Comment: The EU is supporting a brutal military occupation in Western Sahara

For 38 years the occupation of Western Sahara by Morocco has been largely ignored by the rest of the world. The reasons for this aren’t profound. It’s sparsely populated, difficult to get to, and not particularly strategically important. It is also one of the greatest moral failures in the international community’s modern history.

In 1975, in violation of a World Court judgement, Morocco invaded the former Spanish colony and effectively annexed it. The people who lived in the territory, the Sahrawi, fled in their thousands as their villages were burned and livestock slaughtered.

Tens of thousands were driven into refugee camps across the border with Algeria where they remain to this day, surviving as best they can on pitiful levels of humanitarian aid. Those who stayed in their homes face severe repression in a police state which maintains an armed force over 100,000 strong for a population of just 500,000.

The story of Western Sahara is one riddled with injustice and cruelty, but its latest chapter is particularly shameful. On Tuesday, International Human Rights Day, the European Parliament voted to approve an agreement that not only provides moral cover for the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara, it provides material support for it.

The EU agreement grants access to Moroccan waters for European fishing companies, the majority of them Spanish, in return for payments of around $55m. It also provides access, in direct contravention of a UN legal counsel statement from 2002, to Western Sahara’s waters.

The Sahrawi have not been consulted about this and do not consent to it. Both representatives in the refugee camps and activists in the occupied territory have publicly denounced the EU agreement, which they claim is an attack on their right to self-determination, and acts to support the occupation.

It isn’t possible to counter this argument, because it happens to be correct, so Morocco has resorted instead to more force. In Western Sahara’s capital Laayoune, protests against the agreement – again, held on International Human Rights Day – were met with a brutal police and army response which has been caught on video.

This is typical. Any Sahrawi who dare to speak out at all in the territory, let alone about lucrative international contracts, are subjected to a vicious campaign of repression by Moroccan security forces.

When I was last in the occupied territory (undercover, as access is very restricted) a young woman, no older then 30, showed me a set of prosthetic teeth she now wears as a result of what happened  on last year’s International Human Rights Day. Her name was Salimah, and she had been beaten so badly by Moroccan security forces that all six of her lower front teeth were smashed in.

It was in Western Sahara in October 2010 that the Arab Spring revolts began, and where they were most effectively crushed by state power. European leaders have repeatedly claimed to support  democratic Arab Spring movements and the spirit of freedom and justice they were built on.

Should the EU proceed in supporting the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara in this manner, it will be difficult to conclude that European rhetoric about democracy, freedom, and human rights amounts to anything other than neat hypocrisy.


This article was originally published with The Independent on December 13th 2013.

Caught on camera: Sudan’s war on its own population


Fires rage and craters litter the Sudanese town of Abu Zabad after a Sudanese Armed Forces raid aimed at “eradicating” rebel groups in West Kordofan state.

The raid, which included extensive aerial bombardment of the town, appears to have taken place in response to the rebel seizure of Abu Zabad on November 17, and has been captured by satellite images.

Analysis of the open-source satellite intelligence reveals evidence of government troop movements consistent with an expanding offensive against rebel groups such as the Justice and Equality Movement and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North.

Images show Sudanese Armed Forces and military equipment - including hundreds of armoured trucks and Heavy-Lift Transporters - massing at nearby bases between late October and mid-November before the November 17 attack. At El Obeid air base, four Russian Mi-24 helicopters, three Nanchang Q-5 bombers, two Mig-29 fighter-bombers, two Antonov aircraft, one Mi-17 transport helicopter, and one Shaanxi Y-8 transport are seen organising before images show evidence of aerial bombardment around the town.

Abu Zabad is situated along a rail supply line and has been the site of recent conflict between the rebels and army, causing widespread civilian suffering.

The images were collected by the Satellite Sentinel Project, and show bases in the town of Dilling housing an array of artillery units, including howitzer cannons, Chinese type-59 130mm field guns, and tanks. The Satellite Sentinel Project monitors the human security situation in Sudan’s borderlands and is primarily funded by Not On Our Watch, a charity campaigning for action against mass atrocities.

Renewed offensive

Sudan’s Defence Minister Abdel-Rahim Mohamed Hussein announced the launch of military operations in the region on November 11. “We will not stop until we crush the rebels,” said Hussein, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes allegedly committed in Darfur.

The Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North and the Justice and Equality Movement have been locked in a bloody conflict with the central Sudanese government surrounding the disputed Abyei region since 2010. Hostilities intensified after the division of Sudan and South Sudan, when the groups re-emphasised claims that the Khartoum government is highly repressive and discriminatory towards those in Sudan’s peripheral states.

The conflict also has roots in the 2003 Darfur war, in which an estimated 300,000 people are believed to have been killed. Khartoum has banned the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North and Justice and Equality Movement for advocating the overthrow of the current regime. The government’s campaign against rebels in Kordofan is part of President Omar al-Bashir’s promise to “eradicate rebel groups” by 2015.

In an October report the Satellite Sentinel Project, which tracks the Sudanese government’s armed forces, began to document increased military activity at state facilities in El Obeid and Kadugli, and warned there was a high risk of a renewed offensive. “The build-up of aerial assets across Sudan, particularly in El Obeid, Dilling and the surrounding environs, signals a major offensive,” the project said.

On November 17, fighters with the Sudan Revolutionary Front – a group aligned with the Justice and Equality Movement – stormed Abu Zabad. The rebel group seized positions held by Sudan’s security forces and held them for several hours.

During the latest push the Sudanese Armed Forces have mobilised almost 5,000 troops and 365 vehicles, including armoured vehicles, a spokesperson from the Satellite Sentinel Project told Al Jazeera. The organisation now says more large-scale attacks may be looming.

“When we’ve seen this kind of rhetoric and these movements in the past, it was right before major atrocities and war crimes which were basically indiscriminate towards civilians and rebels,” said Akshaya Kumar, Sudan lead at the Enough Project, an anti-genocide campaigning group that works with the Satellite Sentinel Project. “The rebels had been in Abu Zabad, but there are serious effects on civilians from this kind of disproportionate action. It’s a style of repression not congruent with the rules of war as I understand them.”

Fighting between the government and rebel groups continues. On Wednesday, army colonel Alswarmy Khalid Saad confirmed to Africa Reviewthat their troops had clashed with Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-Northforces in South Kordofan. The Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-Northhas been accused by the army of attacking Kadugli, the regional capital. Local reports claim the joint Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North rebel forces launched a counter-attack against government forces on Thursday near the Abu Zabad area.

Meanwhile, during the past year, Sudan has been building up its military capabilities – especially its air power – with contracts emerging for new helicopters and fighters. The air-power build-up is also visible in Satellite Sentinel Project reports, which show an Ilyushin Il-76 airlifter at El Obeid, a large transport aircraft previously unseen in the area.

The Sudanese air force received its first shipment of Sukhoi Su-24 ground attack aircraft at the Wadi Sayyidna air base earlier this year.

“The main advantage of the new Su-24s is that they are supersonic, so do not have to be deployed as close to the action. This means they can be based at a relatively central airfield and still be able to carry out air strikes where ever needed in southern and western Sudan,” said Jeremy Binnie, a senior analyst and Middle East/Africa editor of Jane’s Defence Weekly.

Sudan has also signed contracts for Russian Mi-24 and Mi-8 helicopters this year, according to a British defence analyst and the Russian newspaper Vedomosti.

Civilians affected

The civilian population in Abu Zabad has been blamed by the authorities for rebel activity, and have been charged by security forces with carrying out espionage for the Sudan Revolutionary Front, according to reports from Radio Dabanga.

The military campaign in the area is having serious effects on civilians, according to the Enough Project. The government officially agreed to a ceasefire in early November to allow access for a UN vaccination programme in rebel areas. But Kumar of the Enough Project said the campaign never got started.

“There’s been a total lack of commitment to allow access for the UN vaccination campaign against polio. In fact, the troop movements begin at exactly the same time as the promises that were made, so it looks like there was no intention of allowing UN access,” she said. Polio cases have been reported in neighbouring South Sudan.

Jerome Tubiana, a Sudan analyst at the International Crisis Group, told Al Jazeera there are credible reports suggesting that more than 700,000 civilians are affected by the conflict between government and rebels, including 436,000 displaced within the rebel areas.

“Government forces have fallen back on their familiar pattern of striking at communities suspected of supporting the rebels, so as to prevent the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North from living off the surrounding civilian population,” the International Crisis Group said in a report this year. “Widespread and regular bombing raids have significant impact on civilians. The most significant consequence is fear that has displaced hundreds of thousands, many to seek shelter in mountain caves.”

This article was originally published with Al Jazeera on December 2nd 2013.

Asian energy groups beat Brits in quest for Algerian renewables

British Energy companies are eyeing Algeria’s energy sector, but it’s still Middle and Far Eastern firms, not Europeans, that are closing the deals

A recent push by British companies and officials to break into Algeria’s lucrative energy industry is meeting stark competition from South Korean and Chinese business, according to corporate and diplomatic sources.

A high-level trade delegation led by the UK prime minister’s trade envoy, Lord Risby, in September saw companies such as Shell, Unicommerce, and Mott MacDonald received by the Algerian energy minister, Youcef Yousfi, to discuss furthering British-Algerian corporate relations.

Clarke Energy, a UK energy company, says it sees Algeria as a significant prospect for future business following the visit, especially in unconventional and renewable energy such as biogas.

“Our impression is that finally the renewables market in Algeria is taking off, and we’re targeting the state owned companies, Sonatrach and Sonelgaz,” says Stephane Michaut, a Clarke Energy representative who was part of the trade delegation.

“We are hoping to expand in Algeria next year in the form of power production for Sonelgaz, cogeneration, and renewable biogas. We also have plans for flare gas which we are hopeful of securing by September 2014.”

The visit was designed to be the “door-opening stage” for British access to Algeria’s energy industry, and included a visit to an Algerian solar development unit in Bou Ismail, diplomatic sources told This is Africa.

No contracts have yet been reached, but two memoranda of understanding were signed by delegates, including one arranging for Algerian engineers to gain qualifications from the UK’s Cranfield University. The visit was Lord Risby’s fourth in the last two years.

Eastern favour

International investors from the Far East are also eyeing Algeria’s renewable energy market, however, and it is in their favour that the tide appears to be turning.

Last week a similar delegation of South Korean companies visited the country, and have confirmed a major renewable energy deal. The energy division of Hanwha Corporation has established a contract with Sonelgaz worth almost $450m for the construction of a solar power plant in the province of Biskra, This is Africa has learned.

The deal underlines a growing trend in foreign investment in Algeria, which is increasingly coming from the Far East rather than Europe. China this year overtook France and Italy as the leading exporter to the country.

The Algerian government is seeking to greatly expand energy production from all sources in order to counter falling export revenues (down more than 8 percent this year) resulting from an increase in subsidised domestic demand.

Hydrocarbons are responsible for more than 95 percent of OPEC-member Algeria’s export earnings, but the amount of oil and gas available for export has fallen by more than $5bn this year, leading the government to look to private capital to finance unconventional exploration and production.

Officials have announced a target of sourcing 40 percent of the country’s electricity supply from alternative energy sources by 2030.

Middle Eastern investors are also developing ties to Algeria. The country attracted $3.1bn of foreign direct investment in the first two quarters of 2013, with the majority of the total coming from Qatar, according to the National Agency for Investment Development (ANDI).

The governments of Qatar and Algeria signed a deal in March worth at least $2bn for the construction of a steel complex at Jijel. In accordance with regulation, 5 percent is owned by Algeria’s National Investment Fund, and 49 percent split between Qatar Steel and Qatar Mining.

European investors are seeing their share of the Algerian market fall. Two European deals for construction in solar power have been cancelled this year alone.

In May the Desertec Industrial Initiative abandoned its 2011 plans to export solar power to Europe. A German consortium made up of Centrotherm Photovoltaics and Kinetics Germany then cancelled another solar project with a subsidiary of Sonelgaz known as CEEG.

Tough climate

Fierce competition between international investors for access to Algeria seems at odds with conventional wisdom on the country’s investment climate. Foreign companies have long seen Algerian energy as potentially lucrative, but have found the investment climate uncongenial.

In 2009, state regulation was enacted which was more stringent than any since the country’s oil supply was nationalised in 1971. The new rules mandated majority Algerian ownership of all foreign contracts, meaning the maximum interest foreign companies could hold in any Algerian operation was 49 percent. The World Bank’s Doing Business report ranks Algeria 152nd out of 185 internationally.

Security concerns are also serious. On January 16th 2013 a Sahel militant group known as al-Mulathameen led by renowned smuggler Mokhtar Belmokhtar attacked the Tinguentourine gas field near In Amenas taking 800 hostages. Forty oil workers, all but one foreign contractors, were killed.

In addition, corruption charges have been aimed at key industries. In July 2013, 17 executives in Algeria’s power sector, including head of Sonelgaz Noureddine Boutarfa, and his predecessor Abdelkrim Benghanem, were saddled with corruption charges relating to contracts awarded to two major internationals, the French firm Alstom and General Electric.

Analysts believe the charges may be linked to power struggles between senior officials in the Algerian intelligence service (DRS) and allies of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who is set to run for a fourth term in office in April’s presidential elections.

Western worries

“It’s fair to say we’re cautious on Algeria. On paper it’s a great prospect with huge gas reserves, but in reality there’s also political risk. Perhaps more importantly there’s not yet the political will to bring in the subsidies needed for renewables like biogas,” says a representative from a British Energy company looking at Algeria, who requested anonymity.

But large natural reserves, a GDP higher than any regional competitor besides Egypt, and levels of state spending on infrastructure totalling more than $250bn appear to be generating more than enough interest in Algeria.

Algerian officials have also signalled that some regulation will be loosened. The Algerian elite have vested interests in all production contracts, but while the 4 percent rule is here to stay, they have been willing to tweak the regulation in areas such as unconventional energy, analysts say.

At the end of October, the government announced the completion of a $2.3bn processing facility at El Merk designed to increase the country’s maximum production. Real growth is forecast to average 3.4 percent over the next five years.

Representatives from the trade delegation praised the British embassy’s role in organising access to Algerian officials but said problems remain in closing deals.

“On the one hand there was Sonelgaz saying they want to proceed by themselves and everything’s going to be run by the state, and on the other there’s the state regulator saying there will be feed-in tariffs and private companies will be able to sell to Sonelgaz, so it’s ambiguous,” says Clarke Energy’s Mr Michaut.

He stresses that the energy industry is highly competitive: “We’ve spent two years marketing biogas and landfill, and the need for private corporate financing. In a way we’ve been doing this job for us and our international competitors, but that’s how it has to be.”

The latest figures released by Algerian Customs confirm that in the first three quarters of 2013, the UK has risen to 10th among countries exporting to Algeria, but still trails behind France, the US, China, and even The Netherlands.

“Western companies are still a little more wary of the political and security risks in Algeria, where Middle and Far Eastern investors are more willing,” says Riccardo Fabiani, Middle East and North Africa analyst for Eurasia Group.

“Of course the traditional energy partnerships with southern Europe aren’t going anywhere, they’re reinforced by permanent pipelines, but Algeria is looking further afield for energy export revenue: to Britain, and especially to the Far East.”

This article was originally published with Financial Times: This is Africa on November 25th.

Western Governments underestimate Libya’s instability

Western powers are in danger of underestimating the regional effects of Libya’s political instability, according to Hugh Robertson, the British Foreign Office minister responsible for the Middle East and North Africa.

Robertson told the Foreign Affairs Committee that there are around 400 arms dumps in Libya, 75% of which are not under government control. He also said the British, French and US governments have underestimated the capability of the region’s militant groups to exploit the political chaos.

The level of state security in Libya has dramatically worsened in the last month, as rising militia violence and declining state power edge the country ever closer to all-out anarchy. Deputy Intelligence Chief Mustafa Noah was abducted from Tripoli International Airport on Nov. 17 before being freed following the intervention of the Zintan Shura Council.

Noah’s abduction was the highest-level attack on a government official since the kidnapping of Prime Minister Ali Zeidan by the Libyan Revolutionaries Joint Operations Room on Oct. 10. Zeidan was also released within 24 hours.

Violence centered in Tripoli’s Ghargour district last weekend resulted in the deaths of at least 45 people and a further 460 wounded after Misrata militias opened fire on protesters demanding the withdrawal of their forces from the capital. The resulting clashes between rival militias were the worst since the 2011 overthrow of Moammar Gadhafi.

Evidence collected by Human Rights Watch from Tripoli’s Abu Salim and Zawiya Street hospitals suggests the majority of casualties were caused by heavy weapons, including anti-aircraft guns and rocket-propelled grenades.

“Libyan citizens have paid with their lives for the reckless acts of unaccountable militias,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Libya needs security forces who don’t stand by as militias kill unarmed protesters.”

Robertson said that huge quantities of arms were now unsecured in Libya and were potentially available to well-resourced regional militant organizations.

“You add to that the ability of insurgents, through kidnap for ransom and other things, to raise sums of money like 40 million pounds ($64 million), and in a market that is oversupplied, where there is a lot of kit [military equipment] available, you can absolutely see the dangers,” he told the committee.

The minister compared the danger posed by militant groups in the wider Sahel region to armed groups that fought in the Bosnian war. British government officials said poor border security in Libya and North Africa is making effective monitoring of militant groups difficult.

Simon Shercliff, head of the Foreign Office’s Counter-Terrorism Department, said, “The size of the problem is immense. There are huge desertified borders, often not actually demarcated in any sensible way, and, as we mentioned earlier, ancient trade routes, used either for licit or illicit reasons, criss-cross the whole region.”

Foreign Office officials said that the British government is lobbying for cooperation between North African states on border-security issues, and has a permanent border-security adviser stationed in Libya.

A regional border-security conference was held in Rabat last week that resulted in the announcement of plans to establish a training facility in Morocco. Algerian representatives did not attend the conference due to diplomatic tensions between the two countries.

Algeria instead independently announced that it would built 80 new outposts, each manned with 40 guards, along its long Saharan border with Morocco, Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Tunisia and Libya.

Misratan militias based in Tripoli, including the al-Nusour brigade, which is widely held responsible for the recent spike in violence, have now withdrawn from bases in the capital in line with orders received from Misrata. Tripoli and Misrata regional leaders are believed to be engaged in regular meetings with the aim of defusing the tense political situation.
Instability is having significant effects on the operations of businesses and international oil companies in Libya, which has proven reserves of almost 48 billion barrels of oil — the largest in Africa.

National oil production has sunk to levels well below an average of 1.5 million barrels per day, and even below the levels expected by some international companies on their sites. The closing of oil fields, terminals and ports by militias (along with coordinated labor action in some areas) has led investors and oil companies to shrink their operations and in some cases, look to exit the country.

The majority of the country’s oil terminals, which are located in the east around the Sirte basin, remain closed. However, the Mellitah export terminal and associated Greenstream pipeline, which runs from Western Libya to Italy, reopened Nov. 18 after a labor dispute with Amazigh workers ended in a negotiated settlement.

Separatist militia leader Ibrahim al-Jathran, who is responsible for many of the closures, this month announced the establishment of his own oil company based in the country’s east and outside the authority of the central Tripoli administration. Libya’s oil exports primarily go to Europe, with roughly 10% shipped to China.

Oil companies said that both security concerns for their staff resulting from a lack of state control and the effect the closures are having on production are fueling their highly cautious positions toward Libya.

The overwhelming majority of the Libyan government’s revenue comes from oil production and exportation.

Tripoli is currently experiencing its first general strike in recent memory as the majority of the public sector and private businesses close and only pharmacies, hospitals and gas stations remain open.

This article was originally published with Al-Monitor on November 19th.

Gaps in Africa’s Continental Highway prove lethal to Niger migrants

Missing links. (All rights reserved.)

Work on Africa’s cross-continental road network, the Trans-African Highway, has slowed to a crawl, as scores of migrants die attempting the unmade Sahara crossing.

Last week, rescue workers in Niger found the bodies of of 92 people – 52 of them children or teenagers – who died of thirst after their vehicles broke down on the difficult Trans-Sahara crossing, part of the long-delayed Trans-African Highway (TAH) project.

Around 80,000 migrants cross the Sahara every year on their way to North Africa and Europe. The highway section, part of the Lagos to Algiers road, has been marked for construction for more than a decade but is currently little more than an unmade track.

The New Partnership for Africa’s Development (Nepad), which is responsible for finishing the TAH project, claimed on October 23 that construction of the Saharan road section was “almost complete”. But progress on the Sahara Highway and much of the whole TAH project has in fact stalled in recent years, This is Africa has learned.

An investigation into the Sahara Highway revealed that the project was said to be 85 percent complete ten years ago, but missing links in Niger still remain. Stephen Karingi, regional integration and infrastructure director of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (Uneca), says that a road had been constructed up to the Algerian border but that work in Niger was still “under development”.

The stranded migrants are believed to have spent days waiting for rescue on the unmade track near Arlit before leaving the path to search for water on foot.

Uneca first proposed construction of a Trans-African Highway after the majority of African states had completed decolonisation in 1971. Nepad was founded in 2001 to work on continental development projects, including finishing the TAH. “For the first time, Africans have conceptualised, developed and presented a continental plan that was to effectively address all its developmental challenges,” says Nepad’s infrastructure specialist, John Tambi, about the organisation’s role.

But progress has been very slow. A Uneca official told This is Africa that 21 percent of the TAH is still unconstructed. The project was 75 percent complete in 2003, meaning just 2,000 km of the 54,000 km network has been built in the last decade.

The TAH plan incorporates nine primary highway routes totalling 54,000 km of modern road, more than enough to wrap the entire circumference of the earth. One of the central sections, the Cairo to Dakar highway, which runs for 8,640 km across North Africa, was fully completed in 2005 but all eight of the other branches have significant missing links. A new 7,000 km highway, connecting Djibouti to Libreville and Bata in Equatorial Guinea, is set to be announced as part of the network this year.

Mr Karingi claims that despite the slow progress, work is now being done to fill the Sahara gaps. “This is the only TAH route with its own bureau, named Trans-Saharan Road Liaison Committee, which is pushing for its completion,” he argues. “No doubt, the progress has been slow if we are to look at the achievements in the last 10 years. But that has changed with the current increased momentum to complete the missing links.”

African road networks carry almost $200bn in annual trade, but routes are geared towards port connections rather than linking African countries, inhibiting continental trade. Trade between African countries is estimated at just 10-12 percent of the continent’s total external trade. By contrast, intra-European Union trade represents 64 percent of the external trade turnover of EU member states.

Fewer than 40 percent of people living in rural Africa live within 2km of an all-season road, according to the World Bank’s Africa Infrastructure Country Diagnoses. Road density is on average 5 km per 100 square km, less than half the level of Latin America. In Central Africa, 65 percent of the planned highway network is still missing.

The IMF noted in October’s regional economic outlook that a key structural constraint on growth was that “cross-border trade within sub-Saharan Africa remains low”. David Wheeler, a lead economist at the World Bank, has suggested that full completion of the network could yield as much as $250bn in economic benefits in sub-Saharan Africa alone, with much of the value going to the rural poor.

Safety on Africa’s highways remains a concern. The number of people killed in road crashes, partially as the result of poor safety standards and poor quality of infrastructure, is estimated at 322,000 per year.

An African Development Bank report lists financial constraints as the major obstacle to completion. “Most road administrations have a reasonably good idea of how much money would be required to maintain and develop the national road network, but they are not provided with the amounts they consider necessary,” the report says.

Political and security factors also weigh heavily on project planners. Some of the national borders that the network was built to transverse, such as the Moroccan/Algerian border, are closed. Police, customs officials, and other militias have also been found to be operating illegal roadblocks along central TAH routes. The roadblocks mean additional, illegal charges are forced on road users. In one assessment project, monitors found that on the route between Abidjan and Ouagadougou, which covers a distance of about 1,000 km, 65 unofficial controls were in place.

World Bank programme manager for the Africa transport policy program, Jean-Noel Guillossou, tells This is Africa that merely building better highways is not sufficient for improving regional integration and trade.

“Filling the missing links is important but to have safety, to have efficiency and law that will bring trade and save lives you also must have a framework of cooperation and standards so that the people who use roads actually benefit,” he argues.

Mr Guillossou says schemes that aimed to harmonise standards on the existing Trans-African Highway had succeeded in the past. In one study transit times were cut by 75 percent through better cooperation between national authorities in Kenya and Uganda.

Uneca said it is currently working on an intergovernmental agreement on minimum standards for security and maintenance on the TAH network, due to be presented at the next conference of African Transport Ministers. The conference was originally scheduled for November, but a World Bank official disclosed that it had been postponed until next year.

This article was originally published with Financial Times, This is Africa on November 6th.

Occupied and Exploited: Taking Western Sahara’s Resources

Yesterday, a freighter called the Ultra Bellambi docked in Vancouver, on Canada’s west coast, carrying a $10 millionshipment of phosphate. It will have carried the load all the way from the Western Sahara’s Bou Craa mines, where it was extracted by the Moroccan company OCP, before being purchased by the Canadian firm Agrium. Agrium completed a major deal for the phosphate earlier this month, and such exports are set to continue until at least 2020.

“We believe this agreement signifies the start of a significant partnership between Agrium and OCP, offering clear benefits to both parties,” president and CEO of Agrium, Mike Watson, said in astatement on the transaction.

Morocco is also set to benefit, with phosphate mining representing around a quarter of the value of the nation’s exports.

However, not everyone is happy with the deal. The Polisario Front, a Sahrawi liberation movement campaigning for independence for Western Sahara, claims the agreement is illegal and that Agrium is helping to prop up Morocco’s control of the region.

“The Sahrawi people emphatically do not consent to the development and export of their natural resources from the occupied part of their territory,” said representatives. “We do not have the benefit of those resources, the revenues from which go to sustain the occupation.”

The occupied desert

The marginalisation of Western Sahara stretches back several decades. It was once a Spanish colony called Spanish Sahara and became the site of one of the United Nation’s failed decolonisation plans. Long after its neighbours Morocco and Mauritania gained independence in 1956 and 1960 respectively, the territory remained under colonial administration.

It was only by the 1970s that Spain was finally realising its days of controlling a large slice of the Sahara were numbered. Spain recognised the value of Western Sahara’s phosphate resources and the lucrative fishing potential of its long Atlantic coastline, but pressure was building for independence.

In November 1975, Spain convened a meeting of Moroccan, Mauritanian, and Spanish officials in Madrid, which concluded in the Madrid Accords. The agreement saw Western Sahara divided between Morocco and Mauritania, with the former receiving the majority of the land and resources. In exchange, Spain retained some economic interests and the rights to fish the territory’s waters.

Spain formally exited Western Sahara in 1976, and internal resistance forced Mauritania out by 1979, but Morocco had no intention of submitting to the Sahrawi independence movement. A 16-year guerrilla war ensued between the Polisario Front, which declared an independent Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), and the Moroccan armed forces backed by France and the United States.

By the time a ceasefire was reached in 1991, one million landmines had been laid and Morocco had constructed a 2,700 km separation wall dividing Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara, where the majority of the resources are, from Polisario territory. The Sahrawi were divided too; most fled to refugee camps near Tindouf in Algeria, but some remained in occupied territory.

A UN peacekeeping mission was charged with monitoring the ceasefire and organising a self-determination referendum to be held in 1992. Due to constant Moroccan diplomatic pressure and time-consuming (and mostly invalid) challenges to the voter registration process, that referendum has never happened. Moroccan control of the territory, in violation of numerous Security Council resolutions, persists. Repression remains severe. And resource exploitation continues.

(Not) enforcing international law

The Western Sahara is recognised by the UN as a ‘non-self-governing territory’, and the Polisario Front has gained formal recognition for the SADR from 82 states around the world. According to international legal institutions, the Sahrawi are entitled to self-determination, and “sovereignty over natural wealth and resources [is] a basic constituent of the right to self-determination.”

Yet Moroccan exploration, production, and export of resources from Western Sahara have taken place for decades, as have international oil exploration, phosphate production, and fishing, in violation of this principle.

Hundreds of millions in Western Saharan resources are traded each year with few successful attempts to curb the practice, and Agrium’s deal is simply the latest in a long line of agreements made without the Sahrawi’s consent. Agrium has defended the deal, saying that it had sought appropriate legal guidance and that the company is committed to improving quality of life in all communities that it does business. But criticism has continued.

“Such activities would be illegal if failing to take into account the wishes and the interests of the Saharawi as the original people of the territory,” said Western Sahara Research Watch (WSRW), a group which lobbies against transactions between companies and governments that make use of Western Saharan resources. The organisation estimates almost $300 million in phosphate has been exported from Western Sahara in 44 shiploads so far this year.

WSRW also campaigns against Moroccan, European, and Russian exploitation of Western Sahara’s lucrative fishing industry. UN reports suggest the combined value of Moroccan and Western Saharan fishing rights comes to hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

WSRW claims Morocco’s occupation is subsidised to support the industry at the expense of the Sahrawi, and that agreements such as the EU–Morocco Fisheries Partnership Agreement and similar arrangements with Russia are illegal. The EU partnership has granted licenses to European companies (a majority Spanish) for Western Saharan waters, providing a modern expression of the fishing rights Spanish planners incorporated into the Madrid Accords. The accord was not renewed in December 2011 partly due to a dispute over Western Saharan waters, and a newprotocol was put forwards in summer 2013 which the EU claims is in accordance with international law, but WSRW insists it still fails to exclude the waters of the Western Sahara.

Ending resource exploitation

Some efforts at ending the trade of Western Saharan resources without Sahrawi have been successful. On 30 September, for example, four of Sweden’s state pension funds decided to sell their stakes in Incitec Pivot and Potash Corp due to the companies’ continued import of Western Saharan phosphate.

“Both companies [are] purchasers of phosphate from a Moroccan supplier that mines its product in Western Sahara, a disputed territory that is on the United Nations’ list of non-self-governing territories that should be decolonised,” said the fund.

The move followed a similar decision by Norwegian state pension funds in 2010.

However, for the most part, there remain real difficulties in persuading companies not to engage in the trade of conflict resources. Despite questions of the legality of doing so, many companies continue to buy phosphates, conduct oil exploration, and engage in the fishing trade. According to Independent Diplomat, a non-profit advisory group which works with Polisario, this is likely go on so long as international law is not enforced and policy is expressed vaguely at national level.

“Responsible governments need to provide legal clarity by providing guidelines to all private companies that any exploration or exploitation of Western Sahara’s natural resources must respect international law,” a representative told Think Africa Press. “In failing to provide this clarity, governments will indirectly be allowing companies to violate the sovereign rights of Western Sahara’s people to control their own resources.”

Indeed, Agrium seems to be well aware of Western Sahara’s non-self governing status. In its company reports, it classifies Western Sahara separately from Morocco – and not only nationally but also by region, listing Western Sahara as part of sub-Saharan Africa and Morocco as part of North Africa. Yet there does not seem to be the pressure or awareness to stop Agrium trading in exploited resources.

When it comes to the Western Sahara’s minerals, oil, and fishing resources, ethical concerns clearly compete with the need for profit. And without enforcement of international law, through the policies of the European Union and major advanced economies, evidence suggests there is little chance of fully curtailing the trade.


This article was originally published with Think Africa Press on October 25th 2013.

Comment: Time for action in Western Sahara

In October United Nations envoy to Western Sahara, Christopher Ross, began a diplomatic push to finally blot out one of the darkest stains on the UN’s record.

The visit took in Rabat, Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara, and the territory controlled by the Polisario Front, which fought a 16-year war against the Moroccans. The goal was to break a decades-long deadlock and move toward finally solving the problem of the UN’s last “non self-governing territory” in Africa.

The occupation by Morocco of most of the territory now known as Western Sahara has lasted 38 years. In 1975 Morocco’s then king, Hassan II, organized an invasion and simultaneous mass civilian demonstration in the former Spanish colony. The population suffered. Tens of thousands fled from their homes to refugee camps across the Algerian border. They still languish there, scratching the best existence they can, reliant on humanitarian aid.

Those Sahrawi who remained found themselves living under harsh Moroccan rule, terrorized by the security forces, and increasingly marginalized by subsidized Moroccan settlement. Today an armed force of between 100,000 and 140,000 troops is maintained for a population of just half a million.

In October 2010, it was in occupied Western Sahara that the first die of the Arab spring was cast. Sahrawi civil rights groups organized the establishment of a tent-city and mass protests just outside the capital Laayoune. The demonstrations were crushed by the state more quickly and efficiently than those of perhaps any other Arab Spring movement.

Human rights abuses, documented by journalists and NGOs, remain rife. When I visited the occupied territory myself last year, I collected evidence of routine repression, assault and even extra-judicial killings, or “disappearances”.

Despite this, the underfunded UN peacekeeping mission in Western Sahara (MINURSO) is one of only four in the UN’s history to have no mandate for monitoring human rights abuses.

The UN’s failures in Western Sahara are manifold. First it failed to properly enforce the decolonisation of the territory, then it failed to enforce a World Court decision invalidating the claims of both Morocco and Mauritania to Western Sahara. Finally it has failed for over twenty years to successfully organize a self-determination referendum that was supposed to be held in 1992.

There are many explanations (all unacceptable) for this deadly impasse. The most important is that Morocco’s refusal to allow a just settlement of the issue is repeatedly excused by European powers.

France continues to block diplomatic efforts at the UN that could bring an end to the conflict, including moves to give MINURSO a human rights mandate. Spain, historically the administering power, with obvious responsibility for events in Western Sahara, has largely gone along with this.

British and United States policy has been more varied. The US originally supported King Hassan and bankrolled the early Moroccan military campaignagainst the Polisario. But although their position has mostly been one of support for Morocco, whose GCC membership and counter-terrorism support programmes have afforded it breathing room, the landscape is changing.

It was the US, supported by Britain, that proposed a human rights mandate be added to MINURSO in the organisation’s annual renewal in April of this year.

An extensive campaign against this move by Morocco eventually resulted in Security Council resolution 2099 “stressing the importance of improving the human rights situation in Western Sahara and the Tindouf camps”, but dropping the human rights monitor mandate. Although ultimately disappointing, this seemed an encouraging sign. With the US administration open to positive policies on resolving the Western Sahara issue, the minimal action of UN human rights monitoring in the territory seems within reach.

The Western Sahara conflict may be ignored by most of the world most of the time, but it will it not fully go away either. Earlier this month the UN decolonisation committee received 81 requests for the Western Sahara issue to be included on its agenda.

The immediate priority for Ross and the UN should be official human rights monitoring. Britain, Spain, and critically France, should take this chance to publicly and unequivocally express support for MINURSO human rights monitoring. This has gone on long enough.


This article was originally published with Le Monde Diplomatique on October 21st 2013.


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