'Knowledge in the service of the cause': education and the Sahrawi struggle for self-determination.

Author:Farah, Randa


This article examines the education strategy of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), the state-in-exile with partial sovereignty on "borrowed territory" in Algeria. The article, which opens with a historical glance at the conflict, argues that SADR's education program not only succeeded in fostering self-reliance by developing skilled human resources, but was forward looking, using education as a vehicle to instill "new traditions of citizenship" and a new imagined national community, in preparation for future repatriation. In managing refugee camps as provinces of a state, the boundaries between the "refugee" as status and the "citizen" as a political identity were blurred. However, the stalled decolonization process and prolonged exile produced new challenges and consequences. Rather than using the skilled human resources in an independent state of Western Sahara, the state-in-limbo forced SADR and the refugees to adapt to a deadlocked conflict, but not necessarily with negative outcomes to the national project.


Cet article examine la strategie pour l'education de la Republique arabe sahraouie democratique (RASD), l'Etat en exil ayant une souverainete partielle sur du > a l'Algerie. L'article, qui debute par un survol historique du conflit, avance que le programme d'education de la RASD non seulement a reussi a favoriser l'autonomie en assurant la formation d'une main-d'oeuvre qualifiee, mais a aussi, grace a une vision orientee vers l'avenir, utilise l'education pour instaurer de > et la notion d'une communaute nationale renouvelee, en vue d'un futur rapatriement. Par sa gestion de camps de refugies comme des provinces d'un Etat, les limites entre le statut de > et l'identite politique du > ont ete estompees. Toutefois, le processus de decolonisation arrete et l'exil prolonge ont suscite de nouveaux defis et diverses consequences. Plutot que d'utiliser les ressources humaines qualifiees dans un Etat independant du Sahara occidental, l'entre-deux a force la RASD et les refugies a s'adapter en raison d'un conflit arrive a une impasse, mais qui n'a pas necessairement eu des repercussions negatives sur le projet national.


The prolonged and unresolved conflict in Western Sahara from 1975 to 1991 left thousands of Sahrawi refugees in a barren desert, with little resources and few supporters in the region. Remarkably, however, this did not hinder them from establishing the institutions of a nation-state-in-exile, which they called the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). Education has played a critical role in building the new polity and society, which is the main focus of this article.

The first and second sections provide a brief historical sketch, while the third and fourth deal Specifically with education, its history, and its key role in building human resources, new "traditions of citizenship," (1) and national identity. The last two sections address the changing environment that followed the ceasefire in 1991, including the Intifada (uprising) in the Moroccan-occupied territories, and the effects these had on SADR and the educated generations. This article argues that SADR's education strategy succeeded in producing skilled professionals and in infusing education with a nationalist purpose: educated refugees could better serve the causes of liberation and nation building. However, there were unavoidable impediments, not least the dire conditions of exile, which stymied the development of educational institutions in the camps beyond the elementary levels, forcing SADR to outsource education. More crucially, the education strategy did not take into account the possibility of a protracted exile and political stalemate. Thus, new generations of educated youth returned to the camps unable to fight at the battle front, or to use their skills as citizens engaged in building an independent Western Sahara. Instead, for many refugees, education became a means to improve their socio-economic status and to obtain paid employment outside the camps. However, these changes did not threaten the national project, or indicate that refugees abandoned their aspirations for liberation and return.

Most of the information in this article is based on field research in the Sahrawi camps and Spain beginning in 2003. During my visits, which occurred during holidays and a sabbatical leave in 2007, I stayed for different periods of time with families in all the camps, as well as in Rabouni. The methodology included participant-observation, life-histories, interviews, archival research, and a visit to the liberated areas of Western Sahara.

Historical Background

Western Sahara, the last African colony, is listed by the United Nations as a Non-Self-Governing Territory. (2) It lies in the northwest corner of the African continent and is bordered by Morocco, Algeria, and Mauritania. Its inhabitants speak a dialect of Arabic known as Hassaniyya and, until the middle of the twentieth century, they relied mainly on pastoral-nomadism, seasonal cultivation, trade, and some fishing. Day-to-day activities revolved around the freeg, or Bedouin camp, a small socio-economic unit that provided for the basic needs of its members: shelter, food, education, health (traditional medicine). (3) Boundaries and political identities were redrawn when the Territory became "Spanish Sahara" at the Berlin Conference in 1884-85. It remained a Spanish colony until February 1976.

Hodges traces the genesis of contemporary Sahrawi national consciousness to the latter half of the twentieth century. Building on a long history of struggle against colonial incursions, and inspired by the national liberation movements that swept the colonial world, a number of Sahrawi revolutionaries met clandestinely on the 10 May 1973 and held their first Congress to establish the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el Hamra and Rio de Oro (known as the Polisario Front). (4) The Front rapidly harnessed large-scale support among the indigenous population around its strategic objective of national liberation and independence. The Polisario aimed to create a new polity and not recreate a pre-colonial society; thus it rejected all forms of kinship loyalty and caste status, and it called for the fair distribution of resources and a commitment to women's emancipation. (5)

In 1974, Spain, still ruled by the ailing dictator Francisco Franco, signaled that its withdrawal from Spanish Sahara was imminent and agreed to the principle of self-determination as the United Nations had been demanding. The following year, a UN Mission of Inquiry visited the Territory between 12 and 19 May, and reported back to the UN that the indigenous population overwhelmingly supported the Polisario and called for independence. The Mission "found almost no Saharawis [sic] who favored joining Morocco." (6) Thus, the Sahrawis thought they were on the verge of celebrating their freedom and would soon be voting on their political future. However, both Morocco and Mauritania made claims of historic pre-colonial sovereignty over the Territory and, through the United Nations, requested that the International Court of Justice (ICJ) provide an Advisory Opinion on the matter. On 16 October 1975, the ICJ unequivocally concluded it had "not found legal ties of such a nature as might affect the application of General Assembly Resolution 1514 (XV) in the decolonization of Western Sahara and, in particular, of the principle of self-determination through the free and genuine expression of the will of the peoples of the Territory." (7)

Defiantly, King Hassan II of Morocco dismissed the ICJ's Advisory Opinion and provoked a crisis when, on 6 November 1975, he rallied some 350,000 Moroccan volunteers for a "Green March" to converge on the Territory. Thousands of unarmed Moroccan civilians carrying Korans and banners, choreographed for dramatic effect, gathered in Tarfaya, a southwest Moroccan border town. (8) The Green March, however, was a smokescreen; a week earlier on 31 October, units from the Moroccan Royal Armed Forces had quietly moved into the Territory from the northeast to occupy posts evacuated by the Spanish troops. (9)

According to Mundy, the crisis in October and November of that year meant that Madrid abandoned Western (Spanish) Sahara without holding the referendum (10) and without resisting the military invasion. Instead, on 14 November 1975 Spain surreptitiously negotiated the Madrid Accords, which partitioned administrative control of the Territory between Morocco and Mauritania. (11) The Accords were not recognized by the United Nations as granting either Morocco or Mauritania sovereignty rights over Western Sahara. (12) On 27 February 1976, a day after Spanish withdrawal, a Provisional Sahrawi National Council formed by the Polisario declared the birth of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) in Bir Lehlu, a small town in an area reclaimed by the Sahrawi Popular Liberation Army (SPLA) during the war. (13)

The Moroccan and Mauritanian invasion led to an armed conflict with the Polisario, which lasted for sixteen years, until 1991. By the end of the war, Morocco occupied most of Western Sahara, including the area rich in phosphate, minerals, and potential deposits of oil and gas; the major towns; and the vibrant fishing industry of the Atlantic coast. Mauritania, the weaker of the two occupying countries, renounced its claims in Western Sahara in 1979, but Morocco extended its control to the areas previously occupied by Mauritania. The Polisario fighters were able to keep about a fifth of the Territory.

In 1988 Morocco formally signed the Settlement Plan brokered by the United Nations and the Organization of African Unity (African Union). Thus, a ceasefire came into effect in 1991 and a UN force, the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (known as MINURSO, the acronym formed from its name in French), was established to oversee the...

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