Western Sahara is making preparations to take another bite at the diplomatic apple with the fervent hope that this time the international community acts to compel Morocco to a national referendum on self-determination for the disputed territories of Western Sahara – 26 years after the ceasefire between the Sahrawi movement and Morocco.
And there is a tight deadline – they want a referendum to take place in 2017 if not sooner. But there are mounting fears of young Sahrawi growing impatient with the older generation that is sticking to a peaceful revolution with no action for more than a quarter of a century.
After all, the United Nations (UN) Resolution 690 that called for a referendum specified that such a referendum be held “at a specified date not later than February 1992.” It is now 2016.
“The situation is volatile – there are fears that in the next 12 months the youth would start speaking another language other than peaceful revolution,” says Mildred Jantjies, the Executive Secretary of the Pan-African Women’s Organisation for Southern Africa Region.
“Others [the older generation] are hopeful. They have seen war, they want a peaceful resolution,” she tells New Era Weekend.
But what if the deadline comes to pass with no referendum – and young people start training to take up arms while the older generation continues to preach a peaceful revolution?
“I pray it does not come to that. We know what such conflicts bring. Africa is already bleeding. The pressure must be put on Morocco to have a referendum,” says Jantjies, who mentions economic sanctions and political pressure as some of the means that ought to be implemented.
She meets with New Era Weekend barely a week after returning from the European Union (EU) in Belgium where she, together with Western Sahara political representatives to the EU, were asking European parliamentarians to relook Europe’s relationship with Morocco. The Pan-African Women’s Organisation has an observer status at both the UN and the African Union, and is currently pushing for a permanent status.
For now the plans are for “a peaceful revolution”, says Jantjies, who has become one of the champion voices for the Sahrawi people, both in Namibia and in the international community.
During her meeting with the EU parliamentarians, Jantjies asked that the EU break its trade tie with Morocco, because the trade agreements include products from the disputed Sahrawi region. For the Western Sahara those products are not for Morocco to sell.
“Therefore, members of the EU Parliament have to implement the European Court of Justice Advocate General’s [Melchior Wathelet] opinion that Western Sahara is not part of Morocco, therefore the EU and Morocco cannot include products from Western Sahara in any trade deals,” she said they told the EU parliamentarians they met with.
Technically Western Sahara has scored a rare victory. Advocate General Wathelet on September 13 said: “Western Sahara is not part of Moroccan territory and therefore … neither the EU-Morocco Association Agreement, nor the Liberalisation Agreement are applicable to it.” The ruling is part of an on-going case over the four-year old deal between the EU and Morocco on trade in agricultural and fisheries products. However, the advocate general’s independent legal opinions to judges at the Court of Justice are simply a non-binding advisory, albeit influential.
Then there was the short yet frank off-the-cuff utterance by the outgoing United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, while on a visit to the disputed region, which became the cause célèbre for the Western Sahara. Ban, after visiting part of the disputed territory, called Morocco’s presence there an “occupation”, much to the chagrin of Morocco. Ban, who had described the conflict as a “forgotten humanitarian tragedy”, had to retract the word “occupation”.
But for the Sahrawi people it was enough. “We are happy that his visit there took place,” says Jantjies. They are also hopeful that the incoming UN secretary general António Guterres, the former Portuguese prime minister, would give the same attention to the dispute.
But there has been very little vocal support from Africa – or southern Africa for that matter. This is besides Namibia, which has used every opportunity to draw the world’s attention to the Sahrawi cause.
“Our support to the people of Western Sahara remains solid as it was from the time we started up to now. We support, and we call for, the implementation of all resolutions of the United Nations related to Western Sahara,” says Namibia’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minster of International Relations Netumbo Nandi-Ndaitwah.
In July this year there was a meeting in Windhoek that decided there be a major global campaign to draw focus on Western Sahara by using educational theatre across the southern African region. “This group is anticipated to tour southern Africa member states and to some strategic overseas nations and beyond,” she says.
This is going to be a six-months programme, but the question remains whether it is sufficient. Not many African countries spoke out when Morocco expressed its desire to have a chair at the African Union this year.
For Jantjies though Morocco’s desire to have a place around the AU campfire is another factor that could accelerate the referendum for Western Sahara.
“Morocco left when it was part of the OAU (Organisation of African Unity). Now it wants to join the AU. It is not about coming back to the AU because it was never part of the AU. And to be a member of the AU it needs to accede to specific constitutional requirements of the AU,” she says.
“It is a matter of principles, and rule of law. What are the rules saying on a country’s oppression of another country,” Jantjies drives the point home.
For Africa not to do something at this time “would be a miscarriage of justice”, she says.
Western Sahara is a region on North Africa’s Atlantic coast bordering Morocco, Algeria and Mauritania. It was colonized by Spain in 1884 and remained part of the Spanish kingdom for more than a hundred years. An arid region where less than one-fifth of the land is used for agriculture, Western Sahara is home to phosphate and iron ore reserves and is believed to have untouched offshore oil deposits. The native population —which numbers around 570,000 — are known as Sahrawi and the majority religion is Islam. On one side, Morocco; on the other, an indigenous Sahrawi movement and Algeria by proxy. In 1975, Morocco effectively annexed Western Sahara by staging the Green March – a peaceful procession of 350,000 Moroccans who walked into the region and claimed it as their own. Spain subsequently transferred control of the region to Morocco and Mauritania. As a result, the Polisario Front – a Sahrawi movement founded in 1973 to campaign for the independence of Western Sahara – launched a guerrilla struggle against what it saw as the Moroccan-Mauritanian occupation of its indigenous land. The conflict lasted until a U.N.-brokered ceasefire was agreed in 1991 and resulted in the displacement of thousands of Sahrawi into refugee camps across the Algerian border in Tindouf, where they remain to this day: The U.N. Refugee Agency estimates 90,000 people are living in the camps, while the Algerian government puts it at 165,000. During the struggle, Mauritania renounced its claim to the region and Moroccan authorities gradually built a wall through the territory, annexing two-thirds of the country and leaving a dangerous no-man’s land between the two that is now patrolled by a U.N. monitoring force.