The issue of the Western Sahara has now dragged on for 35 years with no apparent end in sight to the conflict. This rather convoluted dispute entered into the consciousness of the world in 1975 when the Spanish colonialists left the Western Sahara and the Moroccan government decided to assert its authority over the territory that it says it has always controlled. And that is when the trouble really began.

The dispute has created divisions in Africa. Indeed, Morocco, a founding father of the Organisation of African Unity, walked out of the pan-African body in 1984, four years after it recognised the POLASARIO as the legitimate government of an independent Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). POLISARIO, claiming to be the main liberation movement in the territory, declared an independent SADR on 27 February 1976, a day after Spain formally left the territory. Although it took six years for the OAU to recognise the SADR, the interim period had been one of intense diplomatic activity by POLASARIO to state its case internationally and to garner support. There is no denying that the organisation has had a long lead over Morocco when it comes to the war of words – more so in non-French-speaking Africa.

That was one reason why the SADR had so much support from African governments when it was accepted as a member of the OAU. The apparently one-sided nature of this flow of information has more or less helped to prolong the stalemate that has developed over the Western Sahara issue. This is why this new book, Western Sahara Conflict: Historical, Regional and International Dimensions by Ali Bahaijoub, is most welcomed. As the title suggests, the book covers the whole gamut of the Western Sahara problem. This has clearly contrived to throw a lot of light on an issue that has flummoxed so many. Bahaijoub’s work is actually an extension of his 1987 PhD thesis, which he successfully submitted to the London School of Economics.

Since then, the conflict has become even more complicated and confusing. For instance, the POLASARIO camps in the Algerian desert, where many sought refuge in 1975, are portrayed as the Western Sahara by the SADR government. And there are many who have been fooled by this after a visit – claiming later that they were in the territory of Western Sahara. In all this, it is the refugees in the camps who are the unfortunate pawns. Bahaijoub says that many are held against their wishes and that the camps are more or less prisons. “It is worth mentioning that no international organisation is allowed into the Tindouf camps without the authorisation of the Algerian military command, and the refugees’ predicament will unfortunately continue to deteriorate regardless of the lack of transparency and accountability,” writes Bahaijoub.

Not surprisingly, the POLASARIO has failed to come up with a true figure of the refugees in the camp so that the UN can organise a referendum to decide their future. Bahaijoub argues that this stalemate suits both the leadership of the POLASIRIO and the Algerian military. The Algerian government, under the grip of the army, has bankrolled POLASARIO for many years, turning it into a well-financed organisation. How else can the POLISARIO, without any tangible source of income operate some 50 “diplomatic” missions – a lot more than what many African states can afford?

This is an interesting book that clearly explains the intricate nature of the Western Sahara conflict, drawing a great deal on documentation and accords showing Morocco’s ancient claims over the territory. It also shows that the stalemate perfectly suits the leadership of the POLASARIO and the Algerian military. But the most important bit of all is that we now have a volume that throws a completely new light to the long-running Western Sahara debate. Those who have been confounded by the arguments – legal or otherwise – would do well to get a copy of this book.

Ali Bahaijoub

North-South Books, 2010