BY THÉRÈSE MARGOLIS
Late last month, the self-proclaimed Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) celebrated it annual national day, a date which marked the 42nd anniversary of its formal establishment-
That would not seem at all extraordinary, except for the fact that the SADR is a country that does not exist.
Much like poor Philip Nolan in Edward Everett Hale’s fictitious “The Man Without a Country,” the SADR is a country without a territory (other than a tiny strip of disputed land in Morocco’s Western Sahara which is essentially a buffer zone between SADR and Moroccan fighting factions), which basically means that it is an imaginary country that only exists on paper and in the minds of its assumed population, a group of 500,000 desert nomads, most of whom are in Algeria and other nations in the Islamic Maghreb and most of whom do not acknowledge the self-proclaimed SADR.
To understand the Western Sahara’s current situation, you have to go back to the roots of its history.
When Spain withdrew from the Sahara in 1975, it signed an accord with Rabat and Nouakchott, leaving Morocco and Mauritania to scramble among themselves to divvy up the territory in an avaricious land grab (although the United Nations never recognized the agreement and still considers Madrid the administering power).
Consequently, neither Morocco nor Mauritania was granted international recognition of their newly usurped territories.
Meanwhile, a ragtag guerilla army called the Polisario Front (supported and armed by the then-Soviet Union and other communist groups around the world) sprung up in the region, claiming to represent the indigenous Sahrawi people and demanding independence for the territory.
The result was all-out war, with Rabat and Nouakchott declaring the Polisario Front a terrorist organization and imposing repressive measures on the Sahrawis.
Later, Mauritania, plagued by its own internal instability, essentially pulled back from the fighting and let its better-armed neighbor Morocco oversee most of the attacks on the Polisario Front.
In the years that followed, the guerrilla conflict led to the death of 7,000 Moroccan soldiers, 4,000 Polisario guerrillas and 5,000 Sahrawi civilians.
Many Sahrawis fled to Algeria and other surrounding nations, and the Western Sahara became, in essence, a political no-man’s land.
The Polisarios imprisoned the Sahrawi refugees in camps in the western Algerian province of Tindouf, separating children from their families to send them to Cuba for indoctrination and executing hundreds of those who opposed their vicious tactics.
In 1991, a ceasefire was declared and the Sahrawis, lacking public support and largely defeated by the Moroccans, launched a massive international campaign to gain global recognition for their nation-in-exile, convinced that they could achieve more through diplomacy than through military action.
That campaign only produced lukewarm results.
To date, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic has been recognized by 84 U.N. member states (including Mexico), with 37 of them later withdrawing their recognition.
So why does the fate of the SADH matter?
To begin with, Morocco is one of the only political stable countries in the region, while the Polisario Front is a disjointed band of wouldbe tyrants who have repeatedly shown that they are more interested in gaining power for themselves than defending the rights of the Sahrawi people.
Secondly, the Western Sahara, basically devoid of resources and development, is not a viable nation economically, which means that the Sahrawis are much better off under the auspices of the Moroccans than trying to fend for themselves as a so-called sovereign nation under the Polisario.
The United Nations has long promoted the idea that the status of the Western Sahara should be determined by referendum, but both Algeria and the Polisario Front have filibustered to prevent a plebiscite, condemning the Sahrawi refugees stuck in Polisario-run refugee camps in Algeria to a 42-year festering purgatory of lost identity that is now threatening to become a cradle of regional terror and instability.
Given the current situation, the only feasible solution for the Sahrawis would be to embrace a de jure (and already de facto) autonomy under Moroccan rule that would allow them to prosper and live in a state of political and social stability.
Morocco has strong historical ties to the Western Sahara, having effectively administered the region as far back as the Midrarid dynasty in the 10th century (and even before that, with the exception of the Idrisid dynasty in the ninth century that basically pulled out of the Sahara in favor of a central seat of power in Fez).
The Sahrawis are, for all intents and purposes, Moroccan, sharing the same culture, religion and traditions.
Sahrawi nationalism is, in fact, a European construct, created in the void left by Spanish colonialism, a territorial remnant of the Spanish-Moroccan War.
The fate of the Western Sahara, and of the Sahrawi people – especially the 40,000 still living in the Polisario camps – cannot remain unresolved indefinitely.
While the Polisario’s henchmen may be content to commemorate the birth of a make-believe nation, the Sahrawis are patiently waiting for a real autonomy, and the right to raise their families in an environment of peace and stability.
Thérèse Margolis can be reached at email@example.com.