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.
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.
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
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.