Western Sahara Dreams of Freedom: from the Halls of the AU to the Cape that Made History

The re-admittance of Morocco into the African Union (AU) has raised hopes that Western Sahara will soon be rewarded with its long-claimed independence.

Freed from Spanish colonial rule in 1975, this barren desert province was soon subsumed by the Moroccans. The authorities in Rabat and El-Aaiún (the largest settlement in Western Sahara) subsequently fought to undermine the legitimacy of the breakaway Saharan Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), established in Algerian exile by the Polisario Front.

Sahrawi soldiers parade in Algeria
Sahrawi soldiers parade in Algeria

The Polisario Front waged guerrilla warfare against the Moroccan Army throughout the 1980s, with thousands of Sahrawi people fleeing to ‘temporary’ camps in Algeria to escape further colonial rule.

Gradually worn down by the superior firepower of its unwanted overlords, the Polisario Front lost any momentum it had gained from the SADR’s admission into the Organisation of African Unity – the AU forerunner – in 1984, the development that caused Morocco’s break with its African colleagues. Whilst many Sahrawis remained in a pitiful exile, others returned to their homeland, their resistance crushed, assimilation beckoning.

Violence has remained sporadic and low key since a UN-brokered ceasefire in 1991 and few outsiders know of this bitter territorial dispute.

Morocco controls everything west of the red boundary line - most Western Saharan territory of note
Morocco controls everything west of the red boundary line – most Western Saharan territory of note

Perhaps equally significant, and even less well-known, is the role West Saharan geography has played in history. In addition to being a staging post for the Saharan trade of the Middle Ages, it boasts a particularly devilish headland that once stood as a formidable barrier to European exploration.

Cape Bojador (in Spanish) or Abu Khatar (‘father of danger’ in Arabic), a bulging headland host to ferocious tidal currents, for several decades halted the navigational exploits of Prince Henry the Navigator of Portugal and his willing sailors.

Restricted to tacking along the coastline in their precarious barinels, the Portuguese accomplished an extraordinary feat in mapping in detail the outline of North Africa. However, there was one landmark they could not overcome.

In 1433 Gil Eannes attempted to breach the gates of Cape Bojador. Commissioned by Prince Henry – that semi-legendary member of the royal house of Aviz – Eannes undertook his foolhardy mission in search of a great Christian king believed to live deep within the African interior. This king, Prester John they called him, would ally his forces with Henry to smash the burgeoning power of the North African Moors, who threatened Iberian dominance of the Mediterranean.

Prince Henry
Prince Henry

Eannes failed in his venture, returning to spread further rumours of the perils of Cape Bojador; the tides that constantly changed direction, the ferocious winds that whipped up the dust from the Saharan coast to blind the mariners, and the great sea monsters that nipped with ravenous intent at his ship’s bow.

Prince Henry – ‘a man little less than divine’ according to court chronicler Zurara – was not to be deterred, however. Ensconced in his Vila do Infante at Sagres, surrounded by the world’s greatest cartographers and shipwrights, he planned Portugal’s domination of the high seas.

It was at the Vila do Infante that the idea of the caravel – the single greatest invention in maritime history – was born. The design of her lateen sails allowed her to navigate against the wind, a precious development in Portugal’s assault on the West African coast.

With a precursor to this fine vessel Eannes set sail once more in 1434. With the protection of his Christian God and the unfaltering belief of his most Christian Prince, Eannes rounded Cape Bojador. Untouched by the sea monsters, he cruised through the tidal maelstrom to set Portugal on its path to empire. His only observations of terra firma beyond the Cape were the signs of camel tracks in the sand, yet Eannes had secured his place in history.

In half-a-century Diogo Cao had reached the Congo River; in a few more years Bartolomeu Dias had rounded the Cape of Good Hope; by 1498 Vasco Da Gama had touched down in India and Portugal’s acquisition of a maritime empire began in earnest.

It is an oft-told tale but one in which reference to Western Sahara and Cape Bojador is rare. Perhaps it is deemed insignificant or unimportant in the grand scheme of things? Perhaps Western Sahara is too? After all, despite international recognition, precious little pressure has been put on Morocco to relinquish its hold on this historic land.

The innocuous-looking Cape Bojador - a barrier to medieval exploration
The innocuous-looking Cape Bojador – a barrier to medieval exploration

Despite the cautious optimism surrounding this latest development, several AU countries (including Algeria and South Africa) had wanted Morocco’s readmission to be subject to their acceptance of Western Sahara’s independence. Their wishes went unheeded.

Progress, perhaps, but Morocco’s burgeoning economic ties with the rest of the African continent may better explain its eagerness to join the AU. Why relinquish your colonies when the military and moral pressure is so weak?

Standing at the headland that few outside the academic creed remember, one hopeful of the future but acknowledging of the past might muse:

At this point stands the barrier between two worlds

A guard between the old and the new

The formidable cape that represents the resilience of the West Saharan

Conquered but untamed, subordinated but unassimilated

In pursuit of greater things we must first recognise the wealth of our land

Of the history and spirit embodied by our geography

With Abu Khatar watching over us we can feel secure.

Netherlands Overlooks Past as Wilders Tops Polls

Few nations have such an uneasy relationship with their World War Two past than the Netherlands. As with the Germans and the Japanese, the majority of the Dutch people tend to look upon this period of history with regret, if not shame.

The Dutch had their Nazi equivalent, the unoriginally named Nationaal Socialistische Beweging (NSB) (National Socialist Movement), a fringe party that secured a best of 300,000 votes in the 1935 election. Their leader was Anton Mussert, a vile if pragmatic fascist who realised that his only means of wielding any kind of power was to first encourage and then to assist a German invasion.

Anton Mussert addressing NSB volunteers in 1941. The Nazi overlords watch on
Anton Mussert addressing NSB volunteers in 1941. The Nazi overlords watch on

Mussert got his wish in May 1940 when the Wehrmacht invaded the neutral Netherlands, with the Luftwaffe almost obliterating Rotterdam in a simultaneous bombing blitz.

The devastation of the Rotterdam Blitz did not stop many Dutch collaborating with the Nazis
The devastation of the Rotterdam Blitz did not stop many Dutch collaborating with the Nazis

Hitler, who did not reciprocate Mussert’s adoration of him, humoured the NSB leader by giving him responsibility for quelling Dutch resistance to the invasion. Whilst he was eventually named ‘Leader of the Dutch People’ by Hitler in 1942 – the Dutch ‘Leider’ coincidentally translating into the German for ‘Unfortunately’ – Mussert never governed, with the Fuhrer preferring instead the Austrian Nazi Arthur Seyss-Inquart as his Reichskommissar in the Netherlands.

Where Mussert was more useful was in his rounding up and deportation of thousands of Dutch Jews. He had help, however, and it is here where the Dutch historical guilt lies.

With Queen Wilhelmina leading a government-in-exile in London, many Dutch people unable or unwilling to flee their homeland had a difficult choice. Take up a potentially futile resistance against Nazi occupation, or collaborate with their new German overlords? History suggests that the vast majority took the latter course, creating one of the most collaborationist regimes of the war.

Whilst acts of bravery and heroism occurred – particularly the harbouring of Jews by Dutch families – the Nazis had little difficulty in compelling complicity from their new subjects. Dutch Jews were deported and murdered in their thousands, a repressive Gestapo state was established, and some Dutch men even fought for the Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front.

Dutch Jews await deportation in Amsterdam
Dutch Jews await deportation in Amsterdam

Fanatics like Mussert – who was executed at The Hague for high treason in 1946 – can be easily dismissed. The actions (or lack thereof) of the average man and woman on the street, on the other hand, are hard to overlook. Given the minority support for the NSB prior to WWII, it suggests that few Dutch people shared their extremist and racist views. Yet thousands still collaborated with the Nazis.

This being so, it is somewhat surprising that the far right Freedom Party (PVV), led by the populist and controversial Islamophobe Geert Wilders, is threatening to top polls in the Dutch election on the 15th March.

Using slogans such as ‘Make the Netherlands Great Again’ and ‘The Netherlands is Ours’, Wilders has ridden a populist wave in Europe and the West that is demanding an overthrow of the established liberal order.

Geert Wilders has defied critics by soaring to the top of opinion polls on an anti-immigration agenda
Geert Wilders has defied critics by soaring to the top of opinion polls on an anti-immigration agenda

Even Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte has initiated a last-ditch plea to court a restless public increasingly sceptical of open borders an EU interference. ‘Act normal, or go away’ Rutte declared in an open letter published in a national newspaper. His cries smack of desperation, having lost significant ground to the PVV in recent months.

That Wilders is a man possessing beliefs and rhetoric not incomparable with the fascist leaders of WWII is obviously worrying. The Dutch people seem to have forgotten their not too distant past, focusing instead on current grievances that populists such as Wilders promise can be fixed with a healthy dose of nationalism and xenophobia.

Protesters march against the Islamic State in The Hague. Wilders has played on fears of a Muslim incursion into the Netherlands
Protesters march against the Islamic State in The Hague. Wilders has played on fears of a Muslim incursion into the Netherlands

There are undoubted concerns across Europe over uncontrolled immigration, the bureaucratisation imposed by Brussels and the weakness of some of the newer EU member states. The victory for Brexit in the UK and the rise of the National Front in France are testament to this.

Still, some perspective must be gained. Demanding change should not go hand-in-hand with racist and hostile politics, scaremongering or turning a blind eye to existing inequalities.

The Dutch more than most should recognise this given their experiences in WWII. Memories can fade and collective responsibility may be rejected or conveniently forgotten, but the dark stains of the past persist within the national identity.

It is fortunate that Wilders and the PVV are unlikely to be able to form the coalition government that they will surely require. Similar hopes must be held for the rest of the Europe, where a populist, nationalist resurgence is looming large.

To think that history cannot be repeated is a dangerous and delusional sentiment. Europe has been warned.

One Belt, One Road: Barking Next Stop for China’s ‘New Silk Road’

‘One Belt, One Road’. This is the slogan of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s landmark development strategy to create a new, twin-pronged ‘Silk Road’ between China and Europe.

One Belt, One Road as initially conceived
One Belt, One Road as initially conceived

It resurrects the halcyon early days of Eurasian integration when overland routes were established between the Spice Islands of present-day Indonesia and the capitals of Europe, passing through multiple cities whose fortunes prospered as trade flourished.

Bukhara, Samarkand, Tashkent, Kashgar, Kandahar, Tehran, Baghdad, Palmyra, Lanzhou. All these names once threw up images of medieval wealth, with their fabulous spires, learned universities and libraries, powerful overlords and multicultural marketplaces. Alas, most are now known for wholly different reasons.

Bukhara, Uzbekistan
Bukhara, Uzbekistan

The originator of the Silk Road of antiquity was the Han Dynasty, who traded the eponymous luxury (in addition to many other goods) across its vast empire and beyond from the 2nd century BC until its fall in the 3rd century AD. Whilst it survived in various incarnations, the route best known to history was at its strongest during the so-called ‘Pax Mongolica’ and here it is worth quoting at length from the eminent J.H. Parry:

In the great days of the Mongol Khans much Chinese merchandise destined for Europe had travelled overland on the backs of camels and donkeys by many different caravan routes, to termini in the ports of the Levant and the Black Sea; and European merchants, not infrequently, had themselves travelled with their goods by these routes. Flourishing Italian merchant colonies had grown up at the principal termini, at Constantinople and Pera, its commercial suburb; at Tana (Azof); at Caffa in the Crimea and at other Black Sea ports. In the fourteenth century Pegolotti’s safe route to Peking became exceedingly unsafe and European travel to the east came to an end. The overland routes in general declined in importance, not only because of political disturbance, but from the same physical causes which kept the predatory nomads on the move. Progressive desiccation in the lands of central Asia made pasture unreliable. The flow of merchandise overland diminished, and the ancient towns through which the caravans passed became impoverished. (Parry, 1963, p.56)

The Silk Road of the Middle Ages
The Silk Road of the Middle Ages

The final death knell in the coffin of the Silk Road was the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, with European states and merchants no longer able to possess a foothold in the Middle East, let alone a launchpad for Asian trade.

Now, the Barking Rail Freight Terminal in London is waiting to become the 15th destination on the ‘New Silk Route, a Chinese freight train expected in the coming days. Overland trade is being re-popularised, a cheaper alternative to air freight, a safer and quicker alternative to the sea. It forms one strand of the ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative, the other to create a ‘Maritime Silk Road’ between China, India, the Middle East and Africa.

For the countries of Central Asia, decimated by first the Russian Empire and then the ravages of Soviet rule, it is an opportunity to reinvent themselves and potentially recapture some of their past glory. Simultaneously it offers China a chance to increase both its economic and political influence in regions where the US footprint is light at best. What Russia thinks is another matter.

It is unlikely that China’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ will captivate the popular imagination in the same way that the Silk Road of old does, yet it is nevertheless a proactive step by the Chinese government to integrate a giant landmass in a way not seen for centuries.

Xi's seminal project has not been without its challenges though its ambition is undoubted
Xi’s seminal project has not been without its challenges though its ambition is undoubted

What the geopolitical consequences of this bold venture will be cannot yet be known, but it certainly goes some way to undermining critics who view China as an insular power unwilling to responsibly use its ascending role on the global stage.


Parry, J. H. The Age of Reconnaissance (1963)