Aminatou Haidar: The Sahrawi Gandhi

‘I want to contribute to a better society for both Sahrawi’s and Moroccans’, says Aminatou Haidar. She is featured in the documentary Sons of the Clouds, in which Spanish actor Javier Bardem narrates the story of the nearly forty-year old conflict on the Western Sahara.

Her nonviolent protests have yielded her the nickname ‘Sahrawi Gandhi’. Aminatou Haidar’s lifetime devotion is to make a reality of the long-awaited referendum on self-determination, as promised since 1991, in which the Sahrawi people can decide on their own future.

Haidar is difficult to reach for a phone interview. She attributes this to ‘daily tactics from the Moroccan secret services’. Repression against Sahrawi’s is increasing, she says. For minor incidents, her teenage children are expelled from school or insulted by Moroccan civil servants. ‘Sahrawi’s are still second-class citizens. It is unacceptable that children pay for our activism.’

In 1975, Spain handed its colony over to Morocco and Mauritania before the decolonisation process had finished. ‘An historical error’, comments Haidar. Inhabitants fled into the Algerian desert, where 200,000 Saharawi’s still live in refugee camps. In 1991, the United Nations mediated a truce between warring parties Morocco and Sahrawi liberation movement Polisario. An agreed referendum on self-determination for the Sahrawi’s, which is to be held under UN guidance, has been obstructed by the Moroccan government ever since.


After participating in a nonviolent protest against the Moroccan occupation in 1987, Haidar was kept in secret imprisonment until 1991. There, she experienced abuse and torture. In 2005, she was detained a second time. ‘My detention in 2005 shed the light on Moroccan torture practices and the existence of secret prisons,’ she says.

As a result of her imprisonment, Haidar still suffers stomach, nerve and tooth problems and back pains. ‘I am willing to sacrifice to let Sahrawi’s and Moroccans live in freedom. Both cultures are paying the price. I want to contribute to a better society for all; constructive, lawful, nonviolent, and based on principles of equality and equal opportunity.’

Steps forward

Haidar observes steps forward in the stalemate. ‘Both UN envoy to the Western Sahara Christopher Ross and the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture visited the region and documented Moroccan disrespect for human rights. Minurso, the only UN mission without a human rights component, is reconsidering its mandate. The non-renewal of fishery agreements with Morocco by the European Parliament is another step forward. It is the result of international pressure. Eventually Morocco will comply with the referendum.’ 

Sahrawi Spring

Haidar is hopeful about the new generation of Sahrawi activists, but worried too. ‘They lack a future and don’t accept marginalisation. This encourages them to use violence to draw international attention. My organisation wants to educate them in nonviolence, but we are denied a NGO permit.’

In February 2013, 23 Sahrawi activists received heavy sentences before a Moroccan military court because of their involvement in the ‘Sahrawi Spring’. In October 2010, thousands of Sahrawi’s put up tents in Gdeim Izik to protest against their marginalisation. During the dismantling of the camp eleven Moroccan security officials and two Sahrawi civilians were killed. According to Amnesty International, the trial against the 23 was unfair. Haidar stresses the difference between the Arab and the Sahrawi Spring: ‘In North Africa people revolted against repressive regimes. For Sahrawi’s, Morocco is an illegal occupying force. Our so-called spring is about decolonisation.’

By Nicolien Zuijdgeest