The Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (a full member of the African Union) is governed by the Polisario Front (a national liberation movement), and controls about 20% of Western Sahara while claiming sovereignty over the entire territory of Western Sahara.
The Sahrawi people (from the Arabic word Ṣaḥrā’ meaning desert), despite decades of struggle against colonization and several failed efforts of conflict resolution and decolonization, continue to live ambiguously. Second to Palestine, the Sahrawi people (regarded as some of the most courageous and principled people) are the longest suffering group of refugees in the world — more than 165,000 Sahrawi people have been living in refugee camps since 1976.
A protracted state of affair, Morocco, “sponsored and protected by the French,” ceaselessly carries on its occupation, impinging on the Sahrawi’s rightful independence. Insisting on “autonomy within the Kingdom of Morocco” and struggling to control its neighboring country, it continues to avoid any referendum or agreement, preventing the possibility of any wide-ranging and durable political settlement. Morocco’s defiance toward the Sahrawi people’s call for self-determination is further highlighted in its absence from the African Union 668th meeting on the situation in Western Sahara held on 20 May 2017.
Four decades later and after fifty-four years of failed attempts to fully decolonize Western Sahara, the way forward remains uncertain. The Kingdom of Morocco remains unbending with its colonial program, all while the Sahrawi people resiliently stand their ground, affirming, “no political solution would be accepted unless it gives justice,” and justice would mean “Morocco withdrawing from Western Sahara and respecting Western Sahara’s borders.”
To learn more about the situation in Western Sahara — the shape and state of Western Sahara’s resistance struggle, Morocco’s recent interests to rejoin the African Union and its further intentions in Western Sahara, the illegal exploration and plundering of the territory’s natural resources, and the impasse in the peace process — we spoke with Malainin Lakhal, a journalist and advocate of Western Sahara.
How long has Western Sahara been in a resistance struggle with attempts to decolonize and gain its independence?
Lakhal: Western Sahara has always been a target of European colonial attempts of invasion since the 15th Century, or maybe even prior, because of its strategic position for the old European merchant movements. During various periods, the Sahrawi population fought against many attempts of invasions by the Portuguese, the British, the Dutch, French and the Spanish. After the notorious Berlin Conference of 1884-85 that launched the Partition of Africa, Spain was “awarded” Western Sahara (that included what is now known as the Southern zone of Morocco). But from day one, the Sahrawi resistance, though small, scattered and not really aware of the danger of colonization, started attacking the Spanish (few) positions on the coasts of Western Sahara. So it can rightly be said that the Sahrawi resistance against colonialism officially started in 1885-86.
In modern history, a prominent Sahrawi political Leader, Martyr Mohamed Sidi Brahim Basiri, formed the Sahrawi politically organized resistance in 1966-67. He was a Sahrawi who studied political science and journalism in Morocco, Cairo and Damascus, prior to returning to his country to start a political party for the liberation of Western Sahara (The Vanguard Movement for the Liberation of Saguia El Hamra & Rio De Oro). Between 1967 and 1970, this political movement adopted peaceful means of struggle against the Spanish colonization, but in 1970 the Spanish colonial authorities harshly oppressed a popular uprising organized by this movement in the Capital city of Western Sahara, El Aaiun, killing dozens of civilians and imprisoning the majority of the leadership of the movement including Mohamed Sidi Brahim Basiri. To this day, the Spanish government refuses to reveal the truth about what happened to Basiri, though we have testimonies from some of the survivors who state that he was cowardly assassinated by his torturers because he refused to surrender or compromise with the colonial power.
This blow to peaceful resistance pushed hundreds of Sahrawis, including Sahrawi students (in the universities of Morocco, Mauritania, Algeria, Spain and elsewhere), former militants in various armed resistance groups, victims of the Spanish oppression and the remaining militants of the recently crashed Vanguard movement to join force and form groups of secret political organizations that will unite on 10 May 1973 to constitute the Frente Popular de Liberación de Saguia-El-Hamra y Rio de Oro (Frente POLISARIO- Popular Front for the Liberation of the Saguia-El-Hamra and Rio de Oro).
But this time, the new political organization adopted armed struggle. It learned from the experience of the Vanguard movement that the colonizer only understands the voice of fire and Iron, as Polisario’s anthem stresses. The armed struggle against Spain officially started on 20 March 1973. So this is a very brief chronology of the commencement of the Sahrawi resistance against colonialism.
How committed are the Sahrawi people (today) to carry on the fight for self-determination?