Following the declaration of the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic in 1976, its governing body – the Polisario Front – has represented the indigenous people of Western Sahara to the outside world. They have waged a guerilla war against Morocco, the occupying power; appealed to international organizations such as the African Union; brought Congressional staff to Saharawi refugee camps to build support in the U.S. Congress, and sent Saharawis on tours to build public understanding of their situation. Still, knowledge about what has been called Africa’s last colony remained low on the public radar. But that may be changing due to the efforts of a lone woman activist.
Aminatou Haidar, called the “Gandhi of Sahara,” began a hunger strike on November 16 after being refused reentry to Western Sahara when she returned home from receiving an international award. Haidar, an internationally known activist who won the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award last year, is perhaps the best known activist working for the independence of Western Sahara. When she refused to state her nationality as Moroccan, authorities prevented her from entering Western Sahara, seizing her passport and stranding her at Lanzarote Airport in the Spanish-controlled Canary Islands.
Spain was the colonial power in Western Sahara from 1884 to 1975, when the International Court of Justice rejected claims on the territory by Morocco and Mauritania and recognized the right of the Saharawi people to self-determination. Initially, Spain agreed to a Saharawi referendum on independence. However, Morocco staged what was known as the “Green March” weeks after the ICJ decision, bringing more than 300,000 Moroccans to reside in the region. Rather than contend with Morocco, Spain reached a deal to cede its rights to the colony to Morocco and Mauritania. Once Mauritania renounced its claims following an August 1978 coup, Morocco moved to occupy the Mauritanian portion of the territory. This resulted in tens of thousands of refugees who fled into southwestern Algeria.
Despite its renunciation of claims on Western Sahara, Spain has never been able to fully divorce itself from the issue of Saharawi self-determination. The referendum was supposed to be based on the last Spanish census of 1973, but the Moroccans prefer a process that would register Moroccans they claim have ties to the territory. The issue of the basis on which to identify voters in the referendum has brought the process to a deadlock.
Now that Haidar is stuck on Spanish territory and is in increasingly fragile health, she has become an icon to Spanish supporters of human rights, including Spanish celebrities who recently staged a concert to rally support for Haidar and her effort to bring independence to Western Sahara. Spain’s response has been to offer Haidar Spanish nationality, but she wants her current passport returned and is said to have refused to request any other passport.
The United Nations, which has allowed Morocco to tie up the referendum process for years, is now inspired by Haidar’s hunger strike to restart negotiations on the referendum. Unfortunately, Morocco has been unwilling to accept any plan that does not result in their maintaining control over Western Sahara. Earlier UN plans called for a transition period of Saharawi semi-autonomy under Moroccan control leading to a referendum on independence. Morocco has refused to agree to any of the plans put on the table. Consequently, there is little reason for optimism that any new UN plan would receive a different response.
Morocco has inserted the territory into all plans and programs involving the North African Mahgreb Union, alienating fellow members such as Algeria that is supporting the Saharawis. Morocco even dropped out of the then-Organization of African Unity when that group recognized Western Sahara as a member.
The current deadlock will require stronger action to force Moroccan cooperation than the UN and the rest of the international community have been willing to undertake. Perhaps the fate of Aminatou Haidar will change that reluctance.