Western Sahara – Some history and an appeal for donations
I am honoured to be involved this year with the Olive Branch Arts / Sandblast Arts Youth Theatre project from 26th October to 9th November. For the third year running they are going out to the Saharawi Refugee camps in Algeria. They use theatre and drama therapy to work with the displaced people of Western Sahara to empower them to tell their own story, promote their own culture and earn a living through the arts. Along with photographer Emma Brown, I will be part of the documentaion team during the three week project.
It’s an inspiring project but, unsurprisingly, there is not any funding in the refugee camps or money from the exiled government of the not-officially-recognised state so Olive Branch rely on individual generosity. Please visit the donations page and think about giving something towards funding Olive Branch this year or come to the fundraiser event on Friday 19th October at Only Connect, 32 Cubitt Street, Kings Cross. WC1X 0LR The night starts at 7.30pm.
The case of Western Sahara is one of the forgotten conflicts of our time. A Spanish colony for nearly a hundred years, it was transferred in hugely contraversial circumstances to Morocco in 1975 and has remained a part of the North African Kingdom ever since. Some argue that it was the place that started the Arab Spring. Recently declassified U.S government papers suggest that the U.S.A scripted, or were at least heavily involved in, the handover from Franco’s Spain to King Hassan’s Morocco. Yet few people in the West know anything about it.
From the mid-1960’s there was pressure from the U.N on Spain to hold a plebicite on independence for what was then called Spanish Sahara. In 1974, with Franco old and ill, Spain finally announced they were going to do just that. It never happened.
Instead, with Franco fallen into the coma from which he never recovered, Morocco launched King Hassan’s (relatively) famous Green March on 6th November 1975. 350,000 civilians obeyed the king’s call and travelled to the border from Morocco. Most did not cross the “line of dissuasion”, 10km from the frontier, and those who did retreated shortly afterwards. On 9th November the march was recalled. However, there was also, with less fanfare, an actual military invasion in the North-East of Western Sahara, occupying the territory and cutting off any potential Algerian counter-invasion.
On 14th November, a tri-partite administration of Spain, Morocco and Mauritania was set up until Spain’s formal exit in early 1976. The colonial-era Jama’a (Saharawi elders) was the tokenistic Saharawi representative government meant to consult on self-determination. However, the Jama’a disbanded itself and declared the Algerian-exiled (and funded) Polisario Front as the true representative of the people of Western Sahara. The Polisario fought a successful guerilla war, defeating Maurianian forces and causing that country to withdraw its claim and Morocco to retreat. However, with aid from Saudia Arabia, France and U.S.A., Morocco fought on and reversed the trend.
Now the rich fishing off the Western Sahara coast brings in, apparently, “billions” for Morocco and Sahawari resistance broken up and demonstrations have been brutally put down. After Egypt, Morocco receives the most U.S military and economic aid of any African country.
We now know (see Jacob Mundy’s article in Le Monde Diplomatique) that the U.S.A were much more heavily involved than appeared on the surface. The U.S representative to the U.N at the time, Daniel Patrick Moynihan boasted in his memoirs that China and U.S.S.R respectively “lost” in East Timor and Western Sahara. He writes, “In both instances the U.S. wished things to turn out as they did, and worked to bring this about. The Department of State desired that the U.N. prove utterly ineffective in whatever measures it undertook.” (A Dangerous Place, 1978)
Declassified minutes of U.S government meetings seem to back up this claim. On 22nd October (2 weeks before the Green March), the Assistant Secretary of State Alfred Atherton met King Hassan and reported back that Morocco and Spain had reached agreement. The March would happen and then Morocco would take over through “controlled plebicite”.
Hassan’s position was vulnerable. After failed coups by his own army, attempts on his life and a growing leftist movement, Atherton seems to be understating the case when he is quoted as saying Hassan was “in difficulty at home”. Atherton’s boss, Henry Kissinger, put it more bluntly at a meeting of 10th November as regards the King’s claim over Western Sahara: “if he doesn’t get it, he’s finished.” Their proposed solution was based on the West Irian precedent.
West Irian Jaya
The former Dutch colony of Western New Guinea was invaded by Indonesia before the country could declare independence.
1962: West Irain Jaya under U.N. administration
1963: Passed over to Indonesia
1969: Indonesian sovereignity formalised with a manipulated referendum.
On 3rd November, Kissinger presented President Ford with the ‘West Irian option’, which appears to have pleased the president by providing a U.N cover to hide U.S influence: “God damn, we shouldn’t have to do it all and get a bloody nose”, Ford is quoted as saying.
The minutes of a meeting of 11th November have Kissinger saying, “the hope is for a rigged U.N vote”. But no vote happened. Instead, Morocco became the de facto ruler of the territory and half of the population of Western Sahara fled. There have been subsequent promises of plebicites and pro-independence fights but to this day, Western Sahara has not achieved independence. Around 140,000 Saharawis still live in refugee camps to this day.
Please give generously if you can, to help Olive Branch in their work and come along to Friday 19th’s fundraiser.