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.

Oil companies divided over Libya’s future

As government control over key national infrastructure in Libya deteriorates, oil companies are beginning to ask serious questions about their future in the country

Two days before an armed group surrounded the Corinthia hotel in Tripoli and kidnapped the Libyan prime minister – only to then release him six hours later – Ali Zeidan had called on Western powers to help secure what was left of the state’s control of the country.

On October 10, Mr Zeidan was taken by a militia that accused him of corruption and collusion with a United States Special Forces raid that resulted in the capture of Abu Anas al-Liby, a man wanted by the US on suspicion of involvement in the 1998 embassy bombings.

“This was an attempted coup. My political opponents are behind my abduction and they wanted to force me into resigning after failing to unseat me,” said Mr Zeidan, likely alluding to Libya’s Muslim Brotherhood, in a speech following his release.

The kidnapping was not the first assault on a top-level official this year. In March, Mohammed Magarief, the then-president of the country’s National Congress and de facto head of state, survived an armed attack on his car. He resigned two months later.

The Tripoli-based administration’s tenuous grip on power has been further undermined in recent months by the growing strength of regional militias and a spate of senior government resignations.

Interior minister Mohammed Khalifa al-Sheikh and deputy prime minister Awadh al-Barassi both resigned in August. Mr Al-Sheikh had spent just three months in the post and blamed a lack of support from Mr Zeidan for his departure.

Government instability has caused secessionist groups to grow bolder. The armed Barqa Youth Movement, supported by regional militias and former deputy defence minister Saddiq al-Ghaithi, is openly declaring the autonomy of Libya’s oil rich Eastern Cyrenaica region.

“What we’re seeing in Libya is a descent into lawlessness and political chaos that is making life very difficult for oil companies,” Valerie Marcel, Chatham House petroleum sector specialist, tellsThis is Africa.

“On the one hand there are labour concerns, which the government has gone some way toward mitigating, but then there is also a seemingly intractable problem of militias trying to establish oil fiefdoms and then using that power politically.”

Falling production

The lack of government control over resources is causing international oil companies to become more cautious about committing to long-term production plans. In October the International Monetary Fund warned that “uncertainty is keeping investors away and prompting those who are active to scale down their activities”.

An European oil company with significant investment in Libya indicated that IOCs were particularly concerned by signs of smaller militias coalescing into larger more powerful entities.

Wintershall, Germany’s largest oil and gas company which holds a concession in Eastern Libya, tellsThis is Africathat the country’s security situation is having an adverse effect on its production levels.

“We would like to reach the pre-crisis production level of 100,000 barrels per day again as quickly as possible, but it is not currently possible to say when this will happen,” says the group’s Verena Sattel. Wintershall has invested more than $2bn in oil production in Libya.

“The return of some of the necessary expertise and services to Libya is being delayed because of security concerns. In addition, we are continuing to see limits to the Libyan export infrastructure despite the availability of a new replacement pipeline – owing to protests and strikes,” she explains.

Canadian oil company Suncor, which produces oil in Eastern Libya through a 49 percent stake in a joint venture called Harouge, says militia activity have affected its operations. “Since the export terminals have been shut down we have cut back to minimal operations and are keeping in close contact with the NOC about events on the ground,” explains Kelli Stevens, a spokesperson for the group.

“We’re confident that we have the ability to weather this storm, and I believe we’d be in pretty good shape if the terminals were to reopen, but we also do need a safe environment for our staff to operate in,” she says.

OMV, an Austrian oil producer with 30 years experience in Libya and ongoing operations in the west of the country said it was committed to staying the course. “The situation in Libya is clearly very fragile, but we understand the importance of international oil to the country’s economy and we are not considering abandoning our operations there,” Johannes Vetter, a spokesperson for OMV, tellsThis is Africa.

Italian oil company ENI SpA, which has a large percentage of its portfolio in Libya, has publicly stated that “extraordinary events” in Libya have affected the company’s performance. “First half results were affected by a difficult economic situation across Italy and Europe, production interruption in Libya and Nigeria and by the fall in Saipem’s results,” chief executive Paolo Scaroni said in a second quarter statement.

British Petroleum said that security concerns had led to the postponement of some of its oil exploration plans, but that it was going ahead with offshore exploration in Libyan waters in 2014.

“We are planning to start our first offshore exploration well during late 2014, in the Sirte basin. Our exploration plans for the onshore acreage in the Ghadames region are on hold at the moment given the security situation across the region,” a spokesperson says.

Libyan oil minister Abdelbari Al-Arusi has disclosed that US company Marathon Oil is considering selling its 16.3 percent stake in the Waha Oil consortium and exiting the country. “For companies like Suncor, Marathon, and ConocoPhillips which work in the East of Libya, and have had production shut down, the situation is very bad,” says Femi Oso, North Africa analyst at energy consulting firm Wood Mackenzie. “It’s becoming more and more difficult for those companies to make the case for staying in Libya.”

Oil dependence

Libya, a member of the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, has around 48bn barrels of proven crude oil reserves, the fifth largest in the world, and 38 percent of the total reserves for the whole of Africa.

Following the discovery of oil in Libya in 1959, US, British, and Italian oil companies led foreign exploration of the country’s reserves. The industry was nationalised after Muammar Gaddafi’s 1969 coup against the British-backed king Idris, but US and European companies kept tabs on the oil, which was judged to be of very high quality.

Libya’s National Oil Company is now responsible for around half of production, with another half falling to international producers. The export market is primarily European, with 23 percent of oil exported to Italy, 12.5 percent to Germany, 9.7 percent to France, and 4.7 percent to the UK. Around 10 percent of Libya’s oil is exported to China.

The successful production and export of petroleum products is critical to Libya’s export-led economy, representing 98 percent of total exports and 99 percent of government revenue.

But in the last two months militia activity has caused oil exports to fall as low as 150,000 barrels per day, just over a tenth of 2012 levels. At the time of publication production levels are at 30-40 percent of capacity.

Chatham House’s Ms Marcel argues that the latest security concerns are so serious that there is a very real chance of European oil companies substantially shrinking operations in Libya.

Growing militancy

Much of Libya’s oil and petrochemical infrastructure has fallen under the control of armed militias like Mr al-Ghaithi’s, which once fought against Mr Gaddafi and have fluid relationships with plant security guards and workers.

Those militias are now locked in a standoff with a government which, they claim, is funnelling the fruits of the East’s oil fields to Tripoli. Just two of Libya’s six largest terminals are currently operating. A force majeure has been declared by the National Oil Company on the remaining four.

Most of Libya’s major ports and refineries are located around the lucrative Sirte basin. The eastern coastal ports of Es Sider, Ras Lanuf, and Zueitina, which lie between Sirte and Benghazi, and Marsa al-Hariga near Tobruk, have all experienced shut-down by armed groups and strikes by loading workers and local port security personnel within the last two months.

In mid-August striking security guards at the Es Sider terminal threatened to start selling the oil themselves if the government refused to acquiesce to demands for higher wages. The workers were backed by the influential leader Ibrahim al-Jathran, then regional head of the government organisation responsible for securing oil installations, the Petroleum Facilities Guard.

Mr al-Jathran used contacts he built during the rebellion against Mr Gaddafi to form a powerful militia that shut down both Es Sider and Ras Lanuf, the country’s largest refinery. After being fired from the PFG he renamed his group the Cyrenaica Defence Force, emphasising regional tensions between Tripoli and the East.

Similar militias, formed partly by local workers and disgruntled PFG members, staged shut-downs in Zueitina and Marsa al-Hariga. The Libyan prime minister has claimed the shut-downs cost the country $130m a day.

One Eastern facility, Marsa al Brega, has re-opened full production. Authorities claim to have received assurances from Brega workers that they do not support the militias and are happy to work under government jurisdiction.

The western refinery of Zawiya is controlled by the PFG but a Zintan militia managed to seize the two Murzuq basin oil fields that supply it, the el-Feel and el-Sharara, and halted the flow of oil to the plant by closing pipeline valves. The fields remained closed until mid-September when the militia agreed to reopen the pipeline. Libya’s offshore Bouri and Farwah terminals are currently unaffected.

“We would like to assure all companies and employees in the oil sector that we have always been dedicated to securing all petroleum facilities on Libya’s soil around the clock under any circumstances to ensure the stability and success of our county,” the PFG said in a public statement following the kidnapping of Prime Minister Zeidan.


This article was originally published with Financial Times, This is Africa on October 17th.

The mega-port that threatens to sink Sudan

As plans for a mega-port on Kenya’s northern-most coast begin to take shape, new concerns are emerging that the project could damage already-strained relations between Sudan and South Sudan.

Kenya’s $25.5bn Lamu Port and New Transport Corridor Development to Southern Sudan and Ethiopia (LAPSSET) includes the construction of a 32-berth port, three international airports, and a 1,500km railway line. A new oil refinery, in nearby Bargoni, and an oil pipeline are also planned. The pipeline would run to Kenya’s Eastern Province before splitting, with one branch running to South Sudan’s capital, Juba, and another through Moyale in the north to Addis Ababa. A 1,730km road network is also in the works.

The project is seen as central to development in Kenya, and East Africa more broadly. But as demonstrations across Sudan over fuel subsidy cuts continue, fears that the mega-port could further damage Sudan’s ailing economy are looking more significant to regional security.

The Lamu mega-port would enable landlocked South Sudan to export its oil through Kenya, bypassing Sudan’s Red Sea port and oil refineries. This would cause Sudan to lose the substantial transit fees it is paid by South Sudan. Sudan lost 75 percent of its oil reserves when South Sudan seceded in 2011, and political relations have been uneasy ever since.

‘Huge threat’ to Khartoum

“The Lamu project is a huge threat to Khartoum in terms of loss of revenue. These transit fees are high, partly because they also take into account a sense of compensation for the North letting go of the oil,” EJ Hogendoorn, the International Crisis Group’s Africa deputy program director, told Al Jazeera. “The fact is, South Sudan feels exposed and vulnerable, and they feel like they’re being almost cheated by Khartoum.”

Meanwhile, internal political pressure is mounting in Sudan, with opposition parties and the Girifna protest movement calling for the overthrow of Omar al-Bashir’s ruling National Congress Party-led government, following security forces’ violent dispersal of demonstrations across the country.

“Every day there are protests and sit-ins in several parts of Khartoum, as well as cities of Port Sudan, Alobaied, Sinnar and Wad Medani,” Girifna member and activist Yosra Akasha told Al Jazeera.

“The violence from the government side will not stop the grieved people who demand life with dignity, justice and toppling down the NCP regime,” she said.

The demonstrations began on September 23, after the government announced the cancellation of fuel and cooking gas subsidies, effectively doubling prices overnight. Human rights groups say security forces are responsible for the deaths of between 200 and 300 demonstrators.

War of attrition

Disagreements over oil have been a major point of contention in relations between the Sudans since secession talks became serious. In 2010, Concordis International, an NGO, stated that “oil is the main driver of national contestation over border demarcation”.

Since the split in 2011, oil has remained the focus of diplomatic activity between the two countries. “The Sudans appeared to engage in what some termed an economic ‘war of attrition’ with each other for much of 2012,” noted Lauren Ploch Blanchard, an Africa analyst at the Congressional Research Service, in an annual report.

For instance, Khartoum detained oil tankers and diverted large quantities of South Sudan oil in retaliation, it claimed, for the South failing to pay fees at its desired rate. Sudan originally demanded fees of $32-36 per barrel, but South Sudan counter-offered a payment of under $1 per barrel.

In September 2012 a deal was finally reached that set the fees at about $10 per barrel – well above the standard international level – but the stand-off was costly for both countries. Sudan’s oil GDP dropped by 62 percent in 2012, and its external current account deficit grew to 10.8 percent of GDP.

Meanwhile, the Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan regions continue to be disputed by the two Sudans. Despite attempts at demilitarisation, the border between Sudan and South Sudan remains highly unstable, and political leaders have failed to reach an agreement securing the territory and reducing the risk of conflict.

Although the Lamu mega-port may add to these strains, its completion is still far off, and full funding is by no means assured.

“Little progress has been made on the infrastructure corridors beyond planning,” Chatham House’s Sudan and Somalia analyst Ahmed Soliman told Al Jazeera. “Building a pipeline to Lamu may be a stage too far.” Soliman added that maintaining relations with Sudan, while simultaneously trying to cut it out of the oil export picture, would be difficult for South Sudan to swallow.

‘Big boost’ for Kenya

The mega-port is a major element of the Kenyan government’s Vision 2030 initiative, which aims to modernise deteriorating infrastructure and boost economic output. The planned port, to be three times the size of Kenya’s current biggest port in Mombasa, was originally conceived in 1975. But new plans were drawn up in 2008, and the project was finally launched last year.

The port and oil refinery are to be situated at Manda Bay, by the historic UNESCO world heritage town of Lamu. Oil pipelines will connect the port to Juba, South Sudan’s capital, and to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital.

A consortium headed by China Communications has won tenders to build much of the mega-port, and construction is under way on the road network and associated resort cities. A Chinese firm has won a nearly $500m bid for the port’s first three berths, which will be equipped to receive newer, larger vessels.

Mugo Kibati, director general of Kenya’s Vision 2030, told Al Jazeera that construction of those berths is expected to begin in the next couple of months.

“This is a big project and it will be a big boost for Kenya’s GDP, opening up whole areas of the country that were previously quite closed off. It will also be a tremendous regional boost to the economies of four surrounding countries,” Kibati said in a phone interview.

The project was predicated on South Sudan exporting oil to Lamu, instead of to Sudan. Uganda has also agreed to export oil to the new port. The oil facilities will be able to refine 120,000 barrels per day by 2015.


This article was originally published with Al Jazeera on October 13th 2013.