Western Sahara: The Refugee Nation

By Pazzanita, Anthony G. | The International Journal of African Historical Studies, September 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

Western Sahara: The Refugee Nation


Pazzanita, Anthony G., The International Journal of African Historical Studies


Western Sahara: The Refugee Nation. By Pablo San Martin. Iberian and Latin American Studies. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2010. Pp. xiv, 226; map, photographs, bibliography, index. $35.00 paper.

The history of the Western Sahara conflict, having lasted over thirty -five years, is well known. The territory's independence movement, the Polisario Front, is unable to exert sufficient influence to tilt the political process in its favor and lacks the kinds of state and non-state allies that might help make this possible. The occupying power, Morocco, together with its allies France and the United States, sees little incentive to compromise except to attempt to sell an internal "autonomy" plan for the former Spanish colony; a plan that would amount to little more than full permanent Morocco control under a slightly different name. The United Nations lacks the will to compel an up-or-down independence referendum or to compel Morocco to treat Polisario as an equal and legitimate negotiating partner. The UN has also had problems in the last several years maintaining a semblance of impartiality. This is evidenced by the omission of the words "self-determination" (i.e., the possibility of an independent Western Sahara) in a draft report by the UN secretary-general in April 2012. Moreover, the UN's peacekeeping mission in the territory, extant since 1991, glaringly lacks a human rights monitoring component, a situation that does not exist with any other mission undertaken by the world body.

With all the commentary on political questions, there has been comparatively little coverage in recent years of the social and economic conditions and development in the territory, focusing on the Sahrawi refugee camps located in the vicinity of Tindouf in the far southwest of Algeria, Polisario's safe haven since late 1975. But Pablo San Martin, a writer and consultant on security and development issues, succeeds- despite some shortcomings- in giving the interested reader a credible history and analysis of the ways in which the Sahrawis, from Spanish colonial times to the present, have come to see themselves and have coped with the often-wrenching changes to their environment.

San Martin begins with a historical survey of Spain's history in Western Sahara (which it nominally acquired in the 1880s but did not fully administer until the mid- 1930s) in Chapter 1, and then moves to the early 1970s in Chapter 2. He establishes that Madrid discovered that many Sahrawis had ceased to identify themselves by tribe or clan group. This was because their traditional tribal elders had been discredited by their association with the Francoist colonial government. In other words, the drift away from tribalism in the colony began in advance of Polisario's later resolutely anti-tribal attitudes, although it was very much in harmony with the thinking of early Sahrawi nationalist activists and thinkers, including Mohamed Sidi Ibrahim Bassiri, who was presumed murdered by the Spanish authorities after he organized an anti-colonial demonstration in the Western Sanaran capital of El-Ayoun. At the same time, economic factors came into play. Primary among these was the establishment of a major phosphate mining operation at about the same time the inhabitants of the territory were becoming less nomadic and more urbanized owing to the destructive droughts that beset the region starting in the late 1960s. This section of Chapter 2 is one of the most useful in the volume, as it is based on a series of moving interviews with Sahrawis who vividly recalled those peaceful and relatively prosperous times. In some fascinating passages (pp. 54-55) San Martin describes how the Sahrawis' formative years were also positively influenced by the infusion of Western popular culture and dress into Western Sahara.

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