The referendum announced by the UN for 7 December 1998 after 22 years of Moroccan occupation should finally decide whether the Western Sahara will become independent. If it remains under Moroccan rule, would the guerrilla insurgency sustained for 15 years by refugees driven into the Algerian Sahara begin again?
The country is 81% desert with only 19% judged able to support livestock, but the Moroccans were attracted by the worlds largest deposits of phosphate (used in fertilisers) just south of the capital LAyoun. Added to their own substantial deposits, this gives Morocco a dominant position in the world market.
In 1973 the Frente Popular para la Liberación del Saguiet-el Hamra y del Rio del Oro (Polisario) was founded to liberate the Saharawi Arab African people from Spanish colonial rule. Three years later the Spaniards pulled out and Morocco moved in. Bitter fighting between the 5,000 soldiers of the Polisario and the 65,000 Moroccan forces forced 100,000 Saharawi to flee on foot to Algeria, where they were allowed to settle in the barren desert near Tindouf.
During the Cold War the Polisario were unpopular with the West because their main supporters were leftist regimes such as Algeria, Cuba and Libya. A Sahara Arab Democratic Republic was proclaimed in 1976, was recognised by the OAU and by 72 states throughout the world. Morocco on the other hand was a major ally of the West.
To consolidate their control, the Moroccans moved in more than 300,000 settlers and stationed some 160,000 troops in Western Sahara. The successes of the Polisario in the 1980s forced them to build a wall of sand, razor-wire and mines over 1,600 kms. long, from north to south, enclosing two-thirds of the country.
A ceasefire and referendum were brokered in 1991 but the UN under Perez de Cuellar and Boutros-Ghali (a long time friend of King Hassan of Morocco from his days as Egyptian foreign minister) has subsequently come under criticism for failing to insist that the referendum be held without delay, while Morocco was using tax incentives and subsidies to persuade tens of thousands of its citizens to move into Western Sahara.
Delays have recently been due to disputes over who would have to right to vote: for the Polisario the vote should be limited primarily to the 73,000 people listed in the 1974 Spanish census and their immediate families. The Moroccans claim that 65,000 members of tribes omitted from the Spanish census should be included.
The situation has changed since Kofi Annan took over as UN Secretary General, and recruited former US Secretary of State James Baker to mediate. Moroccos present willingness to compromise may be due to a recognition that the war has imposed an intolerable strain on its economy, and that the patience of the West has been stretched to breaking point. In November 1997 Annan proposed a new timetable which the UN Security Council accepted: under which the final list of voters will be published on 26 July, repatriation of the Saharawi refugees from Algeria will take place August-November and the referendum will be held on 7 December.
The Saharawi refugees were recently estimated to number 168,000 of whom 20,000 or more are in the Polisario army and 10,000 studying in friendly countries such as Algeria, Libya, Cuba and Spain. This would leave about 138,000 in the four sub-camps and three school campuses close to the Algerian town of Tindouf. Other sources claim that the total may be below, perhaps half, the figure quoted, and that up to 30,000 of the camp residents may in fact be nationals of other countries, particularly Mali and Mauritania.
Various observer reports indicate that the camps are models of efficient local government, whose achievements in health and education alone are remarkable given such a hostile environment. The Saharawis may be dependent on aid, and will remain so until they are able to return home. But they require no help at all in the administration of their scant resources. The Saharawis could well claim to be the most educated people in Africa: the literacy rate is around 90% and the proportion of people in higher education verges on Western levels. This is astonishing considering that at the time the Spanish left only 22 years ago, the Saharawis were among the continents least-educated people.
The Saharawis hope soon to take control of their own government. They will then continue to need massive support from the international community, with a minimum of interference, if they are to maintain the impressive advances they have made in self-government at the local level, in education and in particular the role of women in the running of their community life.
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