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.