Western Sahara is the last colony in Africa. In the course of the withdrawal of the Spanish colonial power in 1975/76, the resource-rich country on the Atlantic was occupied by Morocco and Mauritania. This was followed by 16 years of war against the Socialist Liberation Movement Frente Polisario, which ended in the 1991 armistice. The UN should then organize an independence referendum, which the Sahrawis are waiting for today due to Morocco’s refusal. Morocco continues to occupy most of the sparsely populated Western Sahara and, in collaboration with the EU – above all with German companies – is exploiting the country’s treasures, while the second-Generation Sahrawis remain in refugee camps in Algeria without any prospects. In November 2020, Morocco broke the ceasefire agreement after almost 30 years, and the renewed conflict could escalate into an open war. An Interview with Nadjat Hamdi.
To understand the conflict between Morocco and the Polisario Front, a look into the colonial history of Western Sahara is necessary. Can you please give us an overview here?
Yes, gladly. Western Sahara, located in northwest Africa, was a Spanish colony from 1885 to 1976. It is the last colony in Africa. After the Berlin Conference of 1885, Western Sahara belonged to Spain. At that time there was strong resistance from the Sahrawis against the Spanish colonial power, from which the Frente Polisario (FP) was founded in 1973. This is Spanish for Popular Front for the liberation of Saguía El Hamra and Río de Oro. These are the two areas that make up Western Sahara. They deliberately chose our names of the territories so as not to use the word" Western Sahara", which was a term used by the Spanish to describe our country as uninteresting to France, England and Portugal.
Western Sahara has been on the UN list of non-decolonised countries since the 1960s. Morocco and Mauritania have both made a claim to Western Sahara, but the International Court of Justice made it clear in an opinion on 16 October 1975 that neither country could establish a claim to sovereignty over Western Sahara. In the second part of this report, the UN was recommended to organise a referendum on self-determination in Western Sahara, but this did not prevent Morocco or Mauritania from invading Western Sahara.
That was right after Spain left the country?
Unfortunately not yet, no. Morocco invaded Western Sahara on October 31, 1975, but Spain did not leave the country until February 26, 1976. Spain was then ruled by Franco as a dictator. When Franco was on his deathbed, Spain took a highly immoral and illegal leave of this Situation by signing an agreement with Morocco and Mauritania – the illegal so-called Madrid agreement. On November 14, 1975, they divided Western Sahara into two parts. The northern part, Saguía el Hamra, should belong to Morocco and the southern part, Río de Oro, Mauritania. Of course, Spain did not want to go home empty-handed and secured its economic interests and then left. It has eluded its obligations to advance the decolonization process. Morocco and Mauritania worked closely with Spain on the invasion.
So the Invasion was coordinated with Spain, with Franco?
Yes, exactly. This action led to the UN General Assembly condemning this move and calling on both countries to withdraw. But that remained only a Resolution, not more. The General Assembly adopted several resolutions, such as a very important one from 1979, Resolution 34/37, in which Morocco was designated an occupying power and called upon to end the occupation of Western Sahara. During the invasion of Morocco and Mauritania in the winter of 1975, many Sahrawis were expelled. Thousands stood in the Northeast on the border with Algeria and were bombarded by Morocco with Napalm and white phosphorus - both are banned internationally. Algeria has opened its borders and given us a piece of Land where we were allowed to set up our refugee camps, while Morocco and Mauritania have occupied our Country bit by bit. The war led to a military coup in Mauritania on 10 July 1978. The Polisario took the opportunity to offer peace to Mauritania. They have given the new government a ceasefire of one year, so that it can consider whether it does not want to withdraw from the war. This also bore fruit and Mauritania signed a peace plan with the Polisario in August 1979 and withdrew.
Mauritania later recognized Western Sahara.
Yes, Mauritania’s recognition of the Dars (democratic Arab Republic of Sahara) as a neighbouring state was a prerequisite for the peace plan. Mauritania accepted that, thank God, and there was a peace. But Mauritania was the weakest party in this conflict and could not return the southern part of Western Sahara to the Polisario as agreed. Instead, Moroccan troops also invaded and occupied the south, a clear breach of international law. The Polisario continued to fight against Morocco until 1991, when both parties agreed on a proposal from the African Union and the UN and signed a peace plan in accordance with UN Resolution 690. Resolution 690 also established the UN mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara, the so-called MINURSO. At that time, the UN promised to organize a Referendum that would give us the opportunity to exercise our right of self-determination, which we are entitled to under international law and the opinion of The Hague court. This Referendum was originally supposed to take place in 1992, but we are still waiting for it today.
Why was the Referendum never held?
The main reasons are Morocco’s position on the one hand and the weakness or lack of interest of the international community on the other, especially of the UN Security Council. This combination: Morocco is preventing the Referendum and the UN is not prepared to put pressure on Morocco, nor on the other states. In the beginning, Morocco was able to postpone the Referendum again and again and then said Quite frankly in 2004: “there will be no Referendum.”
The Moroccan government has said so openly?
Yes, you said that a Referendum was out of date. So they had to look for alternatives and offered autonomy to the Sahrawis. Since then, they have been trying to force us to negotiate only an autonomous country according to Moroccan guidelines and no longer to make use of the right of self-determination. And we kept saying, ok, autonomy can be an Option. That’s no problem. But if we do a Referendum, there must be at least two options to choose from. Otherwise it makes no sense. It is undemocratic and against human rights. We have always said there can be ten options, autonomy, connection to Morocco, freedom,anything. But only autonomy or nothing at all, then we are back to point zero if we say no. In addition, Morocco is starting from a wrong starting point, since the first question of sovereignty must be clarified. But neither Morocco nor the Polisario nor any other party has sovereignty over Western Sahara, but only the Sahrawi people.
In 1991 there was a ceasefire. After that, 20, 30 years moved very little, there were hardly any developments.
There were a few attempts. In the beginning there was the identification of the voters for the Referendum. And when it was clear for Morocco that it could not win the Referendum with these voters, it turned away from the idea. We were really willing to compromise, because we are the only ones who lose something. Morocco has nothing to lose. We are the ones who are in the refugee camps and whose Land is occupied. We are trying to find a solution. That is why we are willing to compromise. We have even accepted the so-called Baker Plan II. Baker was a UN Special Envoy.
This was James Baker, the secretary of state under Bush senior.
Exactly. Since the Referendum did not take place, Baker has drawn up an alternative Plan. This provided for a five-year Sahrawi autonomy. And after five years, when all the refugees have returned and are living under Moroccan rule, they are asked what they want: the annexation to Morocco, independence or the continuation of autonomy? We accepted this because we were convinced that our people still wanted independence even after 100 years under Moroccan rule. We trust our people. Who rejected that? Morocco.
Let’s get to the recent events. On 13 November, Morocco abandoned the 1991 armistice, and one day later the Polisario. How did this escalation come about?
In the region of Guerguerat in the very south to the border with Mauritania, there have been conflicts for several years. In 2016, for example, the Sahrawi and Moroccan military faced each other and the UN was able to resolve this conflict at the last moment. Morocco now wants to orient itself more to West Africa in order to sell its goods there, and has therefore opened the barrier at Guerguerat and established a trade route. And the Sahrawis have said that opening Guerguerat is illegal because it is a breach of the 1991 peace plan and the 1997/98 military agreement. Both agreements stipulate that nothing must change in the stationing of the soldiers. In October last year, many Sahrawi civilians marched there and blocked the passage. They said, " We are standing here with our bodies, unarmed, but we will not let a truck through."
After the military agreement of 1997/98, no military units but civilians are allowed to stay in the buffer zone.
Exactly. There were mainly women and young men. There was no Sahrawi military there. These were civilians from the refugee camps and the liberated areas, and many other groups along the wall have joined. And after 20 days Morocco no longer wanted to tolerate the Blockade and sent soldiers. They not only expelled the civilians, but also occupied a new part of the country and extended the Moroccan wall.
In the buffer zone, which was supposed to be neutral, Morocco has now occupied another country?
Exactly. And they could only do that because they know that the UN would do nothing. The Polisario has repeatedly warned of the fragility of the ceasefire and in many letters to the UN, the Security Council and Guterres has repeatedly drawn attention to the fact that without a Referendum there could be another war. But the UN has not taken this seriously. It is not capable of decolonizing the territory. The tendency for the UN and Morocco to regard the Status quo as a final solution and to slowly withdraw from the peace process naturally led to great disappointment among the Sahrawis. And people just didn’t want to wait anymore. The Polisario has always been able to reassure the young people in the past, but Morocco’s attitude and the UN’s inability to reach a solution left the Polisario no Chance of convincing the young Sahrawi people further of the UN peace plan.
The young Sahrawis know nothing but 30 years of Status quo. Surely there is growing Frustration and hopelessness?
Yes, the whole Situation leads to great Frustration. The people who were born in the refugee camps after the 1991 armistice are now 30 years old. They have already finished school, for the most part studied abroad. They came back and waited in the refugee camps without any prospect of work or freedom. They cannot plan their lives and see that they come from a very rich country that is exploited before their eyes every day. Morocco uses its property to buy many corrupt Regimes in Africa. Morocco steals our wealth in order to use it against ourselves. And not only about corrupt countries in Africa – the situation is no better in the democratic countries of Europe.
I would like to talk about the role of Europe right away. Briefly about the recent events: how did the escalation go? Were victims to be lamented?
No, thank God not. The people camped in Guerguerat and blocked the passage there for 20 days, so that people but no goods could get to Mauritania. You have heard days before that the military is moving, that tanks are moving. And the MINURSO has always said No, they have seen nothing. But the Sahrawis were prepared for the Moroccans to come out at any time. When they marched in, the Sahrawi military brought all the people to safety. Of course, they set the tents and other things on fire. But that is not important.
Images of burning tents, went through the Internet.
But the people all got away safe. They all went back to the liberated areas or the refugee camps.
I read that in a letter to António Guterres, the president of the Sahrawi Arab Republic, Brahim Ghali, spoke of “a brutal attack on unarmed Sahrawi civilians”. What can you say?
Brahim Ghali has sent several letters to Guterres in advance. He has always said that the Sahrawis are in danger. Civilians are allowed to demonstrate there. And we are responsible for your safety. As soon as they are attacked, we will respond to the attack and not hesitate for a moment. And that’s what happened.
The Polisario troops then escorted the civilians out of the danger zone.
Escorted and responded to the Aggression. And so the war began along the wall. Very far from Guerguerat.
The barrier wall is 2,700 kilometers long. What exactly happened there?
Since November 13, there have been military attacks by the Polisario forces along the wall, from the south to the North.
They attack positions of the Moroccan military there, over the wall?
And are these battles still going on or are they over?
No, no, they’re still running. Because we think it is our legitimate right to defend ourselves. For us there is no longer a truce. There are only two situations. Either an agreed, respected truce, which we have respected for 30 years. Or the resumption of rifles and military conflict. We still have our task ahead of us. We have not yet liberated our country. We are for peace. We have certainly proved to the whole world that we can be patient. 30 years, one Generation. But neither the world nor Morocco respected that. At some point, the UN thought: “Ok, they’re quiet, they don’t do anything, then we don’t need to make any more effort.“The Status quo is quite comfortable. Everyone deserves it. Only we do not. And you probably thought it would last forever.
So you have deliberately renounced violence for 30 years. You wanted to fight without weapons. But 30 years was easy enough?
Exactly. We think we have given Morocco, but also the world community, 30 years to prove to ourselves that they are truly capable and above all willing to secure peace. Waiting patiently for 30 years means a lot. This is a whole Generation that grew up in refugee camps under difficult conditions. 30 Years Of Exploitation, 30 Years Of Flight, 30 Years Of Misery. We have of course continued to fight, by other means, politically, diplomatically, legally, but not militarily. But all this has brought nothing. And now we will also use armed struggle as a legitimate means to defend and liberate our country. We do not want war, but for the second time we are forced to it. We do not glorify war, because we have experienced it and know what it means.
Do you think that the current struggles continue to escalate, or do you think that they will end quickly?
No, they will escalate. Definitely. I’m sure this is just the beginning. Especially when I know that the Sahrawis all over the world are just waiting for them to return to their homeland.
I would like to talk about the role of Europe. How does the EU benefit from the Western Sahara conflict? And also Germany in particular.
The conflict in Western Sahara is unknown, especially in Germany. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have a lot to do with each other. Germany is one of the countries that is very far away from Western Sahara – there are no historical connections, no colonial or geographical ones. And yet Germany is strongly involved in this conflict: through the companies that cooperate with the Moroccan occupying power. And when I say occupying power, those are not my words. These are the decisions of the United Nations, the judgments of the European court of justice. And all companies know that. Nevertheless, we see many companies from Germany in Western Sahara. Siemens, for example, works there in the energy sector.
What exactly is Siemens doing there?
There is a huge project in renewable energies, where Siemens is heavily involved. Then Continental, Who are working intensively on the exploitation of Sahrawi phosphate. HeidelbergCement-the solidify properly, “cement” the occupation. Then, for example, we have DHL, the German Post office. Then we have the Deutsche Bahn, Schenker. Then we have KMP, Köster Marine Proteins, which import fishmeal to Germany, and from Germany to Europe.
So fish that are fished from the Atlantic Ocean off Western Sahara, and from which fishmeal is then produced and exported to Europe?
Yes, exactly. There is also KfW in the financial sector, which supports companies there. There are a lot of German companies, these are just a few examples. And, above all, Germany also participates in the Association agreements between the EU and Morocco and the fisheries agreement.
Can you please say a little more about fishing?
There is a fisheries agreement between the EU and Morocco, which also includes Western Sahara. We have no objection to the EU signing economic agreements with Morocco. But we do not mind that these agreements also include Western Sahara. Especially when it comes to fishing, Western Sahara is very interesting. We have a coastline of 1,500 kilometers in length, one of the richest in fish in the world, in diversity, but also in quantity. That’s why everyone is interested in fishing there. The Polisario as the legitimate representative of the Sahrawi people, we have of course brought an action against it at the European Court of Justice. In both 2016 and 2018, the European Court of Justice ruled that Western Sahara and Morocco are two separate states. This means that trade agreements with Morocco must not include Western Sahara. And yet the EU, and also Germany, continues to fish illegally in Western Sahara. In doing so, they are not “only” breaking international law, but also European law.
You have to say it clearly: this is illegal.
Right, yes. This is totally illegal. Also according to the EU.
There are several international laws and opinions that are broken when resources are exploited in occupied territories against the will of the indigenous population.
Precisely with regard to Western Sahara, there is a report from the UN, the so-called Corell report, in which exactly that is said about Western Sahara. But nobody cares. Everyone says We have no shares to lose there. But they lie. They all fish illegally in Western Sahara, exploit our phosphate. They even exploit our air.
What do you mean?
I mean the energy resources, the wind turbines. Solar energy-not even the sun is spared. They take the Sand from Western Sahara and decorate the coasts of Europe. They make beaches out of it. They take everything out. Everywhere you look, phosphate, fish, windmills, solar energy, the Desertec project. The Canary Islands get their Sand from Western Sahara. This is incredible.
Bou Craa is the largest phosphate deposit in the world in Western Sahara. What can you tell us about phosphate mining?
This was discovered during the Spanish colonial period and since the early 1970s phosphate has been exploited there day and night and sold to the whole world. New Zealand, Australia, various countries in Africa and Europe. Continental is also working very well on the large conveyor belt from the mines to the ports. One wonders why phosphate? This is used a lot in the agricultural sector. Phosphate is also contained in every detergent. The Bad thing is, you can’t recycle these materials. Once used and gone. In terms of the environment and sustainability, nothing is taken into account, just like in the fisheries sector. Apart from the fact that all this is illegal anyway, not even sustainability standards are set. You fish small fish. You pick out certain varieties and exploit them. They always have the ulterior motive that the resources do not belong to them. Therefore, get everything out as quickly as you can. Everyone behaves like robbers.
I would ask you at the end: what is your appeal to Europe? Can the people of Europe do anything to improve the situation?
I think on the subject of resource exploitation we have seen how close Europe is to this conflict. If we take this as a starting point, the people of Europe are jointly responsible. And not” only " because Europe has colonized and exploited Africa for years, but also because it continues to exploit this continent and my country on a daily basis. This obliges the people of Europe to join us in seeking a solution to the illegal occupation and this injustice. Europe has the means, the countries have the means. They are all Morocco’s partners, they negotiate and are friends. And I think friends should help their friends by obliging them to respect international law and Human Rights.
If the governments are not ready to find a solution, let them at least just keep their hands off Western Sahara and stop exploiting it. Stop cementing the colonial power of Morocco. That would help us already. I always separate between governments, companies and people. Most people are not informed about the conflict. But people can spread this information. They can show solidarity with a people who have lived in refugee camps for half a century and have waited patiently for 30 years for the UN and fought for their rights. But the struggle can only succeed with international help. And we need this help more urgently than ever before.