Africa and the Euphoria of Decolonisation – Morocco’s continual illegal occupation of Western Sahara: the great stalemate.

By Radhi S Bachir and Atabongwoung Gallous

Decolonisation in Africa

The supposedly literal historical end of the ‘dark triad’ in the colonial political and economic era (Machiavellianism, narcissism, and white psychopathy) is the prefix ‘de’ in ‘decolonisation’. ‘Colonisation’ being the practice of exploration and discovery, conquer and subdue, divide and rule, that transcended into taking by force, ‘give me else I kill you’. Decolonisation was the quest for freedom by native Africans to end all forms of such nefarious territorial domination and occupation of lands in the global south by European power-settlers. The systemic coining of the phrase ‘decolonisation’ connotes the undoing of colonisation/colonialism, where a nation establishes and maintains its domination over dependent territories.

The term became popular even among cohorts of Eurocentric philosophy in the decades after World War ll, when statehoods in the global south ventured into dismantling the colonial empires established prior to World War I. Decolonisation gained more support during this time as factions of Eurocentric propagandists realised that with decolonisation, neocolonialism became possible. These factions supported the decolonisation of Africa in subtlety with an imperial design at heart. Rethinking new strategies to maintain continual metropole-satellite structures was the solemn onus of the slave masters. Neocolonial brotherhood came into the scene as a desideratum and transformed over time into political institutions such as France Afrique, the British Commonwealth states, Lusophony etc. The existence of puppets, colonial protégés, better slaves, choicest boy, made way in Africa. Kwame Nkrumah’s analogy of bigotry described the eminent neocolonial bondage as ‘physically the last and the most dangerous stage of colonialism’.

Fierce colonial and Neocolonial strongholds are the principal causes of the chaotic politics of Africa. All major military coup d’états in Africa attest to neocolonial bondage. Neocolonialism can bring a ‘homogenous majority into heterogenous minorities’, can raise a minute elite class against a disempowered and impoverished mass, can shape politics along ethnic chauvinism, thus being the major cause of self-hatred among Africans. It grants political victory to Africans without economic freedom. Such is the case  post the democratic  birth of South Africa in 1994 when political apartheid ended but basic, urgent and badly needed solutions for economic integration, association and development were found wanting. And while experimental democratic transition was taking place in South Africa in 1994, ‘ethnic cleansing’ (genocide) was perpetrated in Rwanda the same year allegedly with French approval. The grip of colonial and neocolonial transgression is so powerful that the psyche of the colonised is tempered with, they forever appreciate the ‘beauty of the neighbour’s wife’ – see how many of African bright petals die in the Mediterranean in the attempt to cross back to the plantations. The more they die, the more they die.

The advent of decolonisation politics in Africa was not benign. It came amidst reactions and counter reactions. The first wave of decolonisation was the rise of African nationalism and resistance in the 1960s. It saw the emergence of dedicated liberation movements in Africa.   This   political   shift   represented   the   most   significant   political change or chaos. But bravery in the attempt of decolonisation lies in the quest for the emancipation of colonised peoples. Scholars such as Tejeda et al., argued that decolonisation contributes to social justice. This, if well paraphrased denotes, interpret and mediate practices of self-determination.

In many African states before the advent of decolonisation, states were administered to serve the interest of European markets. Only one form of social contract between the colonials and the colonised – in the form of metropole-satellites was permitted. The resources continually extracted from Africa were a catalyst to the increasing multiplier effects of households in Euro-North America. Whilst most parts of Africa became ‘empty monuments’.

One commendable certainty during decolonisation is the fact that the national liberation movements in Africa were very progressive. African leaders like Kwame Nkrumah in the Gold Coast, Jomo Kenyatta in Kenya, and Julius Nyerere in Tanganyika, for example, led the various independence movements in their countries. The adequate political pressure mounted against the colonialists was the revival that paved the way for independence in some British and French protectorates in West Africa. In many instances the struggle turned violent and nationals were decimated in thousands such as in the case of Algeria. Every independence was achieved through a spirit of determination, collaborative efforts and the willingness to pay the price. Independence movements or former liberation movements in Ghana and Kenya for example, saw rioting and a high degree of violence. In Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia), the white-led government broke away from Britain, resulting in fighting with African revolutionaries. Lusophone countries like Mozambique and Angola were involved in a bloody struggle against Portugal for their independence with heavy casualties (Africans being the overall victims). One interesting exception to colonial patterns was Liberia. History records it was founded in the mid-nineteenth century by freed slaves who had arrived there straight from the plantations in the global north through the help of the American slave owning society.

In a nutshell, the process of decolonisation in Africa was brutal and violent, it was not for the faint-hearted.

The successors of colonialism, Western imperialism and globalisation, perpetuate those inequalities. But the   decolonisation processes in Africa was never completed. In the 1970s most of the colonsied countries in Africa got their independence; for example, Namibia and Mozambique, except for South Africa (1994), South Sudan (2011) but not Western Sahara. The Western Sahara remains the last colony in Africa.

Western Sahara before colonisation

Before the Spanish colonised the region now known as the Western Sahara in 1884, African negroids occupied that geographic space. They were the first inhabitants in the region. But as far back as 1000 BC, the Berber tribes had settled in most of northwest Africa (present day Western Sahara). The organic origins of the Berbers are still unknown. The Berbers had many trade links with the Roman Empire and although the Romans eventually dominated North Africa, they did not have any direct effect on Western Sahara.  Likewise, Western Sahara was not influenced by the conquests of the Vandals and the Byzantine forces that took over Northern Africa during the decline of the Roman Empire.

In 639 AD, the Arab invasion of North Africa took over the territories occupied by the Berbers, the Romans, and the Byzantine Empire. The Berbers of Western Sahara were converted and integrated into the Berber-Islamic dynasties in northwest Africa.

The trans-Saharan trade routes that linked Western Sahara to other parts of north Africa expanded because of Islamisation. Products such as gold, slaves, salt, textiles, food, glass, metals and animal products were in huge demand and were widely traded.

Trade was the reason for the increased wealth and power of different Berber tribes leading to the formation of Berber Islamic dynasties. Many Berbers after acquiring wealth, served as Islamic missionaries/invaders to spread Islam throughout Africa and Spain.

In the fourteenth century, the Maqil or Beni Hassan, an Arab group of immigrants, occupied the region of Western Sahara. The Arabic language progressively replaced the Berber lingua franca and during that time the Berber and Arab cultures were assimilated. Therefore, the modern-day population of the Western Sahara (Saharawi indigenes) is composed of descendants of black Africans, Berbers, and Arab immigrants.

Western Sahara under Spanish colonialism

The Spaniards arrived in the Western Sahara in 1884. And by 1934, Western Sahara became a Spanish province popularly known as Spanish Sahara. During the rise of African Nationalism in the 1960s, there was resistance by nomadic Saharans, or Sahrawis (the indigenes of Western Sahara) against the Spaniards. By 1965, the United Nations organisation had urged the decolonisation of all colonial states including Western Sahara. Meanwhile, the strategic position of Morocco and the Western Sahara remained desirable locations for trade routes. The huge deposits of phosphates, gas, oil and uranium in Western Sahara have been very tempting to energy-starved Morocco as well as to large and ambitious oil companies.

The national liberation movement the Polisario Front was founded on May 10, 1973 as the result of the long resistance of the Sahrawi people against various forms of foreign occupation. Its successful battles against the Spanish army in the territory, coupled with its sudden increasing popular support, helped the young movement to rapidly gain worldwide credibility. Algeria, Libya and some African countries welcomed the Spanish decision on August 20, 1974 to organise a referendum in the territory under the auspices of the United Nations.

In 1974, to preempt the organisation of the referendum, Morocco appealed to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to recognise its claims of sovereignty over Spanish Sahara. Mauritania later joined the hypocritical appeal. On October 16, the International Court of Justice, in its capacity as the principal legal instrument of the UN, handed down its Advisor opinion. The Court’s conclusion was that the materials and information presented to it did not establish any tie of territorial sovereignty between the territory of Western Sahara and the Kingdom of Morocco or the Mauritanian entity. Thus, the Court found no legal ties of such a nature as might affect the application of Resolution 1514 (XV) of the UN General Assembly in the decolonisation of Western Sahara and, affirmed the principle of self-determination through the free and genuine expression of the will of the peoples of the Territory. This caused Morocco to mount pressure on Spain to surrender its occupation for Morocco’s illegal invasion and occupation of the land in 1975. In a reaction to the Court’s verdict, King Hassan of Morocco interpreted the decision in his favor and called for the organisation of a march “to occupy peacefully the territory”, in which 350 000 persons took part. The Moroccan army, which was waiting on the borders of Western Sahara, entered the territory with the complicity of Spain, which evacuated its troops from the borders.

On November 6, 1975, the UN Security Council, in Resolution 380 (1975) called on Morocco to put an end to the March and immediately withdraw from the territory.

In November 6, 1975, immediately after the decision of the ICJ, Moroccan nationals participated in a political colonialism popularly called ‘the Green March’ (by the Moroccans) and ‘the Black March’ (by the Sahrawis). In the Green March, King Hassan II of Morocco had urged 300,000 Moroccan citizens from mainland Morocco to relocate to Western Sahara and possess it in violation of the ICJ’s legal position. The Moroccan government later used the mass demonstration strategically to force Spain to hand over the disputed, autonomous semi-metropolitan Spanish Province of Western Sahara.

By November 1975, in the face of growing international pressure and fierce fighting by the newly formed Polisario Front (liberation movement of western Sahara), Spain relinquished what was then called Spanish Sahara into a new colonial government with the mandate of maintaining territorial colonialism and spreading neocolonialism backed by France.

Historical, national and global efforts to decolonise Western Sahara

In the early 70s, the Polisario Front (the Sahrawi national liberation movement) grew grew in strength and support in fighting to ending all forms of colonial occupation in the Western Sahara. It has conducted guerrilla warfare in its armed struggle with the Moroccan Army from 1975 to 1991.

In 1991, a ceasefire was declared, and a United Nations peacekeeping mission, (the United Nations Missions for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO)), was established to bring an end to the conflict and a possible end to colonialism in Africa. Although the ceasefire was is in place, subsequent attempts to completely eradicate colonialism have not been possible. Why?

The UN Security Council Resolution 1541 (2004) was unanimously adopted by the Security Council following its consideration of the April 23, 2004 report of the UN SG reiterating its commitment to help ‘achieve a just, lasting and mutually acceptable political solution, which will provide for the self determination of the people of Western Sahara in the context of arrangements consistent with the principles and purposes of the Charter of the United Nations’. However this resolution has not been implemented.

Now that the Kingdom of Morocco has accepted to sit with the Sahrawi Republic within the African Union (AU) one may think that the parties to the conflict are getting closer to settling their dispute peacefully. But on the contrary, conflicting signals are emerging from Moroccan officials relevant to a real political will to overcome their colonial schemes and accept the precepts and principles of decolonisation and democratic methods to resolve conflict.

On the one hand King Mohamed V of Morocco, who has little experience and tremendous centralised power, is seeking to correct the mistakes his father made on his ‘empty chair approach’ to the OAU and later the AU. However, his stand is very inconsistent. This ‘empty chair’ was a protest against the Organisation of African Unity because it had admitted the Sahrawi Republic after a few years of procedural debate. Delaying tactics by Morocco led to the postponement of the seating of the Sahrawi Republic which happened only in 1984.

And when King Hassan decided to leave the ‘Club’, his top diplomatic adviser, Reda Guedira, declared in a meeting of the UN Security Council that ‘Morocco has left the OAU because of the admission of the Sahrawi Republic.’  Morocco, he said, ‘will look forward to better days’. Nevertheless, Morocco was hoping to have a special status with the Arab League and the European Union. The Arab League was badly disorganised and suffered a deep division when Egypt under President Sadat decided to recognise the state of Israel. The Arab League without Egypt cannot survive, especially since its headquarters were in Cairo and its Secretary-General was almost all the time an Egyptian diplomat.

As to Europe, a more structured and legalistic institution complained to Morocco about the persistent violation of human rights, lack of democratic institutions and the illegal occupation of the Western Sahara, including the feet-dragging when it came to the implementation of the UN Settlement plan regarding the situation in Western Sahara. Morocco had to reverse its ‘empty chair’ diplomacy and open diplomatic representations and embassies in capitals where the Sahrawi embassies are active. The admission of Morocco to the African Union was possible after fulfilling the normal procedure of any country belonging to the continent; to signing and ratifying through its parliament the Constitutive Act of the African Union. That was not enough; many countries objected to its mechanical admission and raised the question of the decolonisation of the Sahrawi territory and the illegal occupation of a sister member state – the Sahrawi Republic.

On January 30, 2017, the conjunction of many factors helped Morocco to be seated in the 38th summit of the African Union in Addis Ababa. First, the King visited many pro-Sahrawi countries such as Tanzania, Zambia, Kenya, South Sudan, Nigeria, etc.… and promised that Morocco will respect the Charter and work for the peaceful resolution of the conflict in Western Sahara and will invest heavily in the economic development of the continent. Second, the King had the permanent support of the Republic of France. France’s network and military presence and intervention is paralleled with diplomatic activism, all of which was used to promote Morocco’s admission. Within the African Union, the Kingdom is being seated few chairs away from the Sahrawi flag. Even though when invited to make a speech, King Mohamed VI had to delete many paragraphs related to the Western Sahara question. He was expected ‘to pour more water in his wine’ when facing the hard new reality.

The AU has taken positions as to the peaceful resolution of this issue and joined efforts with the UN to try to bring about a renewed mediation of the conflict. The AU Charter is clear in this regard. The Peace and Security Council has taken up the issue and former President Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique has taken his pilgrimage baton during the UN Security Council debate on the issue and will work diligently to bring about a full respect of the AU Charter by the Kingdom of Morocco. Friends of Morocco are also sending signals saying ‘it is easier for us, friends of Morocco to convince Morocco to face the truth’, once it is among its brethren in the AU.’

To minimize Morocco’s isolation, King Mohammed VI has been travelling extensively from one capital to another in Africa to reconcile with his peers but at the same time he is committing mistakes that could be judged as even worse by expelling the United Nations mission that was deployed to the Western Sahara to keep a badly needed ceasefire. This was the ceasefire that Morocco’s Hassan II had striven for, given his army’s defeat and the demand to organise a referendum.

Morocco is only afraid because the outcome is clear and ineluctably a confirmation of the Sahrawi independence. On the other hand, at Gergarat, the Moroccan wall built in the heart of the Western Sahara, is used to unload tons of dissimulated cannabis into Africa. In the last few months, tension is running high; UN peacekeepers have been deployed to separate the two armies and prevent a spark that will unleash the resumption of the war. Yes, but the escalation is the result of Morocco’s rejection of its commitment to a peaceful resolution and signing of many agreements negotiated officially with the Sahrawi side. It is the result of the refusal to receive the UN mediator, Christopher Ross and stalling of the ongoing peaceful negotiations to which the Sahrawi side has always adhered and continues to welcome.

The deadlock is the result of Morocco’s attempt to dictate the outcome of any referendum and reject any internationally supervised and organised referendum in the territory.  The government of South Africa and the ruling party, the ANC, has consistently supported the anti-colonial struggle led by the Polisario Front. The African Union and the advanced position of the United Nations and the European community are very correct. The exercise of the right of self-determination by the people of Western Sahara remains the wise course for a peaceful resolution of this African dispute. Expansionist Morocco sat for over 6 long years with the Islamic Republic of Mauritania in the Organisation of African Unity without recognising its independence. Joint efforts from all African states and peoples should spare no effort to bring Morocco to its senses to end its anachronistic practices in its colonial occupation and exploitation of Western Sahara.

The great stalemate has to be ended. Western Sahara must be decolonised.

**Bachir is currently the resident Ambassador of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic’s Embassy in Pretoria, South Africa and Gallous is currently the Chairperson of Africa Soliderity for Sahrawi. This article originally appeared in Volume 73 pg 44 of the quarterly journal, The Thinker.

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