A woman dubbed the “Ghandi of Western Sahara” is on day 30 of a hunger strike. Forty-two-year-old Aminatou Haidar is resisting pressure from Spain and Morocco, and is refusing to give in.
This long time militant has become, in a few days, the symbol of a war that has been entrenched in Africa for 35 years after staging her protest at Lanzarote airport.
“I will go back to Morocco dead or alive,” she said from her temporary exile in Spain’s Canary Islands.
She has considerable support in Spain.
Haidar’s passport was confiscated by Moroccan officials as she tried to return home because she refused to say she was Moroccan.
She believes the people of Western Sahara have the right to govern themselves.
At more than a quarter of a million square kilometres in the north-west of Africa, Western Sahara was claimed by Morocco and by the
Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic, founded by the Polisario Front. It was to repel Polisario incursions that Morocco built a wall in the middle of the desert.
In 1975, Western Sahara was a Spanish colony, that Morocco considered its own. In early November, King Hassan the Second launched the so-called “Green March” of 350,000 Moroccans into the territory carrying the Koran and their national flag.
Madrid backed down, and signed a deal splitting the region between Morocco and Mauritania.
But the Saharawis – supported by Algeria – had not been consulted. For them, Morocco and Mauritania were just a new occupying force.
In February 1976, the Polisario Front – which had emerged to fight Spanish occupation three years before – proclaimed the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic, and shifted their attention to the new rulers.
War erupted between the rebels and troops from Morocco and Mauritania.
In 1979, Mauritania signed a peace deal and pulled out, but their territory was immediately annexed by Morocco.
The fighting continued – despite a ceasefire dating from 1991.
And thirty years after the colonialists left, Western Sahara still does not have a definite status. Morocco has offered widespread autonomy under Moroccan rule, but the Polisario Front wants a referendum on full independence.
Haidar’s stand has once more put the spotlight on this three decade conflict.