Referendum or armed struggle? Africa’s last colony hands the UN an ultimatum
“Let us as a people have the right to say what we want. Let us have our referendum. If this doesn’t happen, I can assure you that our young people are not prepared to live as we have lived for the past 33 years. They want their freedom. If they don’t get it, they will pay the ultimate price – they will die fighting for it. “
The silence is palpable and fills the Per Albin room at ABF House, Stockholm. The seminar is Western Sahara – Africa’s last colony. Migration under occupation. The speaker is Brahim Mokhtar, the quietly spoken Polisario representative to Sweden, Polisario being the Western Sahara’s Freedom movement. He looks spent as you would if you had just confided that you have given the United Nations an ultimatum: honor your promise and give us a referendum or expect a resumption of hostilities. This ultimatum is a warning of an imminent war and the deadline is 31st December, 2008.
Really, there is nothing more to say. According to Brahim Mokhtar. The people of the Western Sahara, the Sahrawis, have observed the law, appeased the UN at every turn, complied with all requirements. And for what? Did it get them their country back? No.
After 33 years, the Sahrawis still sit in intolerable conditions, in the middle of the most inhospitable of desert climates – 50 degrees Celsius in summer, zero on winter nights. Many still live in tents, a ‘lucky’ few in mud houses. No running water, no services, only occasional electricity. Add to this, extremely basic healthcare, constant harassment from the Moroccan authorities and a total lack of respect for human rights. Polisario’s Brahim Mokhtar and a quarter of a million other Sahrawis either living under Morocco’s brutal occupation or in exile in Algeria, have come to the end of their tether.
This time bomb is no longer ticking – the countdown to war has begun. The activists on the panel with Brahim Mokhtar are reeling (among others Johan Moström, assistant operations manager for The Olof Palme Center). Meanwhile the politicians (Ann Linde, international secretary for the Social Democratic Party and Magnus Manhammar, international ombudsman for the Social Democratic Youth League) look deflated, despondent. They begin talking about how they cannot support Polisario if it takes up arms. Ann Linde is particularly verbal about how her party will withdraw support if hostilities resume.
Brahim Mokhtar listens. In this moment he is as solid and as somber as you will ever see a man. This is no performance, it is just plainly the end of the road. The facts on the ground speak for themselves. Arms crossed, steely-eyed, Mokhtar responds.
“War is now the only option left to us. And let me tell you, if we lose your support – the support that we have had just because we have kept quiet for 33 years – well, we are ready to lose that support. Fully ready.”
Natasha Mirosavic, head of the Western Sahara Project run by the Social Democratic Youth League, breaks the silence:
“This is the moment of Polisario’s liberation.”
Slowly, Lena Thunberg, editor of the Swedish magazine Western Sahara and author of the book “Western Sahara – Africa’s last colony” begins to speak. Her words are heartfelt and deliberate
“I think it is such a great shame that the international community has forced the Sahrawi people to wait so long for their rights. Polisario has never entered the road to terrorism, has always followed the rules, never kidnapped people, never hijacked planes. I remember very well the beginning of the 80’s when the peace plan was being discussed. Polisario was accused of holding prisoners of war, which they were. They accepted things they didn’t want – like releasing those 400 prisoners. Nobody thanked them for that.”
“Polisario doesn’t want war nor do the young people, even if they are frustrated. Can you imagine living in occupied territory for 33 years, separated from your family and knowing that people all over the world know that you have the right to independence and yet still nothing changes? “
Fulfills the United Nations criteria for a country
The Western Sahara fulfills the United Nations criteria for a country – it has clearly defined borders and a functional government. As it stands however, the government, Polisario, does not have full control over the whole country. There are economic and historic reasons for this. When Spain handed the Western Sahara back after a century of colonization, Morocco took the chance to occupy it, for it is potentially one of the wealthiest nations in Africa, according to Mokhtar. Rich in phosphate and with excellent fish stocks, the Western Sahara is also thought to have sizable oil and uranium deposits making it an attractive proposition for any aggressive neighbor. Another reason behind Morocco’s occupation is her dream of Le Grand Maroc, The Great Morocco, this expansionist view of its own grandeur unfortunately includes a number of her neighbors, among them the Western Sahara.
The UN acknowledges the Western Sahara’s right to self determination and has declared Morocco’s occupation illegal. As an organization, the UN condemns torture but looks the other way as people are harassed, imprisoned, tortured and ‘disappeared’ – an elegant euphemism for being taken by force from your home at 3am in the morning and never being heard of again. According to Lena Thunberg’s book “ Western Sahara – Africas last colony” there are some exceptions like Mohamed Daddach who was heard of again – but only after 25 years. His ‘crime’ was supporting Polisario. Eventually awarded the Rafto Prize for Human Rights by the Finnish government, Daddach has become a symbol of Sahrawi resistance.
However, Daddach being heralded in Europe hasn’t been enough to shame either the UN or Morocco. The imprisonments continue. As do the ‘minor’ daily harassments, designed to make life difficult i.e. the children expelled from school, beaten, stripped naked and dumped in the desert for daring to unfurl the flag. One begins to wonder, who do you have to be to qualify for UN protection? How many of your human rights need to be abused?
Taking up the issue of what lies behind the UN’s inaction, Brahim Mokhtar begins to outline the difference between Morocco and the Western Sahara vis-à-vis the current balance of power. The UN sees Morocco as the thing that stands between it and an unstoppable flood of illegal immigrants from Africa. In Morocco, the UN has found a floodgate that holds back millions of economic refugees thought to be just waiting to swarm into Europe in search of a better life. So the UN finds itself hamstrung, beholden to Morocco because of its strategic geographical location.
Morocco and the UN are fully cognizant of the fact that a referendum on independence would jeopardize foreign investment – businesses naturally becomes less profitable when they are forced to stop stealing raw materials and begin paying living wages. So there is a very real possibility that a referendum could have far reaching effects on Morocco’s economic and political stability. Add to this that Morocco is seen as one of the most Western-looking of Muslim nations and you begin to understand the UN’s bind. It likes that Morocco holds to a liberal form of Islam, a form more palatable to an increasingly Islamaphobic Europe.
What then, is chance of independence for the Western Sahara?
Polisario laid down their weapons 1991, as requested by the UN. This, said the UN, was the first step towards independence given that the country met all the other legal requirements. The process was to start immediately with the referendum. 17 years and still no referendum. Meanwhile Kosovo gained its independence, no referendum required after one UN resolution, compared to 70 on the Western Sahara.
By the UN’s own reckoning, by their own resolutions, Morocco’s occupation of the Western Sahara is illegal. So, why is it that the UN responds to Burma and Tibet’s legitimate demands for freedom from political oppression but not to the Western Sahara’s? What would it take for the UN to find the integrity to do what’s right – to honor its own resolutions? This is what Brahim Mokhtar is asking, one last time. He is asking for his people not to be forsaken. The UN would do well to listen.
MONA KHIZAM NORBERG