In dialogue with Mrabbih Rabbou Maoulainine

Historia, memoria, eventos y actores del Sáhara

PHOTO/Ramdan Mesaud - Clara Riveros and Mrabbih Rabbou Maoulainine Photo: Ramdan Mesaud. Rabat Ville train station, Saturday 18 November 2017

On 18 April 2020, the Saharawi intellectual Mrabbih Rabbou Maoulainine died in Rabat. I had several meetings and interview sessions with him between 2017 and 2019 for the purpose of reconstructing different aspects and events in the history of the Sahara. Today I am presenting this unpublished interview -his memoirs-, as a posthumous tribute and with the intention that Mrabbih's words will not be forgotten. I extend to his family and friends my condolences and feelings of sorrow for this great loss to Moroccan society and particularly to the Saharawi community. May he rest in peace. 

Mrabbih Rabbou Maoulainine

Are you a descendant of Cheikh (Cheikh) Maelainine, the mythical Maelainine of the zawia of the city of Smara1

Excuse my Spanish which is a bit mediocre. My grandfather was one of Cheij Maelainine's sons. In the Spanish and Moroccan archives there are records, history, which corroborate that my grandfather was one of the resistance leaders who fought against the French colonisation from 1912 to 1934.

His Spanish is very good. Tell me a little about that resistance...

The resistance struggles between 1912 and 1934 were waged by the people of southern Morocco and the emirates of what is now called Mauritania. The capital of the resistance was Kerdush. Three sons of Cheikh Maelainine were part of and led the resistance: Cheikh El Hiba, who was poisoned by the French, was in charge of everything and appointed his brothers with contingents in different places: Cheikh Sidi Ahmed Uld, who stayed in Agadir and Cheikh Merebi Rebou (or Merebbi Rebbou in French), my grandfather, who was in Tiznit and Tarudant. He arrived in Marrakech during Ramadan for a third stage in the resistance to French colonialism. He returned to the Sahara in 1934 and was received by the Spanish authorities in Tarfaya, his home is there. He died in 1942 and is buried about 50 kilometres east of Laâyoune, just like my father.

What can you tell me about the Spanish Sahara?

There is no Spanish Sahara. The Sahara cannot be an extension or prolongation of Spanish territory simply because there is no way that Spain was in the Sahara before Morocco. The Sahara was a part of the Moroccan territory before the French and Spanish colonisation. The Saharan tribes are an extension of the other tribes in Morocco. You can go to Essaouira or Marrakech and compare the tribes that exist in those cities and those that exist in the Sahara. As far as the colonisation of southern Morocco by Spain is concerned, it actually started in October 1934. The orders regarding the Sahara came from Tetouan, everything was directed from there until the end of the protectorate in 1956.

From a sociological point of view, the tribes that are in the Sahara are the continuation of those in the rest of Morocco, although Spain tried to make the Sahara a different and distinct area from Morocco and Mauritania, but unsuccessfully. To that end, Spain relied on the work El Badia (El Campo) by a 19th century scholar, Cheikh Mohammed Elmami, a poet and expert in Islamic jurisprudence who died in 1864.

Cheij Mohammed Elmami observed in his work that the jurisprudence of the countryside, in relation to rural customs, was different from the jurisprudence applied in the cities, and so the Spanish authorities thought that this was sufficient to differentiate the Saharan tribes from the rest of Morocco. In the countryside and in rural areas there have always been different customs that have to do with many factors and that distinguish them from the customs and practices of the people in the cities. This is something that not only takes place here in Morocco, but also in Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, in many places. But the Spanish pretended that this only existed in the Sahara and that's how they handled it in The Hague

when the issue was raised at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 1975.
One of the biggest problems in all of Spain's academic literature on the Sahara has to do with the fact that there were few, and few, who understood or knew Arabic. Spain made no effort either to understand or to translate the history that tells of the historical links of the Sahara with Morocco, of the people of the Sahara with the sultans of Morocco. Bibliography on the Sahara, decrees and official documents and documents held by a few families in the Sahara were completely ignored.

So, in your opinion, is Spanish bibliographical material on the Sahara invalid?

The Spanish did not translate the manuscripts in Arabic that told the story before the colonial presence, they thought that the story started from their arrival. These writings, documents, decrees, correspondence, although ignored by Spain, exist, they tell a story prior to the Spanish and French colonial presence. There are almost two thousand official French documents that prove the historical relationship of the Sahara with Morocco. There were official correspondence and official appointments in the Sahara made by the Sultan of Morocco before Spain arrived. Even during the period of the Spanish protectorate, Tetouan was the real capital of the Sahara. This is well understood because the Jalifas, Caïdes and judges who were in Tangier and Tetouan had their respective deputies in Tarfaya and Laâyoune and all these appointments depended on the Sultan of Morocco. They depended on the Sultan because the territory of the Sahara was part of Morocco. That was not in dispute. During the period of the protectorate, religious and educational issues in the Sahara depended on the Sultan's representative in Tetouan who appointed his representative in the Sahara. One of them was one of Cheij Maelainine's sons. From Tetouan, Salek Uld Abdallah and then Mohammed Laghdaf were appointed as the Khalifa's representatives in the Sahara.

The only serious effort that Spain made regarding the Sahara was the ethnographic work done by Julio Caro Baroja between 1952 and 1953, entitled Saharan Studies (1955). It was a good paper and it is the only serious work that Spaniards did in terms of studies. Caro Baroja talks about tribes and customs, although not about all tribes. Even, at the beginning, he hesitated to accept carrying out this work because of its limitations, especially with regard to the lack of knowledge of Arabic. Nevertheless, he did a good job. He dealt with the spiritual and religious role played by Cheikh Maelainine and, although he did not go so far as to investigate all the tribes of the Sahara, his approach to the customs of some of the tribes is an interesting work.

And what changed in the Sahara with the end of the protectorate?

Everything changed at the end of the protectorate in 1956. Spain decided to stay in the Sahara with the idea that it was one of its provinces. The intention was not to give back the southern territories as it had to do with the northern ones. The sultan could no longer appoint authorities in the Sahara as he had done before. After the war of liberation waged by the Moroccan Liberation Army in the Sahara, the Moroccan flag was raised in the towns of Laâyoune, Smara, Daklha, la Güera, all those towns still under Spanish occupation in 1957. Spain gradually began to return the occupied territories of the Sahara, with considerable resistance, in 1958, 1969 and 1975. On 1 April 1958, with the Cintra Agreement between Morocco and Spain, Spain handed over Tarfaya to Morocco. The retrocession of Sidi Ifni took place in 1969 and the rest of the Sahara, what colonialism called Western Sahara, was handed over by Spain in 1975 with the Madrid Agreement. All these territories were always pending from Morocco. All these territories were always claimed by Morocco.

Why did the people of the Sahara resist the colonial occupation? Why did the Moroccan Liberation Army raise the Moroccan flag at La Güera, at Dakhla, at Smara and at Laâyoune in 1957? Because the people of the Sahara claimed to be historically part of Morocco and demanded that Spain leave the Sahara, as France and Spain had to do with the rest of Morocco.

How do you explain the return of the Sahara by Spain? 

The Spanish wanted to retain their authority in the Sahara in one way or another to keep their guard over the Canary Islands, because at that time there was a separatist left in the Canaries. Antonio Cubillo wanted to separate the Canaries from the Spanish state because he considered the Canaries to be part of Africa and not part of Europe. In principle, the Algerians made it easy for Cubillo to be in Algeria and also gave him a radio station. However, when Algeria had the Polisario, it threw Cubillo out. The Algerians had also welcomed Mohammed R'guibi, a Moroccan opponent of the Spanish presence in the Sahara and founder of the Movimiento Revolucionario de los Hombres Azules (Morehob) in 1969. This resistance movement against the Spanish occupation of the Sahara proposed to fight against the Spanish occupation of the territory while claiming that the Sahara belonged to Morocco. Algeria welcomed it at first, but then, when it had the Polisario, it became an enemy, and was even persecuted.

There are many aspects to consider in the Sahara issue. For example, all or most of the founders and leaders of the Polisario Front were Moroccan students, their parents having participated in the struggle for the liberation of the Sahara with the Moroccan Liberation Army. Other Polisario leaders were not from the disputed territory, but from other cities in the south: Tan-Tan, Tata, Guelmim, there were others from Mauritania. The struggle was initially against the Spanish occupation. Then the objectives changed when they became hostages of Algeria. There they became interested in resources, in phosphates, in fishing. The issue took another direction when Algeria became involved and hosted the Polisario in Tindouf territory which it already controlled by that time.

Mrabbih Rabbou Maoulainine

Why did Algeria get involved in the Sahara issue?

Algeria has a territorial claim on the Sahara and has been interested in redefining its borders on Moroccan territory since its independence in 1962. The War of the Sands in 1963 also made this clear. To claim that Algeria has no territorial claim on the Sahara is false. It was Algeria which armed the Polisario and welcomed it in Tindouf. It is and has been Algeria which facilitates all political and diplomatic acts abroad for the Polisario. Algeria has paid or bought recognition for SADR - Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic - with its petrodollars in Latin America and Africa, while in Europe nobody recognises this organisation. Africans and Latin Americans do not know for sure what SADR is or where it is located.
When I was director of the radio station in Tindouf I found lots of letters addressed to the secretary of the Polisario, Mohamed Abdelaziz and directed to El Ayoun. African heads of state and ministers who sent correspondence to the president of SADR and sent it to El Ayoun. They did not know that the Polisario was not in El Ayoun, but in Tindouf, in Algerian territory, which the people did not understand. I remember a letter from a Syrian writer who wrote to the President of SADR, also addressed to El Ayoun, asking him for songs, SADR flags, books and pamphlets. Abdelaziz asked for them to be sent to him without an address. They could not give an address. What republic was that?

It was Algeria that decided everything from the moment it welcomed the Polisario. We Saharawis have seen it with our own eyes. Algeria's interest in the territory of the Sahara has to do with the iron mines in the area and, above all, with the access it needs to the Atlantic Ocean. The Mediterranean is a long way from Tindouf. Algeria wants to be the leading power in the Maghreb, it has borders with all the Maghreb countries and it needs this access to the Atlantic, which would make things easier for it. Algeria has used the Saharawis that we used to be and who are still the wretches of the Tindouf desert.

Regarding your time in the Polisario, does it have to do with that familiar legacy of resisting the Spanish occupation, that is to say, was it an influence for you to decide to join the Polisario Front?

I did not decide to join the Polisario, I was abducted, I was kidnapped by the Polisario. They are two different things.

You were kidnapped by the Polisario?

I was born in 1950 and when the de-colonisation of the Sahara took place in 1975, I was still very young. I had a small private school in Dakhla where I taught Arabic. During the day I taught children and in the evening I taught adults, I even taught the Spanish officials who were in the Sahara. Arabic, although it is our language, was a language that was marginalised. I had studied in Casablanca, in the Canary Islands and in Madrid. At that time I was invited to be part of the Polisario, but I was not interested. I wasn't really interested in politics. In relation to the Sahara at that time, nothing was clear. There was some information on the radio, but nothing that would allow people to understand what was going on so that they could draw their conclusions about the role played by each of the players involved (Algeria, the Polisario, Mauritania, Morocco, Spain) in the issue. When I was kidnapped by the Polisario or rather by the Algerian military, I was in El Aargub, that is the continental part of Dakhla which is right in front of the peninsula. Algerian military in civilian clothes were in charge of organising people in the Sahara and providing transport to take them to Tindouf. I was imprisoned for not wanting to be part of the movement. From the day of the kidnapping to the day I got out of prison, almost two years passed. I was kidnapped on October 15, 1975 and was locked up until July 1977.

What were the prisons like?

Those prisons are holes in the ground filled with iron and zinc. They kept us prisoners there, we were subjected to forced labour, we had to dig the earth. It was a way to keep people busy, we were not allowed to talk to each other and we were in very poor conditions. There were people who died in those prisons just because they asked, "Why am I here?" There were people who died because of those jobs, because of the misery and the poor conditions we were in.

What made you think that the Algerian military was responsible for moving people to Tindouf?

Not only the transfer to Tindouf, but the whole conflict and its duration. The Polisario did not have a way or the material means to do this, nor did it have the experience to do these things. We were tens, hundreds of people kidnapped and taken to the camps in Tindouf. The Polisario has always been a hostage of Algeria. Who pays, commands! The leaders of the Polisario are a cheap copy of the Algerian security service, nothing more than the security service. The way they execute orders and the way they do everything is a copy of the Algerian security service. I was director of the Polisario's Information Department and I can tell you that the Polisario can do nothing without the watchful eye of the Algerian intelligence service and without the approval of the Algerian military. Look at the situation that led me to corroborate this: in 1988, I was in Algiers and I found out that Mohamed Abdelaziz, Secretary General of the Polisario and President of SADR, travelled from the camps in Tindouf to Algiers because he was sent for; I went to the Polisario representation in Algiers to ask where Abdelaziz was and they knew nothing. Abdelaziz, the SADR President, did not know either why he was called to Algiers and was waiting for instructions. It is the Algerian authorities who decide what the Polisario does. The Polisario has no independence to decide anything because in reality everything is decided by Algeria and it is the Algerian officials in Tindouf who make the decisions about what is done in Tindouf.

What did you do when you left the Polisario prison?

When I was kidnapped, my mother was in the desert and, during one of those abductions by the Polisario, they took her and my two brothers. She was always looking for me and asking to see me until they decided to take her to see me. One day, while I was in prison, someone from the Polisario security took me to another place. They didn't tell me what for. I got out of prison, they took me to another place where I took a shower, they gave me clean clothes and even cologne. Perfume! They exercised constant psychological torture on people. At that time, I didn't know that my mother was in the camps. I thought that they had made me come out to see some foreign delegation, because all they do is for show, a mise-en-scène. That day and that night I was making tea, there was food, I slept with a clean blanket, they gave me the perfume, a cheap perfume, but at that moment everything seemed to me as if I was in paradise... The next day I saw my mother supervised by the Polisario. She said to the guard: I want to talk to my son! And she threw him out. We talked for about an hour and a half.

After that I went back to jail, but the treatment changed. I saw my comrades in jail, doing those jobs, it was torture to see friends like that, while one gets a better treatment. I was given the task of teaching the people in the prison. I insisted on continuing to do jobs with my comrades. I didn't know it, but at that moment the Polisario were already preparing to send me to the radio and that's why their treatment changed. One of the Polisario came and told me that I didn't have to do those jobs that the others did, I told him that I wanted to do it and that it was a way of playing sport. What sport! You have no idea how little food you get there. When I left prison and found a scale to weigh myself, I weighed 57 kilos.

They released me from prison because they didn't have enough pictures in Arabic. I received military instructions for a year. The Polisario had set up a "radio" in Tindouf. It was not a radio... The fact is that they put me to work in that radio for about nine months, then they made me the director. Then they sent me to Algiers.

Mrabbih Rabbou Maoulainine

You already had a family in Tindouf?

Yes, I got married in Tindouf.

And then the whole family moved to Algiers...

No. They didn't go with me to Algiers. How could they go with me? My family, my wife and children, belonged to the Polisario. I was just another slave of the Polisario. They stayed in Tindouf.

Why did they send you to the Algerian capital?

In 1986 I was appointed director of the Polisario's Information Department in Algiers. The following depended on this department: the radio ("Voice of the Free Sahara"), a cultural centre on the main street of Algiers, all the Polisario propaganda, and a newspaper ("Free Sahara") which was published in three languages (Spanish, French and Arabic).

Did your personal conditions improve with the new post? I had more responsibilities and more confidence in the Polisario...

Yes, my conditions have improved a little. The problem is that I didn't have any papers. Just a card with my name and photo for the work I was doing.

You didn't have a passport?

No passport.

Did you think about leaving Algeria? Did you think about going back to Morocco?

From the first day of the kidnapping I thought about coming to Morocco. They are not friends, nor will they release anyone. Someone who deprives another of his freedom can't be a friend, he's an enemy. They themselves became the enemies of the Saharawis.

In Algiers you had more freedom than in Tindouf, but not enough freedom of movement. What did you do to get out of Algeria?

I had a car from the Department of Information. One day, I met some friends about 55 kilometers away, from there I went to the border, west of Algeria. I entered Morocco through a place northwest of Oujda. Being on this side of the border, on January 18 or 19, 1989, I looked for a phone book and called the Moroccan Ministry of Interior. I told them I was the director of the Department of Information of the Polisario Front. At that time, Morocco had not yet established such a return policy. I think I was the first one from the Tindouf camps to enter Morocco. I told them where I was and my name. My family is a well-known family in Morocco. In a matter of minutes they came to get me, I think it was a consul who was spending the holidays in that city. He went to pick me up and we came to Rabat together.

What do you think of your experience in Tindouf and what you lived through for more than ten years in Algerian territory?

Now I think of it all as a youthful adventure. Before I was kidnapped, it seemed to me that the most intelligent thing to do was not to have anything to do with either party, but I failed to be interested in anything.

How did you spend your life in Morocco? What was it like to arrive and rejoin or join the Moroccan system?

In 1989, when I arrived in Rabat, I spent a month talking to the authorities and to those in charge of the Moroccan administration. I was appointed head of the cabinet of the Minister of the Interior and Information, Driss Basri. I was there for several years. In 1994, I was appointed advisor to the Ministry of Communication and I have been in that position until today.

Did your family return from Tindouf?

My father never left Morocco. He lived in Rabat and was always here. When he died, he was buried, as I told you, about 50 kilometers east of Laâyoune. My mother, who was born in 1925, returned to Morocco in 1996, she was over 70 years old. She came back with my brothers and her husband because while she was in Tindouf she married again and had more children. My wife and children also came to Morocco in 1996. They all came to Rabat. My mother died a few years ago and I buried her here in Rabat, her husband died in Laâyoune and he was buried there. When my brothers returned to Morocco, they stayed with me for almost a year, here in Rabat, then they went south. The state gave them a house and a grant, like the other Saharawis who have returned from the camps. They are now living in Dakhla. I live in Rabat.

You are an advisor to the Ministry of Communication and I would like to take this opportunity to know your opinion on the way the Spanish-speaking media handle the Sahara dispute. The impression I have is that the Sahara issue is not of great interest in Latin America, either at the political level or at the academic level. It is a topic that is perceived as far away and, in fact, it is. It is striking that the little that is known, or rather the dominant and ingrained reading of the issue, is that which has been disseminated by the Polisario Front, a view that has been reaffirmed by the Spanish media and associations. The other stories and memories are not known, I am referring to experiences like yours... 

In order to talk about the Sahara, we must do so in stages, because there are many aspects to this issue. It is natural that what is known about the subject of the Sahara in Latin America, through the local press, reflects or reproduces what the Spanish press says, for one reason: there they think that Spain, being the colonising power of the Sahara, knows more and better everything related to the question. This is not only the case in Latin America, for example, but also in the German press. The German press attaches particular importance to what the Spanish press says about the Sahara. What is incomprehensible to me is that here in Morocco there are accredited Latin American and German press, but the information on the Sahara issue is not the product of the research done by the correspondents who are here, but they only consider what the Spanish press says on the subject; they do not research, they reproduce what the Spanish media and Spanish correspondents and journalists who are known for their activism and affinity with the Polisario and with the associations in solidarity with the Polisario receive many benefits and public resources from Spain.

As for the way in which the correspondents of the Spanish press inform, they are not known for their research on the subject, they do not do field work and, when they do, they collect only a few opinions. These are very limited reports that do not show the different views and positions on this issue so that readers can draw their own conclusions. There is no equality in the information that the Spanish media show on the subject of the Sahara. They limit themselves to repeating the Polisario's speech every time they say that the Polisario is the representative of the "Saharawi people". That is the speech of the Polisario. Nor do they make it clear that the majority of that "Saharawi people" is here in the Sahara and that the people of the Sahara vote and elect their representatives who are from the Sahara and who are elected in the Sahara. Let's assume that there is a third of the population of the Sahara that supports the Polisario Front, even if those of the Polisario have a third of supporters, that does not allow them to say that they are the "only representatives of the Saharawis", in any case they will represent a sector of the population, a group, but not all the Saharawis. This has never been clear in the information disseminated by the Spanish media.

Explanatory note

1-Cheikh Maelainine was an emblematic figure and widely known by the Saharawis. His zawia is located in the city of Smara. The zaouyya, zaouia, zawiya or zawia [in Arabic زاوية] was an institution - in Maghreb countries - in which certain tribes took care of teaching and religious services - despite the nomadic character of the Saharan tribes - there were sheiks and holy men or marabouts who created schools and, after their death, the zawia gained, besides being a training centre, a spiritual and almost sacred meaning for the tribes. The zawia of Cheij Maelainine in Smara is an example of this. The Zawia played an important role as training and educational institutions in the Sahel and Sahara region before the arrival of colonial powers. They provided basic Arabic literacy for children, the teaching of the Koran and, later, more advanced studies in Islamic law, theology, Arabic grammar, mathematics and even astronomy. Some of these centres still operate and continue to play a leading role as an educational institution in the Sahel (from Mauritania to Nigeria and even in some parts of Morocco). Explanatory note based on the information gathered at the 2nd International Forum "Between two shores", under the theme: "The question of borders in the Sahelo-Saharan region", held in Laâyoune between 7 and 9 April 2018.

Saturday 18 April (2020)

*Clara Riveros is a political scientist, consultant, political analyst on issues related to Latin America and Morocco and director at CPLATAM - Political Analysis in Latin America.