Independence Day – Western Sahara

February 27

Independence does not mean PeaceA common theme in decolonization. When Western powers depart from their former colonies, old claims over the newly-independent territory resurface, and neighboring powers assert that the new nation was a territory prior to its European annexation.

Morocco and Western Sahara are neighbors but their history is like night and day.

Morocco was an independent nation back when America was still a colony of Britain. Morocco was one of the first nations to recognize the fledgling United States in 1777, and the Moroccan-American Friendship Treaty remains the U.S.’s longest unbroken treaty.

Morocco’s colonial days were relatively brief. Morocco’s status as a French protectorate was finalized in 1905, but it became one of the first African nations to gain independence in 1956.

African Nations by Independence, 1950-1993

Western Sahara is another matter. Its borders are disputed even today. The region has been claimed by Morocco, Mauritania, Spain, and France, and wasn’t granted ‘independence’ from Spain until 1975. It wasn’t really independence though. Morocco was granted the top 2/3’s of Western Sahara. Mauritania received the remaining third.  Spain’s formal mandate expired on February 26, 1976.

The following day a political faction known as Polisario announced themselves as the true government-in-exile of the country, occupied by Morocco.

The fighting rages on to this day. Donald MacDonald writes, “Since my visit to the camps in June 1993, the political stalemate has dragged on, “disappearances” of Saharawi citizens have continued, and the refugee camps have been devastated by flooding.”

The Moroccan press claims, “The Shrawis, who arrived in three groups to El Karkrat, fled the Tindouf Camps (southwestern Algeria) where thousands of Moroccan-Sahara natives are held against their will by the Algerian-backed separatist movement Polisario.”

Currently “158,800 Sahrawi refugees live in camps in the Algerian desert where malnutrition is widespread.”

Journalists covering the independence movement in Western Sahara have been assaulted, detained or expelled. One journalist who referred to the Sahrawis (Western Saharans) living in Algeria as “refugees” (rather than as “captives” of the Polisario) was taken to court, fined, and barred from journalism for 10 years.

“Media criticism of the authorities is often quite blunt, but is nevertheless circumscribed by a press law that provides prison terms for libel and for expression critical of “Islam, the institution of the monarchy, or the territorial integrity” of Morocco (a phrase understood to mean Morocco’s claim to the Western Sahara.”