King in a Corner

Western Sahara: The Roots of a Desert War

by Tony Hodges
Lawrence Hill, 388 pp., $19.95; $14.95 (paper)

King Hassan
King Hassan; drawing by David Levine

A reviewer’s immediate reaction on receiving Western Sahara might be to wonder whether the subject really justifies a relatively thick book. As with the wayward nun who attempted to explain away her pregnancy to the Mother Superior by telling her that it had, after all, resulted from only a “very small sin,” so the struggle by the Polisario Front for political autonomy could hardly be described as anything more than a very small war. Indeed, I had to search through Mr. Hodges’s book as keenly as a French Jaguar pilot scanning for the Polisario in the vast tracts of the Sahara before I could even find out the total population of Western Sahara. According to the 1974 census, it appears to have been 95,019 (how do you count nineteen out of a largely nomadic people?), of which 20,126 were Europeans, but not taking into account the substantial numbers of Saharawis living outside the frontiers, as refugees or nomads.

That is, the problem we are talking about concerns the aspirations of a people numbering rather less than the population of Oxford, excluding undergraduates. They occupy an area about as large as the British Isles, with only one river, no oases, and an annual rainfall of less than two inches, which is one of the lowest in the world, and, until very recently, with absolutely no known resources—in fact one of the most inhospitable places on earth. Why all the fuss?

Western Sahara has, however, as mr. Hodges reminds us, “been the theatre of one of Africa’s most bitter and intractable wars since 1975.” Little has been known about it in the West, and less understood. I count myself among the profoundly ignorant, and am therefore indebted to Mr. Hodges for this informative and interesting book, which, for all its density of research, is attractively enough written to lose only occasionally the attention of the reader. For small and local as the war is that Polisario has been waging these past ten years, the wider story is bursting with historical lessons (in fact, a bit like a history of modern Europe in microcosm), and also—still—full of menace for Western interests.

At the peak of their glory, around the eleventh century, the denizens of Western Sahara—which was not always a total desert—were the Almoravids, whose empire stretched, briefly, from the Senegal River to Saragossa in Spain. Both Ghana and Morocco were in its fiefdom. Then, as “gimcrack empires, spatch-cocked together” do, this one disappeared in dust—and sand—leaving a vacuum inhabited by unruly nomadic tribes, without a focus and more or less lost to history. Then, in the sixteenth century, the Spaniards arrived from the offshore Canary Islands; again as in the familiar pattern of empire, their initial allure was the slave trade—to get over labor shortages in the Canaries. Distracted by more profitable imperial ventures in the Americas, the Spaniards withdrew again from this…

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