Western Sahara bubbles to the surface: A quarter-century-old cause gains momentum stateside
July 9, 2000
On a gorgeously bleak expanse of desert stretching along the North Atlantic
coast of Africa, a little known drama unfolds, wrought with enough intrigue
and simmering tension to become the 1,002nd Arabian night. Caught in a mix
of nationalistic positioning, international isolation, and hardcore
determination, the native Sahrawi people of Western Sahara have spent 25
years pressing for independence from Morocco, which occupied their lands in
1976, including 18 years of armed conflict. A 1991 United Nations
intervention into the struggle brought a ray of hope, but the UN peace plan
has stagnated due to continued disagreement between Morocco and the Sahrawi
people, represented by the Polisario Front. The sun, however, has not yet
set on the Sahrawi people. An increasingly high-profile US awareness
campaign has breathed new life into the Polisario movement, and results are
potentially only a few steps away.
But Morocco isn't going to yield easily. "This is a part of our country;
how would you like to lose Texas just because a minority of its residents
want to break away?" a website operator of the Moroccan government site
asked. "The area you call Western Sahara has always been Morocco."
an ally of the Polisario movement through the Defense Forum Foundation,"
points to other motivations for continued occupation.
"The Moroccans wish to exploit the mineral-rich phosphate mines and the
wonderful coastal fishing. Also, King Hassan seized this territory in a big
public relations display. It is a big image problem for the new king to even
acknowledge the dispute over Western Sahara," she said.
Near the Mauritanian border
A roadblock to Sahrawi progress also lies in Western Sahara's history, a
bedfellow of imperialism which has put the 102,703 square mile area at the
hands of outsiders. Ruled briefly by Spain in the 1500s, Western Sahara
fell to Morocco for over 350 years, a time which Morocco claims makes
Western Sahara a part of it (a claim partially validated by a European court
ruling). Spain regained the territory in 1860, naming it Spanish Sahara.
An imperialistic backwater during colonial rule, Spain vacated the region in
1976, leaving Morocco and Mauritania to divide the territory although
Polisario had declared the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR).
Mauritania backed out in 1979, and Morocco then became the sole ruler of
Western Sahara. By then, many of the Sahrawi and the Polisario leaders had
fled to the desolate western tip of Algeria where they set up a
government-in-exile and live today in refugee settlements, now with a
population of 180,000. Algeria has been the largest supporter of the
Sahrawi's quest for independence; motivations for the aid are debated.
Morocco's occupation, according to YPA member Joseph Stotts, a 20 year-old
American who spent six months in the Western Saharan city of Dakhla,
continues the region's inherited imperialism. "Western Sahara is like the
last colony in Africa. It is ruled by Morocco for the purpose of enriching
Morocco, and the native people of Western Sahara have almost no voice in the
country," he said.
Stotts' claims echo those of the Polisario Front. Their armed contention of
Morocco's occupation led the UN to join the fray in full in 1991. At the
center of the UN initiative is a referendum to decide the fate of Western
Sahara; Western Saharans can either vote for official integration into
Morocco or for independence.
Scholte says that the vote is the movement's sole demand. "The Polisario
have sought for over a quarter of a century one simple thing: a vote on
self-determination for their people, the Sahrawi," she said.
A vote seems simple enough. But the only problem is deciding who gets to
vote, and that question has ensnarled the UN for the last nine years. Only
natives of Western Sahara are to take part in the referendum according to
the UN, but the Polisario and the Moroccans have such wildly different lists
of eligible native Western Saharans that an agreement has yet to be reached.
A June 29 meeting between the Polisario and the Moroccan government ended
only with a promise to meet again in September.
The most recent issue of debate is the UN's refusal to accept a large chunk
of voters proposed by Morocco, a decision Scholte praises. "The UN
published their voter list earlier this year of approximately 86,000 names
who are eligible to vote in the referendum. However, Morocco has appealed
the rejection of 130,000 voters that it tried to register falsely in an
attempt to stack the vote in their favor. These names were rejected by the
UN because they could not prove to be Sahrawi. Morocco's objections to the
rejection of these name is the major factor currently delaying the
referendum," Scholte said.
Trina Janes, a former Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco, sees unfair
practices of the Moroccan government as a reason for the referendum's delay.
"Morocco is currently stacking the deck and sending anyone with ties to the
south down to the Sahara to do civil service for a period of time. Once down
there, they are wooed with the subsidized housing and food prices and tried
to be convinced to stay--at least until the vote is held. Peace Corps
Volunteers in the southern part of Morocco report seeing caravans of
Moroccans being shipped down south," she said.
Moroccan-born YPA member Ralph Hakim points to Sahrawi misdoings as well to
explain the decade-long delay. "The Polisario leaders try to fill up their
voting records with people who aren't even really connected with Western
Sahara. Since [the Sahrawi] are all nomads, anyone who has crossed through
Western Sahara is on [the Sahrawi] list," he said.
But Hakim admits to widespread Moroccan efforts to import voters. "We do it
on a bigger level than [the Sahrawi]."
The referendum's delay has raised the stakes for both Polisario and Morocco.
If the UN fails, Morocco keeps its claim to Western Sahara and fighting
could easily resume. Consequently, both groups have turned to lobbying to
help their case, with all-powerful America as the top target.
According to Scholte, Morocco has made a thorough effort to keep Americans
on its side. "There is a tremendously powerful Moroccan lobby. The
Moroccans spend millions on lobbyists here in Washington," she said.
On the other hand, the Polisario have basically just one representative.
Leading the Polisario Washington DC delegation is the one-man show Moulud
Said, an ambassador of the SADR. Enlisting congressional support and
leading tours of the Sahrawi camps in Algeria, Said has been responsible for
a lot of the recent awareness of the Western Saharan issue. "Working with
Moulud, we have been able to get the truth out about the Sahrawi position
through our many educational programs on this issue including fact finding
missions to the refugee camps and forums on Capitol Hill," Scholte said.
Despite Said's charm and talent, an anonymous YPA member and US
congressional aide sees the Polisario's chances for swaying Washington as
slim. "When you learn about the [Western Saharan] issue, it's really hard
not to side with the [Sahrawi], but feelings obviously don't always go a
long ways on the Hill," he said. "The US really wants to keep Morocco as an
ally, and risking the relationship over a weak, unknown country like Western
Sahara doesn't make political sense. Most congressmen and senators don't
want to get really involved."
Scholte begs to differ. "The Sahrawi people have many friends in the US
Senate and US Congress. In fact, legislation authored by Congressman Ed
Royce in support of the referendum passed the US House of Representatives
unanimously. The most helpful senators and congressmen have been Senator Ted
Kennedy and Congressmen Joseph Pitts and Donald Payne. I want to reiterate
that we have had a wonderful response and support from many senators and
congressmen," she said.
Flag of the SADR
While the United States government supports the referendum, it does not
recognize the SADR as a country. Over 70 countries, however, as well as the
Organization for African Unity, do.
The congressional aide believes that the Sahrawi will have American support
when they can really catch DC's eye. "They need to make this into another
Burma or South Africa issue. [Americans] need to feel injustice. Right
now, not enough people know and so hardly any important Americans care," he
Ignorance of the issue may well be the greatest problem for the Polisario
movement. Even among a political active and aware group of people like YPA
members, knowledge of Western Sahara is minimal. In a poll of 50 YPA
members, 31 had heard of Western Sahara and only nine had heard of the
Sahrawi or the Polisario movement. However, five of those nine people had
learned of the Polisario recently, indicating a growing awareness of the
issue. Meg McEachern, a 16-year-old YPA member from Canada, reported that
she had recently heard someone speak on the Polisario Front.
Scholte also believes that an ignorance forced upon the Moroccan people by
the government hinders the Sahrawi cause. "In my heart, I believe that if
the Moroccan people knew the truth they would support self-determination for
the Sahrawi people. The problem is the government of Morocco. Moroccan
people are forbidden to discuss [Western Saharan independence] in their own
country and they censor newspapers that carry stories about the Sahrawi
people. The Moroccan people, sadly, have no idea about the Sahrawi side of
the issue because their government blocks the truth from them," she said.
But Thomas Anderson, a former Peace Corps volunteer stationed in Morocco,
finds Moroccan nationalism, especially in regards to occupation of Western
Sahara, as strong as ever. "There is no such thing as the Western Sahara.
Ask any Moroccan and they will tell you that what most people call the
Western Sahara is historically Morocco's."
Janes concurs. "No Moroccan will tell you that the Western Sahara is its
own country, and maps showing a border are illegal in Morocco," she said.
Scholte is unfazed. "If [more] organizations get involved in this cause and
more Americans pay attention and encourage the Clinton administration to use
their influence with the Moroccan government to allow a free, fair, and
transparent referendum, this issue could be resolved in the next six
months," she said.
Scholte also counts on the support of young people. "There are many support
groups throughout Europe, especially in Spain of young people who are
the United States, a group of students at Rockledge Elementary School [in
Bowie, Maryland], the Rockledge International Club, has been raising money
to bring Sahrawi children to the United States for the summer months and
they started an e-mail campaign to educate people about the issue. We are
hoping to get more young
Anderson has mixed feelings about the referendum. "The average Sahrawi
citizen is much better off under Moroccan rule. Most are dependent on
Morocco regardless of who controls the Western Sahara. All this being said,
I have seen very moving websites that support the cause of the Sahrawi
people and their claim to the Western Sahara."
YPA member 18 year-old Max Havers shares Anderson's sentiments. "I feel
strongly that the Sahrawi have a right to vote about their future, but I do
wonder if they will be able to survive as a nation. It's pretty poor down
there," he said.
Still, Havers notes a determination in the Sahrawi. "They have been able to
live in an awful part of the world for 25 years in exile and still have a
literate, fed populace who can lobby in the United States and Europe. That
says something about them."