Arab autumn woes

As the global wrangling over Syria continues, militant attacks go on in ‘post-Arab Spring’ nations

Two-and-a-half years on from the explosive revolutions that toppled dictators and forced deep re-organisations of countries’ politics from Morocco to Yemen, there seems to be no let up in the deadly instability that has rocked many of the nations that underwent upheavals.

Yesterday, the Egyptian air forces carries out raids on Islamist militant positions in the restive Sinai area – a double strike as part of an ongoing battle with insurgents in the region more generally and also in probable retaliation for two suicide car bombings on Wednesday 11. Six soldiers lost their lives and many more people were wounded in the twin assault: one targeted the intelligence building in the town of Rafah and the other hit an armoured personnel carrier. A little-known jihadist group called Jund al-Islam claimed responsibility.

There was another car bombing on Wednesday, to the east over the border in Libya. This time the device went off near the country’s Foreign Ministry in the city of Benghazi. There were no serious casualties but the explosion came on both the anniversary of the 9/11 attack in the US in 2001 and the attack on the American Consulate in the Libyan city. The U.S. ambassador and three others died as al-Qaeda-linked militants broke into the diplomatic mission last year.

At the start of the week, on Monday, the Tunisian security forces killed two Islamist fighters belonging to the Ansar al-Sharia extremist group. And just today there was another bombing of Yemen’s main oil pipeline in the central Maarib province. It is the fourth attack on the pipeline in a month.

Algeria has also been in the news over the last few days after the release of a report into a deadly siege attack in January on a gas plant in the country’s desert borderlands with Libya. 40 people were killed when Islamist extremists overran the In Amenas facility, which was home to many Western workers as well as Algerians. Statoil, the Norwegian company, published on Thursday the conclusions of an internal investigation into the militant assault.

But despite all this unrest across the region, the past seven days have been another week where the focus of the world’s media has been on Syria. There has now been an agreement between John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov over how to address the 21 August use of chemical weapons, but there remains a nervousness, with the use of force by the US not totally ruled out for all contexts. The world powers may be trying to deal with the Syrian crisis, but they are only looking into the chemical weapons side of that conflict, not the deteriorating state of the nation itself, wrecked by a war that shows no signs of stopping, and is becoming ever more complex regarding the ethnic and religious alliances and hostilities at play.

What this past week encapsulates is the overarching worry of the examples now being played out by the countries ahead of Syria in the ‘Arab Spring’ transition ladder. The war in Syria seems a long way from ending (if it ever technically does, that is), but even if it were concluding, the extremist elements on both sides of the conflict point to an ominous future for the country. If terrorist bombings can continue in countries that are perceived to have already gone through the ‘Arab Spring’, then the outlook for Syria, (which has had the longest war of all those countries, and thus more time for militants to weave their extremist aims into the region), is bleak – despite the Russia-US negotiations appearing to start to bear fruit.

Smoke in the region

The papal election could allow West Africans to hit the headlines for the right religious reasons

So far the main international news this year from West Africa has been linked in some way to the French-led battle against Islamist insurgents in Mali. France unleashed a ground and air operation there on 11 January, fighting what it claimed was the growing risk posed to the region and Europe by a bullish al-Qaeda-affiliated insurgency.

The conflict is continuing in the sandy mountains of northern Mali and troops from across the region are involved. But the mission seems to have spurred on Islamist extremists in the area as well. A French family was kidnapped last month from the far north of Cameroon by the Nigerian Boko Haram militants; in an online video of the family one of the abductors cites the French deployment in Mali as a “war on Islam”. And the Ansaru breakaway faction of Boko Haram has murdered both Westerners and locals in what it sees as its ‘struggle of good against evil’.

Islam and Christianity dominate West Africa, although they are often mixed with traditional beliefs. Islam holds sway in nations such as Burkina Faso and Niger; there are more Christians in Benin and Liberia. Countries like Nigeria are split half and half. It is a cultural and religious concoction, nowhere better illustrated than in Senegal.

More than 90% of Senegalese are Muslims but there is respect for the Christian minority, which is open and powerful enough to have one of its cardinals in the Vatican right now: 76-year-old Théodore-Adrien Sarr is the Archbishop of Dakar. And he is not alone. In the Holy See with him are four other West African cardinals, of whom one is among the favourites to be voted into the papacy. The two Nigerian men in red are 76-year-old Anthony Olubunmi Okogie, who’s the Archbishop Emeritus of Lagos and John Olorunfemi Onaiyekan, the 69-year-old Archbishop of Abuja. Guinea’s Robert Sarah, who’s 67, is the President of the Pontifical Council and finally there is the affable Peter Turkson. At 64, he’s the youngest of the West African crew and the President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. He is also high up on many people’s betting slips for the top job.

Clearly, the secretive voting and burning going on in the Vatican City at the moment only concerns Roman Catholics, and an argument can be made that this negates the papal election having any pan-religious bearing on the region. But this only takes the conclave’s significance at face value. By electing an African pope (and there are also bishops from the other side of the continent in Rome, such as the Sudanese Archbishop Gabriel Zubeir Wako and Tanzania’s colourfully-named Polycarp Pengo) the cardinals will be supporting the notion that the continent can be the driving force behind development in the coming decade; that Africa won’t just be in the lead pack when it comes to economic drivers but that it can also take on the weight of a world faith for the future.

That the responsibility is to head up a Christian denomination does not belittle or criticise the other major global religion – Islam. It supports the importance of faith in the region, be it from a mosque in Dakar or a church in Lagos. Nor does the Catholic factor denigrate the other Christian off-shoots.

However, the Catholic Church is going through a rough period at the moment with global sex scandals and Vatican financial scandals hurting the papacy. What also clouds some of the positive vision that some may have for an African pope are the conservative policies – particularly on the use of condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS and on homosexuality – that remain popular and preached to the faithful. The welcome image of an African pope and all the hope that could bring may well be stained by the realisation that while he may look forward on overall development in his continent, he will also be looking backwards on internal social development.

Last week, the French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told his forces that they are going to be staying at war in Mali until the security of the country is assured. That will take a little while longer yet. Papal conclaves are somewhat shorter affairs and the result of this one could bring what would be (on the surface) positive news to West Africa – with one of the Christian leaders following in St Peter’s footsteps for the first time.

Heart of darkness

Another anti-government rebellion is under way in the middle of Africa

This time it is in the Central African Republic (CAR) and so far nearly a dozen towns, including the major settlement of Kaga Bandano, have fallen into rebel hands. The dissidents, who are threatening to march on the capital, Bangui, complain that the CAR president, Francois Bozize, has not stuck to the terms of the 2008 Libreville Comprehensive Peace Agreement (LCPA), which was forged between the government and all but one of the country’s armed groups. (The one gang which did not sign the original LCPA belatedly put its pen to paper in June this year.)

But this upsurge in violence has worried Western nations. The US has moved its ambassadorial staff to safety and on 26 December protesters threw stones at the French Embassy building in Bangui, tearing down the tricolore in anger at the rebellious movements in the north of the country. The CAR government has asked for help from Paris in sorting out the malcontents but the French leader, Francois Hollande, is reluctant to get back involved in the internal politics of his country’s former colony. (On a recent trip to Algeria, another ex-French subject state, Mr Hollande described colonialism as “profoundly unjust and brutal”.)

The United Nations Security Council has condemned the ‘Seleka’ rebel attacks and called for both sides to come to a peaceful solution. Surprisingly, the rebels seemed to have been aided in their assaults on many places due to the withdrawal of the troops stationed there, many of whom are from the CAR’s northern neighbour, Chad. But the idea of an internal rebel advance, taking towns and villages along the way, feels remarkably familiar and fresh in the memory. Just to the CAR’s south is the huge rough rectangle that forms the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and this other acronymed African country has had recent rebellious problems of its own.

On 20 November soldiers from the M23 rebel army stormed the town of Goma, in the far east of the DRC, close to the Rwandan border. The M23 group defected from the Congolese army in a dispute over a 2009 peace agreement that saw rebels reintegrated into the military; the group takes its name from the date of these accords (23 March). After the fall of Goma, the M23 soldiers wrested control of several other towns in the region from the UN-backed national Congolese forces. The M23 rebels retreated from Goma at the start of this month after a frail peace deal was agreed between the two sides.

The rebel movements in both the CAR and the DRC arose from peace accords that were meant to have put a stop to all this mutiny. The incendiary nature of fractured rebel factions, government crackdowns and other cross-border rebel influences mean that the current situation of a fragile peace in DRC and an ongoing insurrection in CAR is dangerous. Added to this mix are further international groups like the Lord’s Resistance Army. These outlaws are headed by globally wanted man Joseph Kony and they are infamous for mass recruitment of child soldiers and for a growing list of crimes, from robbery to rape. They are based around and about this general central/east-central African region.

This region is certainly bubbling. CAR shares a frontier with the world’s newest nation, South Sudan, which is still completing a slow, complex and often violent divorce from Sudan. Al-Qaeda-linked Somali militants Al-Shabaab have been willing to pop over the south-western border to Kenya to carry out suicide attacks in markets and nightclubs. When a few nations are involved, it is more likely that they will be able to get together themselves and sort out their problems. But the growing entanglement of national influences and interests amongst the jungles and red-dirt roads of the area may now signify the moment for an ‘outside’ power to step in and mediate. However, as we have seen from the plea from the CAR for help from their former colonial master, it would be nearly impossible to find a mediator who is not tarnished by current, former, overt or covert ties and partialities.

A matter of margins

The UK and Togo: when governments change constituency boundaries

When it comes to laying out the boundaries of parliamentary constituencies, London and Lome have different approaches.

There has been a lot of argument in the British press over the issue of Conservative and Liberal Democrats working or not working together to ensure the coalition government (made up of their parties) continues. Most recently, the UK’s Liberal Democrat Deputy PM Nick Clegg has said that he will not support the boundary changes plans put forward by David Cameron, the Conservative British Prime Minister.

In what seems a simple tit-for-tat move, Clegg said that the Conservatives’ failure to back his Liberal Democrat idea for how to reform the UK’s upper chamber, the House of Lords, resulted in a breach of the Coalition Agreement and left him with no option but to pull out of the boundary changes policy. Clegg may be cross but at least Cameron has not fired tear gas at him or his rowdy Liberal Democrats.

Last week, police in Togo used the lachrymose repellent along with rubber bullets to try to calm riotous anti-government protesters, most of whom form part of the opposition coalition’s ‘Save Togo’ campaign. The Togolese demonstrators are voicing general rhetoric at their regular rallies but one specific focus for their anger is the government’s decision to increase the number of constituencies represented in the Assemblée Nationale from 81 to 91. As such, the protesters want a repeal of laws that they complain the government pushed through illegally.

The parliamentary seat expansion in Togo is the opposite of the UK government’s plan to reduce the number of constituencies from 650 to 600 and to try to equalise the number of voters that each MP has. Just like in Togo, there is opposition to the plans, but in the UK it is likely that the Conservatives’ proposed policy will be defeated. The Tories’ government allies the Liberal Democrats, the Labour Party and the Scottish National Party are all against the suggested changes.

The UK parliament officially returns to work next week after its summer break and the boundary changes argument will restart. However, the shouting and foot-stamping in the UK differs from the situation in Togo, despite the closeness of the two policies. With a parliamentary election in October, and with opposition public sit-ins scheduled for this week, the civil unrest and police activity in Togo over similar governmental plans shows where the two countries differ most in this similar issue.

Shifting sands

On May 23 and 24 Egyptians will vote in the first round of the first presidential election since the fall of Hosni Mubarak

After growing unrest and anxiety over the military generals that have been governing the country since the overthrow of Mubarak’s regime last February, the public are finally getting their say. The parliamentary elections were welcomed and did not throw up many surprises, with the Islamists landing the most seats through the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party. But it is the chance to elect the figurehead to lead the country away from dictatorship and military governance which has created the most excitement.

The first ever televised presidential debate took place last night, on 10 May, between the two front-runners of the 13-strong field of candidates. Neither ex-Foreign Minister Amr Moussa nor former Muslim Brotherhood member Abdel Moneim Abul-Futoh have clean copybooks and their battle once more draws a long, deep line in the sand in between the two men over the issue of religion: the open liberalism of Moussa against the moderate Islam of Abdul-Futoh. With parties of all colours represented in parliament, from hardline Salafis to hardline secularists to the young revolutionaries who powered the upheavals last year, it is unsurprising that there is such a long list of possible presidents to lead a free nation for the first time. However, in any race for the hot-seat in any country there is always a short-list and a couple of favourites, it is just a further source of division that the top two for the new Egypt have plenty of baggage between them.

The country that one of them will be heading is an important place. As the most populous member of the Arab world and one of the largest in Africa, with more than 81m citizens, by size alone Egypt is a key state. But economically it is significant as well. It has been categorised as one of the crucial emerging economies on the CIVETS list, alongside Colombia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Turkey and South Africa. This move has also been criticised, particularly seeing as economic growth has stalled in recent years. In 2009, GDP output was 4.6% but by last year, the revolutionary turmoil had taken its toll and the figures plummeted to 1%. Saudi Arabia has just approved a $2bn loan to help Cairo through this tricky period. Estimates for future Egyptian GDP growth are looking a bit brighter but do vary wildly:  forecasts for the 2012-13 financial period range from 1.6% to 3.5%. It is clear that the huge national changes that have taken place have wounded the country’s economy, mainly through scaring investors and foreign tourists. But they have been national changes which will hopefully free the nation.

The main geopolitical aspect to Egypt used to be its relations with Israel. Cairo not just recognised the Jewish nation but maintained a long-standing peace accord with its neighbour. However, in the debate last night, both candidates supported revision of the international deal, and Abdul-Futoh went as far as calling Israel an “enemy”. Egypt has an important trans-continental and regional role to uphold, being a bridge state between Africa-Asia, the Maghreb-Mediterranean, Arab-Israeli relations and Northern Africa-Central Africa. Egypt is also somewhere with major internal religious differences, as more than half of the world’s 18 million Coptic Christians live in the country. And Cairo’s Tahrir Square has become an unofficial focus point for the Arab unrest. It is a country on the move, but with an uncertain destination and with many uncertainties within. The next two weeks of campaigning to elect a fair driver to carry on the revolution are going to be as heated as the upheaval itself.

Exorcising the past

Joyce Banda has been formally sworn in as the President of Malawi. What can she bring to an unsteady table?

Her ascent to the top job follows the death of Bingu wa Mutharika on 5 April after the president suffered a heart attack. As the vice-president – and in line with normal democratic procedure – Banda stepped up and assumed the presidential office.

However, there have been a few calls for the new woman to step down from politics, abandon the People’s Party she founded in 2011 and call fresh elections. Wa Mutharika’s chosen successor (his brother Peter) has been sidelined. The (just replaced) Minister of Information, Patricia Kiliati, has claimed that the 61-year-old Banda is ‘incapable of running the country’. And there are many MPs who were close to wa Mutharika and may not stand back so willingly as Banda moves behind the leader’s desk.

Banda has dealt with many of the old guard already by clearing them out and forming her own, refreshed cabinet. This is always a tricky game to play and she has kept in a few wa Mutharika ministers. (But you could argue that they got to stay on only because they had questioned the late president’s economic mismanagement.)

But Malawi has bigger fish to fry than the search for a perfect ministerial mix. There has been a worrying economic mirroring of neighbouring Zimbabwe, with the healthy agricultural policies and surpluses of a few years ago turning into hyperinflation and fuel and food shortages. Homosexuality is illegal and sexual discrimination laws, which are coming into force on the other side of the continent in Angola, are far from appearing in Malawi. The country receives an average of £93m annually in aid from London, which goes some way towards trying to combat the high rates of maternal mortality and the fact that 12% of the working-age population is HIV-positive.

To his credit, Bingu wa Mutharika did seem spend much of his first term in office, from 2004-2008, trying to sort out the national nourishment situation and using government subsidies wisely to feed more of the poorer Malawians. But sadly, in recent years, the good governance of the mid-2000s had been eroded by wa Mutharika himself. Some of his comments and methods of running the nation edged on dictatorial, others have been plain odd. He threw out the British High Commissioner for criticising him and tried unsuccessfully to get parliament to amend the constitution to allow him to emulate his “brother” next-door, Robert Mugabe, and continue as president indefinitely. He moved out of the presidential palace in 2005 because he felt it was haunted by invisible animals and summoned exorcists to cleanse the building.

With Joyce Banda taking over in the hot-seat in Lilongwe, the lake-side nation has become the first country in the region to have a female president. This is welcome progress and there has been warm encouragement from the global community for her to seize this opportunity to drive Malawi forward. She has been an ardent defender of women’s rights and is a powerful voice for her country. The death of the president is unfortunate but does provide a chance for the small nation to focus efforts once more on development and important domestic issues such as advancements in education, health and governance. Exorcisms can wait for now.

Horn in the side

The Horn of Africa’s volatility is increasingly a cause for concern

Al-Shabaab (the youth in Arabic) are a group of Somali-based militants with close ties to al-Qaeda. They are really starting to infuriate Kenya.

Seven people were wounded when two grenades were thrown into a club in northeastern Kenya on 24 December. One person was killed and 20 injured in a similar attack in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, in October. A Kenyan man has been found guilty of the first deadly act and is serving a life sentence for that crime and for admitting being a member of al-Shabaab. And, also on 24 December, two men, Sylvester Owino Opiyo and Hussein Nderitu Abbas, handed themselves in to the police. Kenyan authorities suspect them of being linked to al-Shabaab.

The group have been carrying out more and more daring attacks in the region and Nairobi has taken a tough line with both its own citizens who have been involved with the gunmen and the militant Somalis themselves.

In October, Kenyan troops deployed to their unruly northern neighbour although they are operating under the African Union (AU) flag. Thousands of soldiers from Burundi and Uganda (along with a mere handful each from a selection of countries from the west of continent)  have been stationed in Somalia for the AU since 2007.  Where the Kenyan mission differs is that it has come in response to attacks on its people and property at beautiful hotspots for foreign tourists.

Somalia’s other border nations, Djibouti and Ethiopia, have ordered military detachments over the frontier to try to counter the growing terrorism amongst al-Shabaab-controlled areas. Djibouti has sent Somali-speaking soldiers in a bid to win hearts and minds.

Having had no functioning Mogadishu-based government for the last twenty years, there are many hands in the Somalia pie. Kenya is the most determined player at the moment, launching air strikes and ground attacks against militants. The other AU troops are holding weakly onto areas of the capital.

In October, the Kenyan government blamed the kidnapping of two Spanish aid workers from Dadaab refugee camp on al-Shabaab. The British PM David Cameron has stated he is willing to lead more concerted international action in Somalia. And Ethiopia has just jailed two Swedish journalists for 11 years. Addis Ababa accused them of supporting terrorism after they travelled with a separatist group to the Ogaden area of country – a region with a restive Somali minority. Moreover, there is the serious issue of piracy in the Gulf of Aden exacerbating the situation.

The dire domestic problems of Somalia have proved hard to resolve. It is worrying that deadly attacks are spreading across local borders and that governments’ appetites for military intervention seem only to be growing stronger.

Secrets in the south

For a nation with a growing international influence, South Africa’s recent behaviour is confusing

The annual UN climate change conference is taking place in Durban until 9 December and South Africa is keen to show the world it can be a leader as well as a listener when it comes to global energy. But it has some rather unseemly domestic problems to attend to first.

The climate change summit may be the present focus for the world’s media in South Africa but another area that has certainly caught the media’s attention is the controversial Protection of State Information Bill. It has just been passed by the lower house of parliament and the president, Jacob Zuma, says the new act is needed to improve the state’s control over national secrets. The opposition, backed by Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and hundreds of anxious journalists, is threatening legal action if Mr Zuma signs the bill into law next year. Many reporters are worried because the new legislation would not include a clause of public interest defence to cover exposé stories unpalatable to public figures. Moreover, journalists could be treated as foreign agents if they were found to be in possession of information that the new bill had been able to redefine as a state secret.

On the surface this seems to be a dangerous bill: whistle-blowing journalism is hard enough in South Africa and the content of this law paints the government in a poor light. State regulation and censorship – to whatever degree – of the press is a scary policy and one that South Africa must denounce and dissuade as publicly as possible. In order to be a global leader you have to be able to show you can manage your domestic and regional affairs first. It seems, however, that at the moment the government in Pretoria has taken a step backwards with this recent bill.

It this type of political misjudgment that provokes scorn and criticism on a global stage. Being provocative is no bad thing itself and South Africa must suggest, debate and dispute to maintain its credibility at the BRICS table where it now has a chair. But when you set yourself against a popular tide you risk looking out-of-touch and wooden. One reaction of governments is to brush off the negative coverage, change course and re-position themselves quickly with the current. Another response is to try to cling stubbornly to your original principles.

Gagging the media will receive no applause from Europe or the US. South Africa’s fellow BRICS Brazil and India will be worried but Russia and China have been accused of similar measures. Yet that is no excuse and South Africa must try as hard as possible to distance itself from such ideas so it can honestly show its aims and ambitions reach further than parochial and oppressive attacks on the media at home.

Playing the Gaddafi game

There is still support for the ousted colonel across a divided Africa

On Sunday 11 September, Carlos Gomes Junior, the prime minster of Guinea Bissau, told Radio Bombolom:

“With all the investment that Gaddafi has put into Guinea Bissau he deserves that respect and good treatment by the authorities and people of Guinea Bissau.”

Mr Gomes said he would welcome Gaddafi if he were to seek refuge there. Guinea Bissau is a tiny country (for further details see ‘Diagnosis elections‘– 05/09/11) with an equally small voice on the world stage. It is also a very poor country and regular cash injections from the Gaddafi regime would be celebrated publicly, even if, in reality, the money was headed for  the cabinet’s bank accounts instead of social projects and food programmes. When the anti-Gaddafi fighters stormed Tripoli and the National Transitional Council (NTC) moved into town the Colonel elected to flee and African nations, including Guinea Bissau had to choose one of four paths to tread in the post-Gaddafi era:

1. Recognition and condemnation, e.g. Nigeria

On 23 August the continent’s most populous nation and one of Africa’s most important players recognised the NTC. The government was quick to lay down the law to the new Libyan leaders and said the agreement was conditional on the upholding of human rights and democratic principles.

2. Stubborn and angry refusal to accept the new order and a loss of face, e.g. South Africa

The South Africans wanted to ensure that African problems were dealt with by the African Union (AU). This was a fair aim. President Zuma flew to Tripoli in May to try to broker a peaceful end to the conflict with the AU’s backing.

But the drip-drip of countries across the world coming out in favour of the NTC and the rebels, (as they were then), backed South Africa into a corner. Hopes that it could use its membership of the BRICS emerging nations power bloc were dashed when Russia and, as of today 12 September, China recognised the NTC.  In fact, Pretoria’s useless battle against the stream may well see it shipwrecked and isolated on the world stage.

3. Quietly accepting but uncertain, e.g. Niger

Niger has been accepting the steady flow of Gaddafi loyalists fleeing the new order on humanitarian grounds. In the last 24 hours, the country’s justice minister said that Colonel Gaddafi’s third son Saadi had been intercepted in an incoming convoy. Niger has also said it is unsure what it would do if the ousted leader himself turned up in Niamey.

However, on the other hand, Niger has recognised the NTC as the legitimate governing authority in Libya. It also recognises the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) jurisdiction and the ICC has an arrest warrant issued for Gaddafi. The Libyan border nation has manoeuvred into a quietly effective position: show your caring side by accepting fleeing regime soldiers but show your hardened side by waving the ICC arrest warrant at Colonel Gaddafi.

4. Continued support for Colonel Gaddafi, e.g. Guinea Bissau

Carefree and careless, Guinea Bissau, unlike South Africa, has no international standing to lose by admitting the close ties to Gaddafi and offering him a safe harbour. Such self-harm flies in the face of the attitude of influential and helpful neighbours. Bissau may feel their hands are tied by the old Gaddafi-era investment cheques. It would be better to stand up and say that those are some of its debts that will never be paid off.

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.