Enslaving The Sahrawi

Standing in the way of independence for the Sahrawi people, since 1991, has been a referendum, which Morocco has refused to administer, claiming sovereign rights over the territory instead.

UN secretary-general, Antonio Guterres.
UN secretary-general, Antonio Guterres.

In February 2020, Antonio Guterres, the Secretary General of the United Nation said at the Special Committee on Decolonisation, “This year marks the last year of the Third International Decade to Eradicate Colonialism.

“This milestone is an important opportunity to take stock of our progress. I will remain alongside you as you make another push to eradicate colonialism once and for all.’’

Today though, his words sound hollow.

The United Nations could not be more helpless in freeing colonised territories.

For Guterres, the year could not be ending on a worse note.

In Africa, Western Sahara is the only territory on the United Nation’s list of the 17 Non-Self-Governing Territories across the globe where the process of decolonization is incomplete.

Standing in the way of independence for the Sahrawi people, since 1991, has been a referendum, which Morocco has refused to administer, claiming sovereign rights over the territory instead.

While Morocco has succeeded to keep the issue of a referendum in limbo for the last three decades, it also could get any major power, even continental and world bodies to recognise its sovereignty over the mineral rich territory.

Then, along came Donald Trump; the norm breaker, disruptor of world stability and violator of international treaties.

Eighteen months ago, the US President had never heard of Western Sahara.

What Donald Trump did was not just to trade away the rights of a people to self-determination, but also goes against international law, which makes it illegal to acquire territory by means of force

He reportedly said as much to US Senator James Inhofe, who for years has been a one-man army trying to see to it that the Sahrawi people get the independence they have dreamt of for four whole decades.

And knowing he couldn’t point to Western Sahara on a map, on December 11, President Trump didn’t think twice about upending 40 years of official US policy of remaining neutral, by recognising Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara.

This is in spite of the fact that the United Nations, the European Union and even the African Union see Morocco as an occupying force.

What Donald Trump did was not just to trade away the rights of a people to self-determination, but also goes against international law, which makes it illegal to acquire territory by means of force.

The United Nations Charter prohibits the acquisition of territory by force.

And in the case of Western Sahara, Moroccan forces moved in in 1975 when Spain abandoned its occupation.

The real shock from recent events isn’t the sudden change in position by the US government led by an unconventional president.

It is that many African countries have suddenly become tolerant to the idea of colonialism on the continent.

Goodluck Jonathan had only been president for just over a year.

But in October 2011, Nigeria recommended that the UN initiate mechanism for independence of Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic.

A year earlier, “president” of the republic was in Nigeria to mark the country’s Independence Day celebration with Jonathan.

Those events would mark the beginning of what would be a four-year long relationship put on ice between the Jonathan government and the Kingdom of Morocco.

And ahead of Nigeria’s presidential election in 2015, with Jonathan’s chances of reelection looking bleak, his foreign ministry made the mistake of claiming he had spoken with the King of Morocco, supposedly to curry favour with Muslim voters.

It was an incident the Morocco wouldn’t let pass.

It led to a diplomatic row with the Kingdom’s ambassador condemning what he described as Nigeria’s unethical practices and insisting that the king had refused to talk with Jonathan.

But the moment Muhammadu Buhari was elected president in 2015, King Mohammed VI went on a charm offensive, visiting Nigeria in December 2016 and welcoming Buhari to Morocco two years later.

Agreements that were signed during those visits include the building a gas pipeline from Nigeria to Morocco and also a fertiliser plant in Nigeria that will be fed with phosphate from the occupied territory.

In between those two visits was when the fate of the Sahrawi people would suffer major setbacks.

In June 2017, ECOWAS agreed in principle to admit Morocco as a member state of the regional body.

Officially, Nigeria hasn’t changed its position in support of Western Saharan independence and Buhari as recently as a few weeks ago gave a private commitment to Algeria’s foreign minister, Sabri Boukadoum, who was in Nigeria

Some former and sitting Nigerian diplomats had pushed against such a move and were outspoken about it.

The reality is that Morocco’s application to join ECOWAS could not have been approved without the support of Nigeria’s Buhari.

And it wasn’t until earlier this year that the effects of Morocco’s charm offensive started to manifest.

At about the same time Antonio Guterres was paying lip service to eradicating colonialism, some ECOWAS countries were helping to entrench it in Western Sahara.

Some of the countries that effectively gave recognition to Moroccan sovereignty over territory in January 2020 or are cutting ties with the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic include Senegal, Niger, Liberia, Ivory Coast, Guinea Bissau, Guinea, Gambia, Chad, Burkina Faso and Benin.

Officially, Nigeria hasn’t changed its position in support of Western Saharan independence and Buhari as recently as a few weeks ago gave a private commitment to Algeria’s foreign minister, Sabri Boukadoum, who was in Nigeria.

But judging from the statements from Geoffrey Onyeama, the appearance was that Buhari snubbed Boukadoum, in his push to put the issue of a referendum back on the international agenda.

Articles have appeared in Moroccan newspaper celebrating Onyeama’s deliberate avoidance of the subject after the meeting with the Algerian diplomat.

Apparently, it is also no longer a talking point for Nigeria’s diplomat at the UN.

It is this absence of a public commitment from the Buhari government that has allowed Morocco to advance its cause and cut the Sahrawi off the once committed allies in the West Africa region.

But their support is far less significant than the change of direction by the United States.

Donald Trump’s motives are no secret. Neither are his views on Africans.

It is no surprise that he would think the rights of the Sahrawi people are dispensable, all so that he could get Israel and Morocco to establish diplomatic ties.

He has sold weapons to the United Arab Emirates and offered a stand against Iran to the Emiratis to embrace Israel.

He is lifting sanctions against Sudan to get them to warm up to the Israelis.

As for the Sahrawi, they were sold out without been heard.

Donald Trump obviously sees the warming of relations between the Arab world and Israel as his one foreign policy achievement and is trying to tie the hands of the incoming administration led by Joseph Biden.

The fact still remains that the Palestinian issue will remain unsolved even if all the Arab states have up on it.

Now King Mohammed succeeded in playing the more than a dozen African countries who have given tacit approval to the colonization of a territory and, both Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel by exposing the similar nature of the occupation of the West Bank and that of Western Sahara.

It would be a major shift in adherence to international law, which could have repercussion in every corner of the world, if the incoming Biden administration allows the recognition of Moroccan sovereignty to stand.

There are a number of territories presently under occupation and Western Sahara could very well set a precedent.

Written by Shuaib Shuaib

Shuaibu, a former Editor of the LEADERSHIP Newspapers, is based in Abuja.