The Moroccan government’s decision to ban one of its political opponents from attending the recent climate change talks has drawn attention to its 41-year occupation of the Western Sahara.
Suelma Beirouk was arrested by police in early November after trying to make her way to the summit in Marrakech and detained for 75 hours before being deported.
Beirouk is a leader of the indigenous Sahrawi people of the Western Sahara and vice-president of the Pan-African Parliament, the legislative arm of the African Union.
Once a Spanish colony, the Western Sahara was invaded by neighbouring Morocco in 1975, sparking a guerilla war by the Polisario Front that ended in 1991 with a UN brokered ceasefire.
A promised referendum on independence or inclusion in Morocco has been frequently stalled over a dispute about who is eligible to vote.
In March, Morocco expelled UN officials from Western Sahara after UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon referred to Morocco’s rule of the region as an “occupation” during a visit to Sahrawi refugee camps in Algeria.
One-half of the 600,00 strong Sahrawi population lives in the camps, the other half in the annexed territory.
“Morocco sees me as a threat,” Beirouk said after her ordeal. “They were telling me ‘you are not Sahrawi, you are Moroccan’. And I said ‘no’, if something I have clear, is that I am Sahrawi.”
Hamza Hamouchene, an official for the UK charity War on Want, was also in Marrakech for the climate change conference, known as COP22 in UN jargon, but intercepted by the police when he attempted to enter Western Sahara.
“Just before Tarfaya, just on the border between Morocco and the occupied zone, I have been ordered off the bus,” he told Amy Goodman of the US’s online news channel Democracy Now.
“And I’ve been informed that there are specific instructions, coming from high up, to not allow me to proceed to Laayoune, [the Western Sahara capital].
“For me, that episode is just an example of how Morocco, the Moroccan monarchy, how the makhzen – the king and the elite around him – does not want international people and people coming for the COP22 to know about its occupation of Western Sahara.”
Pointing out how the desert nation is home to phosphate reserves and rich fisheries, the Algerian-born activist added: “Morocco still occupies that land and plunders the resources [… but the] Sahrawis do not have any input in the decision making.
“I think this needs to be exposed. COP22 should not be allowed to be an opportunity for the makhzen, the king and the elite around him, to greenwash their crimes and to whitewash the occupation.”
The Polisario Front, which was founded in 1973 to see an end to almost 100 years of Spanish rule, took up arms against Morocco after King Hassan defied a Hague ruling in favour of Sahrawi self-determination and staged the ‘Green March’ of 350,000 Moroccans into Western Sahara, saying it was historically a part of the kingdom.
In 1976 the rebel army proclaimed the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), with a government in exile in Algeria. A tent city was set up for refugees in Tindouf in the flat stony deserts of southwestern Algeria not far from the SADR border.
Supplied with arms and logistics by Algeria and Libya, the guerillas at first waged a successful hit and run war against Moroccan forces. But in the 1980s, Morocco built a 2,700km long sand and stone wall planted with landmines that effectively kept the Polisario at bay. But massive troop deployment along the wall came at huge financial costs to the kingdom and following a protracted military stalemate it eventually agreed to enter into peace talks.
At present the SADR, which is a member of the African Union, controls only about a quarter of the territory it claims. Meanwhile, Morocco has poured money into the occupied zone, encouraging Moroccans to settle there with generous job and housing incentives.
It has also awarded a number of companies licences to explore oil and gas offshore Western Sahara, including US-based Kosmos. These are deemed illegal by campaigners,, who describe Western Sahara as Africa’s last colony.
“Morocco has the support of some western powers, including France and the US and Spain,” said Hamouchene.
“That diplomatic and international support allows it to continue the occupation. So I think we need to exercise the pressure on the Moroccan monarchy, as well as its backers and the multinationals that are complicit in the plunder of resources.”
This article first appeared in the December 2016 issue of NewsAfrica