LAAYOUNE, WESTERN SAHARA — On a recent Saturday in May, as dusk shaded into night in this desert city, more than a thousand women, men, and children poured into the streets. They chanted slogans for independence; flashed the peace sign to show their support for the Polisario Front; and waved the illegal red, green, and black flag of a nation that may never exist.
For anyone who isn’t a geography buff, it’s likely that the Polisario Front, and perhaps even Western Sahara, are unfamiliar names. A former Spanish colony now annexed and ruled by neighboring Morocco, this territory has been waiting four decades for a shot at independence it was promised but never received. After a half-century of global decolonization that has produced about 80 new nations throughout the world, Western Sahara is now by far the largest piece of land remaining on the United Nations’ list of “non-self-governing territories,” places it considers to have an unfulfilled right to decide their own futures.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the push for independence in Western Sahara, a movement that for the last two decades has been largely peaceful. The Polisario Front—the formerly armed nationalist group that officially represents Western Saharans in their negotiations—signed a cease-fire with Morocco in 1991, and since that time protests have unfolded much like this recent one. Members of the indigenous Sahrawi ethnic group raised their fists in the air and honked car horns to show their displeasure with Moroccan rule; some brandished Polisario flags, which are banned by the government 800 miles away in Rabat. The evening ended with some rock-throwing and accusations of injury by both sides. No shots were fired.
In part because their campaign has been a civil one, it has unfolded almost totally outside the world’s sphere of attention. Elsewhere on the continent, civil war has split Sudan into two countries; self-immolation and riots have brought regime change across North Africa. Here, meanwhile, even though the UN, the United States, and most other powerful nations have never recognized Morocco’s sovereignty over the area, the independence movement has been unable to make headway.
Today, the Sahrawis are becoming increasingly frustrated, and politics are making the prospects of independence more distant, if anything. The Moroccan government has shown no sign of loosening its grip. Officials worry about Islamic militants fomenting violence, given Polisario’s backing by rival Algeria; furthermore, Morocco relies on the territory’s fisheries and phosphate mines, and has begun exploring for oil. Its allies in the West, including the United States, prize Morocco as a stable ally in a volatile region, and aren’t moving to force its hand.
The stalemate here in Africa’s last remaining colony, and the willingness to let it simmer as the world focuses on deadlier conflicts in nearby Mali and Syria, raise the uncomfortable question of whether a peaceful breakup of nations is really possible—even when the process, officially speaking, enjoys the full support of the UN. Western Sahara is emerging as a case study on the limits of the international community’s power to help a people win self-determination when they choose not to be violent, but to follow the rules.
“It doesn’t make sense. Why are just the Sahrawis left behind? Why are we not being helped by the international community?” Lahbib Salhi, 63, a Sahrawi activist, said in a recent interview in Laayoune. “Most other countries got independence. Look at Namibia, Mozambique...look at Bosnia and Kosovo even South Sudan. But why are the Sahrawis left behind?”
Western Sahara is the last chapter of a story that began in the wake of World War II, when the world’s colonial empires started to break apart. In the decades after the war, France spun off about two dozen countries, including Morocco in 1956. The United Kingdom let go of roughly 40 territories. The sweep of decolonization, formalized in the UN’s 1960 “Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples,” rapidly redrew the map of the world.
Spain and Portugal were slower to unwind their dominions, but by 1975, in the face of growing international pressure and fierce fighting by the newly formed Polisario, Spain was ready to relinquish what was then called Spanish Sahara.
The colony was a 103,000-square-mile tract of Western Africa with roughly 75,000 Sahrawi inhabitants, people who trace their roots to nomadic tribes. Their right to self-determination was upheld by the International Court of Justice that year. But any chance at a quick, smooth transition to independence was derailed when neighbors Morocco and Mauritania each claimed the area.Continued...