Western Saharas quest for self-determination

News Analysis

Recent developments in northwestern Africa, along with worldwide observances of African Liberation Day, provide occasion to reflect on the continent’s last remaining colony, Western Sahara. The politics of oil, a repressive occupation, and a long-deferred referendum on self-determination are once again thrusting the territory into the world spotlight.

Sandwiched between Mauritania and Morocco and bordering on the Atlantic, this Colorado-sized desert territory has been at the center of an international dispute since Spain was forced to relinquish its colonial grip on the region in 1976.

Following Spain’s withdrawal, Western Sahara was immediately occupied by both Mauritania and Morocco. While an indigenous resistance ultimately repelled the Mauritanians, Morocco increased its domination, occupying 80 percent of Western Sahara in defiance of international law. The Saharawi liberation movement, the Polisario Front, founded in the struggle against the Spanish occupation, continued to press for freedom. A long, low-intensity war ensued.

In 1982, after seven years of war, Polisario was on the verge of liberating Western Sahara when large-scale U.S. and French military assistance – including counter-insurgency equipment and training – changed the equation of the conflict in Morocco’s favor.

Morocco’s allies, including the U.S., also helped erect a wall that still separates most of Western Sahara from a large group of Saharawis in exile. While the Saharawi population is just over 300,000, more than 100,000 others live as refugees from the conflict in neighboring Algeria.

It wasn’t until 1991 that a ceasefire agreement was established with the help of the United Nations. That agreement is now in danger of collapsing, as the territory’s long-suffering people are growing increasingly impatient with their plight.

Their yearning for self-determination, their history of resistance to occupation, the plight of their refugees, and their denial of justice because of long-neglected UN resolutions have led many to call the Saharawi people “The Palestinians of Africa.”

Many observers believe that exploitation of the territory’s rich natural resources is a primary reason for U.S. and French support for Morocco’s intransigent occupation. Western Sahara has tremendous fishing, phosphate and mineral resources and is believed to have significant offshore oil deposits.

U.S. oil and gas giant Kerr- McGee recently signed a potentially lucrative agreement with the Moroccan government to map Western Sahara’s offshore oil resources. Its current exploration contract runs until Oct. 29, which coincides with the next UN Security Council debate on the territory’s status. Significantly, the UN has ruled that exploitation of oil without the consent of the Saharawis is illegal.

Kerr-McGee is the only major multinational remaining in the territory. European oil interests withdrew under pressure from world human rights groups. Western Sahara Resource Watch (WSRW), an international coalition of 20 organizations on four continents, is now mobilizing the world community against Kerr-McGee’s role. It says the company “puts profits before principles and directly undermines the UN peace process.”

“People should urge their organizations, churches, colleges, pension fund, or public employees union, holding stocks, etc., in Kerr-McGee to divest,” Richard Knight of the WRSW told the World. “It is exactly like the case with South Africa, where many people from all walks of life pressured companies to divest.”

As the world was observing African Liberation Day on May 25, unrest broke out in Western Sahara’s main city, Laayoune. The turmoil was reportedly triggered by the transfer of a prisoner from a jail in Laayoune to Morocco rather than to a Polisario camp, as the prisoner had requested. The occupation forces responded to the protests with tear gas and arrests, leaving at least 57 persons injured, seven of them seriously, and many dozen in jail. Some demonstrators are still reported missing.

Mohamed Ould Salek, a spokesman for Polisario, told an Algerian news agency, “The United Nations and the Security Council must intervene rapidly to put an end to the repressive practices of Moroccan authorities against the defenseless Saharawi people.”

In an upsurge that many observers are calling a “Saharawi intifada,” thousands have been demonstrating against the Moroccan occupation in various cities across the Western Sahara, calling for the implementation of a long overdue, UN-mandated referendum on self-determination.

A member of the African Union, the Polisario Front is the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic’s government in exile. Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara is not recognized by any country. SADR is recognized by more than 70 countries, including South Africa.