Western Sahara is a sparsely populated, mostly desert region in northwest Africa, bordered by Morocco to the north, Algeria to the northeast, Mauritania to the east and south, and the Atlantic Ocean to the west. The UN designated Western Sahara in 1963, which was under the colonial rule of Spain between 1884 and 1976, as the only landmass in Africa on the list of non-self-governing territories. After centuries of colonial history, Western Sahara is the only remaining colony in Africa.
The Sahrawi people of Western Sahara have long been fighting the colonial powers for their freedom. Perhaps you have no knowledge of what is happening in Western Sahara until today. Perhaps the news you come across in your daily life does not mention the hardships of the Sahrawi people in exile and under occupation. Despite all this, there are some people who are struggling to overcome the media blockade in Western Sahara, defending the rights of the people of Western Sahara and setting out to raise awareness:
Sanna Ghotbi and Benjamin Ladraa are two Swedish human rights defenders who decided to cycle 48.000 kilometres in 40 countries for two years to raise awareness about Western Sahara worldwide and give voice to the Sahrawi people. Their Solidarity Rising project aims to stand in solidarity with all colonized and oppressed peoples and make their voices heard.
She is a human rights activist from Gothenburg, Sweden. She is one of the people currently biking 48.000 kilometres in the Bike4WesternSahara project. The city council of Gothenburg selected her, a place where she put forward many policy changes for the rights of undocumented migrants, unaccompanied refugee youth and women suffering domestic abuse. She has worked with indigenous groups in Ecuador and Colombia. She co-founded a democracy lab that works to promote participatory democracy, increasing citizens’ power of local decision-making in places like New York, Chicago and Sweden, focusing on underfunded communities, youth and people of colour. Her main passion is to change how democracy works so that those most affected by political decisions are the ones making them.
He is a human rights activist from Umeå, Sweden. He walked 4800 km during 11 months from Sweden to Palestine to raise awareness about the occupation. Benjamin did a speaking tour in the US and UK about his journey, which got major attention. He biked 2000 km from Gothenburg to Abisko to raise funds for prosthetics for disabled children in Gaza through the PCRF – Palestine Children’s Relief Fund. He walked 500 km from Gothenburg to Stockholm to advocate for refugee rights in Sweden. During the pandemic, he organized a series of webinars about Western Sahara and intersectional solidarity, which are available on Solidarity Rising’s YouTube Channel. His main passion is advocating for oppressed people and working to unify struggles in order to strengthen movements for justice.”
(Taken from the @solidarityrising facebook account)
During their journey with #Bike4WesternSahara, they aim to overcome the lack of information about the occupation and develop the movement for the rights of the ignored Sahrawi people. In the countries they visit, they organize meetings with the people they meet and campaign together. Their struggle may seem crazy from the outside, but it is not. They believe supporting a struggle and seeking freedom and peace can only be possible through action. To this end, they cycle, walk, dance and fight.
When Sanna and Benjamin arrived in Thessaloniki recently, they came together with us at Oikopolis Social Centre and talked about the Solidarity Rising project and informed us about the situation in Western Sahara. If you wish, you can listen to the full interview with Sanna and Benjamin from the link below.
Western Sahara’s History
The international community recognizes the right of the people of Western Sahara to self-determination, but Morocco’s stance of not allowing more than autonomy under its sovereignty is rejected by the Sahrawi people, who demand independence.
The story of the people of Western Sahara, who lived under the rule of various dynasties for a long time, changed with the trade expeditions in the 15th century. Spain obtained Western Sahara at the end of the Berlin Conference of 1884, where colonialism in Africa was negotiated between European states. In addition, Western Sahara had strategic importance with its rich underground resources and location. After 1934, Spain administered the region, which was named the province of the “Spanish Sahara”.
Since its independence from France in 1956, Morocco has claimed sovereignty over Western Sahara and since the 1970s has unlawfully occupied about 80% of the territory. In 1970, anti-colonial uprisings broke out in Western Sahara, leading to the formation of the Polisario Front, an armed organization dedicated to ending Moroccan sovereignty and ensuring the independence of the region.
On 9 September 1975, Spain declared that the Sahrawi people had the right to self-determination, and the International Supreme Court declared in its report that Western Sahara had no territorial integrity with Morocco and Mauritania. Following this decision, Spain proposed a referendum in the region. Following the referendum decision, 350,000 Moroccan citizens launched the “Green March” movement to take the territory of Western Sahara.
On 14 November 1975, the Madrid Accords, the Declaration of Principles for Western Sahara, were signed between Spain, Morocco and Mauritania. Following the Treaty of Madrid, Spain withdrew from the region, ignoring the demands of the local population, and it was decided to divide the territory of Western Sahara between the two African states. As a reaction to the partition of Western Sahara by Morocco and Mauritania, on 27 February 1976, the Polisario Front declared the Democratic Sahrawi Arab Republic.
In 1978, Mauritania, shaken by a military coup d’état, gradually withdrew from Western Sahara. Mauritania and the Polisario Front signed a ceasefire in 1979. In 1980, Morocco built the Moroccan Wall, which looks like a modern Great Wall of China, to protect the territory it occupied in the Western Sahara. 2720 kilometres long and guarded by hundreds of thousands of soldiers, it was completed in 1987. The Polisario Front rules about twenty per cent of Western Sahara. Western Sahrawis, separated from each other by this Wall built by Morocco, continue their lives under difficult conditions in neighbouring countries such as Algeria and Mauritania.
Algeria is one of the most influential countries in the international dialogue on the Western Sahara issue, as it hosts thousands of refugees. Thousands of Sahrawi people migrated to neighbouring countries with Moroccan domination in the region. Algeria is one of the regions where these migrations are the most intense. Five large refugee camps were established in the southwest of Algeria, and the people of Western Sahara were settled there. Algeria has intervened in Western Sahara and criticized Morocco’s interventions in Western Sahara while at the same time supporting the Polisario Front. The possibility of reaching the Atlantic through an independent Western Saharan country instead of Morocco, its biggest regional rival, can be seen as an important advantage for Algeria.
In 1991, both sides accepted the United Nations Security Council resolution on a ceasefire and referendum. In accordance with the agreement, the United Nations Mission in Western Sahara (MINORSU) was established to ensure compliance with the ceasefire agreements and to organize the referendum. However, despite all attempts over the years, the referendum could not be held for various reasons. Morocco claims that the territory of Western Sahara belongs to it. The settlement talks held over the years have not yielded any results.
Although the guerrilla war between the parties has been suspended, the tension has not disappeared. Today, the protests organized by the people of Western Sahara to make their voices heard still continue. In Moroccan-controlled areas, fierce clashes are taking place between the police and the insurgents. Especially in recent times, freedoms related to independence activism have been restricted, and the Sahrawi people have been prevented from making their voices heard.