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.

A new nation for Central Africa?

On Sunday 9 January, the Sudanese autonomous region of Southern Sudan will hold a referendum on independence. Millions of voters are expected to approve separation from the North.

But leaving the north and becoming Africa’s newest independent state will be fraught with difficulty. Sudan is split many ways: there is an ongoing civil war in Darfur; the Eastern Front region is making separatist noises; and the division between north and south is clear. Ethnically, the North is majority-Arab, it is Muslim and Arabic-speaking and comparatively well-developed, with a modern capital in Khartoum, a commercial hub in Omurdan and has long enjoyed the riches from oilfields which would straddle the new border with the south.

The South has many independent goals, the main one of which is to be able to reap more of the rewards from the oil which is deposited on its side. But in education, literacy, life expectancy, business skills, infrastructure, national development the newly-independent south would lag behind the north and it is desperate to catch up.

Sudan would no longer be Africa’s largest country with Algeria assuming that position. But the Sudanese president, Omar al-Bashir, has said that he will help the South adjust to independence and aid the nation-building programme that will be started if Sunday’s vote turns out as predicted.

But despite this diplomatic olive-branch from al-Bashir, the South may turn its back on aid from Khartoum and look to employ its oilfields for its own, independent gain by fraternising more with the countries to its south. Animism and Christianity are the prevalent religions in the South,as opposed the the Islam in the North of Sudan, and the politics in the South are more tribal, a similarity with countries like Kenya.  These particular religious affiliations may endear themselves more to the development of political links with nations such as Uganda and Tanzania.

Geopolitically, the South sits on the frontier between the Muslim and Arabic-speaking deserts of North Africa and the Swahili and English-speaking Christian forests and savannahs of Central East Africa. The East African Community (EAC) is a powerful regional bloc consisting of Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi and has well-developed trade and business links. There are even ideas to launch a common currency for the area, although the group is split over the proposal. This could be the direction in which Salva Kiir Mayardit, the would-be Southern president, may want to take his new nation and over the coming months, Sudanese, African and international delegates galore will flood the area to help out as Africa’s newest nation takes her first steps as an independent state.