Kicking sand in their face

Western Sahara is caught between Moroccan overlords, the Sahara desert and an uncertain future

The Arab Spring has so far not reached the nomadic Muslims of El Aaiun. Or Semara or Bir Gandus. Or in fact any town at all in Western Sahara. And it looks likely that it will be blown off course as it tries to reach down to the desert coastal territory.

When Spain left in 1975, Morocco and Mauritania both rushed in for a land-grab and the local Polisario Front declared Western Sahara to be the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. Mauritania has since retreated, leaving only an anomalous section of its national railway in the far south-eastern corner.

Morocco has done more than roll a few engines through the dunes in the last 36 years. The UN-supported republic only has legitimate administration in the thin eastern slice of the country that is not governed by Morocco. The rest, including El Aaiun, the capital, is run by Rabat. For those from Tangier down to Agadir, the Southern Provinces are considered a fundamental part of the kingdom.

The UN disagrees and sees Western Sahara as a part of an ‘incomplete decolonisation’. On 15 April, the Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned that despite the repeated stalling of talks over the dispute (10 rounds of UN discussions have taken place in the last four years), the international community must make more effort to find a solution to the problem.

A ceasefire has been in place since 1991 and Morocco has floated a proposal to devolve more autonomy to the 500,000 Sahrawis. The Polisario Front have rejected this idea and Mr Ban admitted that:

“While both emphasise their full commitment to the search for a solution, a total lack of trust continues to haunt the negotiating process, and each party harbours deep suspicions of the other.”

Sahrawis, spread out across a large, arid (but rich in phosphates) country, will not be able to remove Morocco in the same way the Tunisians and Egyptians kicked out their presidents. They cannot organise a rendez-vous on Facebook. The nomadic version of Islam that had developed there means they cannot get together on Fridays to plot the latest post-prayer protests.

They will have to rely on the UN coming to a definite agreement with Morocco to hold the long-postponed referendum on self-determination and try to garner firm help from the 50 or so countries which have formalised foreign relations with the republic. South Sudan recently became Africa’s newest independent nation. The dream for Sahrawis is that it does not take them too much longer to capture that title.


Living on a prayer

Trying to balance religion and politics in West Africa can be a hard game to play

France has been accused of stoking up religious tensions with its recent decision to ban full-face covering garments, such as the Muslim niqab and burka. However, in its former African colonial heartland, religion and the state are managing to carve a delicate balancing act.

The Francophone countries of West Africa tend to have huge Muslim populations. But in Mali, for example, Barcelona FC shirt-wearing men and bare-ankled women abound. Beer is brewed and drunk. Secularism dominates the constitutions of countries such as Niger, Senegal and Burkina Faso.

Far from the Maghreb and the Middle East, it seems that the customs and animism of the area has infused with Islam to breed a slightly different take on the faith. However, the people still faithfully queue outside the vast, mud Mosques on Fridays. There are millions of Christians also living in the area, although they are more numerous in Anglophone states such as Ghana and Nigeria.

There are exceptions, of course. The civil conflict in Ivory Coast, although primarily based on politics, had strong religious undercurrents. Laurent Gbagbo, the deposed former president, is a Catholic and his internationally-endorsed successor, Alassane Ouattara, is a Muslim.

Nigeria held the first-round of a presidential election on Saturday 16 April. According to exit polls, it seems that incumbent (Christian southerner) Goodluck Jonathan will head to a run-off against his main rival Muhammadu Buhari (Muslim northerner).

It is a country with a bloody record when it comes to religious and political balance. Recent years have seen regular fighting and hundreds of deaths in the central prefectures where the Muslim and Christian populations meet. There is a growing Islamist insurgency calling for sharia law to be imposed in the north. The radical group Boko Haram shot dead two people on Friday 15, the day before the presidential polls opened.

Nigeria has a rough agreement to rotate the presidency between the largely Muslim north and the mainly Christian south, although when Mr Jonathan assumed the presidential office last year on the death of his northern predecessor Umaru Yar’Adua that cycle was broken.

The balance of the stability of the region depends on similar domestic accords. Yet if such agreements can be broken without provoking resultant religious fury then the region will have be able to look forward again.

The region’s capability to forge nations out of the bubbling and potentially venomous cauldron of post-colonialism, animism, Christianity, Islam, strongmen and dictators, developing democracies, oil and cocoa, deserts and droughts, rivers and floods and linguistic differences must be lauded and the nations must strive towards growing co-operation and confidence in one of the main areas they have had some success and are trying to improve at the moment: balancing religion and politics.

Hotting up on the Equator

Equatorial Guinea is one of the smallest countries in Africa but it has large, and questionable, ambitions.

Last week, this blog looked at the friendships and enmities between different Latin American countries and Colonel Gaddafi, (see ‘An Arab and his amigos‘– 05/04/11) but could help be on hand for Gaddafi from another Spanish-speaking source?

The tiny country of Equatorial Guinea sits snugly in the central western corner of Africa. The current head-of-state, Teodoro Obiang Nguema, came to power after deposing his uncle in a coup and then sentencing him to death by firing squad.

Gaddafi also came to prominence after overthrowing the establishment and there certainly seem to be many similarities between Equatorial Guinea and Libya:

1) Longevity of leaders

Teodoro Obiang Nguema has been the president since 1979; Gaddafi since 1969.

2) Political parties

Although a couple of opposition parties have been officially ‘legalised’ in Equatorial Guinea, they have only won a handful of seats during Obiang’s three decades of power. Gaddafi has long proclaimed that he is just a revolutionary leader, not a president, and there has been no formal government, let alone functional opposition, in Libya during those 41 years in power.

3) Protest marches demanding social and political reform

Any attempt by Equatoguinean opposition movements (Popular Union, Convergence for Social Democracy, Progressive Democratic Alliance) to show their united condemnation of the repressive regime is stamped out quickly. All reporting of the uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East is banned. All protests are quashed by the police. Juan Tomas Avila Laurel is a writer from Equatorial Guinea and he went on a hunger strike in February calling for democratic and social reform and in protest at the corruption, malpractice and maltreatment of which he accuses President Obiang’s government. He had to flee to Spain soon after he started his fast. The current situation in Libya shows why leaders such as Obiang fear the consequences (civil war, foreign intervention) of mass demonstrations.

4) Oil

Equatorial Guinea has huge reserves and its wealth is rocketing, with a GDP far in excess of its neighbours, although it seems that the cash is simply heading straight into the government’s bank account. However, the situation is changing in Libya, where most of the oil is now in rebel-held land.

5) African Union

Obiang is the present Chair of the AU and has used his position to support the Gaddafi regime. Last month, Obiang praised what he called Gaddafi’s ‘readiness’ for ‘political reforms.’ He also ensured that the AU denounced ‘any form of foreign military intervention’ including a no-fly zone. Gaddafi was head of the AU in 2009-10.

As we have seen with Ivory Coast, (Jose dos Santos of Angola, another repressive, long-term president, sending aid to condemned Laurent Gbagbo), the strongmen club of Africa starts to worry when one of their own is in trouble and has no shame in letting it be known where their loyalties lie. Obiang is leader of the AU at the moment and cannot demonstrate worthy, multi-national leadership unless he shows a willingness to sort out his own, impoverished country first.

An Arab and his amigos

Colonel Gaddafi appears to be increasingly isolated. Will he look to his Latin friends for an exit route?

William Hague, the British Foreign Secretary, suggested (erroneously) back in February that Muammar Gaddafi had fled Libya and sought refuge with the friendly face of Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan president – a claim which Caracas criticised heavily. However, that idea was not a whimsical prospect dreamt up by Mr Hague at random – Mr Chavez has made it a habit of his to befriend states with clear anti-US rhetoric and ideals, such as Iran and Cuba. Libya has been no exception and in 2009, Gaddafi named a football stadium after the Venezuelan premier (only for rebels to rescind the honour a few weeks ago). (Football seems to be a peculiar source of mutual content for states which take pleasure in upsetting the US.)

Now Colonel Gaddafi is losing support in the Maghreb and in his own cabinet , can he look west across the Atlantic for help? Chavez has derided the ‘no-fly-zone’, calling it ‘total madness’ and his thoughts have been echoed by many across Latin America.

Brazil abstained from voting on the UN Security Council’s Resolution 1973, the document which gave the allies their international legal permission to crackdown on Gaddafi’s forces. Evo Morales, the Bolivian president, did not agreed with the UN’s decision and announced his ”condemnation, repudiation and rejection” of the intervention.

Similar noises were made by Nicaragua, where Daniel Ortega, a constant thorn in the side of the West, criticised the UN for turning itself into ”an instrument of warmongering and death for these powers”. Fidel Castro accused NATO of ”demonstrating the waste and chaos that capitalism perpetuates” and the President of Uruguay, Jose Mujica, although ‘lamenting’ the attacks by Gaddafi, pointed out that ”saving lives with bombs is an inexplicable contradiction in terms”. Argentina, Ecuador and Paraguay also came out against Resolution 1973.

But there were some resolute stances from the Latin Americans in favour of the allied action. Mexico, Peru, Chile and El Salvador all came out in favour of the Security Council’s decision. Colombia said that the Gaddafi regime had ”made fun of” the resolution and President Santos called for an end to the fighting.

So Gaddafi seemingly has a few open doors in Latin America. Whether he will choose to walk through them remains, at this stage in the crisis, very hard to predict. However, public opinion can be fickle in Latin America and presidents are always on the hunt for high approval ratings – giving the Colonel some free bed and board might not go down too well. So as this situation develops, despite their previous announcements, it is not a given that the Latin capitals will continue to be so welcoming to the dictator.