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n216 2211 27 Aug 75
(Dispatch of The Times, London)
By JOHN GRETTON
Dispatch of The Times, London
LONDON - The future of the Spanish Sahara could prove
one of the stickiest of all African decolonization problems,
not excluding Angola. The principle of decolonization
is not at stake. What are at stake, and pose a real threat
to Arab unity, are the twin principles, so dear to all
the new African states - the inviolability of the frontiers
drawn by colonialism and the right of all peoples within
those frontiers to self-determination.
Spain has already accepted the idea of a ''transfer of
sovereignty'' - an ambiguous phrase that leaves a number
of options open. If it were not for the potentially profitable
phosphate mines at Bu Craa, Spain would probably be glad
enough to be shot of the desert colony - indeed, last year,
she promised to hold a referendum in the colony within
the first six months of 1975. Would she best preserve her
mining interests by doing a deal with the strongly implanted
guerrilla movement, the Popular Front for the Liberation
of Saguia el Hambra and Rio de Oro, or with Morocco, at
present the world's biggest exporter of phosphate? The
question is unresolved and likely to remain so until the
question of Franco's succession has been resolved.
In Morocco, King Hassan has been stifling popular discontent
against his oppressive regime by preventing the effects
of inflation from reaching the po whole of north-west
Africa, down to and including Mauritania.
Hassan has since abandoned his claims to Mauritania, but
still believes the Spanish Sahara is his by right. So far,
though, Morocco has gone no father than making life intolerable
for the nomadic refugees from the Spanish Sahara in southern
Morocco, and sending a few detachments of soldiers across
the border to try to counteract the influence of the Popular
Mauritania has also claimed the Spanish Sahara as her
own, though until recently this was thought to be little
more than aformal claim to hold off Morocco. In questions
of foreign policy, President Moktar ould Daddah has tended
to follow the same line as President Bourmedienne of Algeria,
the guru of Arab and African progressive forces. However,
a couple of months ago, Algeria revealed the existence
of a secret agreement between Morocco and Mauritania, dating
from October last year, to carve up the Spanish Sahara
between them. Since then, Mauritania has been moving closer
And Algeria herself, though constantly reaffirming the
right of all peoples to self-determination, has recently
been moving closer to the Moroccan position on this question.
What, in all this, of the people of the Spanish Sahara
themselves. Who are they, and what do they want? Basically,
they are a nomadic Moorish people, having great affinities
with the peoples of Northern Mauritania. A combination
of drought (interrupted after nine years earlier this month)
and political oppression - the Spaniards like to keep
a very tight hold on the population; in the capital, El
Aaiun, there are as many soldiers as white settlers - has
disrupted their traditional way of life and sent many of
them into exile in the neighbouring countries.
For two years the Popular Front has been waging a military
and political battle for independence and the support of
the population. In a recent tour of guerrilla bases in
the north-east, I was able to gain some idea of their success.
The Front have forced the Spanish, to a large extent,
to withdraw their colonial army, and to rely on garrisons
of the notorious foreign legion, who rarely venture forth
except in very large numbers. The guerrillas, who operate
in small groups of dozen or so, can move freely outside
the few towns and main roads, and the mining area.
They have achieved this, apart from a few pre-war, French
riom the Spanish,
often with the help of deserters from the Spanish colonial
army. In the two years, they have fought 46 engagements,
for the loss of under 30 men, including prisoners. They
have inflicted much heavier losses on the Spanish, and
taken a dozen military and one civilian prisoner.
On the political level there can be no doubt about the
Front's success. In May, a United Nations delegation found
overwhelming evidence of popular support for the Front,
and I found further evidence of this in the north-east.
Shortly before I arrived the Spanish had withdrawn all
their administrative services and personnel from the small
town of Mahbos, the center of a population of around 8,000,
leaving only a detachment of the legion. They did this
because of local support for the Front.
However, the local population, inspired by the Front,
has not only succeeded in setting up its own administrative
services - water, health, schooling, food and so on - but
has elected (though not perhaps according to western rules)
a general council resembling, at least in name, the ''councils
of 40'' which used to exist before the Spanish colonization.
The same thing has been happening, I was assured, in half
a dozen other small towns all over the country.
So the Front is winning, but will it do them any good?
In the last analysis, the issue of the Spanish Sahara
will not be decided by a traditional confrontation between
the local inhabitants and the colonizing power. What will
count in the end will be an assessment by each country
concerned of the balance of power between Morocco, Mauritania
and Algeria, with America, Spain and France hovering in
Distributed by The New York Times News Service.
''Dispatch of The Times, London'' must be used in the
above. Not for use in California or Ontario.