Saharawi resistance figure, Tecber Ahmed Saleh, has begun a tour across New Zealand to talk about life under Moroccan occupation and the role New Zealand’s fertiliser companies have had in prolonging this occupation through importing phosphates from the region.
Morocco invaded Western Sahara in the “Green March” of 1975. Before then, the territory was ruled by Generalissimo Franco’s fascist Spain, but as the despot lay on his deathbed, he signed a secret agreement to split Western Sahara between Morocco in the North and Mauritania in the South. Franco knew that Spain’s colonies wouldn’t be held after his death, and he feared that an independent Western Sahara would join his enemies in the growing decolonial and communist movements in Africa. Rather than allow this, he signed over the territory, and 74,000 Saharawi with it, to nations whom he knew would suppress any communist or decolonial sentiment.
Many Saharawi fled the region at this time, travelling across the desert into Algeria. Others fought a war against Morocco and Mauritania, forcing the latter to withdraw in 1979. Those who remained were bombed repeatedly by Moroccan aircraft carrying napalm, a flammable gasoline jelly which causes horrific burns. The ruling Islamic-nationalist government of Algeria was just as anti-socialist as the Moroccans, but made an exception to the Saharawi resistance fighters due to their own hostility towards Morocco. They granted a swathe of southern Algeria to the refugees, who administer the harsh desert region autonomously.
The exiled population in the camps has now reached 173,600. This was the place where Ahmed Saleh was born. The Saharawi have been waiting for a referendum for self-determination, agreed to by Morocco in a United Nations peace plan, since 1991, but it has not yet been put on the table by the Moroccan government.
Phosphate, used as a high-grade fertiliser, has historically been the only significant resource in the region. The Spanish ran large mining colonies in the territory, and these were later taken over by the Moroccans, who now have a near-monopoly on the world’s supply. The state-owned OCP corporation accounts for a significant portion of Morocco’s economy, and funds the lifestyle of the “progressive” monarch, Mohammed VI, whose 12 palaces cost $1 million per-day to operate.
New Zealand is the only country in which private companies still import the “blood phosphate” from the conflict zone, where human rights abuses are common. Western Sahara accounts for around a sixth of the Maghrebi phosphate industry, and even though open warfare has been over for nearly 3 decades, the situation in the territory is one of brutal occupation. The Saharawi people still see no benefit from the exploitation of their only natural resource.
Human rights violations include widely corroborated reports of torture, police brutality, and the repeated arrest and sentencing of members of human rights NGOs. Journalists are also frequently targeted with “assaults, arrests and harassment.”
“New Zealand fertiliser companies, Ravensdown and Ballance Agri-Nutrients, have been buying phosphate from The OCP Group, controlled by the Moroccan Royal Family,” says spokesperson for the Western Sahara Solidarity campaign, Mike Barton. “There’s profit to be made by extracting phosphate from Western Sahara, and our trade is undermining Saharawi human rights.”
“New Zealand needs to stop importing blood phosphate from Western Sahara.”
Ravensdown maintains that it is confident the practice is still legal under international law, despite the mounting weight of international resolutions and even legal blockades of ships carrying phosphate to NZ. The ship Cherry Blossom was detained in South Africa in 2017 with a 54,000 tonne cargo of phosphate worth $5 million destined for Ballance in Tauranga. South African legal teams took a stand against New Zealand and determined that the rock belonged to the Saharawi people.
However Morocco has applied its own campaign on international pressure, using its diplomatic staff and lobbyists to silence discussion of Saharawi self-determination wherever possible. Ahmed Saleh’s sold-out tour of Australia was cut short when she was prevented from speaking at the University of Sydney due to pressure from the Morroccan embassy.
Ahmed Saleh kicked off her New Zealand tour with a visit to the land occupation site at Ihumātao, and spoke in Auckland the following night. She has a speaking appointment in Hamilton tonight, before moving on to Christchurch, Dunedin Wellington, and Lower Hutt.
- Hamilton: October 7, 6:30pm at the Meteor.
- Christchurch: October 9, 7pm at WEA Canterbury Workers’ Educational Association.
- Dunedin: October 10, 6pm at University of Otago Castle 1 Theatre.
- Wellington: October 14, 7pm at Thistle Hall.
- Lower Hutt: October 15, 7:30pm at Waiwhetu Uniting Church.