New Orleans I was curious when a promoter pitched a story to me about Western Sahara. What did I know about that area? Nothing! I thought, heck, ACORN organizes in Africa in Kenya, Cameroon, Liberia, Tunisia, and has begun in Nigeria, and maybe sometime soon in Uganda, this is an opportunity to learn something about another part of that vast and critical continent. Getting the book by Stephen Zunes and Jacob Mundy opened my eyes wider when I looked at the title more closely, Western Sahara: War, Nationalism, and Conflict Irresolution. This was not going to be a travelogue. Suddenly, with the invasion of the Ukraine by Russia, “war” in the title made talking to Professor Zunes on Wade’s World timely.
Reading the book made me focus more on the real key to this story which was the phrase “conflict irresolution.” The invasion of Western Sahara, a nation recognized by eighty countries, by Morocco now dates 47 years with a huge percentage of the 250,000-person population still living in refugee camps. The standoff isn’t simply between Algeria, which supports the Polisario Front, which is composed largely of the indigenous nomadic inhabitants of the Western Sahara region, the Sahrawis, and the invaders from Morocco.
The standoff goes past the region, making it global. Western Sahara was a colony of Spain, so Spanish is still one of the dominant languages, and Spain is a somewhat silent partner in this affair. The French though are key because they continue to support Morocco and its claims that somehow this part of the Sahara Desert was part of Morocco in some distant pre-colonial times. Worst, the United States is a terribly bad actor here. We have supported Morocco all the way despite the fact that they are, if you will, the equivalent of the Russians going into Ukraine.
Morocco has built three sets of walls or sand berms that are mined and stretched with barbed wire. They are mining phosphate from the occupied lands, and have pushed so many Moroccans to settle in West Sahara, that their population may outnumber the native Sahrawis, many of whom are in refugee camps in Algeria and unable to return. Former US Secretary of State Baker developed several plans for peace, acting for the United Nations, but promised referenda have never been scheduled, and any action by the Security Council has been blocked by the US and France.
Reading about the Ukrainian invasion some of the reports revive neo-imperialism and colonialism. The Western Sahara “conflict irresolution” is a reminder that that we are pretending and ignoring struggles continuing on the ground between cease fires and armed conflict, simply because we are not paying attention in class to some colonial and imperialist wars that have hung on. The role of the United States and France are very disturbing, as Professor Zunes pointed out, and there can’t be much doubt that our foreign policy is one thing when it comes to Africa, where fewer may be paying any attention, and Europe where all eyes are on the battles and its horror.
Our policy needs to be anti-imperialist and anti-colonialist. We also need to make sure it’s not racist. Western Sahara is a troubling story under our radar, but needs our attention and our voice.