Do or Die

An article from Do or Die Issue 10. In the paper edition, this article appears on page(s) 197-206.

Present Day Plunder on the Barbary Coast

The Occupation of Western Sahara

Some commentators have noted that America's reasons for involvement in Iraq may have been less motivated by a desire to eliminate 'weapons of mass destruction' than with ensuring American control over Iraq's oil fields. Meanwhile the pirates of the legendary 'Barbary Coast' today take the form of Morocco and its Western allies plundering resources, including potentially significant oil fields, in the illegally occupied 'backyard' territory of Western Sahara.

Having fought for independence for 27 years, are the people of Western Sahara set to join the appalling list of peoples who are displaced, tortured and disenfranchised because they stand in the way of the richest people earning even more money?

Background to the 'Backyard'

Western Sahara is situated in northwest Africa, bordered by Morocco to the north, Algeria to the east and Mauritania to the east and south. Western Sahara was a colony of Spain and the people (the Saharawi) speak Hassaniya (a dialect of Arabic), mostly with Spanish as a second language.

In 1975, Spain announced that it would be pulling out of the colony. The Spanish dictator Franco was on his deathbed and there was a rush to get the anachronistic colony off Spain's hands. Polisario (The Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el Hamra and Rio de Oro) had been organising resistance to Spanish colonialism since the '50s. Spain promised a vote on self-determination, as had happened with decolonisations in the rest of Africa.

However, there was immediate competition to seize the sparsely populated and mineral-rich Western Sahara. Morocco and Mauritania both claimed sovereignty over Western Sahara, and the case went to the International Court of Human Rights in The Hague. The Court ruled in favour of the Saharawi people's right to self-determination. But Morocco and Mauritania had other ideas, and in a secret meeting in Madrid, Spain signed an agreement to hand over the territory to them, in return for, amongst other things, fishing rights to the rich waters off the coast.

As usual, the enforcement of international law was dependent on whether it served the interests of the most powerful nations. In this case, it clearly didn't, and the situation in Western Sahara was studiously ignored by the nations of the world. Well, that's not entirely true - the US in particular and also France have long given substantial covert support to Morocco's military. Not to mention Britain, which, as part of Labour's 'ethical foreign policy', was recently found to have issued licences to upgrade guns on the Moroccan front line.[1]

In November 1975, King Hassan II of Morocco organised 350,000 ordinary Moroccans and soldiers in civilian clothes into the 'Green March'. This ostensibly peaceful march crossed the southern Moroccan border and took the capital of Western Sahara, El Ayoun. It was closely followed by a military invasion and an air offensive. As Morocco occupied from the north, the south was taken by Mauritania.

There was a mass exodus of most of the population of Western Sahara. Those who could fled deep into the desert and others were left behind in the occupied cities. The Moroccan airforce bombarded the Saharawi refugee camps in the desert using napalm, causing hundreds of deaths and pushing the refugees towards their only possible avenue of escape - walking through the desert to the small border with Algeria in the northeast corner of Western Sahara. The refugees eventually established camps in the southwest of Algeria, near Tindouf.[2]

Western Sahara Chronology

At the end of the 19th Century the whole of Africa was divided up between the European colonial powers. France and Spain were the two main powers in northwest Africa and they argued over the borders of their possessions. From the beginning there was resistance from the traditionally nomadic peoples of the area. For 40 years the 'Spanish Sahara' resisted all efforts at pacification.

France threatens to occupy the Spanish Sahara in order to stamp out the Saharawi resistance threatening its territories. This leads to Franco-Spanish military co-operation to achieve the final 'pacification' of the interior of Western Sahara. Spain takes possession of its 'colony'.
Discovery in Boucraa of the biggest high grade (70 to 80% pure) phosphate deposits in the world.
Riots and bloody battles between Spanish troops and the Saharawi resistance.
In a co-ordinated effort between France and Spain called the 'Ecouvillon Operation', the Saharawi Liberation Army was destroyed in order to save the Spanish Sahara and the nearby French possessions.
Rebirth of the Saharawi resistance movement with the formation of Liberation Movement for Saguia el Hamra y Rio de Oro under the leadership of Sidi Brahim Bassiri.
On June 17, Bassiri's movement organised a large, peaceful independence demonstration at Zemla (El Ayoun) against plans to turn the Sahara into a Spanish province. Many civilians were killed when the Spanish Foreign Legion massacred the demonstrators. The Liberation Movement was outlawed.
Spain begins phosphate exports in May. But Polisario begin their armed struggle against Spain by attacking the El-Khanga Spanish army post.
In January and March Spanish and Polisario forces clash at Galb Lahmar and then at Aoukeyra. Algeria begins for the first time to give some low-key support to Polisario. On September 30, Polisario supporters sabotage two control stations of the FosBoucraa mine's conveyor belt.
- Phosphate exports reach 2.4 million tons, making Western Sahara the sixth major phosphate exporter in the world.
- Spain pulls out and secretly hands the territory to Morocco and Mauritania.
- On May 14 Polisario guerrillas seize the commander of Spanish forces in Guelta Zemmur.
- On October 31 the Moroccan army crosses the Western Saharan border, clashing with Polisario as it tries to occupy Farsia, Haousa and Jdiriya.
- November 6 sees the 'Green March' of 350,000 civilians into Western Sahara, followed by military occupation. Mauritania occupies from the south.
- Between November and February Saharawi refugees begin to leave the cities.
- Moroccan troops arrive in El Ayoun on December 11.
- The Moroccan airforce bombards the camps in the desert and the exodus towards the Tindouf area begins.
- In January Polisario attacks the FosBoucraa conveyor belt, forcing a halt to phosphate mining for several years.
- In May, Polisario begins offensive military actions inside Morocco and Mauritania.
- In June, a column of Polisario guerrillas crosses 1,500 km of desert and shells Nouakchott, the Mauritanian capital.
- In April Polisario starts attacks on Spanish fishing boats.
- On May 1 Polisario guerrillas raid Zouerate in Mauritania, the centre of the iron ore industry, killing two French citizens and taking six others captive.
- Polisario shells Nouakchott for the second time on July 3.
- On November 13 Polisario boards the Saa, a Spanish fishing boat, and captures three Spanish fishermen.
- After two more French nationals are captured by Polisario in an attack on the Zouerat-Nouadhibou iron ore railway on October 25, the French airforce starts using Jaguar jets to bomb and strafe Polisario guerrillas in Mauritania.
- On April 20, Polisario guerrillas board a Spanish fishing boat, Las Palomas, and capture 8 of its crew.
- In May French Jaguars attack Polisario guerrillas again.
- On December 27 Polisario announces the launching of a new offensive and shortly afterwards guerrillas fight their way into Tan-Tan in southern Morocco.
- On June 13 Polisario guerrillas stage another attack in Tan-Tan.
- In August Mauritania renounces its claim to Western Sahara and promises to withdraw completely. Morocco annexes the southern half of Western Sahara once the Mauritanians pull out.
- In the second half of the year Polisario guerrillas overrun the Moroccan base of Lebouirate, fight their way into Smara and capture another Moroccan base at Mahbes: "The amount of Moroccan armour visibly lost to the Polisario is a defence arsenal which many small countries would be delighted to own..." (Shyam Bhatia, The Observer)
Building of the 'berm' or wall separating Moroccan and Polisario-controlled territories. FosBoucraa phosphate mine reopens from behind the safety of the wall.
Beginning of UN negotiated ceasefire. Morocco sends thousands of settlers to the territory and attempts to block the referendum process by forcing the UN to accept them as voters.
1991 onwards
Morocco continues to disrupt peace process and chances for a referendum.
Morocco divides offshore oil exploration rights on the Western Saharan coast between a US and a French oil company.
The UN Legal Department declares that Morocco is not the legal administering power. Western Sahara remains a Non Self-Governing country awaiting decolonisation. Kofi Annan adds partition to the options open to the Security Council for the future of Western Sahara.

The War and the Wall

In May 1976, having completed the refugee evacuation, Polisario began offensive military actions, spreading the war beyond Western Sahara's borders into southern Morocco and Mauritania. The war pitted Polisario's 2,000 well-trained and dedicated desert guerrillas against 20,000 or so young Moroccan conscripts and Mauritanian forces.

In the early years of the war, Polisario concentrated on attacking Mauritania, by far the weaker of their two enemies. Polisario guerrillas severely weakened Mauritania by repeatedly cutting the Zouerat-Nouadhibou railway line that was the main route for the export of iron ore, on which Mauritania depended for 80-90% of its export earnings. Impoverished Mauritania couldn't afford the costs of the war and despite Moroccan offers of military assistance, in July 1978 a military coup in Mauritania brought a new government into power, who announced a ceasefire with Polisario and agreed to withdraw from the parts of Western Sahara that they had originally occupied. The Moroccans moved into these areas as the Mauritanians withdrew.[3]

Despite the obvious advantages of Moroccan air power in the open desert, the Western Sahara proved hard to police for the Moroccans - isolated garrisons became vulnerable, being easily cut off and overwhelmed by Polisario forces. Also, after the ceasefire with Mauritania, Polisario used Mauritania as their main base for striking at Morocco. The small Mauritanian armed forces were unable to control the huge stretches of desert and didn't want to risk antagonising Polisario, who had so effectively destabilised the country before.[4]

War continued between Morocco and Polisario, who were gradually making inroads into liberating the eastern side of the country. At the beginning of the '80s these inroads were becoming too close for comfort for the Moroccans. Assisted by a billion dollar pay-out from the USA, they built one of the largest man-made structures in the world - a giant wall 1,500 miles long, separating the Polisario-controlled eastern section of Western Sahara from the Moroccan-controlled parts in the west. Polisario attempts to disrupt the construction of the wall led to some heavy fighting, but by May 1982 it was complete. The wall (or berm to the Moroccans) is manned every 5 kilometres by soldiers (over 120,000 in all) and it is lined on both sides by at least 200 metres of anti-personnel landmines.

Polisario have been very effective despite being outgunned. Their main advantages have been their knowledge of the territory; their use of physical and climactic characteristics (e.g. sirocco sandstorms) to impede Morocco's technological advantage; and their use of rapid hit-and-run style tactics, choosing the location and timing of attack, whereas the Moroccans are stuck defending their wall.[5]

But despite this, the wall has resulted in what amounts to a military stalemate. With neither side able to win decisively in the field, military activity was scaled down in the mid-1980s. Polisario control a big chunk of the country, but anything of any importance (the fishing ports, the cities and the phosphate mines) is on the Moroccan side of the wall.[6]

On this map can be seen the Moroccan wall or 'berm', the phosphate mine at Boucraa, the conveyor belt from Boucraa to El Ayoun and the iron ore transportation railway in Mauritania between Zouerat and Nouadhibou.

Global Politics, Local Realities

As the support given to Morocco by the US and European countries is mostly covert, there are no 'official' reasons given to justify it. Clearly the atmosphere of international politics at the beginning of the '80s was dominated by the Cold War. Polisario was backed by leftist Third World governments like Libya, Algeria and Cuba. By contrast Morocco is a conservative monarchy. It is obvious which side was going to get support from Western Europe and the USA. Also important for both Europe and the US is Morocco's control over the Straits of Gibraltar. The Straits provide all of southern Europe with the only route out to the Atlantic Ocean. There may have been concern amongst European governments that to upset Morocco could destabilise the area.

Algeria has always supported Polisario since before the Spanish left. Algeria says that it supports all liberation struggles. It is also highly probable that Algeria would like to have a trade route out to the Atlantic through Western Sahara. The Atlas Mountains make routes out through Morocco difficult, and in the '80s Algeria was fighting its own border dispute there.

Eventually, the war ended with a UN-brokered ceasefire in 1991. A referendum for the Saharawi people to decide the future of the territory was planned for 1992. The two sides have been unable to agree on who can vote in the referendum. Polisario have always maintained that the voting list for the referendum should be based on the Spanish census, taken in 1974. However, Morocco has repeatedly insisted that all the migrants it has moved into occupied Western Sahara since 1975 should be entitled to vote. In January 2000 a voter list of 86,000 was published by the UN. Immediately, Morocco lodged 130,000 appeals. Due to this persistent obstruction from the Moroccan side, the referendum has still not taken place.

Living in the Refugee Camps, Living in Occupied Western Sahara

The majority of the Saharawi people, 175,000 people, continue to live in refugee camps in the harsh environment of the Sahara desert. Every Saharawi family is divided. The rest have the 'luxury' of living in houses in the occupied territories under Moroccan military rule, where disappearances, torture and arbitrary detention are the norm. They are locked into Western Sahara just as firmly as the others are locked out.

Between Tindouf and the Algerian/Western Saharan border are four highly organised refugee camps. In the first years of exile there was widespread disease and hunger in the camps as the Saharawi adjusted to life in exile, expecting at any moment to be able to return to their homes in the cities of Western Sahara. However, over time these camps have developed and now have hospitals, schools and irrigated gardens. Nevertheless, the Saharawi still continue to live in tents in the expectation that they will soon return to Western Sahara - to build permanent dwellings would be to concede that they were going to be staying in the southern corner of Algeria. For the same reason they plant vegetables in their gardens but not fruit trees, not expecting to be around long enough to harvest the fruit.[7] All families have a large square tent, and over the years most have added a mud brick kitchen and bathroom.

Saharawis were almost all nomads 50 years ago. Today there are still a few families who maintain the traditional Berber nomadic life, keeping camels and travelling over the desert.[8] Patterns of movement are obviously restricted by the wall and large areas of landmines. Nonetheless, 'sedentary' Saharawi who may have fled from the cities to the camps sometimes take a walk with the camels down to Mauritania and back. Nomadism is a key aspect of Saharawi identity and even those not practising a fully nomadic life appear to reserve and need the right to roam.

The area of desert where the refugee camps are situated is in a part of the Sahara desert that is officially considered inhospitable with an environment incapable of supporting human life. The gardens the Saharawi have built defy this notion. Plants are grown with painstaking attention to irrigation and water conservation. Even so, there are not nearly enough vegetables grown to feed everyone, and in the past fresh vegetables have been limited to the elderly, the sick and to children.

Everyone in the camps lives off international aid, and the lack of famine is testament to the highly structured systems of food distribution and management of civic responsibilities. In the last few years money has been introduced to the camps and shops have consequently emerged. Whilst in principle all Saharawis are equal and treated equally, access to currency and the opportunities offered to those who can study and work abroad is increasingly creating some disparity. Families that have members working or studying abroad are more likely to own a television, radio or other luxury goods.

The refugee camps boast one of the highest literacy rates in Africa (and the world!) at 90%. All children attend primary school in the camps, and at the age of 11-14 most go away to school in Algeria to finish their studies. Algeria also provides some university places. Cuba provides huge assistance with education and there are around 2,000 young Saharawis at university there, especially in the medical field.

In the occupied zone of Western Sahara there are thousands of Moroccan families, lured by tax incentives, living mostly in the three main cities: El Ayoun, Smara and Dhakla. Also, tens of thousands of nomads from the north were trucked into El Ayoun in 1991 to help Morocco win the promised referendum. They are still waiting there in huge squalid camps around El Ayoun, subsisting on government food rations.[9] 70% of the population is now from 'the north', but it seems that the Saharawi still maintain a distinctive identity, despite constant surveillance and persecution.

The voter identification process during 1995-1999 brought families together from the two sides of the wall, many of whom had had no contact with one another since 1975. Mobile phones have transformed communication, but few people have them and there are problems with reception. There is daily contact between human rights workers in Spain and the people in the occupied zone. But on the whole very little is known about life there because of restrictions on foreign journalists.

The Ecology of Occupation

King Hassan II and his successor, King Mohammed VI, justify the occupation of Western Sahara by arguing that it was part of former 'Greater Morocco' (as was a good bit of Algeria, some of Mauritania and Mali, and the Spanish cities of Ceuta and Melilla prior to European colonisation). This is coupled with a denial of a distinct Saharawi ethnic group - they're really just pesky Moroccans pretending to be different to cause trouble. Moroccan children are taught in school that the territory of Western Sahara is justifiably Moroccan and that the Saharawi don't really exist, so it is no surprise if much of the population believes this right royal nationalist rhetoric. However, logic dictates that no matter how proud a country is of its grandiose past, it just isn't worth spending an estimated $1-5 million a day to keep a patch of sand for a backyard.[10]

In 1961, a mining engineer made a declaration to the Supreme Council for Scientific Studies in Madrid, stating that among the minerals that had 'already been discovered' in Western Sahara were nickel, chrome, platinum, gold, silver and copper. More recently uranium and titanium have been found, as well as one of the greatest reserves of vanadium, which is used in the production of hard steel.

Don't Try this at Home Kids!

Usjario logoUJSARIO is the youth wing of the Polisario. They carry out underground work in the occupied territories. As well as pro-independence graffiti and spreading political material, they have also developed a novel new form of propaganda - catching cats and dogs, clothing them in Polisario flags and then letting them loose in the streets!


However probably the largest factor motivating the Moroccan occupation is Western Sahara's abundant phosphate reserves. The open mine at Boucraa has reserves estimated at ten thousand million tonnes over an area of 1,200 km[2] - the richest phosphate mine in the world.[11] The mine is run by the Moroccan company FosBoucraa, with the profits going to the Moroccan royal family. Phosphate is one of the main ingredients of Nitrogen, Potassium and Phosphorous (or NKP as it is usually called), which is the main modern agricultural fertiliser. Phosphate is very rare but without phosphate reserves primarily in Western Sahara and Australia, modern industrial agriculture would be impossible. Indeed, it is the demands of industrial agriculture that have been largely fuelling the conflict in Western Sahara.[12]

The largest conveyor belt system in the world - 99 miles long - carries phosphates from Boucraa to the port at El Ayoun. This was especially targeted by Polisario during the war to great effect. It was impossible to defend along its entire length and Polisario managed to halt production at the mine for several years, causing a huge economic impact. However, the completion of the wall in 1982 allowed the reopening of the mine, which had been closed since the beginning of the war.

Fishing and Fighting

Western Sahara also has a fishing ground richer than any other in the continent, and probably the world, off its coast. The cold currents of the Atlantic that are pushed inland by the Canary Islands mix with the warm waters at the coast, providing an ideal spawning and feeding ground. There are over 200 species of fish, 60 species of mollusc and dozens of species of squid, octopus and crustaceans, including prawns.

As already mentioned, Spain made sure they got their sticky hands on some of this before they left. However, their licences with Morocco to fish in Western Saharan waters expired in 1987 and were re-negotiated through the EU. Each time the agreement was renewed, Morocco imposed stricter conditions, until in 2001 the EU and Spain refused and the agreement lapsed. The European fleet are a bit miffed about losing their Saharan fishing grounds and a recent television programme reported that EU fishing trawlers are creeping around the marine borders of Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara and exploiting areas off Mauritania.[13]

Even though the European fleet left Western Saharan waters in 1999, fish stocks are still severely depleted and the area has yet to recover from the damage their drift-net fishing has done. Drift nets act as gigantic rakes, trapping not only all the fish irrespective of size which are in their path, but also destroying the habitat and the holes where the fish living on the sea bed spawn.[14]

Needless to say, whilst the EU has benefited from sales of fish from Western Saharan waters for 25 years, none of the money went to the Saharawi. Morocco earned an estimated $100 million a year from the EU fishing fleet in Western Saharan waters. These sales were controlled by a few fishing companies that just so happen to be owned and run by three top army officials.[15]

Referendum and Refineries

After 27 years of occupation, any resolution to the conflict in the Western Sahara seems ever more remote. Recently, the UN seems to have more or less turned its back on Saharawi independence by suggesting a 'framework agreement'. This euphemistic title actually involves Morocco retaining sovereignty, whilst providing limited autonomy to the Saharawi.

In a recent book, a former top UN diplomat reveals that the UN secretly planned to sell out the Saharawis as far back as 1997. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan had decided to ditch the idea of a referendum and appointed James Baker to be his personal envoy to Western Sahara specifically to push through a deal for Western Sahara to stay under Moroccan control. While both Annan and Baker were publicly declaring themselves committed to the referendum process, privately they were trying to do a deal with Morocco to stitch up the Saharawis.[16]

Similarly to the Eritreans in their war against Haile Selassie's Ethiopia (See 'Tunnels of the World' in Do or Die No. 8, p. 59), Polisario have made good use of secret underground bases. Left: an army base built into the rock face. Right: an underground field hospital.

Morocco's obsession with maintaining control over Western Sahara may not be unconnected with deposits of crude oil known to exist both inland and offshore. Oil was first discovered in the late '60s. At first found in the form of bituminous shale, processing plants were not developed because the processing costs were prohibitive at the time.[17 ]However, in 1982, the Moroccan government concluded an agreement with Shell for construction of a $4.5 billion treatment plant capable of providing the highly developed techniques needed to exploit bituminous shale. It is not known whether the plant is up and running.

Recently, two contracts for prospecting offshore in Western Saharan waters have been granted by Morocco. One contract has gone to the American company Kerr McGee and the other to French-based Total.[18] Not surprisingly, America and France are the two main backers of the 'framework agreement'. French President Jacques Chirac has even referred to Western Sahara as Morocco's "southern provinces," a clear indication of where the West sees the future of the territory.

On what was supposed to have been the eve of a referendum for the Saharawi to choose between integration with Morocco and independence, it seems the oil industry and its Western backers are aiming to leave Western Sahara in Moroccan hands and while allowing Western oil companies access to Saharawi oil reserves.

Bizarrely enough one of the main groups doing international support work for the Polisario has been the Woodcraft Folk - a sort of left-wing pacifist version of the Scouts. They've done exchanges programmes between Saharawian and British kids.

Left: Polisario president Abdel-Aziz is presented with the Woodcraft Folk's annual report during a 1993 Woodcraft trip to the refugee camps. Right: During a Woodcraft-organised visit to Britain in 1990, Saharawi children were taken to see Hadrian's Wall - a ruined monument to an earlier tyrant's attempts to wall out the barbarian tribes.

Contact: The Woodcraft Folk, 13 Ritherdon Road, London SW17 8QE, UK.

In January 2002 the UN legal department issued an opinion that any exploitation of the oil resources must have Saharawi consent and any profits should benefit them.[19] However, this seems increasingly unlikely to happen as arch-scumbag James Baker, the man in charge of resolving the conflict, has his own close ties to the oil industry and to Kerr McGee. His James Baker Institute at Rice University funded a study on 'Strategic Energy Policy' written by a director of Kerr McGee; and Baker's law firm, Baker & Botts, recently assisted in a $1.5 billion bond issue by Kerr McGee.

Baker was US Secretary of State under George Bush Senior. He also is a partner in the Carlyle Group, the controversial Washington-based arms trading company.[20] Helpfully for his job in Western Sahara, Baker has had previous experience in rigging dodgy elections - as George W. Bush's personal fix-it man in Florida, he helped organise the fiddling of the presidential elections. Also helpful is the appointment of his former colleague and close friend Margaret Tutwiler as the US ambassador to Morocco. One former associate of Tutwiler confided that "she was obviously placed there by Baker and his oil buddies to help cut oil deals."[21]

As international politics becomes ever more cosy in its bed with multinationals, it is difficult to believe that this blatant plunder of Western Sahara will be stopped. After all, oil companies have an extensive and infamous history of supporting any 'stable' government, no matter how vicious, who will assist them in suppressing local peoples who get in the way of earning a dollar.

Peacekeeping Package Tours?

Not wanting to concentrate exclusively on resource extraction industries, it seems that Morocco is realising the potential of extending their success in the tourist industry to their valuable backyard.

Abdellatif Guerraoui, the Moroccan wali (governor) of Western Sahara has identified tourism as one of the main developing sectors of the occupation-economy of Western Sahara and has said that "we will also interest the tour-operators so they put on charters to the region."[22]

And in a 'stranger than fiction' turn of events, ClubMed is rumoured to be acquiring accommodation once used to house the UN peacekeeping mission. Personally, I can't wait to see how ClubMed would promote it in their next glossy brochure - "Yes! You too can experience the bureaucratic foot-dragging of Moroccan administration and live out your fantasy of being an international peacekeeper..."

Presumably, whilst Saharawis are effectively kept as prisoners in their own land, tourists staying at the ClubMed resort would be allowed to walk around freely. Will they be offered desert safaris, being sure to keep to marked routes in this indiscriminately mined country? We will have to wait and see if exotic desert holidays will be offered in the occupied capital city.

Where to Now?

There were several motivations for Morocco's occupation of Western Sahara. It continues to be a valuable distraction for the army, who, in the run up to occupation in 1975 had organised several coups against the King. Additionally, it is clear that the wealth to be gained from the destruction of Western Saharan ecology was a key factor. The territory represents a potentially huge profit earner for Morocco. This becomes important as although Morocco's economy is in crisis, the ruling elite is clearly determined to appropriate as much money they can. Morocco can hardly afford to finance its international debt, and yet the royal family and army generals live a life of corruptly luxuriant comfort, with some $200 million allocated to service the monarchy in the 2001 budget.[23] Morocco's friendship with American and European governments and multinationals has precluded international outcry at the ongoing occupation, and the disappearances, arbitrary detention and torture common in occupied Western Sahara.

Western Sahara Ecology

The temperature can reach a scorching 135ºF in summer and plunge below freezing in winter. Most of the area consists of sand dunes that move with the seasons. There are almost no landmarks, roads or tracks and only a few small thorny trees and gorse bushes. It sometimes doesn't rain for years at a time and there is almost no surface water. Sirocco sandstorms can blow for days on end, covering everything in sand. However the world's biggest desert is far from deserted and the Sahara is home to a surprising variety of life - from burrowing lizards, snakes, sunspiders and scorpions to falcons, gazelles, antelopes, jackals, badgers and hyenas. The Sahara is also home to around 40 species of rodents, including gerbils and mice. Other small mammals include insect-eaters such as hedgehogs and shrews, and carnivores such as foxes, cats and weasels.

Given the costs involved in maintaining the wall and infrastructure, it is difficult to explain why Morocco hangs on to their backyard so tightly. Initially, Mauritania and Morocco said in justifying their occupation, that it was unfair for such a small population to control such wealth. The economist Von Hippel has argued that Morocco's continuing occupation represents a case of 'sunk-cost reasoning'.[24] They have invested so much time and money in Western Sahara that to pull out would mean not only losing the investment, but could also lead to a serious loss of face for the government and royal family.

Hence, a political stalemate has been reached, for which the Saharawi have lived through seventeen years of war and eleven years of waiting for a referendum. They have packed their bags and all of their possessions on many occasions, believing that a visit from a UN representative or some other new political development might bring an imminent decision. Let's hope one day soon they can pack their bags and return home for good..

In memory of Mohammed Fadel ould Ismail ould Es-Sweyih.


Western Sahara Campaign UK, Oxford Chambers, Oxford Place, Leeds LS1 3AX, UK.
Telephone/Fax: 0113 245 4756

North African Anarchy

" Set Sail for the Lands of Insolence!"

Throughout the Middle East there are several different ethnic groups which have been referred to as "inhabiting lands of insolence" because they live in defiance of centralised government authority.

They are tribally organised, with highly decentralised, anarchic politics. The Berbers (or as they call themselves, the Imazighen, meaning 'free men') who dwell in northwest Africa are probably the most anarchic of these peoples.

In recent decades, due mainly to improved military technology, all Imazighen across north Africa have fallen much more under the control of centralised nation states. But until the 1960s the Berber peoples of the Sahara were essentially nomadic and in this traditional tribal society no one tribe exerted any direct or indirect power over any other. Each of the 40 tribes that made up the Saharawi was represented in an overall governing body called the Assembly of Forty. This is in contrast with other neighbouring societies, for example Morocco, where there was a hereditary monarch with absolute powers, or Mauritania, where the strongest tribe dominated and extracted tribute from the weaker tribes. Each Saharawi tribe was divided into sub-tribes which had so much autonomy that a colonial historian from Spain described them as living in “complete anarchy”. Disputes were handled either in a friendly way or by compensation according to Islamic laws. More serious disputes were taken to the counsel of the chiefs of tribes, called Ait Arbein. To this day a similar structure exists in the administration of the Saharawi refugee camps. [1]

Another traditionally anarchic Berber group are the 'Kabyle' - Imazighen farmers of northern Algeria - a group that was noted with favour by Kropotkin. Kabyle villages are independent entities. From 10 to 20 comprise a tribe, but this has no effective function, being at most a voluntary association or alliance called upon on rare occasions for mutual defence. About a dozen tribes are found in Kabylia. Each village has a council, made up of spokespeople from each neighbourhood which decides on all matters of communal importance. There are no policemen and no jails, and in cases of conflict the village council usually seeks to mediate between disputants and to find a compromise, the aim being not so much establishing guilt, but restoring group harmony. Councils operate on the basis of established set of customs peculiar to each village and act only when agreement is unanimous. The two main sanctions available to the village council are banishment and ostracism (seen as a symbolic putting to death) and ultimate power rests with the community’s willingness to carry out these sanctions. [2]


1) From and
2) People Without Government: An Anthropology of Anarchy by Harold Barclay (Kahn and Averill, London, 1990) pp. 38 & 96-99


1) 20 June 2002,

2) New Internationalist - 'Desert Dawn: War and Peace in Western Sahara', No. 297, December 1997, p. 12

3) Op. Cit. p. 13

4) Guerrilla Warfare from 1939 to the Present Day by Robin Corbett, (Guild Publishing, London, 1986) pp. 165-6

5) 'Western Sahara under Polisario Control: Summary Report of Field Mission to the Saharawi Refugee Camps' by Michael Bhatia, Review of African Political Economy Issue No. 88

6) Op. Cit. 4, p. 166

7) Guerrillas: The Inside Story of the World's Revolutionaries by Jon Lee Anderson (Harper Collins, London, 1993) p. 112

8) See 'Geography, History and Culture' section. For an in-depth study see Western Sahara - The Roots of a Desert War by Tony Hodges (Conneticut, Lawrence & Hill Company, 1983).

9) 'First light in the Sahara' by Katherine Butler, The Independent, May 18 2002.

10) Estimate made by the International Institute of Strategic Studies, London.

11) The First State of Western Sahara by Mohammed Fadel ould Ismail ould Ses-Sweyih (French edition, L'Harmattan, Paris, 2001) English edition forthcoming.

12) See 'Farmageddon! - Confronting Industrial Agriculture' in Do or Die No. 7, p. 42. On the web at:

13) 'Unreported World: Selling the Future', Channel Four, 16 November 2001.

14) Ahmed Chater in Le Matin Eco-Maroc, March 12, 2002.

15) Khatry Beirouk - 'Morocco's Lawlessness and Anarchy a Threat to Spain', on the web at:

16) Western Sahara Campaign Press Release, May 5, 2003.

17) Wim de Neuter, article in The Saharawis: Anger and Hope, translated by Western Sahara Campaign UK, 1999. Originally published by Oxfam Solidarite Belgique.


19) Hans Correll, Under Secretary for Legal Affairs, The Legal Council, January 29, 2002.

20) Western Sahara Campaign Press Release, May 5, 2003.

21) 'Big Oil and James Baker Target the Western Sahara' by Wayne Madsen, CounterPunch, January 8, 2003,

22) L'Economiste, December 19, 2001.

23) Khatry Beirouk (2001) at:

24) K. Von Hippel (1996) - 'Sunk in the Sahara: The Applicability of the Sunk Cost Effect to Irredentist Disputes' in The Journal of North African Studies, Vol. 1, No. 1, pp. 95-116

Do or Die DTP/web team: