THE BLOG
01/16/2015 12:10 pm ET Updated Mar 18, 2015

Africa Last Colony: Sahwaris Want Barack Obama's Help

Last month I watched President Obama's announcement of plans to normalize U.S. relations with Cuba on CNN while I was in a refugee camp in the Sahara Desert. Some of the locals, Western Saharan refugees in Algeria, erupted in celebration, "Viva Cuba!," "Viva Castro!" and "Viva Obama" they chanted.

The camps are home to tens of thousands of Sahwaris, as people from the Western Sahara are known. The Western Sahara is a country located on the upper north-west coast of Africa. It's 103,000 square miles, about the size of Colorado.

Sahwaris haven't had much to celebrate since 1976 when 80% of their country was gobbled up by Morocco after the former colonial power Spain was driven out following many decades of a war of independence waged by Sahwaris, traditional nomads.

The five refugee camps are located in Algeria on the border with parts of Western Sahara that's not under Moroccan control. They are operated by the Sahwari refugees like an independent country.

The Sahwaris are renowned for their discipline, resilience and determination. Here in the camps, they have a government-in-exile that actually functions -- not merely on paper. There's a president, Mohammed Abdelaziz and a cabinet of ministers. There's a judiciary and there's a Parliament whose 64 members are 32% female.

I met two very articulate female ministers, Kheira Boulahi, minister of Professional Training, and Khadija Hamdi, the minister of culture; they both outlined their visions of a free and liberated Western Sahara. The women developed their independence over the years as they took care of homes when men were out fighting for the country's liberation; some women also became guerrilla fighters.

When the Sahwaris fled to the refugee camps to avoid bombing raids by the Moroccan airforce in 1976, their literacy rate was only 10%; today it's estimated at about 90% according to a U.N. official who says he's never met such a determined people. "The Sahwaris never complain," he says. "Even if there is food shortage they say 'It's God's will."

Sahwaris believe education is the key to building their nation and send many of their daughters and sons for university education overseas to countries that offer scholarships. They have a special relationship with Cuba, which has trained more than 5,000 engineers, doctors, teachers and other professionals through the years, at no cost.

They also share a common language with Cubans, having both been colonized by Spain. I visited a hospital that has 15 doctors; eight are Sahwaris and seven are Cuban volunteers.

The Sahwaris also have their own police force -- they hasten to point out that serious crime is so rare that the last known murder case was decades ago. The camps are operated by the Polisario Front, which is a political organization with a small but vaunted military wing. The Polisario Front fought Morocco, whose army outnumbers the Sahwaris's 10-to-1, to a stalemate.

That war ended in 1991 when the Organization of African Unity (OAU), the predecessor to the African Union (AU), working with the United Nations, helped broker a ceasefire.

The peace deal was to be followed by a transitional period during which the UN would be involved in administration and security -- a referendum was to be conducted so Sahwaris could decide whether they wanted independence or to become a part of Morocco. On April 29, 1991 U.N. Security Council resolution 690 (1991) created a mission, whose acronym is MINURSO, to conduct the referendum and monitor the ceasefire.

The referendum was to take place in January 1992; 23 years ago.

Since resolution 690 set no deadline for implementation, Morocco, backed by its former colonial power France, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, has stalled the referendum.

Morocco settled more than 500,000 of its own citizens in the occupied territory, meaning they now outnumber the 300,000 Sahwaris there. But when the United Nations announced a list of 84,251 eligible voters for the referendum only indigenous Sahwaris were included.

The Sahwaris are chafing and even though they're renowned for their patience many are now openly talking about the possibility of another war as the only way out of the stalemate. Some note the irony that the Sahwaris' peaceful resistance against Morocco's occupation is ignored by the world while acts of terrorism by groups such as Al-qaeda and ISIS garner global media attention.

Sahwaris also complain about the brutal regime Morocco operates on the 80% part of Western Sahara that it occupies. Peaceful protests demanding for independence are violently disrupted by Moroccan security agents.

Sahwari activists in the camps showed me video recordings showing plainclothes men with longs sticks beating, punching and kicking demonstrators, including teenagers, and women who were bloodied. Activists who distribute flyers calling for an end to Moroccan occupation are arrested and later convicted on trumped up charges of inciting violence against Moroccan security forces; the convictions carry sentences of 20 to 30 years in Moroccan prisons.

Since MINURSO's mandate doesn't include human rights, Moroccan security agents are able to attack Sahwaris during protests, in plain view of U.N. personnel. MINURSO, whose budget is $60.4 million as of October 2014, is barred from even documenting the plain-view atrocities let alone investigating such cases.

MINURSO's deployment includes: 230 total uniformed personnel; 26 troops; 4 police officers; 200 military observers; 87 international civilian personnel; 165 local civilian staff; and, 13 United Nations Volunteers.

How is it that people allover the world know about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the long struggle over occupied land but hardly anything about the Sahwaris's resistance to Moroccan colonialism?

Here's some background:

The Western Sahara became a Spanish colony in 1884 when European powers met at The Berlin Conference and carved up the African continent; Britain and France swallowed up the largest territories.

The Sahwaris, a free spirited nomadic people were indomitable; they fought against the Spaniards for decades. Many of their leaders were killed during the struggle before they started capturing sophisticated weapons from the Spaniards and turning the tide.

By 1963 when most African countries began to win their independence, the United Nations designated Western Sahara as a non-sovereign territory and called on Spain to end colonial rule. In 1973 the Sahwaris, led by El-Ouali Mustapha Sayed, a 23-year old law school student who abandoned his studies in Morocco, founded a new liberation army, the Polisario Front, inspired by the legacy of the independence leaders killed earlier.

In 1975 the Moroccan government organized what became billed as The Green March, when 350,000 people accompanied by 20,000 soldiers marched into Western Sahara.

Rather than yield independence to the Sahwaris as called for by the United Nation and the OAU, that same year, Spain struck a sneaky deal with Morocco and Mauritania, two neighboring countries that had salivated for decades to control mineral-rich Western Sahara; it was called the Madrid Accord.

In the deal, Morocco to the north, and Mauritania to the south, split up the Western Sahara. Spain was also to continue enjoying 35% ownership stake in the Western Sahara's phosphates production while Morocco and Mauritania were to divide the remaining 65%.

The Polisario Front rejected the Madrid Accord. On February 27, 1976 it declared the Sahwari Democratic Republic (SDR), which is today recognized by most African countries and the AU. The Front continued guerrilla warfare against Morocco and Mauritania. After a series of defeats Mauritania renounced its claim over Western Sahara and withdrew in 1979; that same year the U.N. also recognized Polisario as the legitimate representative of the Sahwaris.

Morocco on the other hand simply dug in. It poured thousands of troops into the country and launched aerial attacks, killing civilians and forcing tens of thousands to flee to Algeria, where they ended up in the camps.

Morocco then annexed 80% of the country and built a fortified wall 1,660 miles miles long separating the occupied territory from the 20% now under Polisario's control. The wall is manned by 100,000 troops at a daily cost of several millions of dollars. Morocco also created a humanitarian and environmental catastrophe by laying an estimated seven million landmines alongside the perimeter of the wall.

The desert sands sometime shift and carry the landmines to Sahwari populated areas in the liberated zone; as a result more than 2,500 Sahwaris have either been injured or killed, human rights activists say. It could take decades to clear the mines even after a final peace deal.

The wall has also split up Sahwari families and it's a daily reminder of the Moroccan occupation. About 300,000 Sahwaris live on the Moroccan-occupied territory; about an equal number live in the refugee camps; and, nearly another 300,000 live in neighboring countries or across the Mediterranean, in European countries.

Beyond territorial ambitions Morocco's primary motives for occupying Western Sahara are economic. Morocco exports as much as $15 billion worth of sea food annually, with Western Saharan catches accounting for 70%, according to Prof. Carlos Ruiz Miguel, who studies the region and teaches at Universidad de Santiago de Compostela (USC), in Spain. Sahwaris complain of discrimination in employment; an estimated 95% of people employed in the fishing industry are "settlers" from Morocco.

Prof. Miguel estimates that Moroccan exports of phosphates from Western Sahara amounts to about $600 million, annually, even though Moroccan official figures claim it's only $300 million. Morocco is also negotiating deals with Western companies to prospect for oil, gas and other mineral deposits.

What are the prospects for Western Sahara's independence? Will Morocco ever allow the U.N. to conduct a referendum that it knows it would lose? Is Morocco dragging the crises for however long it takes for the eligible voters on the original U.N. list to all die?

The Sahwaris, renowned desert fighters, are confident of victory if they ever have to revert to war.

During a visit to their national war museum in the refugee camps, Sahwari guides proudly showed off rows of tanks and armored vehicles captured from the Moroccan military before the 1991 treaty. Some of the vehicles were made in the U.S.; some made in Germany; and, some in South Africa during the apartheid period.

A Polisario official recalled that during the war with Morocco their fighters once captured 80 South-African made armored vehicles. Polisario gave 40 of of the vehicles to the African National Congress (ANC) which was then battling the racist regime in South Africa and gave the rest to SWAPO, which was fighting for Namibia's liberation from South African occupation.

Polisario also trained some of the ANC's fighters and can now boast of having friends in high places in post-apartheid South Africa.

One of those friends is a retired South African general, Keith Mokoape, who attended a three-day gathering in Algiers, the capital of Algeria that brought together supporters of the Sahwaris' quest for independence, from December 13 to 15, 2014. There were mostly academics, human rights activists, and parliamentarians from various African and European countries.

After formal presentations where speakers read prepared remarks about "unwavering" and "steadfast" support for the Sahwaris's right to self determination, I spoke with the retired South African general, Mokoape.

I wanted to know what South Africa's position would be if Polisario, faced with Moroccan intransigence over the referendum, were to resume its armed struggle?

"The people of Western Sahara would have the right to resume their armed struggle. And our position in South Africa is that we would support them if they resumed the armed struggle," was the blunt response from Mokoape.

Mohamed Abdelaziz, the Sahwaris's president, concedes that younger Sahwaris yearn for action. Yet, men of his generation also remember the pain of warfare and believe it would have to be a last resort. Abdelaziz took command of Polisario's fighting force after its founder El-Ouali Mustapha Sayed was killed during military action against Mauritania in 1976.

When I met President Abdelaziz in his modest office in the refugee camps, he said he was very impressed with President Obama's decision about Cuba and that he believes the U.S. can play a decisive role in Western Sahara.

"Obama has taken a courageous action," he told me. "Here, we are not asking for much. We are asking for the right to vote for self-determination. We would respect the vote of our people," he added.

President Abdelaziz made it clear that even though he was certain the vote would be for independence, Polisario would accept the outcome if Sahwaris actually decided that their country should become a part of Morocco, in the referendum.

"We ask that President Obama make a statement supporting our right to self-determination," Abdelaziz concluded. "We must decide for ourselves."

Sahwaris don't believe France would support Morocco if President Obama made a statement explicitly calling for the referendum. I contacted The White House to find out whether the U.S. still supported the referendum and was referred to the State Department.

"As part of the UNSC, the U.S. recognizes the referendum as a potential approach," a State Department official said, referring the the referendum called for by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) in 1991, "but we also recognize the autonomy plan as a potential approach, as noted in UNSCR 2152 (2014)."

He concluded: "Above all we seek a peaceful, sustainable, and mutually-agreed solution to the Western Sahara conflict."

Morocco has proposed an autonomy plan where Western Sahara would remain a part of Morocco; Sahwaris insist that the autonomy option also be decided in the referendum.

So will there be a "mutually-agreed solution" as the U.S. suggests?

In a bellicose speech marking the 39th anniversary of The Green March, on November 7, 2014, Morocco's King Mohamed VI said, of Western Sahara "Morocco's sovereignty extends over the entire area and will remain inalienable until the end of time".

Moroccan officials at their Permanent Mission to the United Nations did not respond to my inquiries seeking comment for my article.

Similarly, France's Permanent Representative to the United Nations didn't respond to inquiries for comment.

So, will Obama heed the call from the desert and perhaps help Africa's last remaining colony win its independence without having to revert to war?

I imagine Cubans glued to television screens watching CNN one day in the future before Obama's term expires. I see President Obama speaking about the Sahwaris' right to determine their own destiny, as others around the world did, including Americans.

I see dancing on the streets of Havana. I hear cries of "Viva Western Sahara!", "Viva Abdelaziz!", and "Viva Obama!"

Make it happen Mr. President.

[Author's Disclosure Note: I visited the refugee camps for people from Western Sahara in Algeria in an expense-covered trip organized for journalists by The Western Sahara's representative to Washington, D.C., From December 13 to December 20. Upon my return I made attempts via phone and e-mail message to get Morocco's response to my story before publication from its Permanent Mission to the United Nations. I was told that an official would contact me but he never did].