Western Sahara -‘The dessert walk to freedom’

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For the past forty years, tens of thousands of Moroccan soldiers have manned a wall of sand that curls for one and a half thousand miles through the howling Sahara. This wall is no natural phenomena, The Berm wall as it’s known for was originally built by the Kingdom of Morocco. It is the longest defensive fortification in use today and the second-longest ever, after China’s Great Wall. But the wall is famous for all the wrong reasons. The wall is surrounded by land mines, electric fences, barbed wire, and panels. Through them, on the other side, you can see a desert the size of Colorado known as Western Sahara. Formerly a Spanish colony, the territory was invaded by its northern neighbour, Morocco, in 1975. And since then the dispute between Western Sahara, Morocco and the Sahrawis, (The Polsario Front), is still going on with peace talks, never getting to “peace”, and today is known as the longest and most protracted dispute in the history of the United Nations.

Located on the Atlantic Ocean in northern Africa, Western Sahara is surrounded by Algeria to the east, Morocco to the north, and Mauritania to the south. About the size of Colorado, it is mostly low, flat desert, with some small mountains in the south and northeast, and is one of the most sparsely populated areas in the world. Its population is over 652,271, half of whom live in the largest city, El Asiun (World Factbook, 2020). The country or region lacks enough rainfall for sustainable agricultural production, and most of the food for the urban population must be imported. Incomes in Western Sahara are substantially below neighbouring countries. The Government of Morocco controls all trade, and heavy subsidies have created a state-dominated economy in the Moroccan-controlled parts of Western Sahara, with the Moroccan government as the single biggest employer. Morocco has made significant strides in its development objectives over the last decade in Western Sahara, as it is a long-standing priority of King Mohammed VI to develop WS. Morocco has a history of successful investments in infrastructure, including the TangerMed port and ongoing rail and highway modernizations. Morocco has attracted major foreign investors.

Western Sahara’s economy centres on fishing, herding, and phosphate mining with richest deposits situated in Bou Craa, however, the land is some of the world’s most arid and inhospitable. Western Sahara is also believed to have untapped offshore oil deposits. The EU holds trade agreements with Morocco to allow European fisheries in the waters off the coast of Morocco, including in the disputed waters off the coast of Western Sahara. However, recently the European Court of Justice (EUJ), ruled that the EU fisheries deal, should not apply to the waters off the coast of the disputed Western Sahara territory, and agriculture agreements between the EU and Morocco do not cover Western Sahara. Sadly though, there is no government in Western Sahara, there is no political will that will allow for increases in social protection programmes. There is no data on the economy however, the country is closely tied to Morocco

When it comes to demographics, the Sahrawis are Western Sahara’s indigenous population. They are of mixed Arab-Berber heritage and Hassaniya-speaking. They are traditionally nomadic Bedouins. The Sahrawis are mostly Sunni Muslims. Pre-Islamic Berber and African practices influence their religious customs. Urban practices are very different. Unlike those in urban areas, Sahrawi Islam does not typically use mosques. The poet ‘Fatma Brahim’ beautiful summarised the issues Western Saharan’s face for it to be at peace, and it goes as follow: “The Sahara, my brothers and sisters, is not for sale. The green of my land makes me proud, as the beauty of its pastures, in the eyes of the good shepherd. The phosphates you desire, they will cause you harm, not even if they were for sale, will you be able to buy them.”

Is one of Africa’s Oldest Conflicts Finally Nearing Its End? Well, the people of Western Sahara certainly hope so, as it has been a long violent walk to freedom.