Sun-Baked Thoughts From Saharawi Refugee Camps

4 mins read

I write these lines from the February 27 refugee camp of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic, close to Tindouf in the south-west of Algeria. I am visiting with the POLISARIO front to celebrate the 34th anniversary of the founding of the republic. The country has been under Moroccan occupation since the 1970s and Western Sahara is the last issue in the decolonization process in Africa. I am writing on Monday evening, after a very busy day of celebrations and visits to two schools, including one for the physically-challenged; a vocational training center; a rehabilitation project for the war wounded; the military museum which contains war weaponry seized from the Moroccans, which was like the United Nations Security Council of weapons, as they came from France, the USA and the former USSR! I have experienced the depth of warmth and kindness we have received here only in South Sudan. There seems to be something about adversity which makes people especially kind, apparently!


I left Nigeria in the early hours of last Wednesday, being awake the whole night as the story of the return of President Umaru Yar’adua broke in the international media. I stayed glued to Aljazeera television, because it was clear that Yar’adua’s return would throw a cat amongst the pigeons of Nigerian politics and the little I have heard in the difficult settings of travels between the refugee camps and the liberated areas of Western Sahara, have been as juicy as they come! But first things first; travel within Africa can be a nightmare, and fifty years after the declaration the year of Africa in 1960, destinations within our continent and between our countries are still as difficult as ever. In my case, I travelled to London, overflying Algeria, in order to get a flight to the Algerian capital, Algiers. And since the flight was for ten on Thursday morning, I had to stay the night at Heathrow airport. Africa is our lives yet it is still so far away!


When you are away from home, thoughts of home have a timbre to them that are not the usual; maybe the fact of removal from scenes of daily lived life offers a different aperture to look at our society in a different way or something even more. But anyhow, there is a mix of longing, dread and surety which potently, give home a presence and absence that define us. One of the people on this trip to Western Sahara is Dipo Fashina, philosophy lecturer and our old comrade from Ile Ife. On Wednesday night, at the hotel in Algiers, we were discussing the experiences of progressive activism in the past thirty years and the frightening manner that social life has evolved in Nigeria. We were deeply worried about the narrowing of social consciousness and the loss of a sense of history as much as the death of history as a subject of learning in our schools. How can a country make a sense of its present or build the blocks of its own future when history and memory have been so short-circuited? Nigeria is poorer and will continue to be, if we do not reinstate history and its study.


The emergence of globalization has come with several drawbacks and one of the more unacceptable has been the manner that our memory and history have been endangered. The right to write and study our history is one of the greatest achievements of the struggles against the colonial phase of imperialism. Pioneering historians like Cheikh Anta Diop in Senegal, Adu Boahen in Ghana and Kenneth Dike in Nigeria, paved the path of history that ensured that the fight for national liberation could be placed in a context of the re-conquest of our historical destinies. With the deepening of integration into the world of globalized capitalism, we became part of a new reality: the disappearance of citizens and the emergence of consumers. It is citizens who think about history because they have rights and responsibilities in democratic societies; the consumer does not need to think nor remember. Memory does not work in the favour of those who want us only to consume and keep consuming! A culture of dependency thrives where people do not think along a path of historical knowledge. Nigeria is an archetype of this malady and witnessing the manner our rulers carry on leaves us with no doubts that memory is really in very short supply. Nigeria moves in cycles of incompetence because among other problems, history is not a guide for enlightened action.


Amazingly enough, the past few days amongst the Saharawi people has breathed life into the historical sense of purpose that we have been talking about. People who have to conquer every inch of their realities seem to valorize history as an essential block of resistance construction. The Saharawi people organized a reception for a dozen activists visiting from the occupied areas of Sahara, located behind walls and armies of the Moroccans. The incredible connect between the visitors and the host refugee population was a delight which underlined just why wars to keep a people, any people, colonized, invariably become a futile endeavour. Last year in Asmara, I saw the tanks museum, which was the graveyard of Ethiopian war materiel and today we have also seen the different weapons that the Moroccan monarchy has thrown at the stubborn resistance of these ordinarily very humane people. And believe me when I say that they are as spontaneously kind and friendly as all other African peoples. If you have ever been in Juba, South Sudan, then Western Sahara will give you the same feeling of being amongst your brothers and sisters!


You might be wondering about just how little I have talked about Nigeria in this piece, in a very direct manner. There is not much information to build an analysis around. Okay, the BBC reported that Dora Akunyili gave an interview about a cabal which runs the government. It is curious that she is still in that government, looking from out here; or might it be that she is attempting to build empathy knowing that she would certainly be booted out of cabinet the moment Yar’adua gets a handle on the process of governance? There was also a Swedish (who?) that has been appointed as coach of the Super Eagles after a predictably annoying process of name dropping by the incredible men who run the football federation! A few days can be a very long time indeed in “Nigeria watch”. But it is still a thrill to have come into Algeria, known as the land of a million and a half martyrs, because it is Algeria which fought the bloodiest war of national liberation on our continent. It is unfortunate that I eventually did not get the opportunity to soak in as much of its heroic history as I would have loved. History is also one reason why the African peoples must conquer the right to be able to travel with relative ease within our continent. To have to get into ex-colonial capitals before reaching our brothers and sisters in other African countries is simply unacceptable!



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