There is still one territory on the African continent which has not yet been decolonised: The Western Sahara. The country was colonised by Spain in the late 1800s and was subsequently annexed by Morocco. Its people, the Sahrawis, have been denied their fundamental right of self-determination for more than a century now and their patience is wearing thin. 

The Western Sahara lays on the Northwest coast of Africa, and borders Morocco, Mauritania and Algeria, it is that piece of the map which is always drawn grey. Morocco invaded the land in 1975 even before Spain, the former colonial power, had withdrawn from the country. There followed 16 years of war between Morocco and the Polisario Front, the Sahrawi liberation movement which started as an armed rebel group against the Spanish coloniser but which today is the peaceful representation of the Sahrawi people. Polisario officially called the country the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) with a government in exile, today SADR is recognised by many governments and is a member of the African Union. 

The flag of the Western Sahara/SADR / On Wikimedia Commons by Masen

In 1991 the UN helped broker a ceasefire between Morocco and Polisario, with the proviso that the people of the Western Sahara could decide on their future in a fair referendum, either to be independent or integrated with Morocco. However, Morocco has blocked the process of organising the referendum ever since, and more than 28 years later the referendum still has not happened. 

So, for the majority of the last 3 decades the Sahrawi people have been resisting the occupation of their land through advocacy and peaceful protest. One of the most well-known Sahrawi activists is Aminatou Haidar. Haidar is a nonviolent activist and human rights defender who has, despite imprisonment and torture, continuously advocated for self-determination and independence. Earlier this year she was recognised for her steadfast and peaceful action when she received the Right Livelihood Award. This prize is awarded annually to people or organisations who have done outstanding work to advance human rights, environmental protection, and social justice. The prize is often referred to as the ‘Alternative Nobel Prize’.

Aminatou Haidar / On

Haidar was born in the Western Sahara’s capital El-Ayoun, on the West coast, but the majority of Sahrawis currently live in Algerian refugee camps. They fled the violence of the war back in the 70s, and set up refugee camps in the desert, just across the border in Algeria. More than ten thousand Sahrawi people still live in these camps because Morocco has built a wall and the longest minefield in the world, to keep the Sahrawis out of the Western Sahara. For more than 40 years the Sahrawis have lived as refugees, and for more than 28 years they have peacefully been resisting the occupation of their homeland. However, they patience may now be wearing thin. 

Sahrawi refugee camp in Algeria / On Flickr by The Sahrawi refugees – a forgotten crisis in the Algerian desert

Aminatou Haidar recently warned that the young generation of Sahrawis are losing hope in resolving their situation peacefully, when speaking to the AFP in Geneva. Haidar urged the international community to take a stance and act quickly, because after almost three decades the plight of the Sahrawi people seems largely forgotten. The Sahrawi youth are especially disillusioned by the disregard of the international community, “they are angry, and they are frustrated” Haidar said. If nothing changes soon, young Sahrawis might consider picking up their arms again because they feel like nonviolent protest has failed them. 

Zain Sidahmed, a former head of the Polisario’s youth wing, explains that many young people feel that war is a more apt way of drawing attention than peaceful protests. “The international community thinks that if nobody is dying here, then there is no crisis, and they do not do anything” Sidahmed added. Haidar reaffirmed her commitment to non-violence, but it is questionable if many Sahrawis will continue to agree with her if their situation remains hopeless. In other cases of nonviolent resistance, such as Gandhi’s protests in India, Mandela’s struggle in South Africa, or even the case of Timor Leste, it was international pressure and support that eventually helped achieve justice.  

If the international community continues to ignore the Sahrawi people, it is only a matter of time before their patience runs out and some Sahrawis might turn away from nonviolent protests, in a desperate attempt to free Africa’s last colony.

Kerime Van Opijnen

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