By Jeremy Harding. Two things we can learn about Morocco’s illegal occupation of Western Sahara from the US embassy in Rabat, courtesy of WikiLeaks: 1) it’s a source of personal revenue for Moroccan army officers but 2) everything’s fine really.
Western Sahara used to be a Spanish possession, which Madrid was due to hand over to the indigenous population in 1975. King Hassan II of Morocco took advantage of the chaos in Spain at the time of Franco’s death and annexed the territory. The UN deplored the move; the Polisario Front embarked on a liberation war, which resulted in stalemate and a ceasefire in 1989. By this time Morocco controlled most of the territory and was pouring in settlers to outnumber indigenous Sahrawis.
Under UN auspices, both parties – the kingdom of Morocco and Polisario – agreed to a referendum on independence. Twenty years later, the vote is a lost hope: the Moroccans have driven it into the ground with Byzantine objections, year on year. The UN mission has been sidelined; the settler colonial project continues; there are hundreds of thousands of refugees in Algeria and a population inside the territory that’s punished when it calls for independence.
These are trifling matters for Ambassador Thomas T. Riley, filing from Rabat in 2008. What counts is America’s ‘robust military relationship’ with Morocco, confirmed by ‘the purchase of sophisticated weapons from the US to include 24 F-16s this year’. The regime, Riley announces,
has also increased its activities under a partnership arrangement with the Utah National Guard, which regularly deploys to Morocco to conduct joint training and humanitarian relief operations.
Even so, he’s disturbed by corruption in the Moroccan army (total numbers 218,000; between ‘50 and 70 per cent… preoccupied with operations in the Western Sahara region’). Riley cites Lieutenant Geneneral Abdelaziz Bennani, commander of the Southern Section – i.e. the annexed territory. Apparently, Bennani has used his position to
skim money from military contracts and influence business decisions. A widely believed rumour has it that he owns large parts of the fisheries in Western Sahara… There are even reports of students at Morocco’s military academy paying money… to obtain positions in lucrative military postings.
Top of the list: Western Sahara.
Riley walked into a top job at Savvis, the communications company, after the Republicans lost the White House. Move on to summer 2009: another pair of hands is at the laptop in Rabat – the chargé d’affaires, Robert P. Jackson – pounding out a dispatch he’s pleased to call ‘Western Sahara Realities’. He repeats Riley’s estimate – about 150,000 Moroccan soldiers are deployed in Western Sahara – and says, correctly, that there are now 385,000 people living in the annexed area. (Only a marginal ‘liberated’ strip of desert is still controlled by Polisario, and the ceasefire has held.)
Jackson is also right that settlers from Morocco now account for ‘well over half’ that figure. Here is a territory, then, whose indigenous population is only slightly larger than the number of soldiers deployed by Rabat: the ratio is close to one on one. If this isn’t repression, what is it? Mentoring, possibly? Is the army holding door-to-door seminars on Mormon genealogy with assistance from the Utah National Guard? Yet Jackson says that ‘respect for human rights in the territory has greatly improved’. He admits that indigenous people aren’t allowed to advocate independence: perhaps human rights for Sahrawis is like animal rights for foxes – go to ground and hope someone’s speaking out on your behalf. Only it won’t be Jackson, who’s now ambassador to Cameroon.
Eight weeks ago near Layoune, the capital of Western Sahara, a camp set up by Sahrawis to protest against the Moroccan occupation was brought under military siege and in November it was broken up; 60 people were injured and the usual round of detentions followed. So much for human rights.
There are even more worrying passages about the nature of the conflict in Jackson’s cable. He wonders why Polisario (which operates a ‘Cuba-like system’ in his view) has never claimed areas of Morocco proper, Mauritania or Algeria, where large numbers of Sahrawis can be found, as part of the independent state they seek. He takes this to signify the absence of ‘a larger nationalism’, from which it follows that the dispute must be narrowly territorial – an expression of older border tensions between Morocco and Algeria, with Polisario acting as an Algerian stooge.
Well yes, it is about territory, but only inasmuch as the decolonisation of Spanish Sahara should have conferred a right to independence. The ethnicity of its inhabitants, or others outside the borders, has nothing to do with it. Whatever Algeria’s role in this conflict, Polisario could never have compromised its aims by challenging the OAU on the inviolability of colonial boundaries and hoping for a ‘larger’, expanded Western Sahara. Had it done so, the International Court of Justice would not have advised in its favour, the UN would not have called for a referendum on independence, and the notional government of what is now Africa’s only colonised territory (the SADR) would not be a member of the African Union or be recognised by 81 states.
But there you have it: a chargé d’affaires in Rabat snorts dismissively at the independence movement because it’s played by the book. Morocco, by contrast, violates sovereign boundaries, tramples Sahrawi aspirations, stuffs its annexed land with soldiers and settlers, and gets two dozen fighter aircraft for its pains.
Africa's last colony
Since 1975, three quarters of the Western Sahara territory has been illegally occupied by Morocco. The original population lives divided between those suffering human rights abuses under the Moroccan occupation and those living in exile in Algerian refugee camps. For more than 40 years, the Saharawi await the fulfilment of their legitimate right to self-determination.