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The Sahrawi of Western Sahara: The last colony in Africa

Konstantina Isidoros

2011-10-06, Issue 551

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© Paulo Nunes dos Santos
'The Western Sahara is the last country in Africa that has not been correctly decolonised - instead, the right of the Sahrawi people to post-colonial independence has been frozen in time,' writes Konstantina Isidoros in introducing this special edition of Pambazuka News. 'If we are to take the rule of international law as our guiding foundation, then Morocco has blatantly defied international law twice, by its illegal invasion of someone else’s sovereign territory and by its illegal occupation that still continues today.'

‘There is no greater sorrow on earth than the loss of one's native land.’ Euripides, 431 BC

© Andrew McConnell
The Sahrawi desert nomads of the Western Sahara have been waiting since 1975 for their fundamental human right to a simple vote -that of self-determination. As Spain chaotically began withdrawing its colonial presence from Western Sahara, Morocco abruptly claimed the country as its own and threatened to invade.

The United Nations (UN) asked the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to investigate. This highest court of law in the world delivered its legal opinion - Morocco had no valid claim to territorial sovereignty over Western Sahara, and the Sahrawi indigenous population were the rightful sovereign heirs of the territory. Morocco defied international law and invaded. As the Sahrawi nomads’ liberation movement, the Polisario Front, became locked in fierce war with Morocco, the UN issued a number of alarmed messages reiterating to Morocco that its actions were intolerable.

The Western Sahara is the last country in Africa that has not been correctly decolonised - instead, the right of the Sahrawi people to post-colonial independence has been frozen in time. If we are to take the rule of international law as our guiding foundation, then Morocco has blatantly defied international law twice, by its illegal invasion of someone else’s sovereign territory and by its illegal occupation that still continues today. The Sahrawi people have spent the last 36 years fighting off Morocco’s illegitimate presence on Sahrawi soil and contesting against Morocco’s refusal to cooperate in a UN-led self-determination process. Morocco knows that if it allows the self-determination vote to occur, the Sahrawi will most likely choose independence rather than remain under an illegal colonial military occupation.

The Sahrawi struggle for independence strikes at the heart of our core principles of law and human rights. Are they to be applied uniformly across the globe to safeguard human rights, or is it tolerable that some societies cannot have human rights?

© Paulo Nunes dos Santos
Given the media silence on the geo-political importance of the Western Sahara conflict and the lack of consciousness of the plight of the Sahrawi people, this special issue of Pambazuka News has been developed to raise greater international awareness about the deception by certain Western governments and the European Union (as powerful members of the UN Security Council), and the failure of the United Nations itself it enforce its mandate. I hope that readers will be inspired to further explore the Sahrawi story and to join the international campaign groups and NGOs, and that students in disciplines such as international law, political science and anthropology may study the Western Sahara case and join a respected world-wide group of academics and scientists who are vociferously objecting to Morocco’s theft of sovereign territory, denial of human rights and exploitation of natural resources in a land it brutally occupies.

This special issue of Pambazuka News on Western Sahara spotlights the indigenous Sahrawi voices from both sides of the Berm (Morocco’s ‘Wall of Shame’: heavily militarised and landmined sand-walls), and their cultural heartbreak of being forcibly divided. From the Moroccan Occupied Territory, Sahrawi human rights activists - some of whom are currently prisoners of conscience from inside Moroccan prisons - have written articles and short stories in prison to tell us about the brutality of Morocco’s militarised oppression. Other Sahrawi writers have sent us descriptions of the many ways in which daily life is disrupted through the denial of freedoms of speech, movement and livelihoods on their own soil.

© Andrew McConnell
Shining through all these texts are the hopes and dreams of a people and their children - the Sahrawi youth and university students have become a phenomenon of youth activism on YouTube and Facebook - longing for freedom, independence, and an end to the ‘disappearances’, prolonged arrests, unfair court hearings, and torture by Moroccan security forces and secret service. Watch the BBC’s‘Tropic of Cancer - Western Sahara’ and follow up BBC story of an informant in the documentary being beaten up by Moroccans after the BBC film crew left.

Living on the other side of the Berm are the Sahrawi residing in refugee camps on the Algerian border. From these texts we hear of Sahrawi memories of homeland and longings for return. Here there is no need for uprisings against the invader, for this half of the Sahrawi population have the proximity of the Algerian border, which prevents Morocco from daring to invade further inland. Instead the Sahrawi refugees are free to be freedom fighters and their camps provide the symbolic structure of the nation-state in exile. Life is hard in the camps, it is not easy for a dignified and self-sufficient peoples to be dependent on humanitarian aid, to be trapped in refugeehood. The BBC documentary ‘We are Saharawis’ provides an insight into this life.

Woven among the personal stories from both sides of the Berm are powerful visual photographs and online documentary films to bring the reader close to the incredible world and desert geography of the Sahrawi. I hope this special issue will bring to life the story of the Sahrawi people and let their dream of freedom touch your hearts.

© Robert Griffin
I also invited non-Sahrawi voices in selected analytical pieces that focus on the international legal and political science disciplines because the Western Sahara story is clear-cut in the context of international law. Every African nation-state had this right, and it is a symbol of Sahrawi perseverance to the rule of international law that they have been a full and founding member of the African Union since 1984, and some 80 countries recognise the Sahrawi nation-state, the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR, also referred to as RASD).

I especially asked Anthony Pazzanita to write an update to his 1994 article on Morocco’s sophisticated propaganda tactics. Jacob Mundy also provided a new article from his PhD research showing how Morocco’s brutal repression has ironically fuelled the phenomenon of the Sahrawi’s resilient human rights resistance. I was flooded by offers from the international network of analysts and observers offering to add their voices to this special issue. Sadly, space is limited but it is a testament to the Sahrawi story that so many around the world responded with speed to the opportunity to stand alongside the Sahrawi. I raise these three points because I hope readers will begin to distinguish the two very different sides of the conflict’s story. No matter what Morocco says, the fundamental benchmark is that of international law. It neither supports Morocco’s contemporary political thesis nor its historical claims to sovereignty over the Western Sahara. I point readers to the newest book on the conflict to be published, by Stephen Zunes and Jacob Mundy, ‘Western Sahara: War Nationalism & Conflict Irresolution’, Syracuse University Press (2011).

Finally, Morocco consistently uses its sophisticated resources to paint a poor picture of the Sahrawi, especially of the Polisario Front (the political representative of the Sahrawi people, recognised by the UN itself). Readers might like to know that the Polisario Front was first formed in the late 1960s, originally as a liberation movement as Spain began moving towards decolonisation, but that it then had to shift its goal to fight off the invading Moroccan ‘Green March’. The Polisario Front’s constitution states that it will dissolve when it has achieved its original liberation goal and the vote of self-determination. I would like to give readers a chance to hear from four senior representatives of the Polisario Front based in various areas around the world - and gauge for yourselves.

Lamine Baali was recently interviewed by Think Africa Press (August 2011). One of the discussions is that the huge financial drain on Morocco, with its recent purchase of 24 F16 fighter jets from the United States in order to continue its illegal military occupation of Western Sahara, could otherwise be used for economic development and social developments on the Moroccan people themselves. Dr Sidi Omar delivered his analytical paper ‘The legal claim of the Saharawi people to the right to self-determination and decolonisation’ at UNISA’s conference on international law and Western Sahara in Pretoria in 2008 and Emhamad Khadad delivered his paper ‘Sovereignty & Self-Determination in Western Sahara’ at Durham University. Kamal Fadel was interviewed by the Australian Worker’s Union who subsequently visited the refugee camps themselves.

* Konstantina Isidoros is a PhD researcher at the University of Oxford.


-Free Western Sahara Network
- Western Sahara Campaign UK
- Western Sahara Resource Watch
- Australian Western Sahara Association
- War on Want
- Sandblast
- Fish Elsewhere
- Norwegian Support Committee
- Belgium Western Sahara Solidarity Group
- ARSO (Association de soutien à un référendum libre et régulier au Sahara Occidental)
- France APSO (Amis du Peuple du Sahara Occidental) – Spain Sahara Libre
- Western Sahara Action Ireland
- Germany Project Gruppe Westsahara



Run from the occupied territories, this website of The Sahrawi Association of Victims of Grave Human Rights Violations Committed by the Moroccan State, is a very important source of information regarding the human rights violations committed in Western Sahara.

-Sahara Press Service

The Polisario Front's e-mail based news service.

- Malainin Lakhal’s Saharawi Journalist and Writers Union


The Association for the Families of Saharawi Prisoners and the Disappeared.


Collective of Sahrawi Human Rights Defenders.

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