The threat of separatism in Africa

At least twenty two countries in Africa are reported to have active separatist movements.

In Summary

The Sahrawi separatist movement is exhorting the the Sahrawis to secede from Morocco.

No matter how strong a separatist movement can be, it can never achieve its ultimate goal—the establishment of a state—without foreign recognition.


Catalonia‘s vote to break away from Spain reveals that neither democracy nor prosperity are guarantees against separatism. Nor is referendum the most reliable means to manage conflicts between sovereign state and their minority groups.  In both cases, democracy is made to defeat its own purpose by serving a separatist movement at the expense of compromising the unity of a sovereign country.  While the Catalonia case has raised international community’s concern, similar economically- motivated separatist movements elsewhere are tolerated as political symptoms of failed postcolonial states although they are no less threatening to the sovereignty of several countries.


Let us take an example from Africa, where at least twenty two countries are reported to have active separatist movements. The Sahrawi separatist movement called the Polisario Front is exhorting the people it claims to represent—the Sahrawis—to secede from Morocco by leading them to believe that their territory is rich in natural resources, rich enough to guarantee an annual income for all its inhabitants. Even if the reality on the ground is completely different from what separatists claim, the Sahara issue turns out to be one of the most complicated and lasting regional conflicts in Africa.

 The story all began in 1975, when Morocco liberated the Sahara from Spanish colonialism leading the Polisario Front and its followers to seek refuge and set their headquarters in the desert town of Tinduf in southern Algeria.  Inspired by the cold-War ideologies of the time, the pro-Soviet socialist governments of Algeria and Libya funded and armed the separatist movement. They also lobbied on its behalf to become a member state of the African Union in 1984, under the name of “the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic” (SADR). 

Though brief, the story sheds some light on the rise and development of separatism in Africa.  No matter how strong a separatist movement can be, it can never achieve its ultimate goal—the establishment of a state—without foreign recognition. African countries hosting or supporting separatists, like Algeria in the Morocco case, convert them into freedom fighters to revive the nation’s revolutionary spirit worn out by the new generations’ increasing political and economic demands. 

However, foreign recognition is no excuse for not raising a basic question: on what basis does the Polisario claim its right for secession? Neither history nor culture stands in favor of its cause. The Sahara has been an integral part of Morocco since the Middle Ages and, as historical records disclose, its tribes have continuously paid allegiance to the Moroccan monarchy despite the European colonial policy of divide-and-rule. Sahrawis speak and write in the same languages (Berber or Arabic) and practice the same religion (Sunni Islam) like the rest of the Moroccan population.  Their local Arabic dialect, hassaniya, is also recognized by Morocco’s current constitution. 

But the absence of significant cultural differences does not stop separatist movements from reinventing them to legitimize their struggle for secession. When asked to defend their case in cultural terms, Polisario activists highlight their nomadic heritage as a fundamental basis for the Sahara’s distinct identity.  Those who are unfamiliar with North Africa or the romantics nostalgic for pre-modern and primitive lifestyles may sympathize with the separatist cause because it tickles their imagination as a biblical struggle between the nomadic David (the Polisario) and the sedentary Goliath (Morocco). 

Still, the Polisario’s tricky recourse to the exotic myth of the nomad ends up compromising rather than supporting its fight for an independent state. State-building and nomadism are two irreconcilable concepts, one derives its legitimacy from fixing borders, the other is a war machine which survives by destroying them. Moreover, if the Polisario leaders truly respect the nomadic spirit of the Sahrawis, what prevents them from allowing the people under their control to move across the Algerian border to visit their families and relatives in Morocco? 

The economic argument referring to Morocco as a “colonial” power occupying the Sahara for its natural resources is no more persuasive. Colonial economy, as all African experts agree, has no objective other than serving the needs of the mother country by supplying it with raw material. Upon liberation, the Sahara was an impoverished desert region with no institutions and infrastructure. Since 1975, Morocco invested seven times more for every dirham earned in the region, in addition to subsidizing basic goods like oil, cooking gas, and sugar.    


Despite its claim as the sole representative of Sahrawis , the Polisario Front has no political influence beyond the confines of the Tinduf camps where 29 000 refugees are kept under rigid control. Even their status of “refugee” is disputable according to the charter of UNHCR.  Not only has the separatist movement persistently refused to provide a census of the population living in the camps, the latter are also deprived of their freedom of speech and mobility. In comparison, the half-million Sahrawis across the Algerian border enjoy their political and cultural rights, like any other Moroccan citizen. Their strong participation in Morocco’s regional and legislative elections, often reaching 80 percent of the national vote, is in itself an expression of self-determination which makes the Polisario’s call for referendum both unnecessary and absurd.

Although the end of the Sahara conflict remains unpredictable, there is light at the end of the long tunnel showing that a political solution is not impossible. While the Algerian government finally accepted to sit down with Morocco at the negotiation table, several countries in Africa and Latin America decided to withdraw recognition of the pseudo-SADR. The international community also began to hear Sahrawi’s opposition voices rising from the camps despite the military authorities’ ban of access to internet facilities and expulsion of human rights international observers.

Most importantly, Morocco offers the Sahara region an autonomy plan, hailed by the UN Security Council as “realistic and credible,” which allows all the Sahrawis to exploit and manage their economic and natural resources the way they wish.  As for the African governments which continue to support Sahrawi separatists, they should know better that the message they are sending to their own ethnically- and religiously-diverse societies is not risk-free with regards to their stability, unity, and territorial integrity. 


Mokhtar Ghambou is former Yale University Professor and currently the Ambassador of Morocco to Kenya and Burundi