Tony Hodges, Western Sahara: The Roots of a Desert War (Westport, CT: Lawrence Hill & Co., 1983).
An account of the Polisario Front’s first battle against Spanish rule reads like a script for a Beau Geste remake: On May 20,1973, just ten days after the group’s founding, less than a dozen guerrillas set out to attack an isolated Spanish garrison in northeast Western Sahara. They were armed with ancient muskets, plus one small submachine gun, and only enough ammunition to fire for about five minutes. Before reaching their target, Polisario’s leader and another of the would-be fighters were captured by a patrol from the garrison while fetching water from a desert well. The remnant of the motley raiding party decided to press ahead as planned — a good decision, as it happened, since the Tropas Nomadas holding the outpost surrendered without firing a shot.
Now, Polisario fighters are considerably better armed, but no less bold, than in that initial, improbable victory. Thanks to their perserverance, what could have been merely a tragicomic interlude in the decolonialization of Africa has become an international flashpoint. Today the Sahara question threatens to split the Organization of African Unity (OAU), and poses thorny foreign policy problems for France and the United States.
Tony Hodges’ meticulous, painstaking examination of the history and culture of his conflict is bolstered by extensive documentation. Thanks to his clear, straightforward writing style the text is quite readable, even absorbing. Hodges has been described as a “scholar-journalist.” Another, perhaps more accurate, way of explaining the book’s depth is to say that Hodges is not among those journalists who abandons either his conscience or his critical faculties in the quest for “objectivity.” Not content just to present competing claims, he searches for the kernels of truth among them. His respect for the principle of self-determination makes him sympathetic to Saharan aspirations, but he subjects Polisario to the same scrutiny as he does Morocco and other parties to the dispute.
He traces the independent Saharan spirit from the nomadic life of the earliest indigenous inhabitants through contacts with Europeans since the 15th century and a resistance to Spanish conquest that did not end until 1934. Viewed from this “national” historical perspective, Polisario’s fight against a Mauritanian/Moroccan takeover after Spain’s 1975 withdrawal, and now against the Moroccan war to annex the territory, is the logical unwinding of an unbroken thread. At the same time, Hodges traces the rise of modern Saharan nationalism — the drive for an independent nation-state — only back to the early 1970s and the economic and social changes spurred by development of the phosphate industry. This youthfulness Polisario would prefer to downplay in its campaign for statehood. In having no historical antecedent, though, Western Sahara is like many other contemporary African nations whose boundaries are a product of the colonial scramble to divide the continent. It is this very fragility of geographical identities that has prompted the OAU to adhere so firmly to colonial boundaries, lest a redrawing of lines anywhere encourage a spate of border wars.
For readers most interested in the contemporary politics of this liberation struggle, Hodges offers several excellent chapters on developments since Spanish control began to crumble a decade ago. He argues that Morocco’s determination to annex the Sahara was motivated less by the economic attraction of the territory’s Bou-Craa phosphate mines — which, added to Morocco’s own output, could give it virtual control of the world market — than by political imperative. Although an able political strategist, King Hassan II has had to expend much of his absolute authority in fending off coups and internal resistance movements. Hodges sees the irridentist quest to win Western Sahara for le gran Maroc “as primarily a move to restore royal prestige.”
Algeria is habitually portrayed by the Western press as though it were Hassan’s rival for control of the Sahara. Hodges correctly points out that Algeria’s response to early Polisario overtures was cool. Not until the new group had demonstrated its popularity among Saharans themselves, and then only reluctantly, did Algeria abandon its attempts to maintain a Moroccan-Algerian detente (a tricky task at best).
He also recounts the astonishing travels of a UN investigating team in May 1975, which found, to cite its subsequent report, “an overwhelming consensus among Saharans within the territory in favor of independence” and “mass demonstrations of support for one movement, the Fronte Polisario.” Nationalism might have been a latter day discovery, but apparently it was pervasive. In what may come as a surprise even to well-informed Sahara- watchers, Hodges details the flexibility and willingness to compromise that Polisario exhibited during this period, despite its evident political strength and growing military competence. Among the options it would have accepted, says Hodges, were a continuing, though gradually declining, Spanish interest in Saharan phosphates and fisheries, and a limited federation with Mauritania.
Hodges provides a careful tracking of the many diplomatic maneuvers that led to the 1975 Madrid Accord, by which Spain formally abandoned promises of a referendum by turning the colony over to Mauritania and Morocco. One disappointment of this book — hardly Hodges’ fault — is that we may never fully know the role played by French and US pressure on Spain. But the book breaks new ground in nearly every chapter as it follows the disintegrating Mauritanian government, the growing dislocation of Morocco’s economy to a war posture, and the resultant rise of domestic discontent in the kingdom.
Both the Carter and Reagan administrations have seen Morocco as a needed ally whose war must be tolerated, and Polisario as a shadowy threat to Washington’s interests. In Hodges’ account, King Hassan’s future is uncertain, as the fate of all despots inevitably is. Polisario, on the other hand, emerges as a courageous, comprehensible movement, fueled by “newborn but profound patriotism.” Hodges argues convincingly that support for Hassan’s war may hasten the instability in Morocco that the policy is intended to promote.