International conference on multilateralism and international law,
with Western Sahara as a case study

4 and 5 December 2008
Pretoria, South Africa

Toby Shelley
Journalist and writer, Hitchin, UK

Western Sahara – from Refusal to Assertion

Firstly, my sincere thanks to the university and to the ministry of foreign affairs for giving me the opportunity to be here. I look forward to hearing the presentations of the other speakers, some of them old friends and colleagues, the others – I hope – to become new friends and colleagues.
I have been asked to speak on the question, “Who are the Sahrawis?” There are many ways of approaching this. We could look at the how and why and when of the interaction of Arabs and Berbers and sub-Saharan Africans that formed the people who call themselves Sahrawis. We could go into the jurisprudence and geometry and sheer nonsense that define the recognised geo-political limits of the Western Sahara. There may still be some whose pooled knowledge of oral history could be combined into a narrative history of the Sahrawi tribes.
But what I would like to do is touch a little on a number of aspects of Sahrawi identity by looking at how the struggle the people who call themselves Sahrawis have waged against imperial pretenders has moulded them, looking particularly at the transformation of their resistance from a Refusal – a defence of things as they were – to an Assertion – that is a demand for a future that is neither a return to the past nor an external imposition but rather a collective act of self-determination. That transformation was rapid and apparently unexpected by Spain whose very process of colonisation had provided its conditions. The resilience and adaptability of the Sahrawis has also been a shock to Morocco and, I suspect, those in the international community who believed a nation of just a few hundred thousand souls would wither in the cold winter of occupation and exile.

The exposure of the inhabitants of the Western Sahara to colonialism was late and light, for centuries largely confined to European trading enclaves along the coast. Indeed the inhospitality of the desert and the lack of obvious material wealth made the sea journey south to West Africa far more attractive, relegating the Western Sahara to a staging post for richer fields of plunder.
But, as we know, colonialism abhors a vacuum, so the turn of the Western Sahara came when Spanish pretensions drove the kingdom to seek a hollow echo of the opulent empire it had lost in the Americas. The Berlin Congress of 1885 sliced and diced Africa and threw some scraps to Spain which established a clutch of precarious outposts along the coast but did little else because it had not the interest, the wealth, the military or the wit to do so. The enclaves at Tarfaya, Dakhla and La Guera clung to the sea for safety. Fort Mackenzie at Tarfaya, although British-built rather than Spanish, symbolises the European position in the Western Sahara. Built in 1872, it stands not on shore but in the sea, linked to the land by a causeway, built by workers from the Canary Islands to protect its inhabitants from their trading partners. With the airplane these pinpoints grew in importance as staging posts for French aircraft on their way to West Africa.
Local reaction varied, ranging through curiosity, indifference and suspicion. Those Spaniards and others who did venture a little way into the interior were sometimes held hostage, sometimes welcomed as guests. But overwhelmingly the message from the locals was to leave them be. An enduring image of the period is Michel Vieuchange, the young French explorer who travelled to the inland religious and cultural settlement at Smara dressed as a woman and then hidden in a basket because he knew he would be killed if discovered – in fact he died anyway. Then there are the pilots who came down, 121 of them lost to crash landing, hostage taking and execution.

So who were these unwelcoming locals? They called themselves Sons of the Clouds, the Blue Men, a loose network of nomadic tribes. They shared use of Hassaniya, a relatively pure Arabic. There was something of a division of labour among the tribes and when needed there was cooperation and consultation in the form of the djemaa or ait al arbain, gatherings of leaders.
Ma el Ainin, an iconic leader of the Sahrawis in the late 19th century (though not himself a native of the Western Sahara), a marabout who founded Smara and who initiated the first coherent, unified Sahrawi resistance to French ambitions to the north, south and east of the territory, visited Mecca in the 1850s. Writing of a discussion with fellow pilgrims from other lands, he says he heard them tell how they were ruled by monarchs without whom there would be chaos but when his turn came he said: “In my land … no monarch reigns. The people govern themselves with the assistance of chosen chiefs who they consult on matters of importance”. [1]

Now that description of independence and isolation from the Moroccan sultanate to the north was given a century and a half ago and doesn’t surprise us, even if it directly contradicts Moroccan claims that the Saharan tribes gave allegiance to the sultan. But let us jump forward to five years ago when I sat talking in Layoune to a leader of the Sahrawi civil rights movement, a man in his early 30s, brought up in a town – not from a still-nomadic family. His first sight of Moroccans was when he accompanied his father to the town of Goulmime, many miles away in the lea of the Anti-Atlas. His second view of them was from behind his mother’s skirts as their troops occupied Layoune. To him Moroccan were as foreign – more foreign – than the Spanish who lived around him, to whom his father had hired camels to bring materials to build the town of Layoune, and whose language was spoken by many Sahrawis.

If Spain was indolent in its colonising, France was not, consolidating and expanding the boundaries of its empire in the midst of which sat Spain’s token possession, a refuge and source of kindred fighters for those who harried the French advance. It was the French against whom Ma el Ainin organised resistance and the mockery camel borne raiders made of the ruler-straight frontiers was echoed by the very draughtsmen of those lines on the map as French troops engaged in hot pursuit of their tormentors.
In the 1980s I was fortunate enough to meet two old men and a woman – surely long dead now – who told me how they had fought side by side against the French in Mauritania. For their part, French forces ignored the border as it suited them, most notoriously in 1913, marching into Smara and destroying Ma el Ainin’s council chamber, damage that can still be seen today.
So how did the parties define each other? For this purposes of this talk I went back through an excellent volume of extracts of writings about the Western Sahara called ‘Relatos del Sahara Espagnol’ [2]. From the earliest days of Spanish colonisation and right up to the 1970s, the people of the Western Sahara are referred to in tribally specific terms – an encampment of the Ualed Delim or a group of riders from the Ualed Bu Sbaa – by their relationship with the writer – guide or trader or captor – or generically as Arabs or nomads. Occasionally they are distinguished from ‘people from the north’. In a not-very-thorough review I found one reference to Sahrawis in 1945 and, from the context that reference, I think, it does not suggest recognition of a single Sahrawi people or nation.
Turning the optic over to the locals, how did they view the colonial powers? An elderly gentleman now living in one of the Sahrawi-populated towns officially within Morocco recounted how he went off to war. He had a modest herd of camels and went to market – I think in Goulmime – to do some business. There he met a friend who told him fighters were gathering for a major offensive. So, he sold the camels he had with him there and then and went off to war. And where did you fight? And who did you fight and why did you fight? The where question was easy enough but the who and why made no sense. He was not fighting the Spanish or the French but the Rumi, a term used across the Arab world to denote the Romans as symbols of European interference and this was in 1957.
I recount this as a cautionary tale. The old fighter did not recognise distinct nationalities among the aggressors he was resisting at the same time that Spain (and, I believe, France) did not see themselves as fighting a single nation in the Western Sahara. The old man’s reading, while functional for his purposes at the time, was incomplete. Equally, at this point, the late 1950s, we are only a handful of years away from the first obvious stirrings of modern Sahrawi nationalism. In the light of later events, perhaps if the Spanish had looked harder at this point they might have found other terms with which to describe their subjects, terms recognising a nascent collectivism, nationality.
One old fighter’s recollections are not a basis for solid conclusions. But the indications are that the people of the Western Sahara employed short-term pragmatism in their dealings with colonial powers. France had the military power and determination to impose itself, Spain apparently did not. So the Saharan tribes, whether individually or after consultation with each other I do not know, made live-and-let-live deals with Spain. One elder, now living in the refugee camps, told me the Spanish were told they would not be prevented from moving into the interior on various conditions, one being that the locals kept their guns.
But things changed. Spain’s attitude towards its notional colony is transformed and that transformation either kick starts or accelerates the evolution of resistance from Refusal to Assertion, from rejection of outside interference to the demand for a Sahrawi state for a Sahrawi nation.
In the 1930s Spain, of course, was devastated by political strife and civil war. Then came the global disruption of the Second World War. Only when peace of a kind was restored to Europe could Madrid begin to exploit a crucial discovery in the desert. Penetration of the interior in the 1930s was accompanied by prospecting. The prize in mind was oil but Spain made little progress there and black gold was only to become an issue in the Western Sahara at a later date. What Manuel and Jose Alia Medina realised in 1947 was that the territory was rich in white gold, phosphates, a crucial precursor to chemical fertiliser and surfactants.
From a tawdry emblem of faded imperial glory, the Western Sahara became a promise of future wealth. The importance of the find at the time for Spain and in the future for covetous Morocco was fairly stated by Rezette, a pro-Moroccan commentator, who said:
“It took the discovery of the phosphates to bring the Spanish Sahara out of oblivion and place it in the forefront of the international scene… Spain, the mistress of all this wealth, was able to rig up as fruitful an operation as that of the great international oil companies who ‘invented’ the emirates of the Persian Gulf.
“Morocco, master of the Spanish Sahara’s phosphates, by adding them to its own reserves, was able to become first producer in the world and to play a determining role in setting the price of this raw material …” [3]

The production of phosphates from open cast mines 100 kilometres from the sea requires major infrastructure – draglines, a grading plant, port facilities, power, roads, accommodation and a workforce several thousand strong.
The economic imperative meshed with a new military imperative. The Spanish possession of Ifni in southern Morocco was under threat as the Army of Liberation, bands of loosely allied Moroccan and Sahrawi irregulars, extended their attacks from French-held territory to Spanish possessions. To the astonishment of the French, the Spanish governor withdrew his forces back to the old coastal enclaves and the new town of Layoune. His fears proved well founded as guerrilla attacks built up. Colonial order was restored through a 1958 French-led Franco-Spanish military operation, the success of which was bolstered by assistance from the king of newly independent Morocco, frightened of autonomous forces on his doorstep, and a breakdown in relations between the Sahrawi and Moroccan units of irregulars.
By the early 1960s Spain had more authority in the Western Sahara than it had ever had. The budget was multiplied many times over to provide the infrastructure for the planned phosphate industry and provide for the needs of Spanish workers and their families coming in. From under 2,000 Spaniards in 1958, the colony had 10,000 in 1967. By the early 1970s Layoune had a population of 40,000, requiring schools and medical facilities and so on.
Perhaps the development of the territory could have gone on irrespective of the local population but it did not. In part this was because additional labour was required as the economy developed. But in larger part it was due to the wave of droughts across the region in 1960s and early 1970s that compounded losses of livestock during the fighting in 1957 and 1958. Encouraged by the Spanish administration, the Sahrawis became increasingly sedentarised with a clear majority living in towns for most of the year at least by 1974.
In short, the social conditions were in place for the people of the Western Sahara to begin to see the territory and themselves differently. Employment and education opportunities were limited and many lived in grinding poverty in shacks around the towns but nonetheless the occasion arose for new relations to overlay those of clan - relations of co-worker, classmate, neighbour, customer.
As Tony Hodges put it: “With its administrators and bureaucrats, soldiers and policemen, laws and regulations, schools and hospitals, Western Sahara started to look, to settled Sahrawis like a country …” [4]
Political impetus for change followed on inexorably, drawing momentum from Spain’s omissions and commissions, its decisions and its indecision. Educating children of the settled clans was dangerous but so was denying them education available to Spanish children. Exploiting local labour was necessary but provoked new ways of looking at the world – it’s no surprise that young, skilled workers formed a core of saboteurs in the early years of Polisario. Then there was the adoption and formalisation of the djemaa or council of tribal elders by Spain. Granting some degree of autonomy might divert international attention from the colonial status of the territory, which came under UN scrutiny in 1960, as well as venting the population’s grievances, the thinking went. And cooption, not to say bribery, of tribal elders would put Madrid in control of the mechanism for inter-tribal decision making.
Of course, this was a dangerous game with only one likely outcome. By creating a formal pan-tribal body Spain was incarnating the notion of a Sahrawi nation. At the same moment, by dithering about the powers attributable to the djemaa it was causing resentment at the body’s lack of authority, and a consequent demand for more authority, more power, more self-determination, ultimately more independence. Indeed by 1975, the visiting UN mission declared that most of the cooptees to what had been devised as Spain’s tool to manage the natives were in favour of independence. Mercer, author of the much under-rated book ‘Spanish Sahara’ [5], shows the Spanish to have been truly playing with fire. He says they actively inculcated a sense of Sahrawi nationalism that they hoped would be friendly to them by warning of a godless red threat from the surrounding countries, which were winning independence one-by-one.

With their kinship ties across the borders with Mauritania and Algeria and with the slice of the geographic Western Sahara handed over to Morocco in recompense for its help in defeating the 1957-58 uprising, the people of the territory knew about events in the wider region. Hodges points to the importance of access to cheap, imported transistor radios in further spreading understanding of the international political environment. Ramon Mayrata underlines the role of the simple transistor, writing about the keen attention paid to newscasts while the International Court was sitting:
“In a few months, helped by a little transistor, the Sahrawis had begun to identify distant countries, to distinguish their interests in the region, to recognise their own niche in the international puzzle that had always been alien to them.” [6]

Another stimulus came from the exposure of small numbers of young Sahrawis to travel and education beyond the territory. Bassiri, leader of the first movement to explicitly and coherently call for an independent Sahrawi state for a Sahrawi people, and the founding leadership of Polisario shared the experience of growing up as semi-refugees in the area to the south of the Anti-Atlas that was administered by Morocco. Bassiri was educated in the Middle East and then in Morocco before returning home. To the intense irritation of Moroccan officialdom, a number of Polisario’s founders were educated in Moroccan schools and universities where they were politically radicalised. [As an aside to this aside, this amputated area of the Western Sahara remains a hotbed of nationalism to this day]
In retrospect, it seems astonishing that Madrid did not see what was coming. But, as the UN Mission remarked as late as October 1975, when it noted the overwhelming support for an independent state, “It was all the more significant to the Mission that this came as a surprise to the Spanish authorities who, until then, had only been partly aware of the profound political awakening of the population.” [7]
Urbanised Sahrawis had begun forming pro-independence political cells in the mid-1960s. Bassiri turned these into a coherent movement that advocated not only independence but also social change, including an end to the already weakened system of social control through tribal elders. That he could include radical social initiatives in his programme, albeit ones with the momentum of history behind them, was probably due to his standing within the traditional community as a Koranic teacher. He was proposing change from within the indigenous community, not as an outsider.
In 1970 Bassiri was disappeared by the Spanish as hundreds of Sahrawis were by the Moroccans in later years. But the activists of his Harakat Tahrir soon migrated to a precursor of the Polisario Front and then to the Polisario itself. In a small population in a small group of small towns, the transition was probably easy enough. The Harakat Tahrir had been decapitated and its demonstration of popular strength bloodily suppressed in Layoune but it did not take long for activists to re-establish contact with each other. At the same time, supporters of the more Spanish friendly PUNS movement were also recruited to Polisario.
The founders of Polisario returned to the Western Sahara from universities in Morocco, many of them having lived for years, as I mentioned earlier, under Moroccan rule in the Tarfaya Strip. Like Bassiri, despite their semi exile and time spent outside of the Western Sahara, they found acceptance at home. Morocco has painted them as misguided youths, radicalised by Guevarist ideology. But, as a Polisario representative in Europe remarked to me, “if they had gone to nomadic camps and spoken the language of atheists, they would have been killed on the spot.”

What is remarkable about the Sahrawi nationalist movement is that a system of control by elders, underpinned by tribal and clan loyalties and roles, willingly gave way to a leadership that was young, had spent years outside of the territory, and that proposed new forms of social organisation. Yet it appears this is what happened, perhaps because, like Bassiri, they had the credentials to earn a hearing, perhaps because they advocated armed struggle and that was recognised as a young man’s game, perhaps because older Sahrawis also recognised the writing was on the wall for traditional society.
An activist from the Polisario’s first women’s cell told me of meeting with members of the djemaa to persuade them to back Polisario. And, when push came to shove, a majority of djemaa appointees, even under the guns of the Moroccan army, opted for Polisario.
The UN Mission looked at the composition of Polisario’s support. The Spanish authorities, it seems, put the movement down to young hotheads. What the Mission found was support among all sections of the population, especially women, workers and the youth but including older people, among them sheikhs and notables. Geographically, the support was stronger in the north of the territory. Indeed, what the Mission members did not know was that Polisario had to scramble to pull together popular protests for the visitors’ benefit in the south.
The political programme of the Polisario was labelled socialist and that certainly won it some friends in Europe. However, as I have argued elsewhere, even if the Front used the language of the day, when appropriate, its programme was pragmatic and tailored to the realities of its community rather than ideology. That was how it won mass support. Nationalisation of natural resources is standard practice in any country winning independence. A leading role for the state in the economy was uncontentious where capital accumulation was minimal and the economy undeveloped so no-one would be expropriated with the exception of the departing colonial power.
Doing away with the djemaa had already been propounded by Bassiri. The institution had almost served out its purpose anyway, in its institutionalised form demonstrating its toothlessness under colonial rule and yet helping to mould the idea of a Sahrawi nation. After the Moroccan invasion, both sides would claim majority support from djemaa members as a means of winning support from the more traditionalist and to claim popular backing in the international arena. Noticeably, Polisario emphasised its respect for the Islamic institutions.
By the time of the Spanish betrayal in 1975 and the Moroccan and Mauritanian invasion of 1976, the people of the Western Sahara had clearly and decisively moved from Refusal to Assertion, transformed from a collective of interconnected clans into a nation demanding a state.
But, three decades and more into occupation and exile, they have not been able to move to Realisation of their demand. Has that time been wasted? Has the social change of the missing years eroded or changed the assertion of national rights? Has the experience of exile for one half of the Sahrawis and occupation for the other half crippled the nation building project?
The proto-state established in the refugee camps in Algeria, housing a fluctuating 160,000 or so Sahrawis, certainly took the project of nation building on a step. It put flesh on the bones of the claim that there was an identifiable people capable and willing to run their own affairs. The world at large and, more importantly, the Sahrawis themselves could see a national army rather than a ragbag of tribal raiding parties, a congress rather than an ad hoc parleying between elders, decision-making bodies comprised of Sahrawis rather than colonial administrators, and a social organisation that created well-run camps with food and medical and educational provision from the parched, diseased, dispossessed and strafed refugee columns. The assertion of nationhood gained recognition from scores of states.
Refugees idealise the homeland and the occupied romanticise liberation movements in exile. Each emotional response is useful because it sustains hope but each is dangerous because it builds illusions that can turn to despair when reality sets in. Communication between communities is the means through which to maintain perspective and avert the dangers of illusion and disillusion. And communication was precisely what Morocco prevented throughout the Years of Lead when disappearance was used not just to deal with suspected activists but to instil a climate of terror. The 1,500 km armoured berm epitomised the project of breaking the will of the Sahrawis, telling them that nothing short of surrender would reunite families.
And let us be clear about the extent of the separation. Until the voter identification programme for the aborted referendum of self-determination took place, bringing tribal elders from both sides of the Wall together and allowing the exchange of messages and news, the information flow was almost non-existent. Despite the dangers, some fled the occupation, crossing the wall and surviving the mine fields. The old or infirm from the occupied territories might be permitted to visit Mauritania. Those deemed reliable could go to the Canaries. But these exceptions were virtually the only conduits for communication. I have met numerous individuals who had no news of loved ones for a quarter of a century, brothers in their thirties who had never met.
The limited relaxation after the death of King Hassan, combined with the voter registration process, a small number of UNHCR-organised family visits, and the advent of the mobile phone and internet have re-established communication and, to some extent, removed it from Moroccan control. Prisoner releases and demonstrations are photographed and videoed and transmitted to the camps or posted on the internet. Polisario leader Mohamed Abdelaziz can and does phone civil rights leaders in the occupied territories. We must assume that the two-way contact constitutes a reality check for both parties.

If the proto-statehood of the SADR has contributed to the evolution of Sahrawi national identity, can the same be said for the people of the occupied territories? Locked-down, depleted by flight of the young and arrests, perhaps 100,000 souls amid a tide of Moroccan settlers, for years their status was that of victims and martyrs and they themselves looked outside for salvation.
That changed in 1999 with the eruption of a nationalist civil rights movement that has added a new dimension to Sahrawi identity. With Morocco’s refusal in late 2002 to countenance a referendum of self-determination even under conditions that stacked the dice in its favour, and with the ceasefire holding, the refugee camps were, in effect, disarmed – deprived of both the gun and the ballot box. Here was – here is – a crisis for Polisario, what might have been a cul de sac for the nationalist project. Except that the baton has been taken up on the streets of Layoune and Smara and among Sahrawis students and even by Sahrawis in the amputated part of the Western Sahara that is recognised internationally as part of Morocco – the town of Assa was hit by school strikes and demonstrations and detentions just a month ago.
A year ago I spent a few days with Sahrawis living in Nouadhibou in northern Mauritania. The screen saver of choice in a Sahrawi internet café was no longer a fallen fighter but the portrait of a young woman whose eye had been taken out by Moroccan riot police during a Sahrawi student protest in a Moroccan university. Of course, that’s not because the martyred fighter is any less iconic but rather that Sahrawi identity has developed further. There are new heroes and heroines, not replacing the old but joining them and, in so doing, deepening the Sahrawis characterisation of themselves.

Morocco’s rejection of the Sahrawi right to self-determination is cynical and calculated. The refusal of members of the Security Council to implement international law is shameful and equally cynical. It has lengthened the suffering of the Sahrawis by many years.

However, there is a silver lining to the cloud. That is that the Sahrawis of the occupied territories and Sahrawis living in what is called southern Morocco have used the time to make an invaluable contribution to their nation’s identity. Where Polisario and the exile community have built and run a proto-state, the people under occupation have built a civil society defending prisoners and detainees, supporting unemployed graduates and teachers posted into exile in far flung Moroccan provinces, helping landmine victims, protesting about the exploitation of natural resources, liaising with the foreign press and human rights groups, winning international human rights prizes, and asserting that their overarching right is that of deciding their own future. International scrutiny – limited though it has been – and the technological revolution in communications means this has been done in the view of their kinfolk in the refugee camps.

So, when we ask the question Who are the Sahrawis? the answer is one that changes over time as the people who call themselves Sahrawis re-forge their identity in the heat of new challenges and opportunities.
That process has moulded the Sahrawi as fighter, the Sahrawi as empowered refugee rather than victim refugee, the Sahrawi as statebuilder, the Sahrawi as diplomat, and now the Sahrawi as progenitor of a civil society.
The timing of the contribution of the people of the occupied territories and the Sahrawis living in Morocco has been important as well as the content of their actions. The no peace-no war situation has largely disempowered the refugee community, creating frustrations and anger that could transmute into despair as Morocco and its backers hope, but the upsurge in activity inside the territory since 1999 has renewed the struggle for self-determination just when it was needed. Where it was the people on the inside who looked outside for sustenance during the years of lead, now the roles are reversed.
For now, the activists of that civil society under occupation are a brake against an overmighty Moroccan state, but as one leading figure remarked to me a few years ago, Polisario’s leaders have proved to be good soldiers and diplomats, but those achievements in themselves are no guarantee that a Sahrawi state would be a desirable place to live, for that guarantee you need a strong civil society


1.  El pais que no conoce sultan ni dinero in ‘Relatos del Sahara Espanol’ ed Ramon Mayrata, Cuentos de Clan, Madrid, 2001
2.  Ibid
3.  ‘Western Sahara and the Frontiers of Morocco’, Robert Rezette, Nouvelles Editions Latines, Paris, 1975
4.  ‘Western Sahara: the roots of a desert war’, Tony Hodges, Lawrence Hill & Co, Westport, 1983
5.  ‘Spanish Sahara’, John Mercer, George Allen & Unwin, London, 1976
6.  In Mayrata op cit
7. ‘Report of the United Nations Visiting Mission to Spanish Sahara, 1975’, United Nations, New York, 1975

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