Mail and Guardian (South Africa) vol. 11, nr. 27, 30.6.-6.7.1995

Africa's last colony

A little-known struggle for independence continues in West Africa - and South Africa has strange links to it.
Ann Eveleth reports.

The presidential inauguration of Nelson Mandela on May 10 last year was heralded as the end of colonialism for a beleaguered continent, but nobody seemed to notice that one distinguished guest was celebrating a very different anniversary that day: the 21th birthday of the Front for the liberation of Segiet el-Hamra and Rio de Oro marked the continued resistance of the Saharawi people to their status as Africa's last colony.
Mohamed Abdelaziz, president of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR>) and secretary general of the Polisario Liberation Front, must have viewed the coincidence as a coming of age for his government-in-exile. Now that apartheid was gone, world attention could focus on freeing his tiny desert country from the ravages of two decades of Moroccan occupation.
The emergence of a powerful new South Africa governed by Polisario's old ally - the African National Congress - would shift the balance of power in the United Nations toward the Saharawis and bring an end to Moroccan King Hassan's dithering over the long awaited independence referendum.
Polisario has since turned 22, however, and neither the referendum nor formal recognition by South Africa have been forthcoming. Instead, there have been signs that the old South African-Moroccan alliance which fuelled the war of annexion is continuing. Deputy President Thabo Mbeki made a mysterious visit to Morocco last year - speculation was that he was fund-raising for the ANC - and Mandela this month postponed a visit to the Sahara until he could arrange to visit both sides of the conflict.
South Africa's Foreign Affairs Department has come under increasing criticism for this ambiguous stance - which is all the more surprising given the parallels between the two liberation struggles.
Forced into what could be described as the arid interior bantustan of the western Saharan nation after Morocco's high-powered army annexed the 1 000 km-long coastal belt on the eve of Saharawi independence from colonial Spain in 1975, the Polisario fighters have defended the "liberated zone" with 19th century weapons and sheer pluck against a combined onslaught by up to 30 000 soldiers, aerial bombardments and napalm attacks targeting fleeing civilians. Housing the Saharawi women and children in desolate refugee camps in the southern Algeria military zone around Tindouf. Polisario set up a government-in-exile and declared the independent Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic in 1976. Its growing army was sent back into the desert to repel the occupiers' advance.
A nomadic people descended from a section of the 11th century Almoravid Dynasty which abandoned northward expansionism to return to the desert, the Saharawis delivered countless stagering military blows to the well endowed Moroccan army.
Still, the Polisario fighters could reach little more than a stalemate with Hassan's warriors, who were armed to the teeth first by the French, and later by the United States, Saudi Arabia and South Africa.
Hassan's resolve strengthened as internal dissent against his corrupt, autocratic regime grew. He survived several assassination attempts from dissidents, and strikes and demonstrations were widespread.
Although Amnesty International recorded thousands of cases of detention without trial of Moroccan dissidents, the monarch soon discovered he could divert attention from the domestic pressures wrought by massive income disparities through Morocco's desert war.
Despite growing international pressure from the United Nations and the International Court of Justice for a referendum to determine the future of the Sahara Hassan increased his forces in the occupied territory. By the time the two sides signed an uneasy ceasefire agreement in 1991, he had accumulated about 130 000 troops in "Morocco's 41st province". Morocco's intransigence was bolstered annually by more than US$200 million to $500-million in military aid from Saudi Arabia, US$50-million from the US, and unknown covert assistance from South Africa's apartheid regime.
Successive UN resolutions however, pointed increasingly to the inevitability of a referendum, so Hassan adopted a new strategy. Hoping to weight the referendum in his favour, he began to infiltrating thousands of Moroccan settlers into the occupied territory, claiming they were Saharan refugees.
Refusing to allow UN personnel or foreign journalists to visit the occupied port city of El Aaiun, Hassan alternately blocked and rejected the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) - and imprisoned genuine Saharawis in the territory.
Hassan's forces bombed a Saharawi field hospital for nomads on the eve of the ceasefire agreement, reducing it to rubble. Refusing to grant passports to Saharawis, detention without trial, torture and pressure on prisoners to renounce their claims to independence were just some of the means employed to prevent decolonisation.
The formation of a plethora of pro-Morocco "Saharawi" political parties by Spain and Morocco failed to convince UN missions to the territory. But in the face of US foreign policy and divisions in the Organisation of African Unity, the UN was too weak to prevent the 176 ceasefire violations documented during the first year of the agreement.
Morocco received a windfall in international support in 1991 when it backed the US war against Iraq. The international community remained largely silent after the 1991 Amnesty International report stated that 800 Saharawis had "disappeared". And as these kudos continued to grow in the aftermath of the Gulf Oil War, Morocco grew bolder in its violations of the agreement.

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