At an English school in the Western Saharan camp of Smara, young men are drinking sugary local tea, talking and checking social media. The first two activities, in a region much of the world has forgotten, have endured for centuries. The latter – at least its widespread use – is relatively new. And, with new 4G cables in town, it’s growing in use.
Western Sahara is a large swathe of the Sahel region of Africa, which runs between Morocco, Mauritania, Algeria and Mali. It is claimed by Morocco, which has governed the region since 1975, when Spanish occupiers left, despite a major international outcry over its illegitimacy. Under the auspices of King Hassan II, Morocco waged a war against Mauritania and the POLISARIO Front, a liberation movement comprised of the native Sahrawi people, with whom a ceasefire was brokered in 1991.
The provisos of that peace – that a referendum be offered the Sahrawi people for governance of their homeland – has not yet been realized. The situation has reached a stalemate, not helped by the creation, during the 1980s, of an almost-3,000km-long wall, the ‘Berm’, built to keep the POLISARIO out of Western Sahara, and a minefield considered by many as the largest on Earth.
Today around two-thirds of the Sahrawi people live on the Moroccan side of the Berm, which is known locally as the ‘occupied territory’. Another 150,000-or-so live in refugee camps in southern Algeria. It is vital for them to send a message to the world about their situation – and not just in the local Hassaniya dialect of Arabic.
A 4G network, installed six months ago by Algerie Telecom, has made their cause a lot easier. Internet cafes, while infrequent, are increasing in number. Since three months back, when connections began to spread, the camps are spreading word of their plight online.
“We get better results if we spoke English, because reaching out to Arab countries doesn’t do much for the cause,” says local journalist Mohamedsalem Werad. “Now that the area has a connection we can get the message to the world.” Arab countries have historically been unsympathetic to the Sahrawi situation, with the greatest change coming from Western, English-speaking nations.
Similar reasons have helped boost the ratings of RASD TV, the official voice of the POLISARIO provisional government, whose director Mohamed Salem Laabeid makes no attempt to hide the fact that his workers toe the party line. “The message now is peace and diplomacy,” he says, from an office in the camp of Rabouni. “So that is what we tell the people.”
It is important for RASD TV, whose live programming began in 2009, to promote its message not only to the local refugee population, but also those in the occupied territories. That group, of around 350,000, do not normally tune in to local satellite providers, says the station’s Spanish-language presenter Khalil Mohamed Abdelaziz. “Nilesat (of Egypt) is far too expensive and Arabsat (headquartered in Saudi Arabia) is associated with the wrong message. For those in the occupied territories, the antenna is like a flag.”
RASD TV has a strong presence on Twitter – and Facebook, where it is winning thousands of followers, from a student diaspora that is sent to Cuba, South America, Spain and other Spanish-speaking countries.
Twitter, with its immediacy and melee of voices, would be the perfect conduit for Sahrawi protest, adds Werad. But its use in the camps is limited. Not only is it relatively unknown, but its real use is again in the creation of English-language content, something in which the majority of locals – who often speak Spanish and French astonishingly fluently but are rarely schooled in English – do sparingly.
Nonetheless hope is growing. Kosmos Energy, a Texas-based firm, recently began drilling off the coast of occupied Western Sahara, to the derision of Sahrawis and the POLISARIO. “At least now, if you type in many Sahrawi-related words, you can find good information about Kosmos,” says Werad.
Sahara’s political inertia, while known in many circles as ‘Africa’s last colony’, is still an enigma in many states. With the swirl of social media set to whip up attention, that will soon change.