After 46 turbulent years, Western Sahara has not given up hope for independence


Saharawi Republic Ambassador to Kenya Bah El Mad Abdellah during an interview with The Standard. [Kennedy Mureithi, Standard]

The United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres last month appointed Italian diplomat Staffan de Mistura as his personal envoy for Western Sahara, replacing Horst Kohler, who stepped down more than two years ago.

Numerous UN efforts to broker a settlement over the territory, contested by Morocco and the Algerian-backed Polisario Front, since Spanish colonial power left in 1974 have failed. Last week, the United Nations Security Council extended the UN peacekeeping mission in Western Sahara for a year.

The Friday vote was 13-0, with Russia and Tunisia abstaining. The council expressed concern at the breakdown of a ceasefire between Morocco and the pro-independence Polisario Front.

We talked to the Saharawi Republic ambassador to Kenya Bah El Mad Abdellah about the impasse.

Please give us a brief history of Western Sahara.

Western Sahara has been on the UN list of Non-Self-Governing Territories since the 1960s when it was a Spanish colony. During the first decade of the 20th century, after an agreement among the colonial powers at the Berlin Conference in 1884, Spain took possession of Western Sahara and declared it to be a Spanish protectorate. After Spain withdrawal from the territory, Morocco annexed the northern two-thirds of Western Sahara, while Mauritania took the southern third. This, however, met staunch opposition from the Polisario Front liberation movement. In 1979, following Mauritania’s withdrawal due to pressures from Polisario, Morocco extended its control to the rest of the territory. The war ended in a 1991 ceasefire overseen by the peacekeeping mission MINURSO under the terms of the OAU UN’s Settlement Plan.

How can you define Western Sahara’s relationship with Morocco?

Let’s call a spade a spade. Morocco’s presence in Western Sahara is an occupation case.  It is an undisputable fact that Western Sahara has been on the agenda of the UN General Assembly (UNGA), and consequently on the agendas of both the UNGA Fourth Committee and the UNGA Special Committee on Decolonisation (C-24), since 1963 as a Non-Self-Governing Territory to which the Declaration on the Granting of Independence of Colonial Countries and Peoples (UNGA resolution 1514 (XV) of 14 December 1960) is applicable. 

On November 6, 1975, the UN Security Council (UNSC) unanimously adopted resolution 380 (1975) in which the UNSC, in operative paragraphs, “calls upon Morocco to immediately withdraw from the territory of Western Sahara all the participants in the march”.

In its resolution 34/37 of November 21, 1979, the UNGA “deeply deplores the aggravation of the situation resulting from the continued occupation of Western Sahara by Morocco and the extension of that occupation to the territory recently evacuated by Mauritania” further “urges Morocco to join in the peace process and to terminate its occupation of the Territory of Western Sahara”.

In its resolution 35/19 of November 11, 1980, the UNGA again declares that it is deeply concerned at the aggravation of the situation deriving from the continued occupation of Western Sahara by Morocco. The International Court of Justice clearly establishes that “the court’s conclusion is that the materials and information presented to it do not establish any tie of territorial sovereignty between the territory of Western Sahara and the Kingdom of Morocco or the Mauritanian entity. Thus the court has not found legal ties of such a nature as might affect the application of General Assembly resolution 1514 (XV) in the decolonisation of Western Sahara and, in particular, of the principle of self-determination through the free and genuine expression of the will of the peoples of the Territory”.

What is your take on Morocco normalising relations with Israel, and do you think this is a threat to Western Sahara and its fight for self-determination? 

That’s Morocco’s business, but I would like to underscore that we belong geopolitically to a region that we take its concerns seriously. The expansionist ideology of the kingdom and its disestablishing actions against neighbouring countries is documented in history. According to the UNODC, Morocco is the first country in the world in producing and exporting cannabis, and Israelis drones are killing my people and their engineers in the 1980s built the 2,700km military wall that separates Western Sahara.

Is Western Sahara the reason Morocco and Algeria are locked in a diplomatic dispute?

The sovereign decision of Algeria in cutting diplomatic ties with morocco was taken in August 2021. The conflict in Western Sahara started in 1975 after the aggression and the occupation of the territory of Western Sahara by the Moroccan army.

Why do you consider yourselves a country and not part of Morocco?

For the international community and particularly for Africa, Western Sahara is the last colony in the continent and the UNGA identified Morocco as an occupying force in its resolutions 34/37 of 1979, and 35/19 of 1980. Since 1991 the UN and the AU are immersed on behalf of the international community to end the conflict and safeguard the right of self-determination of the Sahrawi people.

Which countries recognise Western Sahara?

By adopting the AU Constitutive Act and subsequently joining the continental organisation, Morocco raised the number of countries recognising the Sahrawi republic as independent state to 85 countries from Africa, Latin America, Europe and Asia.

How does Algeria support your fight for self-determination?

Notions and practices of freedom and liberation from oppression and colonialism are well-rooted in Algeria’s history, culture and attitudes, so too is the will to fight against human rights violations and the defense for the inalienable right to self-determination. Algeria is the shelter to the thousands of Sahrawi refugees who fled their home land under the Moroccan army bombardment and annexation of their territory. So, proudly we say a big yes, Algeria supports the people of Western Sahara in their quest for freedom and self-determination in line with the principles of the international legality. 

How does Western Sahara relate with the West and the Gulf Arab States?

It’s worth mentioning that the whole world recognises and relates with Western Sahara, and sees Western Sahara as a non-self-governing territory as attested by the ICJ, the UN and its agencies, the highest European courts, and most countries around the world. What the Moroccan regime is spreading about former president Trump of the US proclamation did nothing to change that fact.

Shifting gears to the Covid-19 pandemic, what is the situation in Western Sahara?

Because we believed in our discipline and the modest resources we have, necessary protocols and procedures have been put in place to curb the spread of Covid-19, and for now we have 65 per cent of the refugee population vaccinated thanks to the Algerian government’s aid.

How can you define Western Sahara’s relationship with Kenya?

The Republic of Kenya and the Sahrawi republic are enjoying an excellent relation and aspiring to take it to the highest levels. The last resolution of the UNSC regarding Western Sahara is a strong signal of the principled and the unwavering support of the Republic of Kenya to the struggle of the Sahrawi people in their quest for decolonisation and independence. We have a bright future in cooperation agreements, but we first have to gain our independence.

Parting shot

The collapse of the 1991 ceasefire on November 13, last year, when the Moroccan army attacked a group of Sahrawi civilians in Guerguarat region, South-West Western Sahara, undermined the UN/AU efforts to bring an end to the conflict in Western Sahara.

We made it clear that the only way to achieve a peaceful, just and enduring solution to the decolonisation of Western Sahara is to enable the Sahrawi people to exercise freely and democratically their right to self-determination and independence in accordance with international law and UN and AU resolutions.