Western Sahara's new leader: The struggle continues

Western Sahara's new leader: The struggle continues
Comment: Brahim Ghali has been elected with an overwhelming majority as the new leader of the Sahrawi people, carrying them forward in their fight for self-determination, writes Massinissa Benlakehal
5 min read
19 Jul, 2016
Brahim Ghali is the Polisario Front's new Secretary General and President of the SADR [AFP]

In electing their new leader last week, the Sahrawi people have breathed new life in their long-standing fight for self-determination.

Brahim Ghali, 67, has been elected as the Polisario Front's new Secretary General and President of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), in an extraordinary congress held in the camp of Dakhla, south-west Algeria.

Ghali is the second SADR's democratically elected president, collecting 1,766 votes out of 1,895 cast in the election.

The congress was organised following the death of President Mohamed Abdelaziz, who passed away late last May after a long illness.

Born in September 1949 in the city of Smara - now part of the occupied territory of Western Sahara - Brahim Ghali is known as one of the most influential members of Polisario Front. In 1973, he was a founding member of the Front and is its third General Secretary.

According to witnesses, Ghali played a role as a military commander in the clandestine phase of the struggle against the Moroccan occupation. He led the first military operation conducted against the Spanish occupier following the outbreak of the armed struggle in May 1973.

Ghali was a member of the delegation designed to negotiate with Spain for Western Sahara's self-determination in 1975, and in addition has served in several other major positions. In the diplomatic sphere, he was the SADR Ambassador to Algeria from 2008 to 2015.

In his first statement as the sworn in President of the SADR, Brahim Ghali announced that his first destination would be Algeria, prior to attending the African Union summit from July 10-18 in Kigali, Rwanda.

A referendum for self-determination was supposed to be held in the same year. Twenty-five years later, nothing has been done on the ground

The overwhelming majority of Sahrawis taking part in the extraordinary congress elected the Front's former head of the political secretariat. For Ghali, the union of the Sahrawi people, is sending a definitive message to the Moroccan occupier.

Since 2009, the Polisario Front's leadership has had to deal with enormous pressure to resume the armed struggle against the occupation. For the highly educated Sahrawi youth, the failure of negotiations is no doubt a contributing factor.

They pushed for a change in the policy conducted by their leadership before stepping back as the former president stood firm, convincing them to have faith and be patient. Despite the widely noted failure in the negotiation process, the Front's leadership continues to believe in peace talks.

After over twenty years of clandestine fighting between the Front's guerrilla and the Moroccan army, the United Nations brokered a ceasefire in 1991.

A referendum for self-determination was supposed to be held in the same year. Twenty-five years later, nothing has been done on the ground, as the UN mission for the organisation of a referendum in Western Sahara has failed to secure such a vote.

Morocco has occupied and claimed sovereignty over most of Western Sahara's territory since 1975, and the Security Council has been requesting the organisation of this referendum since 2004.

The newly elected leader of the SADR is a seasoned diplomat who - following in the footsteps of the deceased Mohamed Abdelaziz - believes in peace talks, but does not exclude the option of an armed fight.

Morocco has occupied and claimed sovereignty over most of Western Sahara's territory since 1975

To date, Western Sahara's occupied territory is still under illegal occupation, according to the UN. The territory's natural resources are exploited by the occupier despite the fact that international laws prohibit such practices. Western Sahara's occupied areas have offshore fishing, oilfield potential as well as phosphate reserves.

According to Human rights NGOs, atrocities are still being committed against the Sahrawi people living the occupied territories, in front of the UN mission's personnel based there. International organisations and European Union MPs have, many times, condemned these practices against civilians.

In early March, United Nation's Secretary General Ban Ki-moon stated while visiting the refugee camps for the first time: "What really moved and, even, saddened me was the anger. Many people expressed their anger - people who for more than forty years have lived in the harshest conditions and who feel their plight and their cause have been forgotten by the world."

Despite the harsh conditions, Western Sahara's camps in Algeria's southern desert are among the best-organised refugee camps in the world, as is remarked upon by foreign delegations and journalists who have visited the camps.

"I wanted to bear witness to one of the forgotten humanitarian tragedies of our times," Ban Ki-moon told the press during that first ever visit, adding: "The Sahrawi refugee camps near Tindouf are some of the oldest in the world. It's heartbreaking to see these families separated for so long."

The UN Chief also added that the situation is unacceptable, stressing the need to address it independently of the political process.

The Constitution of SADR guarantees equal rights for women, the right to vote for all Sahrawi citizens, religious freedom including an elected government.

According to Human rights NGOs, atrocities are still being committed against the Sahrawi people living the occupied territories

In the camps, women work in various positions. They serve as governors and are well represented in the national leadership. They enjoy the same rights as the men, and many also enroll in the army ranks as soldiers or officers.

According to NGOs, Sahrawi people are the most educated African people group given their conditions, as education institution inside the camps has resulted in a literacy rate that tops 90 percent.

The UN's refugee agency, UNCHR, says that the five existing camps of Tindouf are home to an estimated 165,000 Sahrawi refugees. The UNCHR classifies 90,000 of them as vulnerable.

Thanks to policies administered by the Front's leadership, over 6,000 children are in first-grade schools in the camps. After completing first-grade studies, students set their sights on universities in countries such as Cuba, Spain or Algeria.

For forty-years now, Sahrawi people have continued to defend their cause, committed to their search for justice.

The SADR was admitted as a full member of the African Union as the legitimacy of the Sahrawi struggle is recognised not only in the continent, but the world over.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.