A Review of the Ongoing War in the Western Sahara

In the LRB, Jeremey Harding reviews Toby Shelley’s look at a forgotten occupation and war, Endgame in the Western Sahara: What Future for Africa’s Last Colony?

Some of the words we use about Africa die hard. No African civilians on the run from injustice, war or hunger can bide their time in mere ‘camps’. They have to be ‘makeshift camps’. And there is no hearing about the armed conflicts from which many of them have fled without reference sooner or later to ‘Africa’s forgotten war’. The conflict in Western Sahara, the subject of Toby Shelley’s book, was often referred to as a forgotten war. It also displaced a large number of the territory’s inhabitants, whose camps are in no sense makeshift: the Sahrawi refugees from former Spanish Sahara have been stranded across the border in Algeria for thirty years now.

Western Sahara is interesting chiefly because the territory, which belonged to Spain, passed directly from European domination to occupation by its neighbours, when it was ceded by Madrid in 1975 to Morocco and Mauritania. Morocco took a good and profitable slice of the north – phosphates were the main economic enticement – and Mauritania, the poorer neighbour abutting the south, took the rest. Spanish Sahara, in other words, was never properly decolonised.

The difficulty for the new owner-occupiers was twofold: first, their presence contravened international law; second, a liberation movement was already in existence. The Polisario Front, which evolved from a pro-independence organisation formed in 1969, had fired the first shot against the Spanish in 1973.