logo logo

The struggle in the Western Sahara combines old and new colonialism, says Sahrawi activist

All the versions of this article: [English] [Español] [français]

photo: Saharauiak / CC BY-SA 2.0 | 8 February 2021

The struggle in the Western Sahara combines old and new colonialism, says Sahrawi activist

Interview with Jalihenna Mohamed

Jalihenna Mohamed is the vice president of the volunteer group Sahrawis Against the Plunder. He’s also a volunteer at the Sahrawi ministry of youth. He used to be the international officer of the Sahrawi student union.

The Western Sahara is a disputed territory situated between Morocco and Mauritania. Until 1975, it was colonised by Spain, which then transferred control over the region to both countries. This move was resisted by a Sahrawi nationalist movement, the Polisario Front, which proclaimed the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. The conflict forced Mauritania to withdraw from the region in 1979, and Morocco took over most of it, including all the major cities and natural resources. Since a United Nations-backed ceasefire in 1991, two-thirds of the territory stayed under the administration of Morocco while the other third became governed by the Polisario, considered to be the legitimate representative of the Sahrawi people. A referendum on self-determination was scheduled for 1992 but never occurred. In November 2020, the armed struggle resumed after Morocco launched a military operation in the demilitarized buffer zone near the city of Guerguerat, a region of economic importance located on the border with Mauritania. Can you describe living conditions in the Western Sahara?

Jalihenna Mohamed: The whole situation caused by the war after the Spanish left and the subsequent Moroccan military invasion has separated Sahrawis into three main areas where living conditions differ. There are those who live under Moroccan occupation and who are not allowed to protest or express their political positions. In these areas, there are also Moroccan settlers who take job opportunities from local Sahrawis. The Moroccan military and police presence is very strong. Then some live in liberated zones controlled by the Polisario authorities and the Sahrawi government. Mainly Bedouins and shepherds live there and raise animals, while there have been growing communities in cities like Meharrize, Bir Lahlou and Tifiriti for instance. And finally there those like me, who are living in refugee camps in Algeria, depending on humanitarian aid.

Are there common aspirations among Sahrawi people?

All Sahrawis, wherever they are, agree that there has been a lot of time given to the United Nations since the 1991 ceasefire to organise a referendum for the Sahrawis to decide on the independence of the region. In fact we observe now that the UN forces’ only task has been to protect the ceasefire. So they are de facto protecting Morocco’s plunder of our natural resources and its exercise of sovereignty over a big part of our land. I was born in a refugee camp and there’s not a single Sahrawi born here or elsewhere who wants to remain in this situation. I don’t want my son, for instance, to live this experience of a refugee on other people’s land. Instead I’d rather enjoy our land and our resources to live a normal, stable life.

How do you judge the European Union’s attitude towards the region, since it backed the application of the EU-Morocco trade deal to the Western Sahara, in spite of a decision from the European Court of Justice that stated otherwise?

The European Court of Justice was very clear that the Western Sahara is a distinct and separate region. Therefore, legally Morocco has no legitimacy to apply such agreement to Western Sahara and to exploit our natural resources. The EU can only have any agreement with Morocco insofar as it applies to the recognized borders of the Moroccan kingdom, which does not include the Western Sahara. We are surprised that the EU continues to apply the agreement to the region. We consider that the EU is legitimizing the illegal Moroccan occupation and taking a stand with Morocco while, in the case of Palestine, which is the same as the Western Sahara, Europeans are doing something else with Palestinian products coming from Israeli companies. It’s a double standard we cannot really understand.

Have you tried to oppose this contradiction?

Currently the Polisario is taking legal action against the EU’s decision to have a trade agreement with Morocco for the occupied Western Sahara, which includes fish and agriculture. And also in the recent events in Guerguerat, for instance, where we are very aware that some products coming from Mauritania are intended to be exported to European countries, protesters have blocked trucks coming from Mauritania.

What have the impacts of the agreement been on the region?

We have clear indications that Morocco is benefitting from the agreement. The income generated from the plundering of our resources is directly fueling the occupation since Morocco does not have resources such as gas, oil, etc. That’s how Morocco is paying for the forces that control the territory or the settlers aiming to change the demographics of the Western Sahara.

Do you know specific examples?

In Dakhla, for instance, the company of the King and French companies are exploiting renewable energies, like the Sun, and deep waters for agricultural projects. And 97% of the contracts provided by the Moroccan authorities went to Moroccan settlers who only came 15 or 20 years ago, while local people lack job opportunities and suffer from poverty. The EU claims to be a place of democracy and human rights but it is neglecting this reality and conducting its policies in full awareness of the situation.

What do you make of the recent US recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara and the opening of a US consulate in Dakhla [by the Trump administration]?

We consider this illegal. Of course all of this is because of economic interests. But we actually see this as a non-event. It’s not new. Trump is isolated. Today is his last day in the office [the interview was done on 19 January] and he’s almost in a state of madness. For us, this is the deal between a president-king in the US and a god-king in Morocco. These people think they are above legality, democracy and humanity. But the reality on the ground has been changing since 13 November 2020. The Sahrawi people’s new slogan is: actions speak louder than words.

You don’t seem too worried about this?

I’d be more fearful if this had happened during the no peace-no war status quo. But now with the resumption of the armed struggle by the Sahrawis, I don’t see any company making an investment in a war zone, where stability cannot be guaranteed. Morocco enjoyed a fake stability for 30 years and managed to advertise that the region was stable and open for business. Somehow Trump has helped to put the Western Sahara back under the spotlight and proved that we are on the right side. But still, we hope that the new US administration will reconsider its position. The Americans are not doing a favour to the region’s development and open the door for other countries to claim sovereignty over disputed territories.

In return for the US decision, Morocco normalised its diplomatic relations with Israel. Now they’re talking about signing an investment agreement. Do you see Israeli investors seizing this opportunity to start new business ventures in the region?

Morocco has played its last card in the Western Sahara conflict. Again I don’t see anyone making an investment in the region where there is a conflict. Israel has actually supported Morocco in its war in the Western Sahara since the ‘70s, and so has the US. Israel has sent experts, technical advisers to support Morocco in the region since then. It didn’t start today.

What can be done to support your struggle?

We think that people’s struggles against oppressors in Palestine and South Africa are good example to follow to put pressure on these governments. The case of Western Sahara is very forgotten but we can learn from these experiences. After all the legal actions taken by the Polisario front, we now need to improve our international networking. We need the public in every country to be aware of their governments’ and companies’ involvement in the Western Sahara, and to work with us from there by putting pressure on them and exposing their actions. We don’t have the capacity as Sahrawis to reach all these stakeholders. The campaign around the case of New Zealand importing phosphate from our region is a good example of a small group of volunteers making a difference by contacting the local media and MPs, and bringing the case to a discussion at the Parliament. Now we are preparing an international campaign like Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) for Palestine. We hope that this campaign will gain enough support in order to have a sufficient impact. Our case is not an isolated one. There are a lot of oppressed people around the world who have achieved their goals, and other who are still fighting. Our main supporters come from this background. We are one of the last cases of old colonialism and our struggle is interacting with new practices of colonialism, where economic interests merge with political fights for independence. New faces of colonialism involve multinational companies that cross borders, control governments, change policies, harm our environment, and so on. We are just a small part of this confrontation. We may not win our independence soon but we are still fighting.