The Last Colony in Africa: the Occupation and Repression of Western Sahara

4 mins read

By Gustaf Stövling

The vast desert plains of the Sahara hugs the city of Laayoune on all sides. Checkpoints dot all entrances, and finely-grained sand swirls in the wind as police and military vehicles patrol the streets. Foreigners are treated with suspicion, and they are often stopped arbitrarily for questioning. Inquiries into why they
are here, what they do for work, where they are staying, and when they are leaving. Questions asked by authority figures that dress like civilians and seemingly carry no police identification of any kind. If they deem your behavior and motives to be even somewhat dubious, they assign a car to follow you around,
waiting patiently outside the hotel, or making turns around the neighborhood. This is the current situation in the capital of Western Sahara, a country suffering from unlawful, military occupation by its neighbor to the north, the Kingdom of Morocco. It is a conflict not many in the West seem to know much about, and a glimpse into the history of the region explains why that is exactly what the occupiers want.

Western Sahara in the late 19th century was governed as a colony by Spain. The numerous tribes of the indigenous Sahrawi people that lived in the area were treated with stiff repression, resulting in several uprisings during the course of the colonization. Spain finally withdrew from the region in 1975, following mounting pressure from the international community and resolutions from the United Nations regarding decolonization. At the time, Morocco had long asserted that Western Sahara had been under their sovereignty prior to the Spanish colonization and that the region, therefore, belonged to them. These vague demands eventually culminated in what would be known as the Marcha Verde (‘Green March’), in which over 350 000 people from Morocco formed a mass demonstration and marched south into Western Sahara in order to “reclaim” it. A move carefully coordinated by the Moroccan government and their king, Hassan II. Additionally, they also sought an opinion from the International Court of Justice on the status of Western Sahara. This backfired however, as the court’s final ruling concluded that there were no legal ties of territorial sovereignty between the territory of Western Sahara and Morocco, and the claim stands refuted by The Hague to this day. In spite of the international community’s clear statements, Spain negotiated their withdrawal in accordance with the demands of Morocco, as well as Mauritania, the neighbor to the south who also laid claim to the region.

In the midst of the entanglement between these large international players, local Sahrawi resistance took shape as a liberation movement, called the Polisario Front. In 1976, they proclaimed the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic and started to wage a war against the encroaching neighbors. Mauritania
was successfully driven back in 1979, but the military campaign against Morocco continued.

Eventually, the UN brokered a peace agreement that led to a cease-fire in 1991. In the agreement, it was stated that the Sahrawi people would be allowed to vote in a referendum, deciding whether to become independent or integrate with Morocco. This notion of a referendum stems from an official investigation conducted by the UN on the eve of decolonization in 1975. It concluded that the majority of the population was ‘categorically for independence’ and that the Polisario Front was the legitimate political force of the territory. As this was unacceptable to Morocco, they have since then tried to sabotage the peace agreement and delay the referendum as a result. Time is unfortunately on the side of the oppressor in this case, as the years pass, people become increasingly accepting of the occupation, and the conflict is largely being forgotten in media coverage.

But for the people actually living under occupation, the conditions have often been rough. In 2010, thousands of people gathered in Gdeim Izik, a place in the deserts outside Laayoune, and set up a giant tent camp. This was to become the largest demonstration ever conducted in the country, in which people
protested against ongoing discrimination, lacking infrastructure, and human rights abuses. Although the protest was peaceful, the camp was eventually attacked by Moroccan authorities, using water cannons with boiling water against protesters, and burning tents without remorse. These acts resulted in several
deaths, thousands of injuries, and several thousand protesters imprisoned. One of which was Mustapha Darja, a prominent figure in the fight for Sahrawi rights in Western Sahara. He is still imprisoned, but parts of the Travel group of the Uppsala Association of Foreign Affairs got the chance to meet with his family and learn about his situation during the group’s visit to Morocco.

Described as a good, kind, and helpful man, Mustapha was considered an unofficial leader by many in the community. He used his strong character to advocate for fair treatment of Sahrawis and the independence of his country. Upon imprisonment, he received three paper files containing three separate cases of violent crime; terrorism, human trafficking, and arms trade. He was ordered to choose which would be his crime and reason for detainment. He was then cuffed, beaten, and tortured before being put in a solitary cell with no toilet. His family has to travel long distances in order to visit him, and when
they do they are separated by glass and subjected to harassment by the prison guards. Today, their hope is that human rights organizations will recognize the plight Mustapha is in, and get the international community to see and listen. Mustapha’s story is only one of several thousand similar ones, describing the inhumane living conditions that Sahrawi activists suffer through in prisons across Morocco.

Are we supposed to accept these horrors of colonialism in our modern 21st century? And can we accept that a military invasion and occupation becomes increasingly normalized, while Morocco faces no accountability for its crimes? Sweden, and maybe most prominently its students, has a legacy of standing up for the small and destitute on the world stage. Once upon a time, the treatment of the Sahrawis would have sparked outrage both academically and politically, but today it is largely subdued due to prominent superpowers and allies featuring on the opposite side of the scale. What we can do as students today is to show a willingness to learn about the conflict, realize that barbaric crimes are happening at this moment, and put pressure on our representatives in government to speak out against injustice. And if the international community fails to act in any substantive way henceforth, it is our task to not forget the sufferings of the Sahrawis, and make sure that history got its eyes on the crimes of Morocco and the wish for freedom in Western Sahara.

By: Gustaf Stövling

Photography: Noureddine Belfethi

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