By Owei Lakemfa
IT is the Biblical story of David and Goliath enacted on African soil. More appropriately, it is the case of two Goliaths against a tiny David. Western Sahara is a tiny African country which may be one of the reasons it was bypassed during the so called ‘Wind of change’ that swept through Africa in the 1960s decolonising most of the continent. In 1960 alone, 17 African countries became independent.
The independence movement in the world was further propelled when on December 14, 1960 the United Nations, UN, General Assembly adopted Resolution 1514 (XV)
“Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples”. In the Resolution, the UN proclaimed that “The subjection of peoples to alien subjugation, domination and exploitation constitutes a denial of fundamental human rights, is contrary to the Charter of the United Nations and is an impediment to the promotion of world peace and co-operation.”
It therefore declared that “All peoples have the right to self-determination; by virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.”
Under the prevailing circumstances, Western Sahara, Sahara Arab Democratic Republic, SADR,made a determined bid for independence from colonial Spain. But Spain was under the fascist dictator, General Francisco Franco who had ruled that country since his overthrow of democracy in 1939. Another colonial European country at the time, Portugal was also under dictatorship. The early 1970s witnessed bloody wars of decolonisation which saw Portugal given serious bashing by African liberation fighters led by men like Amilcar Cabral, Aghostino Neto, Eduardo Mondlane and Samora Machel. With military defeat staring it in the face, Portugal off-loaded its dictators into the dustbin of history and sued for peace. With that, Mozambique, Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde, Angola, Sao Tome and Principe became independent in 1975. France joined that year, in granting independence to the Comoros.
Spain had also been under pressure in Western Sahara with a mass-based liberation movement called the Frente Popular de Liberación de Saguía el Hamra y Río de Oro (POLISARIO Front) founded by resourceful, vibrant and politically clearheaded youths. They began a guerrilla warfare against the colonialists. Franco, the last of a long lineage of fascists, died that 1975 and the country entered into negotiations for independence with the POLISARIO Front led by EL-Ouali Mustapha Sayed.
It was the period of the Cold War, and while the West could not stop the independence of the radical Portuguese colonies, it had a different agenda on Western Sahara. Besides, the country has an Atlantic Ocean coastline, iron ore and phosphate. So rather than complete the decolonisation process, Spain entered into an unholy alliance with the two neigbours of Western Sahara; big Morocco to the North and large Mauritania to the East and West. Both countries eyed their tiny neigbour and its resources which included fishes used for sardine.
On October 16, 1975, the International Court of Justice, IJC, which sat on the historical territorial claims of Morocco and Mauritania to ownership of Western Sahara, dispelled such claims and declared that the Sahrawi people have a right to self-determination. Rather than accept the IJC’s position, the triumvirate; Spain, Morocco and Mauritania met on November 14, 1975 and signed the infamous Madrid Agreement under which two thirds of Western Sahara was sliced off to Morocco and the remaining to Mauritania.
Rather than accept enslavement, the Saharawi declared independence on February 27, 1976 and courageously took on the two neigbouring Goliaths and their Western backers. What the Saharawi lacked in population, military hardware, funds and international support, they made up in fine military tactics and strategy so well that they not only held off the two large armies, but also became a study in modern warfare.
The most spectacular military victory of the POLISARIO was when it took the fight to the heart of Mauritania by attacking its capital Nouakchott. The humiliation was too much for Mauritanians; it led to national crisis, the ousting of President Mokhtar Ould Daddah in a coup and that country in 1979, renouncing all territorial claims to Western Sahara. Unfortunately, the Western Sahara President, Sayed who personally led that audacious attack on Nouakchott, was killed. He was replaced on August 30, 1976 by one of the POLISARIO founders, Mohammed Abdelaziz Ezzedine.
Abdelaziz was born in Marrakesh to Khalili, a soldier in the Moroccan Army. He attended the Mohammed V University in Rabat and became noted for fighting the countries invading his homeland. Morocco took the territory vacated by Mauritania and the war went on causing Morocco major economic problems enough to bring it to its knees, but the United States, France and Saudi Arabia came to its rescue. In 1982, Abdelaziz scored a major diplomatic victory when the African Union offered it a seat at its Heads of State Summit in 1982. Morocco stormed out of the African Union and has not found its way back.
In December 2015, Abdelaziz succeeded in getting the European Union to repudiate the Morocco-EU Partnership under which both sides helped themselves to the riches of Western Sahara.
Seven years ago, President Abdelaziz made a State Visit to Nigeria and the humble man visited the Nigeria Labour Congress,NLC, where I worked. Unlike many African leaders I have met, he was quite approachable and we were free to hold discussions with him. His aides also seemed very free relating to him like his children. When I subsequently visited Western Sahara, another surprise in humility awaited me. As part of the programme, my colleague from NLC, Nuhu Torro and I held discussions with a cross section of the country’s leadership including Ministers. While reviewing the day’s activities with the country’s proactive Ambassador to Nigeria, Ould Bachir, he mentioned our discussions with the wife of the President. Taken aback, I asked when did we have such a discussion? I had not been aware that the Minister we met that afternoon and discussed women and cultural issues with, was the First Lady!
President Abdelaziz steered his country towards a peaceful resolution of the colonial issue by agreeing to a UN-supervised referendum which Morocco and its backers have frustrated to-date. He had a tough time restraining the more youthful population from re-igniting the war against Morocco even with the latter carrying out UN-documented crimes against Saharawi people in the occupied part of the country.
With many of his people in occupied territories, some in liberated territories, a large number in the diaspora and the bulk in refugee camps in Tindouf, Algeria, President Abdelaziz ran one of the most difficult Presidential Offices in human history. On May 31, 2016, the Lion of the Desert, one of the best African leaders in contemporary history, succumbed to cancer. We’ve lost him.