Africa’s last colony: the Western Sahara

By Sally Hobbs

The nearly 30 year long cease-fire between Morocco and the Saharawi has ended. In late October 2020, Saharawi civilians from the refugee camps began a peaceful blockade of an illegally-built road at Guerguerat between the south of the Moroccan occupied part of the Western Sahara and Mauritania.

 Last week, Morocco sent in troops to drive away the protestors. By doing so it comprehensively broke the terms of the ceasefire which forbids armed forces from entering buffer zones between the parties.

In response, nearby Polisario forces opened fire in order to evacuate the civilians. Later, Saharawi fighters attacked a number of positions along the Moroccan defensive wall. The situation is quickly escalating and while men from the refugee camps and from around the world are travelling back to take up arms it will once again fall to the women to run the camps.

More than four decades ago, tens of thousands of Saharawi, a former nomadic desert people, who had settled and taken up fishing, agriculture and increasingly industry, became refugees in a harsh desert corner of the Tindouf province, in SW Algeria. They were displaced to this region when war broke out, at the end of 1975, in their homeland of Western Sahara. Located along the Atlantic coast, in NW Africa, the territory had been a former Spanish colony for nearly a century. But when Spain withdrew in a hasty retreat from an anti-colonial movement, it became the site of a protracted conflict between the Polisario front (the political force for the Saharawi liberation army) and the Moroccan kingdom, which invaded and claimed the territory as its own.

 The invasion ignored the International Court of Justice, which had rejected the Moroccan claim in its legal opinion of October 1975 and went against the will of the Saharawi people, who had been fighting for independence since 1973. Those left in the former colony have been increasingly oppressed, the region ransacked for its iron ore, phosphate and potash mines till the land is polluted and despoiled. Meanwhile, the people forced into the worst forms of labour conditions with appalling health and housing.

In 1991, after 16 years of war, a UN-brokered ceasefire was meant to lead to a referendum for Saharawi self-determination by early 1992. Until now, however, this has yet to take place and Western Sahara is officially Africa’s last colony.

The territory and every Saharawi family are divided by a 2,700km long wall built by Morocco to defend its occupation of two-thirds of the Saharawi homeland. Under the occupation, the Saharawi have become a suppressed minority. No country in the world recognizes Morocco’s sovereignty claims over the resource-rich territory.

Today, the 173,600 Saharawi refugees (UNHCR figures of 2018), dependent on aid to survive, live spread out between five large camps. Women play a central role in running all aspects of life in this desert exile. Named after main towns in Western Sahara, the camps function as a state-in-exile under the leadership of the Polisario Front, which self-proclaimed the creation of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), in 1976. A government and administration have been set up in the camps with the support of the Algerian state. The SADR became a full member state of the African Union in 1982.

A forgotten people.     
Solidarity with Manchester.

Morocco’s increasing war against both refugees and the remaining people of Western Sahara in contravention of all UN agreements is a direct result of its confidence about the current political support of USA and UK, as well as the lack of any robust opposition by EU or African nations. South Africa’s Ramaphosa recently rejected any links between the African National Congress and Polisario, while consulates from monarchical regimes such as Bahrain have been established in Western Sahara’s capital, Laayoune

Labour MPs should be asked to raise this in Parliament and seek demands for reinstatement of the ceasefire and the original requirement for an independence referendum to include those living in the camps.

 The connection between Levenshulme, in Manchester and the Saharawi began in 2000, when we hosted a group of young children in our homes as part of the Woodcraft Folk Movement. This included a stay at a campsite in Anglesey which we repeated a year late. In 2006 at Woodcraft Global Village in Kent, a group of young adults camped with us.

 In 2007 Levenshulme Woodcraft Folk again hosted a group of eight children from the Saharawi refugee camps. To enable them to come over we raised money for flights, visas and a programme of events including a weekend in Conwy. We maintained links with the children and their families and the following year a group of 10 adults and children from Levenshulme were invited to visit the camps in the Algerian desert.

 Many young people have visited, and built links with the children of families who have moved to Europe to send funds home. Many more refugee children have grown up and some now have their own young families who will be the second and third generation born away from, and who may never see, their homeland.

An appeal from the Western Sahara Support Group

 We have set up the Western Sahara Support Group to support the Saharawi and to enable them to have as much independence and self-reliance as is possible in a refugee camp where you have no freedom of movement, no nationality, no right to a passport, and very limited choices. Our overriding aim is to extend a hand of solidarity and friendship with a largely forgotten and dispossessed people.

 The Sustainable Vegetable project for which we are fundraising was born out of a request from a girl who stayed with us nearly 20 years ago. Fatimalu Bashir, now a mother of two children and struggling to make end meets in the harsh conditions of the camps, is the project coordinator in the camps for the project.

We aim to raise £30,000 to fund the project. So far we have raised over £18,000. We are sending 20,000 euros to the camps this December to begin the project build. A robust greenhouse structure will be erected on a concrete flooring (80m x 10m) with defensive walls built around to offer protection from sand storms. While the aim is sustainability and the project aims to replicate and spread as it grows, the initial few years are crucial to its success.

Initially water will be purchased from the Water Ministry in Rabuni camp but we have established links with an Oxfam project and are currently exploring use of hydroponic growing systems. The project will offer paid employment for a small number of people.

As we continue to look at ways to fundraise to support the project we have launched our Christmas appeal 2020. If this is something you are in a position to support then further details regarding donations and about our projects can be found on our website.

Sally Hobbs is a local activist and Labour Party member in Levenshulme Manchester. After establishing a local Woodcraft branch, she worked with other local parents to organise the first Saharawi refugee visit in 2000 in their own homes and subsequent trips, building long-lasting relationships with young leaders over 20 years.  The Western Sahara Support Group has grown out of these relationships and the campaign to fund food production in the desert was prompted by a Saharawi woman who had stayed here as a child.

Main image: Protest this week in Smara, occupied Western Sahara. The main placard reads: Attention – We are in a war.

Subscribe to the blog for email notifications of new posts