GILES O'BRYEN: Africa’s last colony makes an intriguing setting for a thriller

Written by Giles O'Bryen

Giles O'Bryen has written Little Sister, the first book in the projected James Palatine thriller series. Here he talks about its location: The Western Sahara suggesting that Africa's last colony makes an intriguing setting for a thriller.

When the lead female character in my novel Little Sister arrives at the compound where much of the action is set, she asks her charming but villainous host where they are. The Western Sahara is his reply, and he goes on to explain that, ‘The United Nations, in their clever way, have designated it a Non-Self-Governing Territory.’ Nothing could be more expres­sive of the fate of its indigenous people than this ambiguous and irresolute designation.

Thriller plots tend to globe-trot and big international locations are de rigeur. I was casting around for a place to set Little Sister and thought Marrakech would be a good start because I know the city quite well. But my eye was drawn to the great empty spaces to the south, and I soon became fascinated by the story of a region that has become known as Africa’s last colony.

The Western Sahara lies between Morocco to the north, Mauritania to the south, Algeria to the east and the Atlantic Ocean to the west. It is one of the most inhospitable and sparsely populated regions on earth, with no natural sources of fresh water and temperatures regularly exceeding 50° Celsius. The indigenous pop­ulation of Sahrawi nomads are descended from Arabic and Berber tribes, who subsisted on camel herding and other trading activities associated with the ancient caravan routes that criss-cross the region. In the 1600s the coastal territories fell under the control of Spanish slave traders; during the following centuries it became a centre for commercial fishing. In 1884 the Spanish formally declared it a col­ony called the Spanish Sahara, and it was still named as such in the hand-me-down atlas I used in geography classes at school.

In 1975, as the slow and painful unravelling of European colo­nial empires entered its endgame, conflicting claims on the territory came to a head. The Algerian-backed Polisario (the Frente Popular de Liberación de Saguía el Hamra y Río de Oro, to give them their full and rather splendid title) had spent the pre­vious two years fighting the Spanish occupation, and their cause was bolstered by a ruling from the International Court of Justice that supported their right to self-determination. Morocco had a long-standing claim on the territory, based on a series of treaties and contracts dating back to the colonial era. The ICJ ruling dismissed that claim, and ordered the parties to find a resolution.

The Moroccan response was to organise an extraordinary mass demon­stration: on a signal from King Hassan II, some 350,000 Moroccans marched south into the Spanish Sahara, escorted by 20,000 soldiers. In a spurious effort to lend religious authority to the event, it was named the Green March (green being the colour of Islam), and the marchers brandished banners depicting the Koran alongside the Moroccan flag and pictures of King Hassan. Roughly six miles inside the disputed territory, the demonstrators halted, waved their banners for a while, then turned round and made their way back home.

The Green march took place on 6 November. Eight days later, Spain, Morocco and Mauritania signed the Madrid Accords, carving up the territory between the two nations. The Polisario were not party to the negotiation. During the sixteen-year war that followed, the Polisario defeated the Mauritanians to the south, advancing at one stage as far as the capital Nouakchott, and fought a successful guerrilla cam­paign against the Moroccan army.

In a largely depopulated region where there are few roads and borders are little more than the whim of European bureaucrats wielding pencil, ruler and map, the business of territorial occupation takes on an air of futility, and even farce – a bit like planting a flag on the moon. To lend some physical dimension to their claim, the Moroccans now began to construct a 2,600-kilometre wall of sand and rock, two to three metres high and studded with bunkers, forts, radar stations and air­fields. Completed in 1987, the Wall splits the Western Sahara from north to south and confines the Sahrawi population to a strip along the Algerian border – now called the Free Zone, an insultingly ironical name to those who live there. By 2004, the Wall was manned by an estimated 160,000 Moroccan soldiers. Needless to say, the fisheries and newly developed phosphate mines all lie to the west of the fortification, under Moroccan control, while the area to the east has the dubious distinction of being the longest continu­ous minefield in the world. The war has driven tens of thousands of refugees across the border into Algeria, where camps set up in the 1970s have become de facto cities. The Free Zone itself now has a population of barely 30,000.

In 1991 the Polisario and the Moroccans agreed to a ceasefire, to be supervised by a UN force with the acronym MINURSO. A ref­erendum was planned and a census identified 80,000 people who would have the right to vote. The Moroccans promptly proposed the addition of a further 100,000 names and demanded that each be individually assessed. This effectively killed off the plan. Even US Secretary of State James Baker, who tried to kick-start the process, could see no prospect of a resolution and gave up in disgust at Moroccan intransigence.

The events of 9/11 created a whole new set of priorities for the West, and the conflict in the Western Sahara drifted inexorably to the bottom of the agenda. The Moroccan government now incentivises its citizens to migrate south, hoping to ensure that, should the referendum ever take place, the result will go their way. Fighting breaks out spo­radically, international support for one side or the other is offered or withdrawn, there are protests and speeches and demonstrations. Meanwhile, the Algerian refugee camps grow larger and are now home to as many as 165,000 people.

The stand-off continues. Morocco is an ambitious and important nation and will not readily endure the loss of face incurred by surrendering their claim, especially to a movement backed by their old adversary Algeria. The situation is exacerbated by the appetites and demands of international commerce: the phosphate mines and fisheries are valuable, and surveys have indicated there are oil reserves, too. But the cost of exploiting these resources may be unsustainable. Reports uncov­ered by Wikileaks in 2011 suggest the Moroccans subsidise the region to the tune of $800 million per annum, one of the largest per capita aid programmes in history. In the capital city Laayoune, for example, water is supplied by desalinisation plants and sold at less than 1 per cent of the cost of production. Without these subsidies, the region may be viable only as an economy based on small-scale trading activities – just as it has been for centuries.

When I’d finished my research, I wondered if it was really right to exploit the dire fate of the Sahrawis for my fictional adventure. But the opportunity seemed irresistible: a non-state, lawless by definition, heavily mined and virtually empty would be a perfect place for a villain to do business – especially since his business is the arms trade and sadly there is plenty of local demand for his wares.

Perhaps Little Sister will play some small part in helping to publicise the cause of Africa’s last colony, for after so many decades mired in the backwaters of interna­tional diplomacy, it surely must be time to end this grim stalemate. It is a powerful testament to humanity’s resilience and resourcefulness that there is an indigenous population in the Western Sahara at all, and no one’s interests are served by prolonging the cruel, stubborn and profligate occupation of their lands. The Moroccans should bow respectfully and withdraw, leaving this barren and beautiful place to those who for centuries have made it their home.

Thomas & Mercer (1 Mar. 2016)

Pbk £8.99


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Giles O'Bryen

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