Citizenship & Identity Culture 

Africa’s Last Colony

From the Winter Issue “Europe Under Fire

By Hannah Rae Armstrong

TINDOUF, Algeria—The world’s longest conveyor belt is 62 miles long, and shoots up to 2,000 tons of white rocks per hour in a straight line through undulating Saharan dunes, from the Bou Craa phosphate mines in the occupied Western Sahara into the Atlantic industrial port at Laayoune. Satellite images show a slash in the sand that is ghostly and geometrical. White dust builds up around the belt and streaks away into the camel-colored emptiness. Morocco illegally exports hundreds of millions of dollars worth of phosphates each year from what it considers its “southern province.” It contracts to foreign fishing fleets the rights to coastal stocks, which are among the world’s richest and seethe with bluefin tuna, octopus, sardines, and corbina. Morocco is set to add oil sometime this year or next to the list of illegally-exploited resources that Sahrawi refugees in southern Algeria say are funding the occupation of their coastal strip of sand.

The Sahrawi refugees’ saga is all but biblical. They are roughly 150,000 nomads, exiled in the desert for 40 years, longing to return home. Six Sahrawi refugee camps sit atop a hamada, or fiendishly hot plateau, in southern Algeria. Homes, mosques, and offices are lodged in tents, blocks, and shipping containers. Hemmed in by vast expanses of endless flat sand, the camps spring suddenly into sight, like a space colony. It is no accident that even after four decades, they appear impermanent, like they could vanish at any moment. There is will in the impermanence of the architecture. The camps are run by the Polisario Front, a state-in-exile that looks to the future and fans hope that independence will arrive at any moment. To build more solid, enduring structures would be to acknowledge the bleak reality of the present. Their decades of peaceful resistance are mostly ignored and invisible. Their stay on this infernal plateau shows no sign of ending anytime soon.

The slow-burning conflict over the Western Sahara, a resource-rich strip of coastal land south of Morocco, is at once the world’s longest and most forgotten. Sahrawis say their model of peaceful resistance is more just and legitimate than taking up arms for independence as their neighbors in Mali did two years ago. At a time when the global radar is desensitized to all but the most violent and virulent movements—the Islamic State and Ebola being recent examples—low-profile, low- casualty liberation movements are having a hard time making themselves heard.


Morocco invaded the territory on the heels of Spanish decolonization in 1975 and has de facto controlled it ever since. Sahrawis fled to southern Algeria, where they set up refugee camps and supported a war for independence led by Polisario guerrillas that for the next 16 years pitted ragtag bands of unschooled nomads against the highly trained and professional Moroccan forces, recipients of American and French military aid. Morocco was a close Cold War ally of the United States. Polisario had ties to Algeria, Libya, and Cuba, although the Soviet Union neither supported nor recognized the movement.

In 1991, as the Cold War drew to a close, a UN-brokered ceasefire between Morocco and Polisario went into effect, pegged to a pledge from both sides to grant Sahrawis their right to self-determination through a UN-sponsored referendum. In defiance of a series of UN Security Council resolutions, a landmark World Court decision, and international mediation efforts, Morocco has stonewalled, putting off that referendum for more than 20 years. During this time, it has furnished incentives such as subsidized property and employment to encourage hundreds of thousands of Moroccan settlers to enter the Western Sahara, while erecting a 1,677 mile, extensively land-mined wall that bisects the disputed territory.

The Western Sahara is a “non self-governing territory,” according to the UN. The way most outside Morocco see it, decolonization of the territory
 remains incomplete. No
 country recognizes Moroccan sovereignty over it, and
more than 80 nations, plus
 the African Union, have formally recognized the Polisario’s Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) as 
an independent state. Since 
the cease-fire, Sahrawis have 
embraced peaceful means of 
resistance. Women lead regular protests in the desert.
 Wrapped in yards of brightly-colored cloths and bran-
dishing homemade flags,
 they surge toward the wall
and shout their well-worn slogans: “There is no alternative to self-determination!” and “No to the Moroccan plan. Independence is coming!” The sounds ring out in the desert and then fall flat into the sand. There is no one there to hear.


Since 2007, Morocco has been one of the top ten spenders in Washington and the leading Arab country with lobbying operations in the United States. The kingdom has spent more than $20 million lobbying in Washington, employing no fewer than nine American lobbying firms. Morocco-sponsored journalists and think tank experts litter the American press with a triad of false claims: Polisario is an Algerian proxy regime bent on destabilizing Morocco; Sahrawi camps in southern Algeria are terrorist havens and centers of regional instability; Sahrawi refugees are trapped in the camps against their will as “prisoners of the desert.”

A visit to the camps quickly dispels these jealously guarded myths. Algeria hosts, but respectfully keeps its distance from the fiercely independent Polisario state-in-exile. Women teach every school subject in the camps, including the Quran, and refugees overwhelmingly practice a moderate, anti-radical version of Islam. Trips sponsored by the state and foreign partners mean that Sahrawi refugees travel abroad more than most Saharans. Children attend summer camps in Spain, and twenty-somethings are sent to graduate school abroad, studying medicine in Cuba, engineering in Algeria, and politics in South Africa. The two Sahrawi jihadis who participated in the Al Qaeda-led siege on northern Mali were born and raised in the Moroccan-controlled territory, not in the camps. None from the camps, it would appear, have embraced jihad or the Islamic State, as have other North Africans and Saharans nursing grievances against the West and regimes back home.

Since laying down arms in 1991, Sahrawis have worked on building an architecture of non-violent resistance that relies on cultural diplomacy, boycotts, and divestment actions. Over the past decade, Polisario has invested in a handful of cultural events that aim to promote their cause abroad and relieve the drudgery of refugee life. There is the international film festival FiSahara, an extreme-sports sand marathon, concerts, and even an arts festival that brings international artists and activists into the refugee camps for a week of workshops and performances.

“We are in a new age, and new liberation movements should be more creative in pursuing more imaginative ways and means,” says the Sahrawi representative to the United States Mohamed Beissat. “How can we make cultural expression more powerful than kalashnikovs, Land Rovers, and bazookas?”

April and November are the two coolest months of the year in the refugee camps, but temperatures still soar above 110 degrees during FiSahara. Refugees gather to listen to South Africans describe how cultural diplomacy helped them win over the international community and put an end to apartheid. Sahrawis listen intently as translators repeat the South Africans’ words in Hassaniya. Old Sahrawi soldiers in turbans and fatigues lean against cool cement walls. Sahrawi women sport smart robes, glasses perched on their carefully powdered faces. They marvel at the parallels in terms of attempts of a foreign authority to suppress local culture. Rolihlahla Mandela was given the name “Nelson” on his first day in school, as British colonials refused to engage with the autonomy of South African culture. Similarly, a recent Moroccan law stipulates that first names must have “a Moroccan character.” Compound names like “Mohamed Salem,” common only among Sahrawis, are now illegal in the disputed territory.

The atmosphere at FiSahara is joyful, and faithful to the third-world socialist feel of the Polisario movement, which has notes of Arab, Berber, Mediterranean, and African cultures. In the afternoon, hundreds crowd under a hot tent to listen to a Mauritanian poet laureate deliver a reading of revolutionary poetry. In the evening, dozens gather around a moonlit cafe as South African freedom fighters sing liberation songs and guzzle whiskey. A couple of twenty-something Egyptian women with shocks of curly hair, anti-authority veterans of Tahrir Square, hold workshops for film school students. Thanks to a newly-launched refugee camp film school, there are even short films produced by Sahrawi students. At night, refugees wrapped in colorful cloths—most in their 20s and 30s—recline in the still night air, sharing popcorn, Coca Cola, and American Legend cigarettes. The festival is held in the Dakhla refugee camp. It is the most remote of the six camps. Sand dunes surround it. It has neither an electrical grid nor running water. During the day, temperatures soar to unbearable heights, and sandstorms whip debris into faces and tents.

Mahara, Fatma, Oumaima, and Nana, four refugees, join a women’s protest against the killing by Moroccan police of a teenaged Sahrawi boy in the disputed territory. They are in their mid-20s and work in camp administration. Two attended university in Algeria. “We were born here, but we want to go back to our land, and we hope we will spend the rest of our lives in our land. We want a peaceful solution, but if there is not one, we will go back to armed struggle.”

The obstacles to Sahrawi cultural outreach are considerable. The politics of de-colonization in a globalizing era are subtle and complex. Much hinges, for instance, on international courts’ rulings and semantics, such as the difference between an administering power and an occupying power under international law. The two most widely spoken languages in the camps are Arabic and Spanish, which makes it hard for Polisario to build support networks within English-speaking and French-speaking circles. Above all, the camps’ geographic isolation on one of the Sahara’s hottest and most remote plateaus makes it all the more difficult to attract journalists and activists who might broadcast the endless marches, poetry meetings, and protests at the wall to a global public.


The Western Sahara independence movement is unique in the region. Elsewhere in the Sahara, northern Malians took up arms in 2012 and demanded their independence. That rebellion triggered the occupation by Al Qaeda-linked jihadis of two-thirds of Mali, a relatively peaceful and democratic Western ally. Those rebels had no legal basis for their claim to self-rule and did not appeal to international institutions. They simply armed themselves and chased out the Malian armed forces.

The impact was catastrophic. Jihadi groups flourished, imposing
 shariah law at gunpoint and
 setting up training camps for young recruits. Two years later, a UN peacekeeping mission and a region-wide French counterterrorism operation are still struggling to secure the zone, and political negotiations between half a dozen armed groups look set to stall for years. Poverty and underdevelopment, the ongoing triggers of radicalism, will deepen in the absence of state rule. The crisis is on course to repeat itself in about a decade.

In contrast, Sahrawis have a legal right to self-determination and have opted to operate within the constraints of an international legal system, albeit one that has proven repeatedly to be creaky, slow-moving, and ineffective. “Our weapon is patience,” they like to say. Patience, and the hope Polisario fans for the future, may help explain why radicalism and desperation have yet to take hold in the camps, despite their poverty and isolation.

Artists from within the Mali conflict have succeeded in building awareness and activism around the cause of northern Malian populations. The Grammy-winning band Tinariwen has become something of a legend, singing of Tuareg resistance to Malian rule in all of the global capitals. It remains to be seen whether Sahrawi divas like Mariam Hassan and Aziza Brahim will build as big of a following and project their cause into the global arena.

But if cultural diplomacy offers a shaky leg to stand on, pocketbook tactics may hold out more hope. Sahrawis are fighting back against the Moroccan extraction of resources in the occupied territory. A new burst of oil exploration in the disputed territory represents a dangerous escalation of the illegal Moroccan plundering of Western Saharan resources, until now restricted to phosphates and fishing.

Since the Western Sahara’s status under international law is that of a non-self governing territory, Morocco has no right to trade in its resources. The Moroccan economy relies upon the 
territory’s resource wealth,
including phosphate mining and fishing rights off
 the Western Sahara’s pris
tine 500-mile long Atlantic
coastline. Morocco’s state-
owned Office Cherifien des
 Phosphates (OCP) controls
 the world’s largest phosphate reserves, at the Bou
Craa mine in Western Saha
ra. Phosphates are transport
ed to the coast for shipping
by the immense automated
conveyor belt, which Polisario guerrillas attacked nu
merous times during the
armed phase of the conflict.
Eventually, the Moroccan Wall effectively enclosed the phosphate mining installations, shielding them from guerrilla raids.

Moroccan energy interests began signing contracts more than a decade ago to explore for oil off the Western Sahara coast, but the industry witnessed little activity until 2013, when several larger oil and gas firms arrived in Morocco to examine the country’s mainly offshore potential. More than 10 wells in Moroccan waters are planned for 2014, doubling the pace of the past decade. Two companies—France’s Total and America’s Kosmos Energy—plan to expand their drilling offshore to the disputed territory.

Moroco claims that exploiting resources here is creating economic opportunities for Sahrawis. But without Saharawi consent, opponents say it is funding illegal occupation. Sahrawis are entitled to self-determination, and according to the UN General Assembly, sovereignty over wealth and natural resources is a “basic constituent of the right to self-determination.” According to international law, resource extraction must be in accordance with the needs and interests of the non-autonomous population.

“An occupying power’s rights to use the resources of the country it occupies is based upon Hague conventions written 150 years ago,” says Katlyn Thomas, an American lawyer specializing in international law and the Western Sahara. The doctrine is known as usufruct. “Occupying armies could use the fruits of the natural resources in a territory but not the corpus of the resources of the territory. In other words, they could use the apples that were on the trees, but they couldn’t dig up the trees themselves and use them for timber. They could use already existing wells for water and oil, but they couldn’t dig new ones.” If Morocco is considered an occupying power, then it may use phosphates, but not dig for new wells; it could use some fishery resources, but could not deplete them. It could not drill for new oil wells.

In 2002, Hans Corell, a Swedish lawyer and diplomat who was serving as lead counsel of the United Nations, issued an opinion on the request of the Security Council. This opinion for the first time referred to Morocco as a “de facto administering power.” Corell wrote that an administering power can only use the resources of a country it administers if the benefits of the resources accrue to the population that it is supposed to be administering, and the population consents to their use. In a recent interview with Swedish radio, Corell expressed his “astonishment” at how his opinion has since been misconstrued. “My conclusion was that if [offshore petroleum explorers] were to proceed without a prior acceptance of the people of Western Sahara, and in disregard of their interest, such activity would be in violation of international law. The same applies to the fisheries agreement. If the agreement is not signed with the interest of the people of Western Sahara, or after a consultation with them, and the benefits do not go to the people of the territory, then it would be in violation of international law. I am afraid we have this situation in this case now.”

Flipping the equation, energy firms are now citing the Corell opinion as proof of the legality of their endeavors in the disputed territory. Kosmos Energy, in a position paper earlier this year, claimed that Corell’s opinion amounted to “recognition” of Morocco as the de facto administering power of Western Sahara. It argued that this recognition confers the responsibility to manage resources in the Western Sahara in a manner that responds to the needs and interests of the Sahrawi people to Morocco, and not to the Sahrawi people themselves. A 2013 report from the Economic, Social, and Environmental Council of Morocco’s King Mohamed VI commits the kingdom to achieving “equitable benefit” from the resources of the Western Sahara. But for Sahrawi refugees, Morocco remains an occupying power uniquely ill-suited to defining and acting in the best interests of the Sahrawi people.

In 2013, the EU approved a controversial agreement extending EU-Moroccan fisheries treaties into the territory of Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara. The EU now pays Morocco for access to Western Saharan fishing. The European Parliament tabled a similar protocol in 2011 over concerns that the agreement ran counter to international law. It is thought that Spanish and French lobbying swayed last year’s Euro-Parliament vote. Russia is also a major fishing trade partner. UN reports suggest the combined value of Moroccan and Western Saharan fishing rights comes to hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

Some momentum is building for boycotts and divestitures similar to those used during the decades of the anti-apartheid campaign in South Africa. This time, Scandinavians have been taking the lead. In 2005, citing concerns over involvement in Western Sahara, a Norwegian government pension fund divested its holdings in U.S. minerals explorer Kerr-McGee, which let its Western Sahara permit expire the following year. Four Swedish state pension funds similarly decided to sell their stakes in Potash Corp and Incitec Pivot, importers of Western Saharan phosphates. In Denmark, four municipalities told a Danish company that imports road salt from Western Sahara that they will no longer accept “conflict salt” from the company. Norwegian life insurance firm KLP referred to the pension fund precedent when it withdrew its 400 million kroner ($64.7 million) investment in Total last year. Hardened by nearly a century of dealing in conflict oil, Total shrugged off the divestment with typical French aplomb.


The Polisario laid down its arms in 1991 under a UN-brokered cease-fire whose promises have failed to materialize more than 20 years later. Notwithstanding painstakingly incremental progress in Scandinavia, the Polisario has proven no match for the well-oiled Moroccan lobbying machine, and the Sahrawi side of the story remains largely invisible. Disappointment and frustration over Morocco’s continued failure to hold a referendum have endowed the return to armed struggle with a certain appeal.

“It’s an ongoing debate inside Polisario,” says Beisat. “People argue that peaceful struggle is not making any progress, Morocco will not give anything out of charity, and the so-called international community does not care. If the United States and France do not care about human rights [violations in the non-self governing territory], which is the formal policy of those countries, how can they care about self-determination and independence? While others argue that armed struggle will hurt, we are the weaker party. We must be careful.”

Morocco has proposed an “autonomy” plan as an alternative to the referendum that the United States is backing as “serious, realistic, and credible.” The plan would cement Moroccan de facto control over the Western Sahara and crush the state that Sahrawis exiled in the southern Algerian desert have been working to build for 40 years. As Western Sahara scholar Stephen Zunes recently wrote, “based on Morocco’s broken promises on the UN-mandated referendum and its related obligations from the cease-fire agreement 22 years ago, there is little to inspire confidence that Morocco would live up to its promises to provide genuine autonomy for Western Sahara.”

“There is no other way than the South African way,” Beissat concludes. “There is no other way than to try to isolate the Moroccan regime like the regime of apartheid in Pretoria was isolated.” Unless this, too, fails and jihad moves in. In which case it will be another hard less on learned poorly by Western supporters of a Moroccan king ruling a long-disputed territory by fiat rather than legitimacy.



Hannah Rae Armstrong is a fellow of the New America Foundation. She has researched and written on-the-ground about the Maghreb and Sahel since 2006, and is at present based in Algiers.

[Photo courtesy of Rachel Strohm]


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