Contested Indigeneities, Contested Land: An Amazigh Perspective on the Western Sahara
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Contested Indigeneities, Contested Land: An Amazigh Perspective on the Western Sahara

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July 22, 2013
 

The Western Sahara has long been a point of virulent contention in North Africa. Colonized by Spain until 1975, narratives of the history of the region differ dramatically based on political views. Is Morocco ‘illegally occupying’ the territory or has it ‘always been’ a part of Morocco? Did Moroccan King Hassan II’s Green March ‘invade’ and impose a new colonialism or ‘liberate’ the region from Spanish colonialism? Simply mentioning the Western Sahara to a Moroccan is likely to start a fiery argument – a decades-long argument that still remains unresolved.

I approach this issue as an Amazigh, not as a Moroccan. I have no loyalty to the Moroccan state nor to the Western Sahara. My stance comes from an Indigenous North African perspective, and it is certainly not the only one. I have heard a whole range of political ideas and arguments from other Imazighen on the Western Sahara. However, it is fundamentally crucial to have Indigenous North Africans engaged in dialogue about this issue so as to assert Amazigh rights and sovereignty over our own land.

The Saharawi inhabitants of the Western Sahara are commonly said, at least in pro-Saharawi nationalist discourse, to be an “indigenous” or “native” population. This point was crucial in the decision by the International Court of Justice stating that at the time of Spanish colonization, the Western Sahara was not a terra nullius (land belonging to no one). The assumption that Saharawi people are the Indigenous people of the Western Sahara lies in (at least partial) contradiction to the fact that the region is part of Tamazgha, the historic land of the Indigenous Amazigh people.

While I do believe that Saharawi people are the descendants of Imazighen, Saharawi nationalism has long been rooted in oppressive forms of Arab nationalism. The equivocation of Saharawi and Arab nationalisms has provided a framework for Western Saharan resistance to Moroccan domination and has also given Algeria a basis for supporting the Saharawi nationalist organization, the Polisario Front.

The Polisario Front’s self-declared state, the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), is a government-in-exile and a full member of the African Union, with active foreign relations and even SADR embassies in 18 countries, mostly in Africa. The SADR, however, is based on a similar pan-Arabist ideology to that which has been brutally repressive to Imazighen across North Africa. The SADR constitution recognizes the Saharawis as “Arab, African, and Muslim” without a single mention of the Amazigh people or the Indigenous language, Tamazight. The constitution only recognizes Islam as the “religion of the state and source of law” and names Arabic as the official national language. This is no different from any other oppressive Arab nationalist state in North Africa which refuses to recognize the Amazigh people as an Indigenous nation, much less with any form of sovereignty.

It is clear that Imazighen cannot accept any so-called ‘Arab’ state in Tamazgha and must strongly oppose the Polisario Front and the SADR. The establishment of yet another Arab nationalist state in Tamazgha can only bring more harm and repression to the region. If the SADR government gains more power, there can be no question that they would enact – or continue – the same brutal policies of Arabization as in other ‘Arab’ North African countries, aimed at destroying the Amazigh culture and language. The Polisario’s leadership has, just like Morocco, rejected their own people’s history by attempting to create a Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic.

Other Imazighen have echoed this perspective, that fundamentally we cannot allow or support any Arab nationalist government in North Africa, which automatically necessitates opposing the SADR. The President of the Amazigh World Congress (CMA), Fathi N Khlifa, recently exemplified this perspective, saying “There is no Amazigh in North Africa who accepts the establishment of an independent Saharawi Arab entity in our region.”

At the same time, there can be no denying that the Moroccan state has committed human rights abuses in a process of illegal colonization of the Western Sahara which oppresses all Western Saharan people, whether or not they identify as Amazigh. We cannot stand on the side of the Moroccan government, a government which has also oppressed us as Indigenous people. It surprises me to find other Imazighen who will defend Morocco once the Western Sahara is brought up, despite that they have experienced first-hand the violence enacted by the Moroccan state as a supposedly ‘backwards’ people to be educated in the name of Islam and pan-Arabism.

I have seen Amazigh identity used and manipulated by Moroccan nationalists in order to pit us against Saharawi people over the Western Sahara issue. Arab-identified Moroccans who have never advocated on behalf of Amazigh people wish to use our opposition to the SADR in order to defend Morocco’s occupation of the territory. We cannot fall into this trap: as Imazighen our perspective must remain independent of both Moroccan and Saharawi nationalisms, both of which are rooted in pan-Arabism and are oppressive to Imazighen. Moroccan nationalists are not in support of Amazigh rights and are instead only wishing to use our own resistance struggle to further infringe on the human rights of Saharawi people.

As an Amazigh I oppose all forms of colonialism and Indigenous repression in Tamazgha, whether perpetrated by the Moroccan state or the Polisario Front/SADR government. Neither will bring liberation to Imazighen, including those Imazighen who live in the Western Sahara. Certainly, we will not support a so-called “Arab Democratic Republic” on Amazigh land, but that does not imply supporting the Moroccan state which also identifies itself as a part of the “Great Arab Maghreb.”

Amidst a complicated international conflict, Imazighen should not show allegiance to any particular nation-state and instead put forth an alternative vision for the future of North African, Amazigh lands. While we are not fighting for a united country of ‘Tamazgha’ across all of North Africa, we can put into practice Indigenous solidarity by working together with other Amazigh people across all of the imposed borders of North African states. We must also free Western Saharan nationalist struggle from pan-Arabist ideology in order to create a new meaning of Saharawi identity that is not linked to the foreign, imposed concept of Arab identity. Only by de-linking Saharawi and Arab identities can Western Saharan people recognize and value their Indigenous Amazigh heritage.

A self-governing state in the Western Sahara cannot be based on the oppression of the region’s Indigenous people, so when we talk about ‘self-determination’ and the possibility of a referendum in the Western Sahara, we must question: self-determination for who and on whose terms? For a select group of Arab-identified, Arabic-speaking Saharawis or for the Amazigh inhabitants of the territory? In the discourse of the Western Sahara vs. Morocco conflict, certain voices are silenced: those Imazighen who, whether they live in ‘Morocco’ or the ‘Western Sahara,’ face oppression from all sides.

As Imazighen, our identities and allegiances cannot be tied up with the forces that oppress us. Independent of the disputes between Arab nationalist governments of Morocco, Algeria, and the SADR, we must call for freedom, justice, and sovereignty for Amazigh people in all parts of North Africa – including the Western Sahara.

Nuunja Kahina is an Amazigh writer and activist living in the United States. You can find more of her writing at Intercontinental Cry, This Is Africa, and Decolonization.

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