By Wanambwa M. Rogers
Last week Kampala International University’s Guild Union in conjunction with the Pan African Association of KIU held a public lecture with the theme: ‘Colonialism in Africa, the Case of Western Sahara’ where by the chief guest was the 2nd Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of East Africa for Community Affairs, Rt. Hon. Kirunda Kivejinja and the ambassador of Western Sahara to Uganda, H.E Mohammed Bachir. The lecture was hugely attended something that even Rt. Hon. Kirunda commented about considering this was not his first visit to the university.
In order to understand what this lecture was all about, let me first of explain why Western Sahara is considered to be under colonialism and a brief hint on Western Sahara as a country.
Western Sahara is an African country found in the Northern part of Africa with a population of about 610,000 people. It has a land mass of 266,000km², and a mean elevation of 256m above sea level with an arid climate generally.
Western Sahara has a population of about 610,000 people as of 2018, 150,000 of whom are an active labour force. The national language is Standard Arabic although other local dialects are spoken.
It has a GDP of $906.5million, with a GDP per Capita of $2,500 with main economic activities that include nomadic pastoralism(mainly of sheep), phosphate mining(which comprises 62% of their exports) and fishing.
Where does the conflict stem from?
According to H.E Mohammed Bachir, Western Sahara is a disputed territory. A former Spanish colony, it was annexed by Morocco in 1975. Since then, it has been the subject of a long running territorial dispute between Morocco and its indigenous Saharawi people led by the Polisario Front founded in 1973. Morocco controls around two thirds of Western Sahara. A 16-year long insurgency ended with a UN brokered truce in September 1991 and the promise of a referendum leading to independence which has yet to take place to date.
Another contentious issue is the speculated oil deposits in the country. Although oil had never been officially found in Western Sahara in commercially significant quantities, Morocco and the Polisario have quarreled over rights and benefits from oil exploration. To see the significance of this oil, the General Consideration of Morocco Morocco Enterprises announced a $609million investment in the region in March 2015. This is 67% of the country’s GDP! What is unfortunate, is that Western Saharawis will not really benefit from this as the deals are with the Moroccan government.
Consider also that in December2013, Morocco and the EU signed a four-year agreement allowing European vessels to fish off the coast of Western Sahara. As of April 2018, Moroccan and EU authorities were negotiating an amendment to renew the agreement. All this without consulting the Western Saharawis. It should be noted that the significance of these fishing grounds cannot be overlooked do example, it is alleged that most of the fish eaten in Spain comes from the offshore waters of Western Sahara.
What is/can be done by Western Sahara and its African counterparts like Uganda?
According to Dr. Mbabazi, a Head of Department at Kampala International University, Western Sahara has several problems which can be solved too. Here’s some of those:
1) The problem of a small population of around 600,000. This can be solved through inter-marriages with Mauritanians, Algerians, Malians among others. This has already been done by countries like Palestine.
2) The Language. Western Saharawis speak Arabic which most Africans do not. Changing to English and French can help them even join the Common Wealth community.
3) Economic Integrations. These can be between itself and West African countries, and even those in Northern Africa. This helps it get allies in these nations to help it even in fighting for its independence.
4) Education. Western Saharawis need to have a world class education system. Also they can liase with other countries like Uganda to get their students into universities in these countries to study courses like Conflict Resolution and Peace and other practical courses like in oil and gas exploration. According to Rt. Hon. Kirunda, “everything has had an intellectual leadership” and this includes the fight for independence in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s in India where he was studying by then and in Africa where he would later join the struggle for independence. Hence educating your population is very important.
5) Oil and Gas exploration and control in companies. Mostly, this is being done by French and US companies. This should be negotiated upon to give a controlling stake to local Saharawis. Also invite Russian and Chinese companies to come into the market and provide a competitive advantage to the locals.
It should be noted that in Uganda, oil and gas exploration had never kicked off officially even though oil was discovered in 1914. Extensions have been made from 1998 to 2014 to 2018 to 2020 and recently to 2022 and all of this is due to the unending bureaucracy involved with these companies.
6) Media reforms and infrastructure development. Western Saharawis, should work on having a national TV and radio and newspaper. This is part of an autonomous nation and it helps show the citizens what the government of the country is doing for them. In essence, it cultivates nationalism in the citizens.
7) IT & Big Data(Technology). In 2019, the value of data surpassed that of oil and gold and as of January 2019, there were 500,000 vacant IT jobs in the world. This number is expected to rise to 1million by end of this year. Technology is basically the new manufacturing industry and Western Saharawis should not miss this chance to catch up with the rest of the world.
In conclusion, I’ll quote Rt. Hon. Kirunda Kivejinja that ‘The art of freedom fighting is a human function’ and hence it is within our mandate and right to fight for Western Sahara’s independence as Africans and especially as Ugandans just as this same courtesy was extended to all African countries I our struggle for independence I the late 20th Century.