamed Abdelaziz – passed away at the age of 68, reigniting the calls for Western Sahara’s liberation. Western Sahara is the last bastion of colonialism on a continent that largely broke free from the chains of colonialism over 40 years ago.

Just as the Sahrawis had freed themselves from Spanish colonialism, troops from Mauritania and Morocco had marched in to claim the territory in 1975. Mauritania withdrew in 1979, but until today Morocco has continued to occupy the area the size of Britain.

The AU has, since its formation, backed the struggle of the Sahrawi people for self-determination, but it is now time to do something about it.

The UN has failed to deliver on its promise of a referendum on self-determination following a 1991 ceasefire between Morocco and the Polisario Front. If the AU wants to prove that it has solutions to African problems, it must now take up the reins of resolving this issue once and for all.

The difficulty will be that the occupying power – Morocco – is the only country in Africa that is not a member of the AU, as the continent as a collective has recognised the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR).

UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon made a strategic visit to the Tindouf refugee camps in the desert of Southern Algeria in March this year, in the hopes of reviving the dormant negotiations process.

He referred to the situation in Western Sahara as an “occupation”, setting off a barrage of retaliatory steps from its Moroccan occupiers, including the expulsion of the civilian component of the UN mission, MINURSO.

Ban’s spokesperson was quick to claim that Ban’s remark was not an official UN position, and there has been no progress in moving the negotiations process forward.

If Africa really believes in the right of the Sahrawis to self-determination they will need to take tangible steps towards supporting this right, rather than merely issuing statements year in and year out. Just as the UN appointed an envoy to the region – former US diplomat Christopher Ross – it is time the AU appointed its own envoy to see whether African mediation could possibly be more effective.

The ANC has long supported this struggle, and its secretary-general Gwede Mantashe was a guest at the Polisario Congress last year. One of the Polisario Front desert battalions is also named after OR Tambo. But beyond symbolic solidarity, there is an urgent need for tangible action.

This is now one of the most protracted refugee crises worldwide, where the tens of thousands of Sahrawi refugees in the southern Algerian desert rely on humanitarian aid for their survival, as they brave desert temperatures that regularly reach 50°C. The tented desert camps have been the only existence many have known since they fled the advancing Moroccan forces in 1975.

The refugees in the Algerian desert are completely cut off from their homeland by a wall that is second in length only to the Great Wall of China. Shortly after Moroccan forces occupied the land in 1975, they built a sand wall called the “Berm” which is 12 times the length of the Berlin wall and four times that of the West Bank wall. Surrounded by land mines and guarded by 120 000 Moroccan troops, the wall has fortified Morocco from the refugee camps in Algeria, and its liberation fighters.

The Moroccan King Mohammed VI says he offers no more than autonomy for the Western Sahara, and has pledged that revenues from the mineral-rich area will continue to be invested locally. Not only does the area have significant fishing and phosphate reserves, but there have been recent potential offshore oil finds by US and British companies. Some call this a game changer, but companies should not be allowed to exploit such resources in occupied territory.

The Sahrawi leader Abdelaziz will be remembered for his commitment to resolve the conflict with Morocco peacefully, and he has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. The motivation for the Nobel Prize states: “At a time when terrorism is increasingly used as a means of advancing objectives, Abdelaziz relied on the solidarity of the international community and the rule of law.”

Abdelaziz’s administration in the camps has proved an effective and democratic leadership. Elections were held regularly, and a constitution guaranteed the right to vote, equal rights for women and religious freedom. With Abdelaziz’s passing, there are calls from some Polisario youth to go back to war in the absence of a diplomatic breakthrough. Top Polisario Front leader Bachir Mustafa Sayed has warned that war is possible if the UN Security Council fails to set a timetable for a vote on self-determination. It is now time for the AU to show leadership on this issue.

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