Category Archives: North Africa

Sudan – lull in Darfur fighting in Jebel Marra

Radio Dabanga

Mount Jebel Marra seen from Namuli village (Robert Lankenau, 2007)

Mount Jebel Marra seen from Namuli village (Robert Lankenau, 2007)

The attacks by government forces on Jebel Marra seem to have subsided as the rebel SLM-AW claims victory over military convoy in the western part.

No reports of ground-based military operations have been received from western and eastern parts of Jebel Marra on Saturday and Sunday other than aerial bombing.

Villagers reported that the convoys with government troops that attempted to enter Jebel Marra from the east and the west withdrew.

On Wednesday morning, two large forces of army soldiers and paramilitaries of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), backed by intensive air bombardments, attacked a number of villages in Jebel Marra

One force attacked the area from the west, and the second from the north-east. They used heavy artillery and missiles and were accompanied by intensive air raids, the villagers reported. The attacks continued on Thursday and Friday.

The Sudanese government announced in October that its forces would “eliminate all rebel fighters during the next dry season”. Jebel Marra is a stronghold of the mainstream Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM-AW).


The SLM-AW claims that its fighters repelled an attack between Guldo and Golo in the western part of Jebel Marra, in a battle that lasted from Thursday until Friday morning.

Shahabeldin Jarrad, the military spokesman on duty for the SLM-AW, told Radio Dabanga on Sunday that they inflicted heavy casualties on the government troops. 20 soldiers and paramilitaries were allegedly killed. The rebels seized six Land Cruisers, one of which contained a 12-pipe launcher and 15 missiles, two Land Cruisers mounted with Dushka machine guns, large quantities of ammunition, and seven Kalashnikov rifles.

Jarrad said that the aerial bombardments on Jebel Marra were still ongoing. “The Antonov aircraft of the Sudanese Air Force are focussing on areas in the vicinity of Golo and Rokoro.

“The people in these areas sought refuge in the mountains and caves from the air raids. Large numbers of livestock were killed.”

‘Inner Jebel Marra’

The ‘inner Jebel Marra area’ (OCHA Jebel Marra Fact Sheet as of 30 September 2015)

The Jebel Marra massif lies in the centre of the Darfur region, bordering the state divisions of Central, South and North Darfur. It is a fertile region inhabited mainly by the Fur tribe and has since 2003 been the primary stronghold of the SLM-AW.

It is the only place in Darfur where armed opposition maintains prolonged control over territory and the only area in Darfur to which humanitarian organisations have had no access between 2011 and 2015.

Parts of the centre of the massif, the ‘inner Jebel Marra area’, are controlled by the Sudanese government [blue] and parts by SLM-AW rebels [orange].

Main obstacles to free and regular access to the area include restrictions by the parties to the conflict, preventing humanitarian organisations from entering both government and rebel-controlled areas.

According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Sudan, there are about 365,000 people living in the greater Jebel Marra area. Approximately one third of them -120,000 people- live in the inner Jebel Marra.

Africa’s boom is over – another blow to the “Africa Rising” myth

Foreign Policy

by Rick Rowden.

  • DECEMBER 31, 2015 – 1:12 PM
Africa’s Boom Is Over

In recent years, economists and popular publications alike have argued that Africa was on the threshold of an economic boom. Pointing to a decade of high growth and increased foreign investment, this argument held that the continent was finally on track to leave its long years of poverty and under-development behind. Some even said that Africa could become the next global economic powerhouse, following in the footsteps of East Asia.

This view never went entirely unchallenged, of course. In 2013 I argued that Africa’s growth would not be real, lasting, or beneficial for its people until it was based on industrialization rather than exporting raw commodities. Rather than focusing on the hype of mobile phones and African billionaires, I urged advocates of the “Africa Rising” argument to look at some basic development indicators: Was manufacturing increasing as a percentage of GDP? Were the goods African countries exported becoming more valuable — finished products rather than raw materials? In 2011, a U.N. report looked into these very questions, and found that most African countries are either stagnating or moving backwards when it comes to industrialization, quite unlike the East Asian experience.

Today, I’m sorry to say, it looks like the skeptics were right. Oil and commodity prices are plunging, China’s purchases are slowing, and GDP growth rates across the continent are in steep decline. Reflecting these trends, the IMF has cut its 2015 projection for growth in sub-Saharan Africa from 4.5 to 3.75 percent, concluding that the decade-long commodity cycle that had raised African export revenues “seems to have come to an end.” With a population boom on the horizon, experts now worry about how the continent will produce enough jobs for its people.

Africa’s plight is reflected by developments in its two leading economies, Nigeria and South Africa, which together account for 55 percent of the 48 sub-Saharan African nations’ GDP, and which have both been particularly hard hit by falling mineral and oil prices. Nigeria’s growth rate has slumped to 2.4 percent in the second quarter, the slowest pace in at least five years, while South Africa’s economy contracted by an annualized 1.3 percent as power shortages curbed output. The fall in commodities prices has hit other oil producers, too, such as Angola and Ghana, while Zambia, the continent’s second-biggest copper producer, has suffered as copper prices have plunged to a six-year low.

Without the commodities boom, the actual failure of Africa’s development has now been laid bare. In November, the Economist finally came around, noting with sudden distress that “many African countries are de-industrializing while they are still poor, raising the worrying prospect that they will miss out on the chance to grow rich by shifting workers from farms to higher-paying factory jobs.” But like most free market champions, it got it wrong when analyzing why Africa has not been industrializing, citing the conventional lack of the “basics” — infrastructure, skills and institutions.

In fact, Africa has had difficulty industrializing because its leaders drank the Kool-Aid of free markets and free trade proffered by the World Bank, the IMF, and the best university economics departments over the last 30 years. Of particular harm has been the insistence that African countries forswear the use of industrial policies such as temporary trade protection, subsidized credit, preferential taxes, and publically supported R&D. As a result, African countries have abandoned these key tools, which they could have used to build up their domestic manufacturing sectors.

Free market advocates told African countries that such “state intervention” in the economy usually does more harm than good, because governments shouldn’t be in the business of trying to “pick winners,” and that this is best left to the market.

Africans were told to simply privatize, liberalize, deregulate, and get the so-called economic fundamentals right. The free market would take care of the rest.But this advice neglects the actual history of how rich countries themselves have effectively used industrial policies for 400 years, beginning with the U.K. and Europe and ending with the “four tigers” of East Asia and China. This inconvenient history contradicted free market maxims and so has been largely stripped from the economics curriculum in most universities. By now, two or three generations of students have unlearned it.

To be fair, critics of industrial policies were correct to cite some historical cases where the policies had badly misfired in developing countries, particularly in Africa and Latin America in the 1960s and 70s. But these critics were often selective in their criticisms, ignoring successful cases and neglecting to explain why they worked so well in the United States, Europe and East Asia while failing so badly in Africa and elsewhere. In Africa and Latin America, industrial policies often failed because they were focused inward on small domestic markets. Companies were often given support based on corruption or nepotism, rather than their efficiency. On the other hand, the successful East Asian countries focused on international markets, and they instilled discipline in companies by cutting off support to those which failed to improve. But this says more about how to do industrial policy — not whether it should be done.

But a strange thing happened in the wake of the 2008 financial crash and global economic slowdown: industrial policies have made somewhat of a comeback. Harvard’s Dani Rodrik said, “industrial policy is back.” In 2010 even the Economist could not ignore “the global revival of industrial policy.” Both the U.S. and the EU have adopted new industrial policies in recent years, and even in Canada industrial policy “need not be taboo,” according to a public policy think tank. The London School of Economics’ Robert Wade noted that, by the way, industrial policy never really went away in the rich countries, even if the U.S. refuses to acknowledge its own federal programs such as the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), or the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), as “industrial policy.”

Africans, too, have taken notice. Recent annual meetings of African finance and development ministers, the African Union, and the U.N. Economic Commission on Africa have been raising the issue in a high-profile way. The ECA has begun promoting what it calls “smart protectionism,” suggesting that trade policy in Africa should be “highly selective,” with special treatment for certain sectors to advance national development goals.

But if industrial policy is making a comeback, its not likely to be so easy for those in Africa. Many African countries have foolishly signed on to World Trade Organization rules that have clearly restricted their “policy space” for using such policies. And while WTO rules still afford them some limited provisions, this isnot the case under a raft of other newer and further-reaching regional free trade agreements and bilateral investment treaties promoted by rich countries over the last 15 years. And even more are on the way: Some of the biggest deals on the immediate horizon are the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the Trade in International Services Agreement (TiSA), and the EU’s free trade deals with several African regions, known as Economic Partnership Agreements.So, even as we are seeing a renewed appreciation of industrial policy, trade negotiators from the rich countries are twisting arms, cajoling developing countries into signing new treaties and agreements that will restrict their use of industrial policies. Many developing country leaders either buckle under such pressure or willingly sign on in the hope that they can export more of their primary commodities into rich country markets in the short-term, even if this means foregoing long-term industrialization.

Given this situation, the logical conclusion is still seldom spoken in polite company: African leaders who are serious about pursuing industrialization will have to back-track, renegotiate, and re-design their previous international trade commitments, and refuse to sign new ones that put them at a disadvantage. Offending more powerful trading partners and big foreign investors would likely invite serious short-term consequences, including lawsuits, threats to cut off foreign aid and trade preferences, and possibly lower foreign investment. But the longer-term consequences of not doing so may be far worse.

In Johannesburg, I recently asked the Chairperson of the African Union, Nkosazana Clarice Dlamini-Zuma, how Africa could expect to industrialize if it signs on to the European Union’s Economic Partnership Agreements. Her reply: “We’re going to have to renegotiate some of them.”

In the photo, a woman carries her child in the impoverished township of Diepsloot on the outskirts of Centurion, South Africa on April 24, 2014.

Photo credit: MUJAHID SAFODIEN/AFP/Getty Images

Africa’s Long Road Since Independence – Keith Somerville: Book Launch 3rd December

Africa’s Long Road Since Independence

The Many Histories of a Continent

Keith Somerville

03 December 2015, 18:00 – 20:00

Room G35 (Ground Floor)
Venue Details:
Senate House, South Block
Malet Street
London WC1E 7HU

‘This unusually accessible study of Africa’s many histories since 1970 owes its distinctiveness to the author’s career. This is, thankfully, not an arid academic tome; it is a thoughtful, passionate account by a senior BBC journalist who spent three decades working on and in Africa. His intimacy with places and people give the book a grittiness that library research never provides.’ — Richard Rathbone, Professor of African History, School of Oriental and African Studies, London

Bibliographic Details
January 2016£25.00

Over the last half century, sub-Saharan Africa has not had one history, but many — histories that have intertwined, converged and diverged. They have involved a continuing saga of decolonisation and state-building, conflict, economic problems, but also progress. This new account of those histories looks in particular at the relationship between territorial, economic, political and societal structures and human agency in the complex and sometimes confusing development of an independent Africa.

The story starts well before the granting of independence to Ghana in 1957, with pre-colonial societies, slavery and colonial occupation. But the thrust of Keith Somerville’s narrative looks at Africa in the closing decades of the old millennium and the beginning of the new millennium. While this book examines post-colonial conflicts within and between new states, it also considers the history of the peoples of Africa — their struggle for economic development in the context of harsh local environments and the economic straitjacket into which they were strapped by colonial rule is charted in detail. The importance of imposed or inherited structures, whether the global capitalist system, of which Africa is a subordinate part, or the artificial and often inappropriate state borders and political systems set up by colonial powers will be examined in the light of the exercise of agency by African peoples, political movements and leaders.


A career journalist with the BBC World Service and BBC News for three decades, specialising in Africa, Keith Somerville writes and lectures on African affairs and is Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London.  He is the author of several books, including Radio Propaganda and the Broadcasting of Hatred.

Related Topics

‘This important book could not have come at a better time. Its nuanced approach to Africa’s many histories challenges unhelpful stereotypes, which too often have been applied to the entire continent as if it is a single country. It offers a rare and engaging combination of academic rigour and thoughtful, lucid journalism.’ —Mary Harper, Africa Editor, BBC News

‘This unusually accessible study of Africa’s many histories since 1970 owes its distinctiveness to the author’s career. This is, thankfully, not an arid academic tome; it is a thoughtful, passionate account by a senior BBC journalist who spent three decades working on and in Africa. His intimacy with places and people give the book a grittiness that library research never provides.’ — Richard Rathbone, Professor of African History, School of Oriental and African Studies, London

‘This superb book is the product of many decades of close observation of Africa’s past and present by a retired senior BBC World Service journalist. It is genuinely innovative, demonstrating a fine understanding of the role of structure and agency in the continent’s “many histories”. The argument will appeal to an audience seeking a convincing and well-researched account.’ — Jack Spence, OBE, Professor of Diplomacy, King’s College London

‘Keith Somerville has produced a wonderfully complex, compassionate and accessible introductory history of Africa. This book combines the keen eye of a front-line journalist who witnessed some of the continent’s most dramatic contemporary events, with the deep analytical perspective of an academic. It works brilliantly.’ — Joanna Lewis, Assistant Professor in Imperial and African History, London School of Economics and Political Science

‘A provocative and well-argued book, which addresses the importance of continuities as well as change across the vast African continent. In these multiple narratives, African agency is put squarely centre stage. But this is the agency of African elites who, by exploiting inherited structures and weak institutions, have secured and entrenched their own advantage. Given these dynamics, the question remains how far and how fast can broad based socio-economic development be achieved?’ — Sue Onslow, Senior Lecturer, Institute of Commonwealth Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London


Sudan – UNICEF warns of worsening malnutrition in east

Sudan Tribune

(KHARTOUM) – United Nation Children Fund (UNICEF) has warned against the worsening conditions of children in eastern Sudan due to malnutrition.

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UNICEF Deputy Executive Director, Omar Abdi, (C) speaks in a press briefing on November 15, 2015 (Photo UNICEF)

UNICEF deputy executive director Omar Abdi, expressed fear over the challenges facing the work of UNICEF in Sudan, particularly with regard to accessing all children.

He said that some areas are still suffering from children malnutrition despite the progress made in reducing the death rates of children below five years old from 83% to 68% together with increasing the number of children enrolled in schools and those who have access to water.

Abdi, who spoke at a press conference at the conclusion of his visit to Sudan Sunday, pointed that the budget allotted for Sudan amounts to $130 million, saying it only covers 60% of the actual needs.

He urged the partners to continue their support for UNICEF programs in Sudan, adding he discussed the work of UNICEF in Sudan with several officials including the First Vice-President Bakri Hassan Salih.

Abdi pointed the Sudanese government stressed commitment to cooperate with UNICEF to promote children’s welfare, saying he inspected the security situation and several IDP’s camps in North Darfur state.

For his part, UNICEF resident representative in Sudan, Geert Cappelaere said the malnutrition in eastern Sudan is worse than in Darfur, noting that UNICEF would open an office in eastern Sudan to strengthen its presence there.

“We would launch a call to provide a budget to address malnutrition issue particularly as the budget allotted to Sudan is limited,” he said

He said that 7% of the South Sudanese refugees in Sudan are children, pointing to high mortality rate among them due to malnutrition and lack of vaccination.

The director of the international cooperation department at Sudan’s foreign ministry Sirag al-Din Hamid , for his part, asked for UNICEF help to lift the unilateral economic sanctions imposed on Sudan in order to allow the implementation of programs pertaining to children and education.

He described the visit of UNICEF deputy executive director to Sudan as important, saying that Khartoum attaches great hopes to the visit which reflects the level of cooperation between UNICEF and Sudan.


Nigeria – Dasuki’s house still under security service siege despite court order

Premium Times

Former National Security Adviser - Sambo Dasuki

Former National Security Adviser – Sambo Dasuki

The siege on the home of a former National Security Adviser, Sambo Dasuki, by officials of the State Security Service, SSS, was still on, Sunday, despite a court order.

Justice Adeniyi Ademola of the Federal High Court, Abuja, on Friday reacted angrily to the siege on Mr. Dasuki’s house despite an earlier ruling he gave permitting the retired colonel to travel abroad for medical treatment. “My own orders will not be flouted” the judge said on Friday, while re-iterating his stance that the former security chief be allowed to travel for medical treatment.

PREMIUM TIMES could not confirm if the SSS had been served with Friday’s court order as the Service is yet to appoint a spokesperson.

Mr. Dasuki had returned to the court to sue the Federal Government for still plotting to re-arrest him despite the earlier court order.

Justice Ademola said on Friday that “a court order must be obeyed”.

He also said there was nothing wrong in allowing Mr. Dasuki travel abroad for medical treatment, saying “only a fit person can stand for trial and investigation.”

Mr. Dasuki had approached the court last Monday asking for an order to allow him enforce his rights.

In the suit, Mr. Dasuki sought enforcement of his fundamental human rights to dignity and security of his life.

Armed security operatives have been permanently stationed at his residence, closely monitoring in-and-out movements and occasionally checking trunks of vehicles.

PREMIUM TIMES observed that on Sunday, two Trucks belonging to the SSS were parked in front of Mr. Dasuki’s house at No. 13 John Khadiya street, in Asokoro district Abuja on Sunday.

Operatives of the SSS were also seen sitting in front of the House.

Mr. Dasuki himself responded to our inquiry asking whether the SSS had left his house via text message to say “ They are yet to comply. At this moment, they are still here”.

The SSS had while reacting to initial reports of the siege on the residence of the former NSA issued a statement saying the “standoff” with Mr. Dasuki is based on a different investigation

The agency said Mr. Dasuki has refused to honour an invitation by a committee investigating arms purchase while he held sway as the NSA.

“It may be recalled that Sambo was initially arrested and charged to court for unlawful possession of firearms and money laundering, for which reason his international passport was seized and on the order of the court, returned to the registrar for custody,” the SSS said in the statement by one Tony Opuiyo.

“What has however brought the seeming standoff between Sambo and the Service, despite the court-ordered release of his international passport on 4th November, 2015, is his refusal to appear before a Committee undertaking the investigation of an entirely different case.”

But Mr. Dasuki reacted swiftly saying he was never invited to appear before the committee.

“I’m not also aware that the committee is operating from the SSS headquarters,” Mr. Dasuki told PREMIUM TIMES. “What I know is that the committee is operating from the office of the National Security Adviser. So why is the SSS the one inviting me?”

Friday’s court order was issued after the SSS statement.

Africa – European fund to tackle refugee exodus not enough: investment not charity


Europe fund to tackle African migration ‘not enough’

A picture provided by Spanish Ministry of Defence on November 5, 2015 shows Spanish rescuers approaching a boat with migrants off the coast of Libya.AFP Thousands of people have drowned this year trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea

The $1.9bn (£1.2bn) European fund to tackle African migration is not sufficient, several African leaders have said after crisis talks with their European counterparts.

It was one of several measures European and African leaders agreed to reduce the flow of people into Europe.

The leaders said their aim was to “address the root causes of migration”.

The Europe-Africa meeting was planned after around 800 migrants died when their boat sank off Libya in April.

Senegal’s President Macky Sall, who currently heads the West African regional group Ecowas, told journalists on the sidelines of the summit that the money pledged was “not enough for the whole of Africa”.

Later, at the closing press conference, he said he was pleased with the trust fund, but said he would like to see it “more generously financed”.

Niger’s President Mahamadou Issoufou echoed the Senegalese president’s sentiments and added that “reform of global governance” was also needed, to make world trade fairer, Reuters news agency reports.

While Somalia’s Prime Minister Omar Abdirashidali Sharmatke told the BBC: “What Africa needs today is not charity, but investment.”

EU Council President Donald Tusk said the summit had agreed “a long list of very concrete actions to be implemented by the end of 2016”.

These include setting up a joint European and African team in Niger to tackle people smuggling and increasing the number of visas available to students and researchers.

“We are under no illusions that we can improve the situation overnight but we are committed to giving people alternatives to risking their lives,” Mr Tusk said.

Angela Merkel and Nkosozana Dlamini Zuma

The European trust fund is supposed to “foster stability… and to contribute to better migration management”, according to a European Union statement.

It is also aimed at “promoting economic… opportunities, security and development” in the 23 African countries named which, along with Senegal, include Nigeria, Eritrea and Libya.

The money will be spent on:

  • Economic programmes to create jobs
  • Supporting services like health and education
  • Improving migration management “including containing and preventing irregular migration”
  • Supporting conflict prevention
Grey line

Media reaction to the plans:

“Financial aid to accept deportation of thousands” declares Algerian daily El-Khabar, before quoting human rights groups warning that Europe was “forcing African countries to play the role of policeman”.

However, Germany’s tabloid Bild asks: “Why is Chancellor Merkel negotiating with Africa’s despots?” in its account of the “tricky Valletta summit”.

Similarly, the Sueddeutsche Zeitung says the EU’s offer of money for fewer refugees from Africa was making critics “accuse the EU of showing its real values by cooperating with unjust regimes”.

In neighbouring France, Le Figaro urges President Francois Hollande to “have the courage” to drastically cut all kinds of aid for migrants. “In the short term, what is he waiting for to close the Calais ‘jungle’… and change the policy against clandestine immigration?”

In Russia, state-controlled Channel One TV describes the summit as “another attempt by Europe to stop the chaos”, noting that “whilst Europe and Africa are bargaining with each other, thousands are embarking on fatal trips in the Mediterranean”.

Grey line

The $1.9bn fund is in addition to the $20bn the EU already spends on development assistance in Africa every year, Mr Tusk said.

The fund is also supposed to be boosted by contributions by individual member states, but only a small amount had been pledged.

The UN says some 150,000 people from African countries such as Eritrea, Nigeria and Somalia have made the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean.

But this has been dwarfed by the arrival of some 650,000 people – mostly Syrians – via Turkey and Greece.

There have been more than 3,000 deaths as people try to make the crossing.

BBC world affairs reporter Richard Galpin says the crisis has evolved so quickly this year that European leaders have been struggling to keep up and formulate any coherent policies.

A map showing movements of migrants in Europe

40 years of hurt: The never-ending scandal of the Western Sahara

African Arguments 

For Africa, the UN and the powers in the Security Council, the ongoing occupation of the Western Sahara is an embarrassment.  For Saharwis, it’s a profound injustice.

Members of the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO)'s make their way across the desert. Photograph by UN Photo/Martine Perret.

Members of the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO)’s make their way across the desert. Photograph by UN Photo/Martine Perret.

Forty years ago tomorrow (6 November), Morocco invaded Western Sahara, a former Spanish colonial possession – mostly made up of desert – in West Africa.

As Spain walked away, Morocco claimed the territory as part of its ancient empire. The UN had declared that it was up to the people of the territory to decide their own future, but before they could do so, King Hassan II of Morocco organised the “Green March” in which hundreds of Moroccans were bussed to the border and – in front of the international press – pushed into Western Sahara waving Moroccan flags.

Meanwhile, many miles away from the media, columns of tanks, armoured cars and truck-loads of Moroccan soldiers swept into the territory. So too did troops from neighbouring Mauritania which also claimed swathes of ground.

These foreign troops were met by indigenous fighters of the Polisario Front who were lightly armed and no match for tanks and artillery. Gradually, the Polisario fighters and thousands of civilians were pushed over the border into Algeria.

Morocco ignored international calls for it to withdraw and even left the Organisation of African Unity (the predecessor to the African Union) when the continent body declared the occupation illegal.

Polisario kept up the fight and by 1979 managed to force Mauritania to retreat. But Morocco refused to be moved and instead constructed a vast wall of sand and rock and planted mines the entire length of it in order to protect its illegally acquired territory.

40 years later, little has changed. Morocco retains control over the area and to this day huge numbers of Sahrawi refugees live in white tents across the border in Algeria. The Government of Algeria estimates that there are now 165,000 people in the camps, but there has never been an agreed registration exercise. The UN refugee agency’s assistance programme is based on a planning figure of just 90,000 refugees.

By coincidence, in the same year as the invasion of Western Sahara, the tiny pacific territory of East Timor – abandoned by its Portuguese imperial rulers – was seized by neighbouring Indonesia. However, while Indonesia was forced to accept a UN ruling in 2002 when East Timor became independent, Morocco’s territorial grab has been persistently protected by France and, to an extent, the US.

The forgotten war

The Western Sahara is rich in phosphates and fish. Its prolific waters are fished – over-fished say some – by European trawlers without oversight.

Relations between Algeria and Morocco have always been bad. Regional rivals, they were on opposite sides in the Cold War; Algeria was backed by the Soviet Union, Morocco by France and the US. The end of the Cold War made little difference to this regional rivalry.

In 1987, I made a film for the UK’s Chanel4 about Western Sahara called The Forgotten War. Even then, the region’s plight was already a distant memory in the international imagination.

We first travelled to the refugee camps in Tindouf, Algeria, then drove across the desert to the border in Land Rovers accompanied by Polisario fighters. Wiry, sharp-eyed and tough, they relished the chance to lob some mortar shells over the wall. We parked the vehicles in a deep gully and crept onto a low ridge opposite the wall. The fighters behind us pumped mortar shells over our heads and we filmed them hitting the wall on the ridge over a mile way.

What we didn’t know was that the Americans had just provided Morocco with ground radar. The Moroccan army’s response was fierce and uncomfortably accurate. The Polisario fighters, determined to prove their bravery – or at least test ours – led us into a shallow valley where they proceeded to light a fire and brew tea.

Most of the Sahrawi refugees who live in five camps near Tindouf are totally dependent on humanitarian assistance. All around is empty desert where rain is rare. Opportunities for income generation were virtually non-existent, but some people kept goats or try to grow vegetables with brackish water by hand from deep wells.

This is the life that the Saharawis have been forced to live. Meanwhile, King Hassan II built new towns on the coast of Western Sahara and brought thousands from Morocco to live and work in them.

In Rabat, I conducted an interview with the speaker of parliament in which he angrily admitted that Morocco imprisoned and tortured those who spoke up for an independent Saharwi republic.

Waiting for the vote

In 1991, a ceasefire was agreed and under the auspices of the UN, a referendum was scheduled for 1992. The vote, however, was postponed again and again and has still never taken place.

In 2000, Jim Baker, the US Secretary of State, tried to revive the process and get agreement between Morocco, Algeria and Polisario to a staged process involving a referendum after five years.

Getting agreement from the clan leaders or even establishing which clan leaders could be counted as true Saharwis was very difficult, not least because they are traditionally nomadic and did not recognise borders. Morocco took advantage of this ambiguity, demanding a say in who was a clan leader and lavishing money on those who were prepared to say they were Moroccan. Speaking to these leaders, I noticed their answers were much more formulaic than the Saharwi clan leaders in the camps in the desert.

Nevertheless, for a while, it looked as if the Americans were going to take control of the issue from the French, but their plan to allow everyone living in the territory to vote was rejected by Polisario.

A few years later in 2003, another attempt was accepted by Polisario but sidelined by Morocco. No pressure from the US or France was made to get the King to comply. The international effort to establish who was qualified to vote and getting them registered foundered. In the end the referendum never took place.

Over the past 40 years then, two generations of Saharawis have been born and grown up in sand-blown tented camps while international efforts have stalled and their colonists in Morocco have flourished economically.

For Africa, the UN and the powers in the Security Council, the unresolved situation in the Western Sahara is an embarrassment.  For the Saharwis, it is a profound injustice.

Richard Dowden is the Director of the Royal African Society.