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UNmap. Xavier Arenós

Spanish Sahara

Following Bismarck’s proposals at the Berlin Conference in 1885, a grid was drawn of Africa and portions of it were distributed among the main European countries; Spain, as a former power which had fallen into decadence got only Equatorial Guinea, administration over the north of Morocco in the form of a Protectorate and 250,000 kilometres of the Sahara comprising Ifni, Saguia El Hamra and Río de Oro. Though Spain had a number of military garrisons spread out along the Atlantic coast as strategic positions, it was not until 1934 that it occupied the inland territory with additional military garrisons. Following the civil war, Franco’s regime saw the Spanish Sahara as a strategic place of interest from which to defend the Canary Islands. In 1947 the colony was reorganised on an administration level and El Aaiún became the capital and main commercial town. In the early 1950s, studies on the subsoil were begun with the conviction that below the sand lay important fields of minerals and petroleum.

According to notes by anthropologist Julio Caro Baroja made in a field study between 1952 and 1953, from north to south of the Sahara there are sedentary tribes, semi-nomadic and nomadic people. Yet before the Spaniards reached the south of Saguia, practically all were nomads who relied heavily on camels, from which they obtained milk, meat and even hair to weave their jaimas, or tents. Up to the late 1950s Spain’s presence hardly interfered in their nomadic lifestyle or customs. In January 1958, the Sahara was incorporated into Spain and became its 53rd province and a complex census was carried out which listed and sorted the scattered people into a total of 114 tribal groups distributed around the main established tribes: the Erguibat, the Ulad Delim, the Ulad Tidrarin and the Arossien. Also of importance but with less permanent camps in the area were the Izarguien and the less numerous Ait Usas, U Aggut and Ait Lahsen.

1960 is seen as the symbolic year when Africa broke free and most of the independent states were founded and the United Nations (UN) passed resolution 1514, which put pressure on the powers to leave the colonised countries and free the occupied territories. These orders were issued by the UN each year, yet Franco invented all sorts of excuses to make friends with the locals with the aim of proving to the international community that the Saharan people wished to belong to Spain on their own accord. In the early 1960s, Spanish engineers discovered a phosphate mine was at Bu Craa which had practically unlimited reserves. Together with mineral mining came the exploitation of great fishing resources on the coast, hence the colony required more and more local labour. In 1963, three Saharans were appointed as representatives in the Spanish parliament and the General Assembly of the Sahara was set up as a feature of consensus highlighting Spain’s unity. The tribes were represented according to their importance: 45 members from the Erguibat, 12 from Ulad Delim, 9 from Izarguien, 7 from Ulad Tidrarin, 5 from Arossien and 7 from smaller tribes.

In December 1965 the United Nations issued new orders and called for Spain to decolonize in accordance with Resolution 1514 and yet another resolution two years later (2354), stipulated that consultations be made in the form of a referendum to ascertain the Saharan people’s opinion.

Fos Bucraa, a Spanish public company which managed phosphate mine reached a production level of 2.5 million tons per year in just a few years and boasted 2,700 employees of whom 954 were locals. The mine became the true driving force of the area’s economy and radically altered the age old nomadic lifestyle. According to the last censuses at the time, only 8,000 Saharan people called themselves herders.

The only three towns in the Sahara attracted more and more labourers, and hundreds of tents were pitched in the poor areas awaiting new neighbourhoods to be built. In seven years the population of El Aaiún passed from 9,000 to 28,000; Villa Cisneros had 5,400 and Smara 7,300. Health services, a school, market (zoco), electricity, running water, refrigerator, television sets or even air conditioning were features of comfort provided in the cities which were in sharp contrast to the hardship and unpredictability of life in the desert. Although these cities appeared to be panaceas of comfort, the Spanish colony hardly offered the Saharan people equal conditions despite being considered Spanish citizens and holding Spanish identity cards since 1970. The locals were paid half the wages of Spaniards, received very little medical treatment and were discriminated against in terms of education. Despite the youth being aware of their spending power and the prosperity they enjoyed compared to the impoverished neighbouring countries, they felt increasingly more excluded and ostracised. An illegal movement based on Marxist and pan-Arab thought called Vanguard for the Liberation of Saguia el Hamra and Río de Oro, headed by Sidi Mohamed Bassiri, channelled the Saharan people’s frustration and nationalist sentiment. Some 7,000 members of all ages and social levels joined the cause for the independence of Western Sahara.

On 17 June 1970, taking advantage of a rally supporting Spain’s claims to sovereignty in El Aaiún, a Saharan people’s protest march was held and organized by Bassiri’s liberation movement with the slogan “The Sahara for Saharans” in which protesters issued the Francoist governor with a memorandum. The protest march was ordered to disperse but the protesters remained on the streets and began hurling stones at the police. The Legion was ordered in and began shooting into the crowd. As a result of these events seen as insubordination against the Government of Spain, dozens of wounded and some deaths ensued and the leaders were rounded up. Bassiri was executed some days later.

In May 1973 El Uali Mustafa Sayed took up Bassiri’s challenge and created the armed organization called Polisario (Popular Liberation Front of Saguia el Hamra and Río de Oro), and he was joined by Saharan people from the south of Morocco, northern Mauritania, western Algeria and the Spanish Sahara. Aided by Algeria, the Polisario guerrillas attacked Spanish targets with numerous acts of sabotage or attacks on the military garrisons situated in the desert. These Polisario acts raised the hopes of independence for the Saharan people.

On 20 December 1973, Carrero Blanco, president of the Government and one of the most relentless defenders of African colonialism, was killed by ETA. Franco who was deeply affected by the death of his successor and pressured by the UN to decolonise the Sahara, in August 1974 promised the international organisation to hold a referendum of self-determination in early 1975. According a 1974 census conducted by Spain, there were 74,902 Saharans and 20,126 Spaniards in the area. Despite these figures being approximate –due to the difficulty of counting all the nomadic people–, they were the most accurate referent known to ascertain the exact population there. On 12 May 1975, a UN mission travelled to the Sahara and issued a report stating that the Saharan people wished for independence. But Morocco, which held a historic claim over the Sahara as part of its territory, pressured the United Nations with the aid of the US and France –countries that were friendly with the Alaouite kingdom and held strong geo-strategic interests in the area–, requesting that the referendum promoted by Spain should not be held. The General Assembly of the United Nations upheld Morocco’s plea and halted the referendum.

On 16 October 1975, The International Court in The Hague ratified UN Resolution 1514 and the right of the Saharan people to self determination in a report which specified that Morocco had no ties to sovereignty over the Sahara. Some hours after the High Court’s confirmation, Hassan II took advantage of the Spanish government’s absolute lack of control over the territory as Franco lay dying and his ministers were at a loss over the future of the colony, and called for the Green March (Marcha Verde); a strategy hatched on the advice of the US (Kissinger) with the aim of illegally annexing the Western Sahara. A huge human tide from all corners of Morocco was directed by Morocco towards the lands that lay to the south to “peacefully” occupy the Sahara. One day after the call for the Green March, the Spanish government, completely disconcerted and caught completely unawares by the unexpected action by the Moroccan occupation held a cabinet meeting on 17 October to approve the handing over of the Sahara to Morocco. On 26 October a vast demonstration was held in El Aaiún by the Saharan people against Spain’s conceding the territory. On 9 November Hassan II, having accomplished his aim announced the end of the Green March. On the 14th, following several weeks of meetings and secret encounters, the Acuerdos de Madrid were published in which Spain conceded the Sahara and handed it over to Morocco and Mauritania in exchange for substantial economic and political compensation such as joint exploitation of phosphates and fishing. On 20 November Franco died, unaware of the serious events taking place in his furthest and most exotic province. Following Morocco’s occupation, the Polisario began its preparation, with the aid and complicity of Algeria, for a war with unforeseeable consequences. In January 1976, Morocco invaded Western Sahara with its military forces from the north and Mauritania did the same from the south. Armoured vehicles, artillery and military battalions occupied the main cities. The clash between the Moroccan Royal Army and civilians led to a mass evacuation of over 20,000 Saharan people inland towards the desert. In their exodus, the Saharan people were brutally bombarded by the Moroccan Air Force and over 2,000 people are thought to have lost their lives. Under the auspices of the still precarious and disorganised People’s Liberation Army of the Sahara organized by the Polisario, the refugees were transported in old trucks, Land Rovers, or even on foot towards the inhospitable region of Tinduf where they set up camp –hosted by Algeria– in improvised camps of jaimas and canvas tents provided by UNCHR and the Red Cross while awaiting a prompt solution to such a dramatic situation. On the night of 27 February the Polisario proclaimed the Democratic Arab Republic of the Sahara (DARS) just one day later the Spanish flag was lowered and the last troops left the Saharan people to their fate.

The Saharan Liberation Army, formed by five thousand guerrillas despite being highly outnumbered took on an army of over two hundred thousand troops with heavy artillery and aircraft. Despite the lack of arms and military training the Saharans knew the terrain and were used to the hardship of the desert organised their struggle on a guerrilla warfare strategy with surprise attacks and rapid deployment which disconcerted their enemies. Shortly after the Saharan people received military training from Algeria and their army’s capacity and effectiveness improved substantially. Algeria and Libya provided them with light and heavy weapons, and following intense battles Mauritania gave up the fight in 1978. Morocco pressured by heavy casualties and exhaustion suffered by its troops, withdrew and had to build a protective wall from north to south in several stages. Although the wall compelled the Saharan people to change their operations strategy, they continued to harass the Moroccans right up to 1991, when a ceasefire was agreed on through the United Nations (6 September) with the aim of calling a referendum to decide on the sovereignty of the territory. This has been suspended several times as Morocco repeatedly failed to accept each international resolution.

The Wall

Between August 1980 and April 1987 a wall was built in several stages using hundreds of excavators, bulldozers, brigades of sappers and tens of thousands of soldiers defending it. It is a fortified system which defends the occupied cities and particularly the Bu Craa phosphate mine. The wall stretches out like a ring and covers land amounting to over 2,500 kilometres of sand and stone. The wall is between two and three metres high by one and a half metres wide and boasts anti-tank trenches measuring three metres wide, hundreds of heavy artillery batteries, thousands of armoured vehicles, barbed wire, radars and other sophisticated surveillance systems. It is protected by some 130,000 soldiers and it is estimated that there are over two million anti-tank and antipersonnel mines spread out along a kilometre wide along and parallel to the wall.

Following the long period since the ceasefire was established, and the death of Hassan II in 1999, his son Mohamed VI has continued the same policy regarding the Sahara as his father. The wall still traps and separates the population on both sides and makes it impossible for the nomadic herders to move freely. Some families have not seen one another for over thirty years. The Saharan people, who remained in the occupied territory –about 20%– despite the authoritarian Moroccan presence, were compensated and enjoyed high wages and all kinds of benefits but shortly after had to share these with over 300,000 settlers from Morocco sent to colonise the Sahara. Since 2005, a new wave of young Saharan activists have resisted Moroccan occupation, protesting against the regime claiming that the occupied territory is nothing more than a huge open air prison; According to information provided by AFAPREDESA (Association of Relatives of Saharan Prisoners and Disappeared) or recent annual reports (2008 and 2009) from Amnesty International and CEAR (Spain’s Refugee Aid Committee), there exists much police repression in the main cities of Western Sahara and those critical of the Moroccan Monarchy are arrested and tortured.

Status Quo

On 29 April 1991, the UN Security Council decided to set up the MINURSO mandate (UN Mission for the Referendum of Western Sahara) with the aim of keeping peace in the area and to hold a referendum –scheduled for February 1992-, in order to bring the conflict between the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic and Morocco to an end. The result of the poll would decide the independence of the Saharan people or to extend the annexing of Western Sahara to the Kingdom of Morocco. Only those in the census carried out by Spain in 1974 would be allowed to vote, which by 1991 had grown to 70,000 Sahrawis with the right to vote. Morocco, sensing its interests threatened by the so-called UN Arrangement Plan requested another census, and threatened to withdraw from the process if their wishes were not met. Because of these threats by Morocco and the UN’s acceptance to alter the census figures, Johannes Manz, special envoy to Western Sahara resigned. Pérez de Cuéllar, UN Secretary General, postponed the referendum sine die while awaiting a new census.

The Egyptian Butros Ghali, new Secretary General and Erik Jensen, President of the Identification Committee, continued the new census between 1992 and 1994. Following the thwarted attempt of consensus in direct talks between both parties, the process was halted again because of unresolved problems between both parties. On 23 June 1995, Saharan President Mohamed Abdelaziz announced he would suspend the Polisario’s participation in the process of identification since Morocco was still transferring Moroccan citizens to the Saharan people territory to impose their participation in the identification (100,000 new settlers). The UN’s lack of power to hold the referendum became clear and the Peace Plan’s suspension clearly favoured Morocco, which consolidated its status quo in the area.

Kofi Annan, the third Secretary General in the course of the events, saw the Sahara problem as a priority and appointed the former US secretary of State James Baker as his personal representative. Talks began again between the Polisario and Morocco and the identification of voters, repatriation of refugees, release of political prisoners, exchange of prisoners of war, restricting the troops to garrisons and a code of conduct were all established following the Houston Agreements (1997). All these aspects, which were to be carried out in good faith, should have led to a fair and free referendum. These agreements enabled the referendum preparations to go ahead. But completing the census turned out to be more difficult than expected, identification clashed with the case of the disputed tribes named H 41, H 61 and J 51/52, comprising 65,000 people in all. The process again stumbled and following this new fracas Annan proposed a “New Baker Plan” or “third way” two years later. An agreement between the parties where there were no losers meant considering Morocco an “administrative power” of the Sahara not an occupying force. In other words, Morocco would exclusively take care of foreign affairs, national security and defence in the form of an autonomy. After four years a referendum would be held where all those residing in the Sahara since 1999 would have the right to vote. Although at first the Polisario failed to approve this, it ended up accepting this possibility, but it was Kofi Annan who finally rejected his own Plan because there would still be a winner and a loser. In April 2004, Morocco changesd its strategy and categorically decided not to accept any referendum which included any possible independence of the Sahara.

Ban Ki-moon, the fourth UN secretary to try to mediate in this conflict, appointed Van Walsum as his special envoy. The Dutch diplomat focused his strategy on bringing both parties closer together with several rounds of talks. In these meetings (2007 and 2008 in Manhasset, New York and 2009 in Vienna), Morocco proposed a “Charter of Autonomy for the Sahara Region” which it calls the “southern provinces”, similar in form to Baker’s proposals, but totally adapted to its sovereign interests in substance. Despite this, Van Walsum underscored and defended “Morocco’s serious efforts to push the process towards a solution” and clearly expressed that the option of achieving independence by referendum was a false hope for the Saharan people and he urged the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic to negotiate “bearing in mind the actual political situation” of control exerted by Rabat over the territory. The Polisario refused to accept Morocco’s proposal of autonomy and accused Van Walsum of being biased which led to his resignation.

Van Walsun is the only high level UN representative who has ever dared to maintain that international law is on the side of the Polisario, but the Security Council will not use its powers to impose these on Morocco. This is why the Sahara will never be independent (El País, 8 and 28/08/2008). The government of J. L. Rodríguez Zapatero with his foreign affairs minister Moratinos, following the latest rounds of talks, took sides with France by favouring Morocco’s ideas of autonomy. As the former administrative power of the Sahara, Spain cannot give up its responsibilities unilaterally, but the legal loophole used by Morocco benefits its supporters. Spanish ships still load phosphates from Bu Craa, big Spanish canning companies have set up in Dajla (former Villa Cisneros) and hundreds of fishing boats from Spain and the EU freely fish in waters off the Sahara coast.

Ban Ki-moon recently appointed an American Christopher Ross as the new and hopefully last mediator in the Western Sahara conflict. Now more than ever the UN must accept its responsibility and apply international law to ensure the survival of the Saharan people and even the international organisation, which cannot afford to be put in doubt once more in the longest running contentious issue in Africa.

Sahrawi refugee camps

In January 1977, according to information from UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees) there were reckoned to be 50,000 refugees in Tinduf. The war continued to displace Saharan people from all over the country towards towns occupied by Algerians, and soon this number grew to 120,000 refugees. UNHCR, Red Cross, the WFP (World Food Programme) and ECO (European Cooperation Office) distributed basic humanitarian aid: food, medicines and shelter; over the years a hospital with an operating theatre was also built to attend the war wounds together with several basic infrastructures to allow life to go on until the end of the conflict.

At the Polisario’s 3rd and 4th Congresses – held in August 1976 and September 1978 respectively- fair distribution of wealth was highlighted together with the elimination inequalities, and a declaration was made that their struggle was a war of liberation against occupying forces, against imperialism, colonialism and exploitation. The Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic’s (SADR) Constitution specifies developing socialism through emancipating women and allowing them to participate fully in the new society, provide social benefits to the mo impoverished, compulsory free education, health and the right and duty to work.

Women protected under the Polisario’s revolutionary slogans have reached levels of freedom unimaginable in any other Arab country. With their husbands on the front, they organised the rearguard in the camps, an important social task, leading to practising communism close to the original one based on mutual support and common assets. An egalitarian society based on merit was created from nothing which survived by equally distributing international aid where in the first fifteen years funding hardly existed. Not everything was rosy in this social laboratory. Abuses of power and injustice carried out by the Polisario leaders in charge of security also occurred. At the height of the war, in their eagerness to control the political situation, paranoid behaviour was exerted against Sahrawis from occupied cities who went to live in the camps and signed up for the cause. They were accused of being spies and infiltrators and were jailed and suffered all kinds of torture.

Following the thwarted referendum of February 1992, on which the Sahrawis placed all their hopes in achieving independence, they had to continue determined to strengthening the ties among those living in the camps. They improved the distribution of humanitarian aid, created new infrastructures (adobe houses, schools, hospitals, workshops, farm and some vegetable gardens,) and developed better policies of organisation and association. These camps host a population of over 200,000 and are spread over four Wilayas each with the names of the cities which were abandoned in the Sahara: Aaiún, Ausserd, Smara and Dajla. Furthermore other settlements have been established such as: 27 February, 9 June, 12 October or Rabuni and provide education, production or administrative facilities. Each Wilaya boasts some 50,000 inhabitants and is divided into 6 Dairas or municipalities of between 7,000 and 9,000 inhabitants. Each Daira is managed by a mayor, a judge, a doctor a head of supplies and five women in charge of basic services (health, education, food, justice and industry); they also have a school, a medical centre, warehouse and a kind of town hall. The Dairas are also subdivided into four neighbourhoods and each one has 15 or 20 rows and each row has ten houses (jaimas and adobe huts). The layout of these houses are based on the old “frics” or camps of nomads, made up of roughly extended family circles which form rows in a straight line of between 6 and 12 jaimas and a maximum of 4 or 5 people per jaima.

Today the camps survive thanks only to international aid, but over the years this has created a parallel survival economy which comes mainly from smuggling, remittances sent by Saharan people who live abroad, donations from Spanish families and the sale of cattle.

In a conflict lasting over 34 years of resistance whilst awaiting an international solution, the Polisario have held twelve congresses to date to decide on future strategies for exiled Saharan people. The first congresses were held every two years and were clearly closed military structures. Currently they are held every four years and are completely participative. The last was held in Tifariti (the symbolic capital of free Sahara) in 2007 and some 1,750 delegates attended with 250 guests and scores of foreign journalists. Delegates are elected in the grass root People Congresses and these in turn appoint their representatives for the General People’s Congress which nominates the Executive Committee of the Polisario where the Government and president of the SADR are chosen.


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UNmap. Xavier Arenós PDF