Western Sahara: Africa's Last Colony?

Western Sahara: Africa's Last Colony? Lina Halvorsen

On Thursday, November 5th, The Student Society held an event titled Western Sahara: Africa’s Last Colony at Litteraturhuset in Bergen as part of the Focus week: Apropos Afrika.

On the panel for the event were Kurt Mosgaard and Erik Hagen. Mosgaard is the former Force Commander of the UN mission MINURSO that has been present in Western Sahara to supervise the planned referendum for whether or not the territory should be considered as part of Morocco, either fully or as an autonomous zone or whether it should be recognized as an independent country in its own right. Hagen is the current leader of The Norwegian Support Committee for Western Sahara advocating for a Western Sahara liberated from what they define as a Moroccan occupation of the territory.

Western Sahara was previously a Spanish colony, and once the Spaniards exited the area, Morocco and Mauritania annexed the territory. Mauritania subsequently abandoned their official claims on the territory after being defeated by POLISARIO - a Sahrawi national liberation movement seeking independence for Western Sahara.

However, it has been 40 years since the alleged occupation or annexation of territories, and 20 years since the establishment of MINURSO and the planned referendum. Morocco still holds claim over territories in the north of Western Sahara. Little progress has been made other than a relative peace and decline in active warfare.

Mosgaard opens the panel talks by stating the very glaring fact that there is a lack of political agreement and the prospects for a peaceful solution is dismal. However, he does stress that there has been progress in retaining a relative peace, where both Morocco and POLISARIO have shown an ability to cooperate on aspects such as mine clearing. Hagen supports this statement by illuminating how POLISARIO have acted as a buffer towards further violence and unrest to show how they continue to support their own decision to work with the UN.

Although there is relative peace, Mosgaard purveys how people are starting to become restless. The sentiment is that they have now waited for 40 years and there has been no advancement. When can they go back to their homes? Hagen adds to this argument, stating that there are two camps of frustration – one in the occupied area and one in refugee camps. The youth of Western Sahara are especially frustrated.

The trouble centres on the fact that the UN cannot decide who should be allowed to vote in a referendum, which is the reason why after 20 years of planning the referendum still has not occurred, according to Mosgaard.

The panel further discusses how and why they have previously been called POLISARIO activists. This is part of the game, Mosgaard states. Hagen claims that anyone who for examples tweets from the meeting will be called agents of Algeria, like he has been in the past. He states that the people have a right to vote and decide for themselves either way. Mosgaard claims that he really does not care where Western Sahara goes and people can call him what ever they want. In the end, it is up to the people of Western Sahara. For him, it is simply the concept of self-determination that they are working towards.
Although, the panel talks hold much information and interesting questions, the discussions take a different turn during the question rounds, when some people within the audience with Moroccan ties poignantly discuss the lacks of the panel talks so far. They bring up the element of the need for a third speaker who can adequately represent the Moroccan side of the debate.

They also illuminate the inherent minimal information and discussion around the social and cultural elements at work here and elements of eurocentrism. Finally, they question the title of the meeting itself, contemplating whether it should be ended with a question mark, since there are other examples of colony-like areas remaining within Africa. Clearly, this debate touched upon many different elements and provided an exceptionally interesting discussion on the situation of Western Sahara. Is it truly Africa’s last colony?

By Lina Halvorsen

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