/ 2 February 2017

‘Liberation deferred’ for Western Sahara

Indigenous Sahrawi people gather during the funeral of Western Sahara's Polisario Front leader Mohamed Abdelaziz in Tindouf
Indigenous Sahrawi people gather during the funeral of Western Sahara's Polisario Front leader Mohamed Abdelaziz in Tindouf

The decision of the African Union to readmit the Kingdom of Morocco to the fold following a 33-year absence has meant that the dreams and aspirations of the Sahrawi people have been deferred for another day.

The quest for nationhood for the people of the Western Sahara remains one of the continent’s longest unresolved political questions – and now the quest to reach a resolution remains as elusive as ever.

While the ANC respects the decision of the AU, it finds the decision regrettable and at odds with the organisation’s Agenda 2063: a vision of “an Africa of good governance, democracy, respect for human rights, justice and the rule of law”.

This is a significant setback, not just to the cause of the Sahrawi people but for postcolonial struggles across the global South.

The decision taken at the 28th AU Summit in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa was not supported by countries led by former liberation movements on the continent, among them South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Mozambique and Algeria.

These countries have consistently argued that the matter of the Western Sahara should be prioritised when considering the readmission of Morocco and that the provisions of the Constitutive Act of the African Union (2000) should be respected – particularly as it relates to illegal occupation of territory and respect for borders. Morocco ratified the Act last month.

It is not a just solution for Morocco to enjoy the benefits of AU membership while the Sahrawi people languish in refugee camps, suffering the unjust occupation of their ancestral land.

The ANC reaffirms its position that the occupation of the Western Sahara by Morocco is a form of colonialism. Morocco, on the other hand, has repeatedly asserted its right to “territorial integrity”.

The annexation of the territory by Morocco and Mauritania in the mid-1970s has led to successive conflicts between the Moroccan army and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Río de Oro (Polisario). For more than four decades, hundreds of thousands of people have suffered displacement, poverty, discrimination and war.

Despite a number of UN resolutions, Morocco has failed to facilitate a referendum on self-determination for the region. By readmitting Morocco the AU is tacitly turning a blind eye to the occupation.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has repeatedly drawn attention to instances of human rights violations and political repression in the Western Sahara.

In its latest report HRW notes that Moroccan authorities have “systematically prevented pro-independence gatherings in Western Sahara, denied HRW and Amnesty International permission to conduct research missions in Western Sahara […] and expelled foreign TV crews as well as foreign delegations who came to witness human rights conditions in Western Sahara” .

South Africa was among the first countries to recognise the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). A number of UN member states recognise the SADR while others have either subsequently “frozen” or withdrawn recognition, or have abstained from taking a position on the issue. This is because of pressure from Morocco and its allies, which they would term their “diplomatic efforts”.

The Western Sahara has been described as “poverty-stricken but resource-rich”. The nongovernmental organisation Western Sahara Resource Watch notes that the region is rich in oil and phosphates, with potentially lucrative opportunities in the fishing and agriculture sectors.

Although this would go a long way towards explaining the reluctance of the Moroccan government to leave the territory, the issue is one of occupation.

Unfortunately, the AU has chosen the route of “liberation deferred”. Liberia’s President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf reportedly told journalists: “I think we’re going to leave that until we have more chance to discuss it.”

Had members of the Organisation for African Unity (OAU), the precursor of the AU, said the same of the struggle for liberation by the people of South Africa, we would possibly never have secured the mass-based international support for our cause that ultimately resulted in a successful sanctions campaign against apartheid South Africa.

The OAU was among the foremost opponents of the apartheid regime, recognising as it did that the continent could not be free unless South Africa was free. Numerous African heads of state, including Kwame Nkrumah, repeatedly affirmed this, with Nkrumah famously asserting: “The independence of Ghana is meaningless unless it is linked with the total liberation of the continent.”

The leaders of the African continent owe it to history to count themselves among the supporters of the Sahrawi people’s right to self-determination. Four decades into the occupation of the Western Sahara, the ANC hopes this issue will not be sacrificed at the altar of political expediency.

Edna Molewa is the Minister of Environmental Affairs. She writes in her capacity as chairperson of the international relations subcommittee of the ANC