Western Sahara — the next desert storm

Betrayed by Spain and oppressed by Morocco, the Saharawi people of Western Sahara compare themselves the Palestinians or the black majority in apartheid South Africa. And they want the world to know their story  

King Mohammed VI of Morocco was visiting a hammam when a genie appeared.
“I can offer you one wish," the genie said.
“I'd really like to see my late father, Hassan II," Mohammed replied.
“That's a difficult request, bringing a person back from the dead," the genie said. "Have you got another wish?"
“Well, I'd like Western Sahara to become part of Morocco," said Mohammed.
“Hang on while I'll look for your father," said the genie.

Saharawi joke

In the far western expanse of the Sahara is the world's longest continuous wall. It starts in Morocco and slithers down through the desert for 2,400 kilometres to the Atlantic Ocean. More than 130,000 soldiers line its perimeter. Made of sand and stone, it stands one and a half metres wide and between two and three metres tall, and has command posts every two miles. Motion sensors, barbed wire and several million landmines provide an extra layer of defence. For most of its course, it cuts across a sparsely populated region that Morocco regards as its southern provinces. On maps the area appears as Western Sahara. The UN calls it a "non-self-governing territory". It is Africa's last colony, where a near-forgotten liberation war lies dormant.

The wall is sometimes referred to as Hassan's Wall, after King Hassan II of Morocco, who annexed most of what was then called Spanish Sahara when Spain pulled out in 1976. About half of the indigenous population, the Saha­rawis, who had been promised a vote on self-determination by Spain, fled across the desert to refugee camps in an inhospitable corner of Algeria in order to escape Moroccan rule.

They were assisted by the Polisario Front, a poorly armed but fiercely determined nationalist movement. Unable to prevent attacks on his troops by Polisario guerrillas, King Hassan ordered a series of joined defensive walls to be built around the main cities and installations in Western Sahara. Bulldozers bullied the barrier into place, eventually enclosing about four-fifths of the territory. Forced ever deeper into the Sahara, the Polisario was left with a ribbon of desert that it called the Liberated Zone.

The wall should have come down. In 1991, Morocco and the Polisario agreed to end their 16-year war. The UN was to oversee a referendum on independence for Western Sahara within nine months. Morocco first blocked the vote and then abandoned the poll altogether when it realised the result would not go its way. Eighteen years and nearly $1bn in UN expenditure later, the Polisario camps - and more than 100,000 refugees - are still there. So is the wall, though few outside the Maghreb know that it exists. I didn't until one day I saw it represented as a thick black line on a map of Africa I bought a few years ago. I was intrigued, and resolved to see the wall and hear the stories of the Saharawis living on both sides.

As I drove through the flat desert plains in the Liberated Zone, the wall appeared to me as a caramel stripe on the horizon. Two Moroccan soldiers on lookout ducked out of sight when they saw the Polisario Land Cruiser approaching. "Rabbits! Cowards!" The man cursing was a 39-year-old Saharawi journalist and independence activist, Malainin Lakhal. He had unbrushed hair, a goatee and silver-rimmed glasses. "The wall of shame," he spat out. He knew all about the wall - he had crossed it one moonless night nine years earlier. Back then, he was running to escape the Moroccan secret police, leaving behind his relatives, his future wife and the intifada brewing in the "occupied territories". Which was where my journey began.

On a cold and rainy night in January last year, I boarded a bus in the Moroccan seaside town of Agadir and headed down the coast. At dawn, we reached Tarfaya, a small settlement 60 miles across the water from the Canary Islands. Mist rolled in off the Atlantic. A few men ambled in the sand-dusted streets, ghostly in their thick, hooded djellabas. It was here, in late 1975, that 350,000 Moroccans gathered under the orders of King Hassan before setting off on the "Green March" into Western Sahara, in a show of intent during the last days of Spanish rule. In the afternoon, I caught another bus, following the marchers' route south through scrubland, crossing an invisible frontier. On the outskirts of Laayoune, the territory's capital, a policeman boarded the bus, checking the identity cards of all passengers. I handed over my passport, hoping he would not deduce my profession. Journalists are not welcome in Western Sahara; to question Morocco's "territorial integrity" is to break the law.

A military base guarded the entrance to the city, whose desert-pink buildings rose up beyond a wide green river. I checked in at a cheap hotel. My room looked out on to a bank of radar dishes and seven military jeeps in a sandy lot.

It was evening, and soldiers in peak caps and faded uniforms were cycling home. Moroccan flags flew on every block. The city had an orderly, if sterile, feel, different from the frenetic atmosphere of cities such as Fez and Marrakesh. There was another feeling, too. In the traffic and parked on the roadside was an inordinate number of police vehicles, mostly new sedans and minivans, painted white or dark blue, with metal grilles over the windows and headlights.

The city had eyes, as Aminatou Haidar, a petite woman in her early forties with brown-tinted spectacles, knew only too well. The "Saharawi Gandhi" to her supporters - and a dangerous traitor, according to Morocco - Haidar has come to symbolise the non-violent struggle for Saharawi rights. One evening she picked me up in her old black Renault sedan and drove me to a friend's apartment, as hers is under constant surveillance. Once the translator arrived, she told me her story.

Born in Laayoune, she was nine when Moroccan troops entered Western Sahara; relatives on both sides of her family fled to Algeria. Within months, hundreds of Saharawis with Polisario sympathies who stayed behind had been sent to clandestine prisons in Morocco. An uncle of Haidar's was one of the Disappeared. "My mother would often cry about her brother," she said. "My uncle had six daughters, and the strain on them was terrible. This made me understand that something was horribly wrong." In late 1987, while studying for her baccalaureate, Haidar was secretly involved in organising a pro-independence demonstration to coincide with a rare visit by a UN delegation to Western Sahara. At 3.30am on the morning before the UN mission landed, plain-clothes policemen swooped on her parents' house.

Still in pyjamas, she was bundled her into a van and blindfolded. As many as 70 other young Saharawis were seized at the same time. They were taken to a secret prison in Laayoune, where she was strapped to a plank, face down, with her hands and feet tied. Officers kicked and slapped her, threatened her with rape and gave her electric shocks. "We tried to move our blindfolds a bit to allow us to see out the bottom. But the police would shine lights in our eyes; if we reacted they knew that they had to tighten the blindfold."

Her "disappearance" lasted three years and seven months. She had been blindfolded most of the time. Years later she wrote in an online testimony: "19 June 1991 is the day of my liberation. The first day of summer and a music festival elsewhere. I am liberated, I was only a shadow of myself. A phantom, one of the living dead, a young girl out of a nameless hell."

By then Western Sahara had changed. Morocco had spent many millions of dollars on infrastructure projects - though just a fraction of its earnings from selling the territory's phosphate and fishing rights - while using subsidies and promises of jobs to entice tens of thousands of its citizens to move in. According to King Hassan, this was only fair; he told his people that Morocco had exercised authority over Western Sahara before Spanish colonisation in 1884 and that most Saharawis favoured integration. It was a lie. In 1975 the UN, which for more than a decade had been pushing Spain to hold a referendum on self-determination, sent a fact-finding mission to Western Sahara. It concluded that the Frente Popular de Liberación de Saguía el Hamra y Río de Oro, or Polisario Front, formed two years earlier, represented the most significant expression of Saharawi opinion, and that "the majority of the population within the Spanish Sahara was manifestly in favour of independence".

Morocco, meanwhile, had taken its case to the International Court of Justice. But, in a 14-2 ruling, the court found that the evidence did "not support Morocco's claim to have exercised territorial sovereignty over Western Sahara" before Spain arrived. A claim by Mauritania, made on similar grounds, was also rejected. Bizarrely, King Hassan interpreted the court's decision as a victory, and the next day announced plans for the Green March. Spain, in political disarray with General Franco on his deathbed, capitulated to Moroccan pressure; within a month a deal was struck to allow the king and the Mauritanian government to divide the colony between themselves.

Today, there are about 200,000 people in Laayoune - nearly a tenfold increase since 1975 - and close to 400,000 across Western Sahara. Most are Moroccans. Many of the Saharawi activists I spoke to described this influx using the Middle East lexicon of "creating facts on the ground". But a genial Moroccan who owned a car hire firm and who, after some persuading, drove me to see the port one day, saw himself filling an employment gap. "The problem with the Saharawis is that they are lazy," he said. "They are like the Saudis who get poor people from Asia to do all their work for them. They just want money from the government, and then to sit at home."

Staying at home was the only option for Haidar after her release, because Morocco had refused her a passport and banned her from going to university. After numerous appeals, she was finally allowed to study philosophy in Rabat - the location and course were of Morocco's choosing. If the intention was to get Haidar to understand King Hassan's point of view, it failed. She began to document human rights abuses against the increasingly frustrated Saharawis. The promised referendum had raised hopes for many that they would at last be reunited with relatives on the other side of the wall. But dubious attempts by King Hassan to classify more than 120,000 people living in Morocco as eligible Saharawi voters - and his decision to launch appeals after almost all were rejected by the UN referendum team - had stalled the process. In 1999, the year Hassan died and his son assumed the throne as Mohammed VI, patience snapped. First Saharawi students in Morocco launched small protests for better conditions, and then demonstrations spread to Laayoune. After a fortnight, the police moved in, beating and detaining hundreds.

The "first intifada" had begun. The taboo of public dissent had been broken for the first time since the occupation started. Six years later, when it became obvious that Mohammed had no intention of allowing the Saharawis a vote - autonomy is the best they can expect, he says - the second intifada erupted. Haidar, who by now had a young son and daughter, joined one of the demonstrations to show solidarity. A policeman attacked her with a truncheon. Blood streaming from her face, and with three broken ribs and a broken collarbone, she was rushed to hospital, where she was arrested.

As Haidar was telling me her story, Ali Salem Tamek, a stocky 36-year-old with a goatee, dressed in the traditional blue draa robe, arrived at the apartment. Tamek has been to prison several times and is famed for his hunger strikes, which, on one occasion, took him to the verge of death. A Moroccan magazine once put his face on the cover under the headline "Public enemy number one".

Shot glasses of tea and plates of dates were passed around, and Tamek nodded as Haidar continued her story. She went on hunger strike for 52 days in Laayoune's notorious Cárcel Negra ("black prison), losing 17 kilogrammes. Following pressure from the European Union and Amnesty International, she was released after seven months. "This time in jail was worse," she said. "Before, I had no children. It was just for myself. I had no feeling of motherhood. Now the suffering was double."

To escape the creeping paranoia of Laayoune - a stranger at a café had casually mentioned that he knew where I was staying a few hours after I arrived - I hired a car and driver to take me to Smara. The third-biggest city in Western Sahara and the only one of any size not on the coast, Smara was also the closest I was likely to come to the wall, about 30 miles away. Beyond the police post on the edge of Laayoune, we were in the open desert. After two hours we reached Smara, where we were stopped and questioned at two further checkpoints. The main street had a few cafés. Virtually all the customers were soldiers. There were several billboards of King Mohammed, and numerous riot vans parked on the roadside.

A policeman refused to give us permission to enter a poor and densely packed neighbourhood. "This is not a tourist town, it is a military area," he said.

Back in Laayoune, I called Brahim Dahane, another activist and formerly one of the Disappeared. He told me to meet him outside a travel agency on a busy corner. When I reached there, I heard a voice behind me.

“It's you?"

“Yes."

“Follow me."

His apartment was nearby. Dahane hurried inside and walked over to the window, pulling the curtain back slightly to look down the street. Just a few days earlier, one of his colleagues in the Association of Saharawi Victims of Human Rights Abuses had been arrested for meeting a delegation from the European Parliament, which, having been blocked by Morocco from visiting Western Sahara since 2005, had been allowed in to Laayoune for a half-day visit.

Dahane had opened a cybercafé at a prime location to serve as a kind of Saharawi cultural centre. But the police kept raiding it, customers stopped coming, and he was forced shut it down. Other activists had told me similar stories of harassment of anyone considered to have ideas of independence, no matter how young. While giving me a lift home late one night, Haidar pointed out a school that even had a permanent police presence to suppress any dissent. If people like her and Dahane were the second generation of Saharawis to strive for independence, there was now a third taking it on, spray-painting walls with the flag of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) - the state declared by the Polisario in 1976 - challenging teachers, shouting pro-independence slogans.

“We have a guarantee in our children," said Mohamed Fadel Gaoudi, a former political prisoner who later invited me to his apartment for dinner with several others. "Kids of ten or 12 now participate in demonstrations, which we never did. They say that there is no alternative to self-determination."

A note of dark humour drifted into the conversation. The Green March was the "Black March", the UN the "United Nothing": its mission in Western Sahara has an annual budget of $50m, but no mandate to monitor human rights. But when, at midnight, Haidar joined us, the mood lifted. I asked her if she had been tempted by offers of asylum in Europe. "I prefer to live in my home country, in effect in prison, but with dignity and determination. As long as Saharawis have not decided [their future] for themselves, we will not stop," she said.

The next time I spoke to Haidar was by telephone many months later. She was on hunger strike at an airport in Lanzarote, Spain, having been expelled from Laayoune for refusing to state "Moroccan" as her nationality on the arrival form as she returned from United States, where she had been awarded the latest of several human rights prizes. Brahim Dahane and Ali Salem Tamek were in jail again in Morocco and facing a military tribunal, having been arrested with other Saharawi agitators after visiting the Polisario refugee camps in Algeria.

If Western Sahara has a tourist draw, it is Dakhla, which sits on a finger of land pointing into the sea two-thirds of the way down the coast. In 1976, as part of the agreement with Morocco and Spain, Mauritania took over the city, but after three years of Polisario attacks it withdrew and renounced its territorial claim. Morocco moved in, and by September 1985 it had extended the wall from the north to protect the city. I caught the bus there one morning. A few camper vans passed us on the road.

I was in Dakhla to meet a Saharawi civil servant whom, for his own safety, I'll call Mustafa. I wanted to find out what life was like for somebody not actively involved in the struggle. We met on a side street near a busy plaza perfumed with the smell of flame-grilled camel sandwiches and drove to his apartment. We made small talk for a while, until his room-mate Abdallahi emerged from a bedroom with his girlfriend, who said hello and left. Abdallahi was Saharawi; she was Moroccan. Mustafa had waited for her to leave before speaking freely. "There are informers everywhere, guards, shopkeepers . . ." he said.

Mustafa had written a novel, which, if published, would be the first English-language novel written by a Saharawi, he said. I read the first few pages on his laptop; it was good, but it will never see print here. "Living in the occupied territories, when you are deprived of using the language that you want to give an opinion - not even a terrorist opinion - and to think freely, to write freely, you feel like you are living in internal exile," he said. A few nights later we sat watching television: al-Jazeera was reporting on the conflict in Palestine. "At least Israel allows Palestinians to publish their own books in Israel," Mustafa said. "It is better to be a Palestinian in Israel than a Saharawi here."

To one side of a quadrangle lined with captured Moroccan tanks, armoured personnel carriers and cannon stood a set of heavy metal doors. Pulling them open, the curator of the Polisario military museum in south-western Algeria flipped a light switch to reveal a scale model of Western Sahara, with a string of red lights tracing the path of the wall. Malainin Lakhal, the secretary general of the Saharawi Journalists' and Writers' Union who was my guide in the camps, pointed to the southern section of the wall, bordering Mauritania. This was the least well-defended section and it was there that he had crossed from the occupied territories in early 2000.

“It was a very difficult decision," he told me. "I had always been against people leaving the occupied territories to join the Polisario. I would say: 'They don't need you. They have fighters. We need you here.'"

He had been an independence activist since the early Nineties, working alongside Aminatou Haidar at times, and had already been jailed several times. Now the police were on his trail, forcing him to sleep in a different house every night. Besides his guilt at abandoning the cause within the occupied territories, there were personal relationships to consider. He had a steady girlfriend, and his father was getting old; Lakhal knew that if he left he might never see him again. His father sent him a message: "Whatever you decide, be a man about it." With the note was a commando knife. Approaching the wall late at night, Lakhal could see an army post, but scrambled across undetected.

I had taken a more comfortable route from Western Sahara, flying north from Dakhla to Casablanca, east to Algiers, and finally south to Tindouf, where Lakhal was waiting for me in the chilly early hours. We drove past the Algerian military post on the edge of town, into the darkness of the desert and the Saharawi state-in-exile, with its own elected government, justice system, number plates ("SH") and second language, Spanish having outstripped the French used in the rest of the Maghreb. In addition to the Liberated Zone, which runs along the eastern flank of Western Sahara, the Polisario administers four large refugee camps scattered over 100 square miles in Algeria. The camps are named after cities in the occupied territories - Laayoune, Smara, Dakhla and Awserd. We were heading for a fifth, much smaller, camp named Fevrero 27, after the day the SADR was founded by the Polisario.

My host family, a refugee couple with three young children, lived in a small house on a hillock. In the evenings I'd sit outside as the dropping sun turned into a gold coin that gave the western sky an aura of yellow, then orange, and finally, once it had slipped below the horizon, ivory white. The only sound was that of goats bleating in their pens.

One night Lakhal and I headed out in the darkness to the house of Mohammed Yeslem Beisat, the SADR's minister of African affairs. Just over 40, he is one of the youngest of the top Polisario officials. Over a dinner of camel meat and couscous, Beisat told the story of how, at the age of seven, he came to the camps from Western Sahara. He and his brother had spent their holiday in the desert with relatives while their parents stayed in Laayoune. Amid the panic when Moroccan troops moved in, the young boys were swept up in the exodus to Algeria. They never saw their parentsagain. "It was a huge trauma. You are no longer the same person after that," he said.

Even for a people used to living in the desert, the area around Tindouf is harsh; there are fierce sandstorms and little vegetation. Summertime temperatures are as high as 50°C and winter nights are harsh and cold. Food and water have to be trucked in by the Algerian government, whose support has allowed Morocco to claim to this day that the Polisario exists merely as a proxy for Algiers.

The Saharawi camps were clean and organised. The Polisario Front had adopted a socialist model, as much out of necessity as ideology. Everybody lived in the same-style tents and ate the same food. Livestock was owned communally. Tribal identities - the Saharawis are not a homogeneous group - were intentionally obscured. There was no money in circulation. Because virtually all the men were fighting on the front line, women ran the camps and played a leading role in society - rare in a Muslim country. Education, both for children and for adults, received priority. When the Spanish left Western Sahara the Saharawi literacy rate was under 10 per cent; in the camps it has risen to an estimated 90 per cent.

There were abuses, particularly against political dissenters who disagreed with the Polisario leadership, but few outside visitors to the camps left unimpressed.

By the time Beisat finished school the conflict was nearly over. He studied in Algiers before returning to the camps to work in the information ministry, the president's office and then the referendum committee. That the vote has never happened is the fault not only of Morocco, Beisat said, but also the western powers. The African Union and 80 countries, most of them in the developing world, have recognised the SADR, though 25 of them have since frozen or severed relations under pressure from Rabat. By contrast, no country has formally accepted Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara. Yet, despite the clear injustice and illegality of the occupation, Washington has refused to put pressure on Rabat to allow self-determination, because Morocco is an important ally in Islamic North Africa. France, which has large economic interests in Morocco, has proved even more one-sided, and the Spanish government fails to speak out for a people it betrayed.

“This problem in Western Sahara is not a Democratic Republic of Congo problem, with tribes and minerals," Beisat said. "It is not a Palestinian problem of religion. It is a simple, crystal-clear decolonisation problem that could be sorted out with five hours of voting. This feeling of humiliation creates a beast inside you."

One morning Lakhal and I drove east to Smara camp, where old artillery shells painted red and white served as traffic cones at the entrance. The refugees' tents have been long been replaced by mud-brick houses with roofs of corrugated iron held down with rocks, and today the camps resemble desert towns rather than refugee settlements. The more than 100,000 camp residents are still reliant on food aid, but there is now a small cash economy. Mobile phones and internet links allow people to communicate with relatives in Western Sahara whom some have not seen for more than three decades - because of the wall.

For young children, the camps are not bad places to grow up, compared to other refugee sites. Schooling, which is free and compulsory, remains at a good standard, and thousands of children are hosted abroad each summer by Spanish families. The challenge comes after school. Though males are still required to do basic military training "as freedom fighters, not soldiers", most are no longer retained in the army. But given that government jobs are scarce and low-paid, most young people must find other ways of earning a living and passing the time. Since the war ended in 1991, many thousands of Saharawi refugees have moved to Mauritania, northern Algeria or Spain - a pro­cess that the Polisario does not encourage but is unable to prevent. One of Lakhal's colleagues, a twentysomething journalist who worked for the official Polisario magazine, told me that his mother, sister and brother all now lived in Spain. The brother travelled there on an official Polisario work trip and never returned.

“The young people will soon start to say that the Polisario can go to hell if nothing happens," Lakhal told me. "The leaders know what war is. Normally it should bring a solution. But we have had no solution for almost 20 years. The society is boiling. The boys born in 1976 are now fathers. They don't want to stay here. Can they suffocate their anger?"

After Lakhal crossed the wall he did 14 months' military training in the Liberated Zone near a town named Tifariti. As I wanted to see the wall, he agreed to take me there. We left early in the morning and soon we were driving across flat desert gravel. After about 30 miles, we breached an unseen frontier, leaving Algeria for the Polisario-controlled section of Western Sahara.

Soon we saw the first nomads' tents. During the winter months, hundreds of refugees leave the camps for the open desert, taking herds of camels and goats with them. Around mid-morning, at a place the Polisario calls the "Rincón", where the wall makes a 90-degree turn west, I saw it for the first time - and Lakhal cursed. Rubbish strewn by soldiers piled up against the barbed wire in front of us. The wall was less imposing than I'd imagined - quite literally a barrier of sand - but the landmines and the sheer number of Moroccan troops ensured that it was perfectly effective.

We parked a short distance away. Our driver, a thin, mischievous man nicknamed "El Macho", whose job during the war was operating a Katyusha rocket launcher, gathered sticks and made a fire. Lakhal cooked brunch: camel heart, kidney, liver and hump - a small, fatty piece of meat. It was late afternoon when we reached Tifariti, a tiny town with a few administrative offices and some bombed-out buildings. The landscape had changed; there were now craggy hills sprinkled with large boulders. At the top of one of the hills was the army command post, painted rust red; nearby was the wreckage of a downed Moroccan fighter jet. In the army mess was a poster of abuses in the occupied territories, including a 2005 picture of Aminatou Haidar with her face bloodied.

As Lakhal prepared tea, he spoke about the shortcomings of the Polisario's attempt to persuade the international community to take its side. "The mistake is ours. Why is our representation in the UK just one or two people? We have one person in Australia; it's a continent, not a country. Two people in New York and the UN and one in Washington. No one in China and one in Russia. But with us, you are talking mostly about nomads. We have centuries with our own system, an oral culture. The power of the world is still not understood here."

He told me a story about travelling to South Africa in 2006 to act as in interpreter for Haidar, who had just been granted a Moroccan passport, allowing her to travel abroad for the first time. South Africa recognises the Saha­rawi Arab Democratic Republic, and so Lakhal could use his SADR passport. The journey required him to pass through Frankfurt, where police detained him. "They looked at my passport and said: 'This is not a country.' They took me to the police station. I asked if they had a world map, which they did, so I showed them Western Sahara on the map. But they said: "What is this SADR on the passport?' So I asked them to go on to the African Union website so they could see we are a recognised country. They were so surprised."

I asked Lakhal about his wife, Mariam, who works as a civil servant in Laayoune, and whom he married in Mauritania in 2007. He said he missed her and hoped he would see her again in a few months, perhaps in Algiers.

The following afternoon we drove to a Polisario military post, which consisted of a few simple barrack huts and a neat parade ground. A steady drip of soldiers filed into the reception room, wearing new uniforms and boots. Finally the commander arrived. Trained in Cuba, Habuha Braica was the Polisario's top artillery man, Lakhal said. Braica took us outside to view the four howitzer cannon that stood in a row next to two flatbed trucks used to move them around. There had been no fighting for more than 17 years, yet Braica said that his men remained on constant alert.

On my last night in the camps, Lakhal and I walked to the modest residence of Mohammed Abdel­aziz, secretary general of the Polisario and president of the SADR since 1976. We knocked on the gate, which was opened by Abdelaziz's wife, Khadija Hamdi, who is also the minister for culture. She led us to a long dining room with pale blue walls, blue couches and a table covered by a blue plastic tablecloth decorated with flowers.
Two Spanish women, old friends of the Polisario, soon joined us, along with the Polisario representative in Galicia.

Abdelaziz strode in a little while later, barefoot, a solidly built man in a flowing blue robe. He introduced himself to each of us boisterously. One of the Spanish women was called America. "So, America, do you speak English?" he asked.

“No."

He laughed loudly, and so did she. I asked about the possibility of a new war. The last Polisario Congress, in December 2007, had covered that topic, the president said. The decision to resume war was made; it is only the timing that needs to be decided. "Of course we don't want war."

Yet Abdelaziz was not despondent. "Morocco is not sitting comfortably," he said. "It is still living the same military situation as in 1991. With this long wall, all these soldiers are paid double salaries. That's very expensive for a country like Morocco."

He said he saw hope in Barack Obama and a new US foreign policy, and in the economic downturn, too, which could only make things more difficult for Morocco. "Maybe it will take a long time, but in the end the Saharawi people will prevail, as [the people did] in South Africa, Namibia and East Timor."

Food was being brought out; salad, camel, chips, chicken, bread, a kind of desert mushroom, fruit. Abdelaziz kept putting more food on his guests' plates. "Eat, America," he implored the Spanish woman.

After dinner I walked back to my host family's house. I thought about Abdelaziz's cheerfulness and measured words. The refugees have been robbed of their independence for 19 years since the 1991 ceasefire, but, because there is no fighting, the outside world seems not to care. There seemed to be no glimmer of a satisfactory resolution at the time of my visit, and there has been none since. Yet many people in the Polisario camps believed that, in their president's words, in the end the Saharawi people will prevail, as happened in South Africa, Namibia and East Timor.

Perhaps the refugees' faith had something to do with the paradox of the wall. They live in exile but at least they have a kind of freedom. On the other side of the wall, in Western Sahara, their relatives remain prisoners in their own homeland. Today, Aminatou Haidar, who was eventually allowed back home after 32 days on hunger strike in Lanzarote, is still under constant surveillance in Laayoune. And Brahim Dahane and Ali Salem Tamek have been in jail for many months.

Xan Rice is a contributing writer for the New Statesman.

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 13 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, France turns right

Laura Hynd for New Statesman
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Having the last laugh

How Diane Abbott – overlooked, mocked and marginalised by her own party for three decades – ended up as the closest ally of a Labour leader

“I don’t think you’re up to it.” It is 1970, and Diane Julie Abbott, aged 17, is keen to apply to Cambridge University, but her history teacher has other ideas.

“I was an omnivorous reader,” she says now, sitting in her parliamentary office, in a prime spot overlooking the Thames, “and in all these books, particularly these novels between the wars, if you went to university, you went to Oxford or Cambridge.”

The teachers at Harrow County School for Girls, where Abbott was the only black girl in her class, were not supportive. Her memories are less happy than those of her contemporary Michael Portillo, who attended the affiliated boys’ grammar school, and who played Macduff to her Lady Macduff in a school play.

Even when Abbott succeeded, she was regarded with suspicion. She remembers getting an A-minus in an English class – a mark that disappointed her – and being asked to stay behind by the teacher. “She picked up my essay between her thumb and her forefinger and said: ‘Where did you copy this from?’ I was genuinely shocked.”

The story suggests that she acquired her ability to shrug off criticism early. It is also a reminder of how often she is underestimated. The Times journalist Matt Chorley once described a successful day for Labour as one in which “Diane Abbott was on TV a bit less”. Julie Burchill described her in the Spectator as a “preposterous creature” who “blotted the landscape of English politics, speaking power to truth in order to advance her career”. In the Guardian, Michael White dubbed her a “useful idiot”.

She has been endlessly dismissed as stupid, untalented and bad at politics – an obvious “diversity hire”. These criticisms are immune to evidence: her time at Cambridge, the only black British student from a state school in the entire university; her 12 years on the sofa with Portillo on BBC1’s This Week; her time in the shadow cabinet under Ed Miliband; her reliable ability to hold the line in television interviews; and now her status as Jeremy Corbyn’s closest political ally. She is largely ignored by lobby journalists, even as they lament their failure to secure a line into the Labour leader’s thinking. In 2017, Diane Abbott celebrates her 30th year in parliament. Should we take her seriously?

 

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Abbott’s mother, a nurse, and her father, a welder, were born in the same village in Jamaica, but met and married in London and lived in Notting Hill “before it was a fashionable place to live”. Abbott was born there in 1953, 12 years before the phrase “race relations” first made its way on to the statute books. “My father was very aspirational,” she recalls, “and so every weekend, he and my mother would drive round houses in Pinner, and every Monday they’d ring the estate agent, and the estate agent would say the house had gone. But, of course, the house wasn’t gone.”

Eventually, they did buy a house, not in Pinner but in Edgware, north London. “My brother – his best friend was Jewish,” she tells me, “and he’d attend the Jewish youth club with his friend, and one day his friend said in a really embarrassed way: ‘I’m really sorry, I’m afraid you can’t continue to attend the club, because they’re afraid it will encourage the girls to marry out.’

“The thing was,” she continues, “my brother was upset about this. We were all upset on his behalf but it was just part of life.” And in 1970, a black straight-A student being told that she wasn’t good enough to go to Cambridge was, again, part of life. It was her response that was out of the ordinary: “Well, I do think I’m up to it. And that’s what matters, isn’t it?”

At university, Abbott didn’t get involved in politics, and she found the Cambridge Union off-putting. Her hall tutor advised her to go into the civil service, and so she arrived at the Home Office in 1976, the lone black graduate trainee on what she now describes as “a quixotic quest to do good”.

In turn, that took her to the National Council for Civil Liberties, now Liberty. Believing it to be a hotbed of communist sympathisers, MI5 tapped the office phones, an action that was ruled unlawful in 1990. “One of the things that Diane still talks about,” a friend tells me, “is her experience not only of the Home Office, but of being the subject of official surveillance. She has a cynicism about the state that hasn’t gone away.”

Abbott also joined local campaigns on some of the issues that have defined her career, such as the abolition of the “sus laws”, the informal provision that allowed the police to stop and search anyone under the ­Vagrancy Act, which activists claim was used to target ethnic minorities in Britain. After joining the Labour Party, she became a councillor in Westminster in 1982.

In the 1970s and 1980s, as today, Labour took the lion’s share of the ethnic minority vote. But no one from an ethnic minority had ever sat as a Labour MP. In the 1983 election, just one person from a minority was selected as a parliamentary candidate, and in an ultra-safe Conservative seat. In response, Labour’s minority activists formed the Black Sections, a campaign to secure ethnic minority representation.

It was through these that Abbott met Linda Bellos, who was the leader of Lambeth Council, where Abbott worked as a press officer – her last job before entering parliament. “I was born here in 1950, one of 50,000 black people [living in the UK],” Bellos tells me. “We might have talked about going home but home for me was bleeding London, wasn’t it? Hence the need to make sure we were involved in all of the parts of the state. Someone like Diane had been to Cambridge, she’d been a councillor, she knew the democratic process, she was friends with a number of MPs, she knew the score. If someone like her couldn’t be selected, what was the point of any of us being here?”

The Black Sections wanted affiliated status, similar to that of the Fabians. But there were concerns that black candidates would not appeal to Labour’s presumed core white working-class vote. Some on the left saw “identity politics” as a distraction from the class struggle; and some on the right thought the Black Sections were too radical. At the 1984 conference, their plan was thrown out by a margin of ten to one.

Despite this setback, the fight had an important legacy. In the 1987 elections, four ethnic minority MPs entered the Commons for Labour: Paul Boateng in Brent South, Keith Vaz in Leicester East, Bernie Grant in Tottenham – and, in Hackney North and Stoke Newington, there was the 33-year-old Diane Abbott.

 

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She was the first black woman to be selected for a safe parliamentary seat. The Times marked the occasion with a leader denouncing her “rhetoric of class struggle and skin-colour consciousness”.

A few months later, the Sun profiled the “ten looniest Labour candidates” in Britain. “We were all there,” Abbott recalls. “Jeremy [Corbyn], the rest of us, and I was number eight.”

The local party in Stoke Newington was delighted with this firebrand reputation. “They said: ‘Stick with us, and we’ll take you right to the top!’”

The voters of north London were less welcoming. A brick was thrown through the office window of her local party. With Abbott as the candidate, some traditional Labour voters switched to the SDP-Liberal Alliance, taking the Labour vote below 50 per cent for the first time in the seat’s history (the second occasion was in 2005, just after the invasion of Iraq).

In parliament, the intake of ethnic minority MPs was regarded with caution. Abbott recalls that the then speaker of the House of Commons, Bernard Weatherill, was “very anxious”. She adds: “He thought we’d be like the Fenians and disrupt and collapse parliamentary process. So he invited Bernie [Grant], who was regarded as our leader, for port. And Bernie came for port and the speaker was very nice to him. And I imagine the speaker thought this was what stopped us being like the Fenians.”

Those Labour MPs who were disruptive – such as Corbyn the serial rebel – were in low spirits for other reasons. The marginalisation of Abbott and her allies during the late 1980s and 1990s explains why they have so little sympathy for the party’s beleaguered centrists in the current power struggle.

At the Labour conference in Liverpool this year – where she spoke as shadow health secretary – Abbott told me: “I came to party conference every year for 20 years, and we would lose and lose and lose. These people have lost twice and they’re complaining!”

Her thick skin was toughened during the New Labour years – and it reaffirmed her close friendship with Corbyn. (The two had a short sexual relationship in the early 1980s, which ended amicably. Abbott was married for two years to a Ghanaian architect from 1991 to 1993; her son, James, was born in 1992.) “She’s always had an odd hold on Jeremy,” one Labour MP tells me. “You would see them having lunch together and her bossing him about. I think people underestimate how influential she
is on his thinking.”

When David Lammy, her neighbouring MP in Tottenham, entered parliament in 2000 following the death of Bernie Grant, he found her “vilified, ostracised and exiled by the Blairites”. There were several attempts to remove her as an MP – another reason why the Corbyn camp is unconcerned by complaints from MPs such as Stella Creasy and Peter Kyle about their local parties threatening to deselect them.

Abbott retains a network of friends from her time before politics, including from her stint as a television producer. They urged her to quit in the Blair years – or to end her association with the left-wing Socialist Campaign Group. “I never thought I was willing to trade what I thought was right for some position in the party,” she says.

Some allies see it differently. “I don’t think Diane is someone who can quit [politics],” a friend told me. “I see her tweeting at all hours. She has interests, books and so forth, but she couldn’t walk away.”

Abbott says that Keith Vaz convinced her to stay, telling her, “You have forgotten what it took for us to get here.” (Some of Corbyn’s allies believe that this is what made the leader so supportive of Vaz during his latest scandal.) This sense of solidarity with other ethnic minority MPs has led to the long-standing rumour that Abbott would have nominated Chuka Umunna had Corbyn not stood for the Labour leadership.

“Diane is absolutely loyal to Jeremy,” one MP who knows them both well tells me. “She’s loyal to the project, yes, but she’s also loyal to him, in a way I don’t think you could honestly say about John McDonnell or Clive Lewis.” During the coup attempt against Corbyn last summer, Abbott spoke forcefully in favour of Corbyn remaining in place, rather than striking a deal to put Lewis or McDonnell on the ballot. “Her position,” one insider recalls, “was that we’d got a candidate we knew could win, and that candidate was Jeremy.”

Not that they always agree. Abbott advocated a less conciliatory approach after Corbyn’s first victory in 2015. “The thing that can be infuriating about Jeremy is that he likes to think the best of everyone,” she says. “I’m always perfectly straight with him as to what I think, and even if he doesn’t believe me at the time, he always does come round to my point of view.”

Abbott is one of the few people in the Parliamentary Labour Party whom Corbyn trusts completely. In their relationship, it’s hard to see who is the senior partner.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Corbyn and Abbott settled into a pattern of dissent, followed by defeat. Corbyn spent the time attending to foreign and human rights campaigns and signing thousands of early day motions. Abbott carved out a niche as a reliable critic of the Labour government under Tony Blair, with a month-long slot at the launch of the BBC’s This Week in 2003 blossoming into a regular gig alongside Michael Portillo. But away from Westminster, Abbott was making a decision that she knew could destroy her political career.

 

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The London borough of Hackney is today a national leader in schooling, but in 2002, just a third of students received five or more A*-C grades. That prompted Abbott to send her ten-year-old son, James, to City of London, a leading private school.

“I knew I could lose the seat over it,” she told me. “I was a single parent, and time after time, I had not been there for things at school, or I was too tired to take him out somewhere . . . I just thought, just this once, I should be prepared to make a sacrifice for him. If I lost the seat, then I lost the seat.”

She kept the seat. “Other things do annoy Diane – reporters saying things about her that aren’t true, people talking down to her,” one friend tells me. “But with [the schooling] I think she was very happy with that deal and to take that blow.”

Then, in 2010, Abbott’s career began a surprising second act: a bid for the party leadership. Activists and commentators felt uninspired by the choice in front of them – Ed Miliband, David Miliband, Andy Burnham and Ed Balls, four former special advisers from the New Labour era. Abbott called them “geeky men in suits”. Harriet Harman, in particular, was keen that the contest should not be an all-male field. Her support swayed Abbott. “If you had to pick one person, it was her,” she says, “because she was more mainstream.”

David Lammy set up a meeting between Abbott and David Miliband. The front-runner told her that, if she were a vote short in the nominations from MPs, he would vote for her. “But because it was David Miliband, I didn’t believe him.”

The elder Miliband had his own reasons for backing her. He believed that having her on the ballot would deprive his brother, Ed, of valuable support from the left. This was also the calculation that allies of Yvette Cooper made about Corbyn in 2015. “David’s legacy,” the Wakefield MP, Mary Creagh, wrote five years later, “made it normal – Blairite, even – to put a left-winger on the ballot to ‘have a broad debate’.’’

Of Corbyn’s campaign, Abbott says now: “I knew he’d do well, because what people missed is that had it been one person, one vote [in 2010], I’d have come third.”

Had the unions and the MPs not had a disproportionate influence on the result, she says, “I’d have beaten Andy Burnham, I’d have beaten Ed Balls. I’d been to 53 hustings – most Labour people are where Jeremy and I were. I knew there was much more left-wing sentiment in the Labour Party than the lobby thought.”

As a result of Corbyn’s victory in 2015, she is shadowing one of the great offices of state in what once looked like her final term in parliament. Her policy priorities as shadow home secretary are broad but include her favoured subjects of police reform and anti-racism. “I want to help shape the debate on migration,” she tells me. “I think we’ve had a very vacuous debate.”

That has put her at odds with the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell. Though both are long-time friends of Corbyn, their relationship is not warm. Allies believe that the division stretches back to the late 1980s, when McDonnell – then outside parliament – gloried in not going “soft” in the manner of Neil Kinnock. Abbott attracted suspicion, in part because of her early conversion to a pro-European position. Many believe that McDonnell never embraced the European project. He has ruled out opposition to Brexit and is behind the toughening of the party’s line on immigration. Abbott, privately and publicly, is determined to hold Labour to a more open and pro-immigration position. She has said that Labour cannot win as “Ukip-lite”, a coded rebuke to McDonnell.

The shadow chancellor is the only MP with a comparable influence to Abbott’s on Jeremy Corbyn and, thus far, the Labour leader has struck a middle path on migration, supporting Abbott’s line that the single market cannot be traded away for restrictions on the free movement of people but stopping short of a full-throated defence of free movement in principle.

As well as winning that internal battle, Abbott faces the task of landing more blows on Amber Rudd than her predecessors – Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Ed Balls – managed against Theresa May when she was the longest-serving home secretary in a century, transforming the reputation of a department once regarded as a political graveyard. Not many give Abbott much chance of success but, as always, she believes in herself and thinks that she’s up to it.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent of the New Statesman

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge