/ 3 February 2017

Morocco’s AU return: Colony in peril

The Western Saharan desert  may be inhospitable
The Western Saharan desert may be inhospitable

Rahdi Bachir does not like this prison. He does not like the confinement or the view of his world framed by the thick iron bars. This cannot be home.

But Bachir understands that these sacrifices are necessary in a war. And he should know. This year marks 40 years of fighting.

“It is good to struggle. When you are in [a] struggle, you know that you are alive. Once you stop, then what do you live for?”

The territory of Western Sahara that ambassador Bachir fights for is an expanse of desert the size of Britain. The mercury regularly reaches 50°C and between the few drops of rain and the omnipresent sand, little, if anything, grows.

But it’s home. Not this fortress with faded, scarred walls where security lights have been ripped out and a purely decorative buzzer.

It’s from here, an embassy office in the shadow of Pretoria’s Union Buildings, that Bachir wages his diplomatic battles to help liberate Africa’s last remaining colony.

Formerly a Spanish colony, Western Sahara was invaded by Morocco and Mauritania shortly after the coloniser’s withdrawal in 1975. Mauritania relented a few years later, leaving Morocco to fight a protracted battle against the Polisario Front, the liberation movement fighting for independence.

The guns finally fell silent after a United Nations-brokered ceasefire in 1991. Numerous attempts at brokering a lasting resolution have failed, leaving Morocco in control of three-quarters of Western Sahara.

Rabat has gone about populating much of that territory with its own people, in preparation for a referendum. Meanwhile, most Sahrawi people live in refugee camps in Algeria, in an inhospitable area colloquially known as “the Devil’s Garden”. It seems no coincidence that the Sahrawi flag is a near-replica of the Palestinian flag.

And in the diplomatic war for Sahrawi independence, this past week dealt a colossal blow for Bachir’s country, by most people’s reckoning. The African Union — the successor to the Organisation of African Unity from which Morocco withdrew in 1984 after the organisation formally recognised Western Sahara — had finally acceded to Morocco’s request for readmission.

“I am finally home,” declared Moroccan King Mohammed VI. The king’s journey “home” had indeed been a long one, fêting heads of state and signing economic agreements that played no small part in tipping the scales in Morocco’s favour.

For an African country that for decades has hitched its wagon to the European Union and the Arab League, a return to the continent is seen as part of a strategy to continue its strong economic growth as it seeks new opportunities.

The Sahrawi flag hangs limply at the entrance to Bachir’s “fortress” in Pretoria, but in the embassy behind the burglar-proofed windows, he is upbeat.

“This is a good thing. Now we have a forum to sit together. They cannot ignore us,” he says.

Despite the fact that Morocco received more than the requisite votes to rejoin the AU, Bachir believes his country still enjoys the unequivocal support of most nations in pursuit of liberation.

For its part, Polisario, the de facto Sahrawi government, has already managed to scupper trade deals Morocco has with the EU and is pushing to curtail its occupier further by challenging deals brokered between Morocco and Western nations pursuing interests in occupied Sahrawi territory.

“We’ve already done it in Europe and the United States, so it will be easier in Africa,” affirms Bachir.

But experts warn that Morocco is likely to press its advantage to lobby for the suspension of Western Sahara from the AU, on the premise that it would create conditions conducive to brokering an outcome.

King Mohammed said as much in Rabat’s initial application to reclaim the country’s seat at the continental table. The Sahrawis have wasted no time in insisting that Morocco, as a fully fledged member, should respect the continental borders and move swiftly towards a referendum in the occupied territory. It’s a battle that’s likely to play out prominently in continental politics in the coming years.

Bachir, however, is a believer. He points to the ANC’s nearly century-long struggle for freedom.

But even his optimism is tempered by the reality at home, where generations of young people who’ve grown up in refugee camps in neighbouring Algeria know only tales of home. And they are angry.

Observers of this drawn-out standoff periodically warn of a return to open warfare, with Polisario constantly readying its hopelessly outnumbered military for battle against the formidable Moroccan army. Since the end of 2016, the two armies have crept within firing distance, with a new standoff emerging over a road Rabat is building in the occupied territory, seen as an attempt to extend its control.

Bachir delights in stories of subterfuge and guerilla warfare, ways of neutralising the thousands of landmines and penetrating the 2 700km Moroccan wall that splits the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic.

“The best part of life is when you are struggling. When you know what you are fighting for,” he insists.

Moments later, Bachir is out the door and beyond the high walls, nimbly navigating a modest sedan, swallowed by the bustling Tshwane fray, his red diplomatic plates the only thing betraying his course.