February 27 was the national day of Western Sahara, Africa’s last colony that is illegally and forcefully occupied by Morocco with the support of France. In this interview, Malainin Mohamed (Lakhal), a Saharawi journalist and translator and a member of Saharawi Natural Resource Watch, reflects on his people’s struggle for freedom and the role that Africans and other people in the world should play in solidarity.
1. Tell us what life was like growing up in Western Sahara?
Malainin: Growing up in the occupied Western Sahara is like growing up in a huge open-space detention camp. The Moroccan military occupation maintained a violent siege on the different cities of the territories since the first days of the invasion. In fact, the invasion started on December 31, 1975 with a big military operation that swept away hundreds of Saharawi nomadic villages, killing thousands of victims, thousands others disappeared, among whom more than 600 still are not accounted for.
And of course, as a Saharawi child, growing up in Moroccan schools, and being monitored by Moroccan teachers, was a very difficult experience because we were treated differently, as any colonised people would be. In class, in the streets, in the playing grounds we were treated as suspects by policemen, often arrested if anything happened. We are the “dirty Saharawis”, the “Camels’ shepherds” as they used to call us. All my generation, and the generation that followed were accustomed to being arrested in the streets with or without reason, be taken to the police stations, bashed and tortured by Moroccan policemen just for fun or to ask for specific information, maybe spend a night or two in cells before being released. Many of us would be put in prisons for longer periods, or even disappear for long periods or forever.
In school, we were discriminated against. It was difficult in those days for a Saharawi to finish school. The colonial authorities would do anything to dissuade us from progressing in our studies. And reaching university was a miracle for many of us. As kids, we were forced to become very politically aware from our youngest age because of this treatment, and of course we were also politically active, and we tended to do all in our power to make life difficult for the colonial authorities in the streets, especially at night. In brief, life in the occupied zones of Western Sahara is the life of a colonised people struggling for their freedom and oppressed by the colonizers because of this struggle. The only difference here is that the coloniser is another African country.
2. What does your country’s Independence Day mean to you?
Malainin: It means a lot of contradictory things at the same time. First, I am proud my people succeeded in a very difficult moment of their history to declare their political will and translate it into the constitution and proclamation of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). But, to this date, my country is not completely free or entirely independent. We still have two thirds of our country under the yoke of the Moroccan colonial occupation. So, there is no way we can celebrate our independence as we would like to do.
But, on the other hand, our Independence Day is also a reminder to us and to the world that something is wrong in Western Sahara. It is a message from our people to the so-called international community that we, the Saharawis, already have decided our future, and we are ready to confirm it in a self-determination referendum if we are allowed to. Otherwise, our choice is clear. We want to be free! There is no other alternative to our freedom. It is a must! We want to build our State and our Nation, and we are ready to do that, because we already have built our own institutions, our own government that has succeeded for more than 40 years to run the only refugee camps in the world run, administrated and organised by refugees themselves. We only need France and its protégé, the Moroccan monarchy, to leave us alone, to stop sustaining neo-colonialism in our country.
3. The territorial dispute between the Saharawi Polisario Front and Morocco is ongoing since 1975; Morocco refuses to recognize the country’s independence – how do you view the dispute (what is the issue) and the way it has affected your country?
Malainin: The conflict in Western Sahara is a clear-cut issue of decolonisation. This is not an opinion, this is a fact established and confirmed by more than 110 UN resolutions, many other resolutions of the AU, the EU and other entities. The International Court of Justice also issued a clear Advisory Opinion to the UN General Assembly in 1975, stating that Western Sahara is a Non-Self-Governing Territory, that Morocco has no sovereignty over it, and that this territory has a well-determined people called the Saharawis, who, according to that ICJ’s rule, have an inalienable right to self-determination that they should exercise within the framework of the landmark resolution 1514 thanks to which many African nations got their independence back in the sixties. So, legally speaking the issue is crystal-clear to the point that no country in the world recognises the Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara.
But, of course, Western Sahara is a very rich territory with all sorts of resources, renewable and non-renewable. This is one of the main reasons why Morocco, backed of course by France, refuses as you rightly said to recognise not only our independence but our very right to existence, to freedom and to self-determination.
Like South Africans once suffered under Apartheid, we are still suffering in the occupied zones of Western Sahara from arbitrary detentions, peaceful demonstration are banned and if organised violently oppressed, we have right now around 50 political prisoners in Moroccan jails, many of whom were tried before Moroccan military courts though they are civilians and mostly students. The Moroccan regime committed atrocious and well-documented crimes against humanity in the seventies and eighties, and is still committing violations that are considered as crimes against humanity such as forced disappearance, torture and summary executions.
So, to sum up, Western Sahara is an issue of decolonisation, where the colonised people are struggling against a violent colonial military regime that refuses to recognise or allow the people to decide over their future and territory.
4. The resistance from the Polisario Front and Morocco forces, is it militant by nature or does the Front practice passive resistance; meaning are there violent clashes that take place?
Malainin: Well, it should be recalled that the Polisario Front was created in 1973 by a group of young Saharawi freedom fighters to lead an armed struggle against the Spanish colonisation then. When Morocco conspired with Spain to replace it illegally, the Polisario Front waged a 16-year guerrilla war against the new colonial power, and in fact succeeded to cause serious damage to the Monarchy and its army. This clear success of the Polisario forced Moroccan King Hassan II to accept the OAU/UN Settlement Plan in 1991, which was supposed to lead to the organisation by the UN of a referendum on self-determination with three options: Independence, integration with Morocco or another form of association with another entity.
So, during the years of the war the Saharawi civilians’ resistance also existed though it was under the form of secret organisations dedicated to raise awareness among people, gather support to the Polisario and sometimes perform some sabotage operations against Moroccan institutions and military and police forces.
After the UN established its mission, MINURSO, in the country, the Saharawi resistance in the occupied zones opted for peaceful demonstrations, and directed its struggle towards civil society activism defending human rights, natural resources and social demands. This peaceful resistance is ongoing to this date led by an active Saharawi civil society in parallel with the Saharawi official diplomatic and political actions.
5. Morocco recently became the African Union’s 55th member state – how did you feel about the news?
Malainin: That was a sad day for Africa. Morocco is certainly an African country, but its regime is a colonial regime sold to France; it did not deserve to sit in the organisation that has been fighting since its inception against colonial powers. So to me the acceptance of the Moroccan application to join the AU is exactly similar to a theoretical acceptance of Apartheid to sit in the sixties and seventies with African nations then in the OAU. Now how would that have sounded to you?
Many supporters of the Saharawi struggle in the AU accepted the Moroccan application because they say that they want to deal with the issue in house with Morocco sitting with them under the same roof, rather than keeping Rabat outside, as it used to be, and face its continuous refusal to allow the AU intervene in the dispute. Well that’s an argument to test. We will see if it will work or not. But I am sure that Morocco is joining the AU for two reasons only: One, it wants to become a member so as to moderate AU positions on the conflict or even stop its decision making organs from adopting strong stands on the conflict. Two, if Rabat fails to achieve the first goal, then comes the second, which will be to cause division and maybe even destroy the organisation from inside. Morocco is a bandit state used to all forms of corrupting and intelligence methods to achieve its goals in international organisations. You should, for example, recall the Wikileaks documents that unveiled a few years ago about how the Moroccan Ambassador in Geneva was buying UN diplomats and spying on high UN Officials, including Ban Ki-Moon and Christopher Ross. These methods are still adopted by Morocco with many African countries.
This said, I expect the Moroccan authorities to start, if it didn’t already do that, looking for corrupted African diplomats and officials to buy their services in order to control or destroy the AU. We will certainly see this happen in the future, and by the way there are already rumours and indicators of corruption around many African politicians, especially in some countries that fall historically under French influence.
6. Did you know outgoing Chairperson H.E. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma appointed the first ever Special Envoy to Western Sahara (2014) in an attempt to resolve the dispute – what is your opinion of the AU’s role/influence in finding a peaceful resolution to your country’s challenge?
Malainin: I have to stress here that H.E Dlamini Zuma has done a lot to the African continent, not only to Western Sahara during her mandate. The landmark achievement of this great Pan-Africanist lady is nothing more than the clear and genius elaboration and adoption of the Agenda 2063 in addition to many other important policy and strategy documents that defined where Africa is going and how it will achieve its goals and aspirations.
On the issue of Western Sahara, Dr. Zuma also accomplished a lot. As you said, she appointed the first ever Special Envoy to Western Sahara, but she further gave back a voice to the AU within the UN, including before the UN Security Council. She was maybe the first Chairperson of the AU Commission to impose the African presence and voice on the Permanent Five in the Security Council, including around the issue of Western Sahara. During the last four years, the issue became a hot in the various levels of decision making in the AU organs. Many decisions, resolutions and declarations were therefore adopted, and it was discussed and reported about like never before since the eighties.
Now, we have also to recognise that the OAU/AU has done a lot to the Saharawi people. The main thing OAU/AU did was to simply and clearly recognise the Saharawi Republic as a full-fledged member of our organisation. That is in itself a landmark decision and position from the AU and a clear rejection of the Moroccan colonial claims.
But, the Saharawis believe that the AU is totally entitled to take the lead in searching for the solution to the conflict in Western Sahara, because it is an African issue. The UN has failed to move one step forward in its efforts because France has always conspired with its allies and puppet states to jeopardize the UN efforts to resolve this last case of decolonisation in Africa. So, we believe that the AU has got to assume its responsibility in this regard, especially now that Morocco has become a member. Rabat can no longer refuse to let the AU deal with the issue claiming that it does not recognise the organisation. So we will see what will happen.
7. Do you believe the country will gain its full independence from Morocco? Please elaborate.
Malainin: Of course I do, because I learned from history that no colonial power has ever succeeded to stay forever in control of colonised territories. One day or another the will of the peoples will prevail.
Now, in our case I am sure we will gain our independence because my people are not giving up fighting. They are decided to take back their future from the usurpers of our land. The new generations, which did not live the first days of invasion and oppression, are now the leaders of the resistance. So to my understanding, our struggle is one of generations, and it does not matter which generation will see and assist to the great day of freedom, the most important thing to each one of us is to keep the struggle alive, and to set clear goals to this struggle, so the following generation can take the lead later and finish the mission.
On the other hand, Morocco has always been unstable in its positions on the issue, which reflects that it is just a colonial power that only targets our resources. For example: In the sixties the Moroccan king was supporting the Saharawi people’s struggle for independence and used to call for their right to self-determination and independence. Then, in the seventies he started plotting with Spain and claiming sovereignty over the territory. He finally invaded it militarily and considered the issue a “closed file” saying that Morocco liberated its land. Then, after 16 years of war with the Saharawi Army of Liberation (POLISARIO), and after he understood that he could not win the hearts of the Saharawis nor the fight, he asked for the international arbitrage again and accepted the principle of self-determination, which means that he openly recognised that his country doesn’t have sovereignty over the territory.
In the year 2000 the new king, Mohamed VI, rejected the referendum and said that he is only offering autonomy to the Saharawis, which is also an explicit recognition that Western Sahara is not his. Now, here is Morocco finally sitting side by side with the Saharawi Republic under the same umbrella of the AU, which is to me a simple and legal recognition of the SADR no matter what the Moroccan politicians try to say or do. So, to me, this Moroccan unstable position on the issue is a strong indicator that one day it will end up recognising its mistakes and allow the Saharawi people to build their state in freedom. In the end the foreign coloniser will have to leave.
8. What would you say are your country’s key development challenges?
Malainin: I mentioned above the AU Agenda 2063, and I believe that like most of the African nations we have a lot of challenges, goals and aspirations in our plates. But, as Saharawis, we have a priority which is the liberation of our country first, and then we will have to rebuild everything because the Moroccan colonisation didn’t build a single thing in our occupied cities. Infrastructure in the territory is almost inexistent; there is not a single university in the whole territory of Western Sahara, which is the size of England. There are no hospitals, no theatres, no cinemas, no cultural centres, no factories, nothing. The only things the colonial power built are ports and some specific roads that allow it to plunder our natural resources, especially phosphate and fisheries, and of course prisons, police stations and colonial administrations.
9. Also, what key opportunities do you feel exist in the country?
Malainin: Again like most of African countries, Western Sahara is hyper-rich in renewable and non-renewable resources: Gas, oil, phosphate, fisheries, gold, diamond, iron, sand, strong sun and winds and a lot of other minerals. For this reason Morocco insists on keeping its grip on it. And of course, France is also targeting us because it wants to keep Morocco strong so as to keep a certain balance and not allow Algeria to become the main power in North Africa.
On the other hand, our people, though small in number, are well prepared and educated. They will be an addition and a driving force in the African renaissance and progress. Our government, though it does not have full access to our resources, has a very interesting experience in running the issues of our nation, with democratic and well-established institutions. We have one of the most stable governments in Africa for more than 40 years so far with no single major political problem. And the Moroccan medieval regime is of course afraid of having next to it a successful and democratic republic that would shed light on the monarchy’s dictatorship and failure to give the Moroccans what they want: democracy, dignity and freedom.
10. If there is one thing you could tell people about Western Sahara – that they might not know – what would it be?
Malainin: I think that most African peoples do not know that there is an African colony and nation still struggling for freedom in Africa. A lot of Africans, including South Africans, think maybe that the glorious struggle against Apartheid was the last fight and stand Africa had against oppression, colonialism and segregation. Well it is not. The Saharawi people are right now leading a similar fight against an African colonial regime that is using the exact same strategies and violence once used by the Apartheid regime against the people.
Now, I want all Africans to understand well that we are fighting on their behalf, because the fight for freedom and self-determination in Western Sahara is not the exclusive duty of the Saharawis alone. No, it is, and it must be the fight of all freedom lovers in the continent and abroad. We are not only fighting the Moroccan colonial regime, we are fighting the real colonial power behind this puppet regime, France. This European country is doing all in its power to prevent our country and our region and continent from prosperity, unity and freedom. And the Moroccan regime is playing its game to keep Africa, or at least North Africa, divided and unable to integrate.
So, I want to urge all Africans to keep an eye on this part of our beloved continent, because Morocco and France want to push it again into wars, chaos and suffering. Yet, your brothers and sisters Saharawis will be standing against this plot, and will fight to the last drop of their blood. Because we are free Africans, we have always cherished freedom and independence, and we will die free if that’s the price we have to pay for the freedom and the dignity of all Africans.
* This interview was first published by the African Democratic Institute.