Africa’s last colony
In November 1975, major parts of the Western Sahara were occupied by Morocco. An occupation still in progress which makes Western Sahara the last colony in Africa. On December 5, 2012, the Swedish Parliament commissioned the government to recognize the Republic of Western Sahara. The decision has still not been implemented. The occupation has now been going on for over 40 years, almost as long as Afrikagrupperna have worked on the issue. Western Sahara is divided into two parts; The Morocco occupied part and the liberated area. A large part of the population lives in refugee camps in the desert of Algeria. The UN has a peacekeeping force in Western Sahara, the only force in the world without a mandate to report human rights violations.
Western Sahara’s government, based in refugee camps and in the liberated areas, has fought for Western Sahara’s freedom with peaceful means. But as the occupation continued the patience began, especially among the young, to decrease. There is a struggle for natural resources in Western Sahara, mainly oil, fish and phosphorus, where profits go to Morocco and transnational investors, some of them with Swedish links. Investment and trade agreements are made between Morocco, the EU and other actors for the utilization of natural resources in Western Sahara. The Western Sahara, represented by the Polisario Front, has not agreed on these agreements and does not receive any profits.
The Sahrawi people derives from nomad people who for centuries moved freely through the desert of Sahara to find water and bait for their camels and goats. Their ancestors are possibly a people who emigrated from the present Yemen in the 13th century. Over the years, the population has been mixed up with other groups and in the 18th century, they crystallized into a number of nomadic tribes who spoke Hassania, a form of Arabic that is also spoken in Mauritania, but differs from what is spoken in Morocco and Algeria. Private land was not common in the nomadic community, wealth was measured in the number of camels and goats which formed the basis of life and trade. These people can be regarded as Western Sahara’s indigenous population. Read more
Early on, Spain began to find interest in the rich fishing waters in the coastal of Western Sahara. At the Berlin Conference in 1884, Spain was awarded the area and it was given the name the Spanish Sahara. A few years later, the colonial powers of Spain and France established the country’s borders. Spain was most interested in fishing, but France who colonialized the countries around, managed to break down the Western Sahara resistance in the mid 30’s. Spain controlled in theory the inner part of the colony but with few possessions. Western Sahara continued its nomadic life.
After World War II, the resistance against the colonialization in all of North West Africa increased. In 1956 Morocco became independent and free from France, Mauritania in 1960 and Algeria in 1962.
In Western Sahara, phosphate was discovered. Spain saw opportunities for major export revenues and began to build ports, roads and power stations in Western Sahara. Small towns grew up, Spanish workers arrived. In the early 1960s, the western Saharan nomad population suffered from drought, a large part of the camel herds died, and many Western Saharans had to leave the nomadic life and become wage laborers with miserable conditions in the Bou Craa phosphate mine. In 1974, the phosphate exports from the Spanish Sahara were the sixth largest in the world. Phosphate is used primarily for fertilizer in agriculture.
The decolonization that did not happen
According to the UN Resolution of 1963, Western Sahara has the right to self-determination and independence. Spain was asked to determine the date for a referendum. But Spain had no plans to leave its colony with so much natural resources and wealth, especially fisheries and phosphates, and they never conducted any referendum. Polisario (Frente Popular de Liberacíon de Saguia el Hamra y Rio Oro) was founded 1973 and armed actions were taken after several trials to achieve independence over the years by other various Saharan forces who peacefully tried to compel to Spain for their right to freedom and self-determination. However, Spain “sold” the colony to Morocco in a secret illegal agreement in 1975 and gained fishing rights and shares from the exploitation of phosphate.
Morocco claimed that Western Sahara belonged to them before the Spanish colonization and opposed the decision about a referendum. Morocco and Mauritania invaded Western Sahara. The International Court of Justice in Hague showed in 1975 that Western Sahara belonged to the Saharan tribes who lived there when the Spanish arrived. Morocco and Mauritania’s territorial requirements were rejected.
It was a political necessity for the West Saharan people to establish state education with provisional constitution when the Spanish troops resigned from Western Sahara and Morocco / Mauritania invaded the country. SADR (Saharawi Arabic Democratic Republic) was proclaimed on February 27, 1976.
In 1975 war began between Morocco, Mauritania and Polisario. In 1979 Mauritania returned its troops from the areas they conquered. The war against Morocco continued until both parties adopted the UN and OAU peace plan in 1991, a promised referendum where the Western Saharans would vote for their future. Since 1991, there has been a ceasefire. The planned referendum in 1992 and several planned referendums thereafter were cancelled due to Morocco’s refusal to comply with agreed agreements and their refusal to accept an independent Western Sahara. In 1987, Morocco built over a 200-mile mined wall along the boundary between the occupied and liberated territory. The wall is guarded by Moroccan soldiers and forbids any kind of contact between Western Saharans on both sides of the wall.
When Morocco invaded Western Sahara, a large number of Western Saharans fled into the desert. Algeria gave some land for the refugee camps in the western part of the country, a desert area. It lives about 160,000 Western Saharans in the five refugee camps, where they have lived their lives for over 40 years, totally dependent on aid. To be self-sufficiency is impossible. The food rations from UN’s World Food Program (WFP) provide beans, lentils, oil, flour and sugar, a diet adapted for emergency situations not to live for decades on. This results in both wrong nutrition and malnutrition and an inhibited growth. A survey from 2012 shows that 39% of children under 5 years and 60% of pregnant women suffer from anemia. Desert heat, water shortage and the sand as a constant drizzle make life in the camps even more difficult.
Polisario organizes the life in the camps. They are responsible for the general education for everyone up to 16 years as well as basic healthcare. Some young people receive scholarships and can continue their studies abroad. But when they return home with an education, they often come back to high unemployment. In the area occupied by Morocco, approximately 150,000 Moroccan settlers have moved. Many Western Saharans are subjects to constant persecution by Moroccan police and military.
UN peacekeeping force (MINURSO) has been present in Western Sahara since 1991. The only UN force without a mandate to report violations of human rights, which means that the Saharan civilian population is completely unsafe. MINURSO’s mandate was extended by the UN Security Council in April 2017, still without mandate. The content of the UN resolution can be summarized with “more of the same”; UN-led negotiations between the two actors of the conflict, Morocco and Polisario. This is something that has been attempted for 8 years by Christopher Ross, the Secretary-General´s envoy, without no success. He recently resigned from his post.
At the beginning of 2016, Morocco did not allow UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to visit the occupied part of Western Sahara, after a press conference where he called Morocco’s occupation for what it is, an occupation. Morocco responded immediately and in March of that year a large part of the UN force was expelled, it has not yet been fully restored.
The military situation worsened in August 2016 when Morocco broke the ceasefire between Polisario and Morocco as they forced the wall to the south. Polisario then moved their forces there.
When it comes to the African Union, Morocco left the Union in 1984 in protest against Western Sahara being elected as a full member. In 2017 Morocco will be re-elected.
The EU court ruled their final verdict in December 2016 that clearly states that Western Sahara is not a part of Morocco and no agreements can be concluded between the EU and Morocco concerning Western Sahara. As a result, in May 2017 a ship was loaded with West Saharan phosphate on its way to New Zealand through Elisabeth’s port in South Africa. Western Sahara is not a part of Morocco and therefore, Western Sahara’s natural resources or goods cannot be sold by Morocco.
In December 2012, the Swedish Parliament decided to call upon the government to recognize the Western Saharan state. This had been preceded by a decision to acknowledge Western Sahara, both at the Social Democrats, the Left Party and also the Environmental Party´s congresses. The Alliance government did not enforce the decision and referred to the criteria for recognition of states. In January 2016, the red-green government announced that the Western Sahara recognition is not relevant, Sweden will instead support the UN process to find a fair, mutually agreed solution to the conflict. A process that has descended and where nothing has happened for over 25 years. Read more
Sweden also promised increased humanitarian aid to the refugee camps, however it has not been fulfilled. On the contrary, in 2017 the aid was cut down by half and the Practical Solidarity that shipped canned mackerel to the refugee camps these recent years haven’t got any support from Sida since 2017. The government’s foreign declaration for 2017 does not mention the conflict at all. As Western Sahara and Polisario looked upon Sweden for support for their right to independence and self-determination, the decision of the non-recognition became as a blow in the face.
At the Social Democrats Congress in 2017, nothing was decided on the recognition of Western Sahara, despite several motions concerning the issue. The party leadership said it is the wrong time, the international law criteria are missing, Western Sahara is not a proper state and that it is the UN Resolution that applies to this matter.
Afrikagrupperna have raised the West Saharan issue through information and lobbying in Sweden for many years. At the annual meeting in 2015, it was decided to include the struggle for a free Western Sahara in the long-term plan and to intensify work. In our view, the best way for us to support the struggle for a free Western Sahara is to support Western Saharan organizations or refugee camps who fight for their own freedom while raising awareness in Sweden and the EU.
Together with other Swedish and European organizations, we continue to push both the Swedish government and the UN through articles, seminars, letters and meetings.
• Recognize Western Sahara!
• Implement Congress Decisions and Parliamentary Decisions from 2012!
• Restore humanitarian aid to the refugee camps!
• Condemn the Moroccan occupation!
• Human Rights mandate to UN force!
• Follow the EU judgment: No more theft of West Saharan goods!
Want to learn more?
Books (so far just in Swedish)
Västsaharas kamp för oberoende 1978 (Erik Fichtelius)
Västsahara – Europas sista koloni 2013(Lena Thunberg)
Tyst territorium: sju reportage om Västsahara 2013 (Fredrik Laurin, Lars Schmidt)