Western Sahara: Africa’s Last Colony

By: Muhammed Bamne

Western Sahara is a region that is given very little attention in international media. Crowned as Africa’s last colony, It is a country that has been fighting for self-determination and independence for well over a century. Spain colonized the country until 1975 and as it was leaving, Morocco swiftly came in and for over forty years has held a brutal occupation of Western Sahara which is in defiance with U.N. convention and international law (Zunes). Currently, no country recognizes Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara (except the United States in 2020), but the lucrative extraction and exploitation of resources seem to be stopping the international community from taking any real action. The main reason for the occupation is for the plundering of its natural resources and fish, as Western Sahara is home to one of the largest sources of phosphates and rich fishing waters that supply the E.U. with much of its seafood (Contini).

Since its occupation, the Moroccan government’s occupation of Western Sahara has been characterized by decades of torture, disappearances, killings, and repression against the pro-independence Sahrawi people (natives of Western Sahara) living in the occupied territory. In 1991, the U.N. sponsored a ceasefire and promised the Sahrawi people a referendum on self-determination organized by the peacekeeping mission MINURSO (U.N.). Since then, Morocco has blocked attempts to organize a vote and the U.N. Security Council has refused to implement its referendum plan or allow MINURSO to monitor the human rights situation in Western Sahara (Democracy Now). International media has ignored the occupation in part because Morocco has blocked foreign media from entering and reporting on Western Sahara (Democracy Now).

Days after the Moroccan invasion (in 1975), Secretary of State Henry Kissinger privately told President Gerald Ford, “He hoped for a rigged U.N. Vote” to confirm Morocco’s claim over Western Sahara (Smith). Half of the Sahrawi population fled invasion to neighboring Algeria and the Moroccan invasion set off a 16-year long war with the Sahrawi liberation movement, known as the The Polisario Front. Morocco’s army, with help from the U.S. military, drove the Polisario to Western Sahara’s eastern region from the coast. Morocco then created the longest minefield and the second-largest wall on earth with help of U.S. weapons companies Northrop and Westinghouse (Democracy Now). The 1700 mile wall divides Sahrawis who remain under occupation from those who fled into exile. The U.N. Ceasefire ended after the Moroccan military broke into a southern no-go buffer zone on November 13th, 2020, to attack Sahrawi civilians and exchange fire with the Polisario Front (Democracy Now). This action came soon after a top U.S. general met with the commander of the Royal Moroccan Armed Forces Southern Zone, which covers Western Sahara. As the Polisario populated regions and Morocco clash, many have been arrested in the occupied territory. These arrests include many of the peaceful protesters, a large proportion of whom are women, who demonstrate inside the capital of Western Sahara, Layouhn. They have been repeatedly sexually assaulted, beaten, and taken to secret prisons where thousands of Sahrawis have gone to be tortured, killed, or have disappeared for resisting Moroccan occupation (HRW).

The U.S.-Morocco relationship dates back to 1777 when Morocco was one of the first countries to recognize the U.S. as a nation (U.S. Department of State). Since then, alongside the military aid and funding, the U.S. announced Morocco as its largest non-NATO ally following the Cold War, opening the doors for more military deals. The relationship is mutual as we see that money has flowed both ways. For example, state-owned Moroccan phosphate company, OCP, which operates in Western Sahara, donated millions to the Clinton Foundation before the 2016 election (Vogel). Fast forward to the presidency of Trump and we see that Morocco and Israel have agreed to establish diplomatic relations as part of a U.S. brokered deal. The U.S. is now the first country to recognize Morocco’s annexation of Western Sahara in return for relations and strengthening the legitimacy of Israel in occupied Palestine as well as opening the way for more military contracts that will be used to further oppress the Sahrawi people (Cambridge University Press, 318-323).

Democracy Now, an independent journalism website, was one of the first media operations to be able to get inside the country in years. In 2016, the journalism service published an exposé where we see how the Sahrawi people are suffering and their commitments to self-determination and freedom. Some of their stories are highlighted below.

One prominent interview from the publication was with journalist Mohamed Mayara who speaks about the torture and murder that his family faced at hands of Moroccan authority. He notes, “my father was one of 4 brothers kidnapped…he was kidnapped sent to jail, spent one year and six months and was killed after being tortured” (Democracy Now). When asked about what kind of risk he takes speaking to a reporter based in the western world he replied, “I have a seven-year-old daughter, I tell her about my father who was kidnapped, I tried to teach her that one day that I will face the same fate…so I am always waiting” (Democracy Now). And when asked why he takes that risk despite all the persecution he has witnessed he states, “Because I think this engagement is the duty of freedom” (Democracy Now).

Elghalia Djimi, Vice President of ASVDH, which is an association that traces the files of Sahrawi disappearance victims and former victim of forced disappearance herself, was asked what had happened to her as a victim of forced disappearance. She responded, “What happened to me happened to all prisoners…Moroccan state and secret police used dogs as a form of torture…they stripped me naked…I lost all my hair because of the chemicals they used on my head chemicals used on my head…” (Democracy Now). She was waterboarded, beaten with a baton on her feet, threatened with rape, and much worse. Like Mohamed when asked why she was taking such risk she said, “I am not afraid, I took a vow that we have to talk about this issue, if we do not speak out, especially us as victims who have suffered all of this, this problem will remain” (Democracy Now).

What Can You Do?

The situation in Western Sahara is a dire occupation that has been going on for far too long without any sort of broad mainstream coverage or support from the international community. Amnesty International UofT encourages all readers to stay informed on the subject and to contribute to change through various organizations that are still fighting for the native people of Western Sahara: Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Front Line Defenders to name a few. Please consider making a financial contribution to these organizations as well.

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