Hodges, Tony. WESTERN SAHARA: The Roots of a Desert War. Lawrence Hill & Co. USA.

Described by a Canadian expert on the issue as the canonical work on this little known part of African history and geography; Hodges, a UK scholar and journalist, provides readers with a coherent and comprehensive record of the Western Sahara. For those coming late to the issue of Africa´s last colony, this issue, there is a wealth of complex history going back to the Neolithic to learn in order to understand the present day ongoing struggles for independence.

Western Sahara: A Book Review

Image Source: http://www.sandblast-arts.org

Hodges provides the essential background to understand the struggle for independence of a nation that after 90 years of Spain´s colonization was immediately occupied by Morocco. He covers in detail the history of Spanish colonization of the Western Sahara since 1884 and the events that followed when Franco´s Spain abandoned the colony in 1975-76. The Western Sahara occupies the bulge of Africa, its most westerly lands, along the coast, south of Morocco, north and west of Mauritania and west of Algeria. Hodges goes back to Neolithic times to start his detailed history and description of the Saharawi, the tough and adaptable people of this region. He details their societal organization, their beliefs, their trade and contact with the outside world and most of all their ability to survive and even thrive in what most of us would consider a totally hostile and uninhabitable environment.

The independence movement, which has been fighting for freedom for Africa´s last colony, first from the Spanish and now from Morocco which unilaterally occupies and controls most of the Western Sahara, claims an area of 260,000 sq. km. as its rightful territory. This territory appears to be nothing but desert that holds little interest for modern industrial concerns, however, the region has rich phosphate deposits, possibly other mineral wealth now being explored, and  coastal waters with a rich fishery in an ocean bristling with high technology fishing vessels from Europe and elsewhere.

There is another aspect as Hodges writes, after Spain decided to withdraw from its colony, “…the Saharawi nationalists were destined to …face new enemies…The Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara was not spurred…by a simple lust for its phosphates. Rather an ideology of territorial expansion, founded on the idea of recreating a supposed “Greater Morocco” of precolonial times was deeply rooted in the Moroccan psyche.”

One day after Spain´s final withdrawal in 1976, the liberation, independence and self–determination movement, Frente POLISARIO (Frente Popular para la Liberacion de Saguia el–Hamra y Rio de Oro) created in 1973, “proclaimed the birth of a new state, the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). By 1983 it had been recognized by more than 50…countries.” The Frente Polisario represents the foremost goal of the Saharawi – to exercise the right to self–determination.

The Polisario proved to be “one of the world´s most resilient and effective guerrilla armies” and in 1979 Mauritania, which had also claimed part of SADR territory, sued for a peace accord.

Western Sahara: A Book Review

Meanwhile the Moroccan government launched what it called the “Green March” in 1975 when 350,000 unarmed Moroccans were organized to enter the Western Sahara while Spain ordered its soldier not to fire on them and to allow them to occupy the territory, thus establishing Morocco´s claim to the colony. Today the Moroccan population is reported to outnumber the Saharawis by about 4 to 1. If the often promised but never held referendum for independence ever takes place, and all residents can vote, the Saharawi would be outvoted. Many Saharawi live elsewhere; there is a thin strip of land outside Morocco´s occupation, beyond the berm, the 2200 km. long wall Morocco has built, which is a liberated zone with a few cities but the heart and administrative centre of Saharawi resistance is in the refugee camps centred around Tindouf in Algeria to which civilians and guerrillas fled after intensive armed and aerial attacks by the Morocco military in 1975-6. (Photo & description by J Smith: In Tifariti inside the liberated area of Western Sahara, hot far from the berm.)

Mauritania is just on the horizon to the south, about 10 km away. There is a small Saharawi civil population in the area, a relatively suitable place for pasturing goats and camels. This book was published in 1983 and Hodges chronicles the political power plays and manoeuvring by Morocco, its allies, the UN and the Saharawi and its allies up to then which have lead to the present situation; now in 2012 faint glimmerings of change can be seen.

Essential background reading on the region, Hodges´s research and analysis may be updated and supplemented with: Western Sahara: War, Nationalism, and Conflict Irresolution by Stephen Zunes and Jacob Mundy; Syracuse University Press, NY, USA 2010 and Western Sahara: The Refugee Nation by Pablo San Martin, University of Wales Press, Cardiff Wales, 2010 which is particularly focussed on the life of refugees in the Algerian camps.

Western Sahara: A Book Review

Photo © Theresa Wolfwood. Saharawi representatives attend a conference in Algiers: they live in Tindouf refugee camp in the Algerian desert.

Another vivid source of insight is this film: El Problema – The Problem is a Spanish documentary, produced by Jordi Ferrer and Pablo Vidal, featuring testimonies and documents gathered over four and a half years in Western Sahara – clandestine images, given the Moroccan authorities´ prohibition of filming in the area. The documentary film highlights how all physical expressions of Saharawi identity are forbidden and even the use of the name Western Sahara or the word referendum is a “problem”… From the review on the website of a UK organization dedicated to supporting the Saharawis and their creative expression: http://www.sandblast-arts.org. This website is a good source of current activities of and for the Saharawi people.

Hodges makes a convincing case for “the sons of the clouds” as these indigenous people call themselves and if we follow his profound work with current information we can see that this case is still valid and that support for the independence of Africa´s last colony should be important to all those who support human rights, social justice and the universal right to self–determination.

Filed under Book Reviews, Tony Hodges