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On the Border in Northern Mauritania

À la frontière au nord de la Mauritanie
Mark Drury
p. 325-340


Cet article examine la façon dont la frontière nord-mauritanienne soulève les questions de territoire, de mobilité et d’appartenance dans la région de l’Ouest saharien. Des éléments historiques retracent le passage d’une zone frontalière relativement perméable pendant la période coloniale, à une frontière de plus en plus figée après la décolonisation. Une enquête ethnographique menée au poste frontière de Guerguerat et dans la ville de Nouadhibou informe sur les événements récents au cours desquels la frontière nord de la Mauritanie a servi de point d’ancrage au conflit du Sahara occidental. Ensemble, les exemples mobilisés montrent l’importance de la frontière nord-mauritanienne pour la compréhension des processus sociaux et politiques relatifs à la formation du sujet dans l’Ouest saharien. En soulignant les mutations historiques et les interactions contemporaines et quotidiennes, cet article met en évidence les effets inégaux et changeants de la frontière nord-mauritanienne dans le temps et dans l’espace, ainsi que son rôle essentiel dans la production et la reproduction de disjonctions/dislocations entre populations, territoires et souveraineté dans la région, particulièrement depuis la décolonisation.

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  • 1 . Place names follow common spelling in use in the region. Because I am referring to the city curre (...)

1In the course of fieldwork research in Nouakchott, a friend visiting from Laayoune1, the largest city in Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara, arrived with a story. Having reached the border between Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara and Mauritania late in the afternoon, he and his fellow passengers – another Sahrawi and a Mauritanian – paid a fee to Moroccan gendarmes in order to hold their place in line until the next morning, as the customs post closed at 6pm. They spent the night near Guerguerat, the final waystation on the Moroccan side of the border, waiting in a queue of vehicles. As it turned out, the Mauritanian had overstayed his visa in Morocco and, although he had brought a letter of explanation from his employer, this notice was lost during the shift change between customs officers overnight. (The two Sahrawis, living under Moroccan rule and carrying Moroccan passports, faced no such difficulties.) When the second crew told the Mauritanian that he would have to return to Rabat to renew his visa, negotiations ensued. After the border police demanded 400Dh, my friend claimed to have offered 100Dh of his own. The police accepted this counteroffer, allowing the three of them to pass. Once they reached the Mauritanian border post, the two Sahrawis paid for their Mauritanian visas and the three young men continued on to their respective destinations.

2Situated on the coastal highway that runs from Tangier to the Senegal River, the Guerguerat border crossing is a transit point for the contemporary trans-Saharan trade and its articulation with global commerce. People and goods converge from both directions: cargo haulers transport south everything from Moroccan agricultural produce to European automobiles; migrants and a variety of goods move north; and laborers, travelers, and smugglers involved in regional economies cross in both directions. In delaying the Mauritanian because of an expired visa, Moroccan border officials used documentation as a technology to sort subjects by nationality. In deploying this standard governing practice, they also enacted state sovereignty in an attempt to regulate mobility amidst increasing transborder flows of commodities and capital. And in their willingness to negotiate a price for his passage, the officials were not only leveraging their situated power but, however indirectly, they were also acknowledging the border’s limitations in controlling the movement of people and things. As a border-crossing account, this story is typical of what Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Neilson describe as “the problems and dynamics of contemporary global regionalism” (p. 219). Give or take some of the details, including levels of violence or corruption, this experience could be transposed to any number of other border zones to illustrate how nation-state borders differentially regulate the movement of people and goods.

  • 2 . See also James McDougall’s point, drawing from Paul Nugent, that borders are “reinforced on a dai (...)

3But that is only part of the story: the young men’s passage, at once fraught and mundane, also reveals the particularity of the northern Mauritanian border. After crossing Moroccan customs, the travelers hired a new cab, exchanged their Moroccan dirhams for Mauritanian ouguiya, and traversed the 4 kilometers of rocky, unpaved, desert terrain leading to the Mauritanian side of the border. This buffer zone, known variously as Kandahar, al-hufra, and “no man’s land,” constitutes a narrow slice of what the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) considers “Liberated Territories”: a strip of land within Western Sahara’s geopolitical boundaries that remains beyond Moroccan control. In the recent past – coinciding with the 2000s, when Kandahar in Afghanistan came to symbolize an ungovernable place – the space between two borders near Guerguerat became the site for a flourishing black market in used cars. As ethnographers have documented elsewhere in the Sahara, national borders often create frontiers of differential value and opportunities for arbitrage (Brachet, 2012). Kandahar is one such example of a Saharan border becoming a kind of “natural” resource: sedimented in the political geography of postcolonial nation-states, the border becomes a feature driving intraregional economies of (licit and illicit) exchange (Scheele, 2012, p. 115)2.

  • 3 . For a concise overview of the decisive role of the berm in the armed conflict, see Stephen Zunes (...)

4Another distinguishing feature of Guerguerat is that, unlike most border crossings, it sits at the convergence of not two, but three claims to territorial sovereignty: Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara on one side, the Islamic Republic of Mauritania on the other, and SADR’s “Liberated Territories” in between. This tripartite border is the result of the unresolved Western Sahara conflict between Morocco and SADR, which began in 1975. By 1991, when Morocco and the Polisario Front (SADR’s armed wing) agreed to a UN-brokered ceasefire, Morocco had annexed much of the former Spanish colony, but left a “buffer zone” between its line of military occupation and the geopolitical borders with Mauritania and Algeria. The heavily militarized, 1500-mile earthen berm fortifying Morocco’s occupation along most of this border ends before Guerguerat and Ras Nouadhibou, a peninsula to the south3. Just as scholars have shown how postcolonial borders and boundaries have become embedded in intraregional Saharan economies of exchange, much literature on Saharan political formations has focused on how boundaries have transformed Saharan and Maghrebi politics of belonging, often becoming the locus of postcolonial political disputes (Trout, 1969; Barbier, 1985; Joffé, 1987; Lecocq, 2003; Roussellier, 2007). The complex composition of the Guerguerat border reflects the inescapably regional dimensions of the Western Sahara conflict and the broader, unresolved processes of decolonization of which the conflict is a part.

Map 1: UN map of Western Sahara. Guerguerat is in the lower left-hand corner.

Map 1: UN map of Western Sahara. Guerguerat is in the lower left-hand corner.
  • 4 . The term “western Sahara,” refers to a region that encompasses parts of southern Morocco, southwe (...)

5Tacking between the historical and ethnographic, the political and economic, the typical and anomalous, this paper suggests that the northern Mauritanian border – and the Guerguerat transit point in particular – illustrates the centrality of borders in shaping social and political life across western Sahara4. As Étienne Balibar observed in the context of Europe, “it seems that borders and the institutional practices corresponding to them have been transported into the middle of political space” (Balibar, 2004, p. 109). Recognizing that this has not always been the case in western Sahara, this paper traces how the northern Mauritanian border has become central to social processes of value production, as well as political processes of subject formation in the region, focusing on decolonization. Consequently, the first part of this study is historical. As a horizon of expectation, decolonization has engendered multiple, unresolved political projects across western Sahara, from Jaysh al-Tahrir in the 1950s to attempts to consolidate national belonging in the 1970s to the ongoing Western Sahara political conflict today. In contrast to the relative permeability of borders during the colonial era, I suggest that, with each of these unresolved projects of decolonization, the northern Mauritanian border has become increasingly pivotal to regional politics of subject formation.

6The second half of the article suggests that the centrality of the northern Mauritanian border to social and political processes across western Sahara serves not only to sort or exclude people and restrict movement, but to repeatedly bring the existing disjuncture between people, territory, and sovereignty into sharp relief. This argument borrows from Mezzadra and Neilson, who suggest that, as increasingly pivotal sites of labor struggle, experiences at the border are generative of political subjectivity: Only by understanding how the border is productive of subjectivity, rather than acting as a mere limit on already-formed subjects, can we critically understand its capacity to act as a brake on justice as well as a conduit of injustice (Mezzadra and Neilson, 2013, p. 268).

  • 5 . My use of the term “connectivity” refers specifically to the notion of “regional connectivity,” u (...)

7Drawing upon ethnographic examples and journalistic reports concerning Guerguerat in the latter half of the article, I argue that this checkpoint, rather than sorting citizens from migrants, serves to reproduce the disjuncture that remains a feature of western Sahara’s unresolved projects of decolonization. Through historical examples of the shifting relationship between borders and belonging, as well as through accounts of border crossings such as the one described to open this article, I suggest that the northern Mauritanian border is very much “in the middle of political space” in a region characterized by mobility amidst protracted political conflict and stasis, as well as connectivity throughout a fragmented political landscape5.

Map 2: Guerguerat at the border of what was then French West Africa and Spanish Sahara, 1958. Cap Blanc is the French name for Ras Nouadhibou.

Map 2: Guerguerat at the border of what was then French West Africa and Spanish Sahara, 1958. Cap Blanc is the French name for Ras Nouadhibou.

Guerguerat and the Northern Mauritanian Border: A Brief History

8The border established between French West Africa and Spanish Sahara was first defined by treaty between the two colonial powers in 1900. Unlike boundaries with French Algeria and Mali to the northwest, these lines followed the coordinates of abstract space, rendering the border geographically precise (Acloque, 2007, p. 355). Despite this abstract precision, Benjamin Acloque notes that this border remained largely “theoretical” throughout the colonial period:

Pendant la période coloniale, la frontière théorique, la ligne idéale, n’avait donc aucune réalité concrète, ni par la limite de terroirs naturels ni par un partage ethnique ni par un bornage systématique (p. 356).

9This observation is born out by historical studies and reflections from both early and late colonial periods in the Sahara. Francesco Correale documents the circulation of arms throughout northwest Africa during and after World War I in defiance of French efforts to control this trafficking:

Au travers de réseaux d’alliance souples, souterrains, les trois régions [Maroc, Mauritanie et Sahara occidental] communiquent, malgré acceptation apparente du fait colonial. On pourrait difficilement interpréter autrement le passage de matériel de guerre entre des deux zones, au Maroc comme vers le Sahara et la Mauritanie, qui se poursuit après 1918 (Correale, 2014, p. 403).

  • 6 . Defined in contradistinction to Amazigh/Berber (shilha, pl. shleuh) and non-Arab Black African id (...)

10Just as weapons and rumors circulated freely between Morocco, Mauritania and Western Sahara, the colonial borders were subject to manipulation by bidan seeking refuge in Spanish Sahara from French colonial taxes6. In response, French colonial forces showed little compunction in entering Spanish territory in the Sahara, breaching the border with Spain on multiple occasions, most famously with Colonel Mouret’s attack on Smara in 1913 (Correale, p. 64-65). Based on oral histories with bidan who remember the late colonial period, Acloque observes, “Il n’est dès lors pas étonnant que certains Bidân se soient représenté la frontière comme mouvante” (Acloque, p. 366).

  • 7 . See Trout, Morocco’s Saharan Frontiers for a detailed study of France’s manipulation of Saharo-Ma (...)

11The border remained “mouvante”, or unstable, well into the 1950s, a period when the French were, themselves, manipulating the border between its Moroccan Protectorate and French Algeria through the administration of les confins algéro-marocains (CAM)7.

Map 3: Les confins algéro-marocains.

Map 3: Les confins algéro-marocains.
  • 8 . Méharist regiments are camel cavalry police or military units. During colonialism, these regiment (...)

12François Beslay, a military official involved with méharist regiments8 during the late colonial period, recalls how the open borders of CAM enabled members of the Rgaybat tribe, the largest group of seminomadic pastoralists in this region, to move freely during the post-World War II period:

En effet, bien que les règles administratives ne soient pas exactement les mêmes par tous…[les] campements [des Rgaybat] et [les] troupeaux [des Rgaybat] circulent librement sur les quatre territoires (Algérie, Maroc, Mauritanie et Rio de Oro) à la seule condition d’être porteurs d’un permis dit ‘tricolore’ (frappé au coin d’un drapeau français ou espagnol) qui leur est delivré, sur simple demande (Beslay, 1993, p. 31).

  • 9 . “makatib bifaransa,” “makatib bisbaniya”

13According to interlocutors that I spoke with during fieldwork, it was typical to refer to oneself or one’s kin group during colonialism as “registered with the French” or “registered with the Spanish”9, while still moving throughout the region with little regard for colonial borders.

  • 10 . Aside from recent contributions, scholarship on Jaysh al-Tahrir is limited and fragmented, but se (...)

14Northern Mauritania’s geopolitical border, in other words, had very little bearing on movement or allegiance across western Sahara until decolonization emerged as a horizon of expectation in the 1950s. The first harbinger of change emerged in 1958: after an anticolonial uprising across the region known as Jaysh al-Tahrir was quelled by a joint French-Spanish anti-insurgency, the French colonial administration scrambled to dissuade bidani pastoralists from further anticolonial activity10. A rally was held at Tintekrat, near present-day Bir Moghrein in northern Mauritania, wherein bidani tribesmen pledged allegiance to the “vice-président du conseil du gouvernement” of an inchoate Mauritanian state, Mokhtar Ould Daddah (Beslay, 1984, p. 113). Tintekrat serves to illustrate how, with decolonization imminent, governmental administrations in the Sahara – whether colonial, proto-national, or postcolonial – were less inclined to facilitate movement across borders, and increasingly focused on fixing the allegiance and settlement of bidani subjects on one side of the border. Baz Lecocq describes this transformation in terms of a shift from “frontier zones” to boundaries: Frontier zones are zones of change with gradually receding or shifting competencies between one power and the next. Boundaries are demarcated lines within which fixed sets of rules and regulations are in effect (p. 61).

15Lecocq’s observations are based on a study of Tuareg nationalism in central Sahara, but the conceptual insight pertains to western Sahara, as well. Only, I suggest that across western Sahara this shift has taken place primarily through the boundary-making processes of decolonization, rather than colonialism.

  • 11 . Although Mann focuses on Mali in this chapter, he notes that the headline in a 1963 Mauritanian n (...)
  • 12 . MIFERMA (Société Anonyme des Mines de Fer de Mauritanie) was renamed SNIM (Société Nationale Indu (...)

16The impetus for defining borders came from newly decolonized nation-states, both as a way to identify natural resources in terms of national patrimony, and as a means to retain a national citizenry that, in many cases, proved disconcertingly willing to emigrate elsewhere. As Greg Mann notes, newly independent Saharan and Sahelian nation-states – and not the former metropole of France – drove policies to minimize emigration throughout the 1960s, as part of an effort to fix borders that had previously been “fluctuante” and “mouvante” under colonial empire11. With the industrialization of iron mining at Kedia Idjil, the northern Mauritanian border took material form in determining the path of MIFERMA’s coal-transporting railroad, which was constructed in close proximity to the geopolitical border running east-west between Ras Nouadhibou peninsula on the coast, and Choum (Bonte, 2001, p.355)12. Not only did the railroad forge a route parallel to the border, but the nationalization of Mauritania’s mining concern between 1968 and 1983 generated a new “Mauritanian” space of industrial labor and urbanization, as workers from around the country moved to Zouérat and Nouadhibou (p. 159-264).

17The Western Sahara conflict initially disrupted both borders and populations, displacing a large portion of Mauritania’s northern border when, in 1976, the country briefly annexed Wadi Dahab, the southern tier of the former Spanish colony. When Mauritania withdrew from Wadi Dahab and the war in 1979, however, the colonial border returned, and the conflict ultimately led to its hardening. Wartime restricted movement in ways that quite possibly had no precedent for this region of northwest Africa, contributing, in turn, to the entrenchment of previously amorphous boundaries between “Sahrawi,” “Mauritanian” and “Moroccan” national identities. While Acloque is careful to note that, to this day, national belongings across the region are often overlapping, multiple and “ne se limitent à aucune frontière” (Acloque, p. 372), it is also true that the antagonisms and immobility of armed conflict contributed to the entrenchment of both the northern Mauritanian border and of national identities.

18As Acloque notes, the absurdity of this situation is most apparent in Ras Nouadhibou, the peninsula south of Guerguerat. Its expansion constrained by a border that bisects the narrow peninsula lengthwise, the city of Nouadhibou is forced to hug the strip of Mauritanian territory on the peninsula’s bayside, even as the ocean-side, nominally a part of SADR’s Liberated Territories, remains uninhabited save for the squatters who fish amidst the ruins of the ghost town of Lagouira:

Cette manifestation brutale de la frontière des traités sera peut-être sa première réalisation concrète, dans une région où personne ne l’a jamais respectée, ni les puissances coloniales, ni les États issus des indépendances, ni surtout les populations. (Acloque, p. 378)

Border, Subject

  • 13 . For many, the name is a misnomer: for those that grew up in refugee camps, for example, moving to (...)

19A coastal enclave in northern Mauritania, the city of Nouadhibou is situated on a peninsula south of Guerguerat and serves as an important point of convergence where Sahrawis, Mauritanians and Moroccans meet and escape the heat, politically and climatically. Visitors coming from Moroccan-occupied territory and refugee camps in Algeria – the focal points of Moroccan-Sahrawi political conflict – are enough to make the city’s population swell. This is particularly pronounced in the summer, when the Cap Blanc peninsula benefits from the cooling effects of Atlantic trade winds not found elsewhere in Mauritania. Sahrawis living in Algeria regularly decamp to the peninsula as a kind of vacation from refugee camps where summer temperatures can reach as high as 50º Celsius. Others make the trip to meet relatives living in Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara, utilizing Nouadhibou’s proximity to Moroccan-occupied territory to reunite with family from whom they have been separated, in some instances, for decades by political conflict. Many of these visitors congregate in the adjacent neighborhoods of Dubai and Baghdad. Expansive villas in the neighborhood of Dubai are transformed from empty shells into bustling hubs for receiving and visiting guests. Apartment buildings to rent by the day in the more densely settled Baghdad neighborhood fill with Sahrawi refugees coming from the camps in Algeria. At night, the streets are flooded with car and foot traffic. Meanwhile, for a specific group of travelers, Nouadhibou is the stopover point in a trajectory of emigration from Sahrawi refugee camps to Morocco. Sahrawis who complete this trajectory are known as “‘a’idin,” (sing., ‘a’id) a subject position produced by nationalist conflict that literally means “returnees,” referencing their departure from the refugee camps and an ostensible “return” to Morocco13.

  • 14 . The word (shilha, sing.) refers to the Amazigh, or Berber, people of southern Morocco, distinguis (...)

20One evening, an acquaintance from the camps who had become an ‘a’id and was working in Moroccan-occupied Dakhla joined a group of friends who were summering in Nouadhibou while waiting to “return” as ‘a’idin to Moroccan-occupied territory. Gathered on the floor around the requisite tea set, in the back room of a rented house in Baghdad, the evening had the feeling of an information session: everyone was interested in what the friend from Dakhla had to say about conditions in Moroccan-occupied territory. The ‘a’id now living in Dakhla embraced the role of resident expert, regaling everyone with stories of what daily life was like in Dakhla (“people are citified and time is full”), his ambivalence about living amongst so many shilha14, and his encounters with the Moroccan state. Most dramatically, however, the friend from Dakhla launched into a story of crossing the border in order to arrive in Morocco. This story was meant to be instructive: the group of prospective ‘a’idin waiting for approval to enter Moroccan-occupied territory included a man who had purchased a van in Nouadhibou and hoped to bring the vehicle with him and his family into Morocco.

  • 15 . The unregulated nature of this space between borders leaves it vulnerable to arbitrary interventi (...)

21Embracing his authority, the ‘a’id from Dakhla explained that anyone has the right to bring a car into Morocco. As proof, he described reaching the Guerguerat border between Morocco and Mauritania, where free trade in various kinds of goods (cars, cigarettes, hashish) has flourished over the years15. Although I did not make this border crossing myself, according to several accounts I heard there is often a long line of vehicles waiting to get through Moroccan customs – “Africans transporting ‘all kinds of stuff,’ and shilha bringing goods from Morocco,” as the ‘a’id from Dakhla put it – such that travelers often have to sleep in their vehicle overnight in order to keep their place in queue. After waiting overnight, the friend from Dakhla described reaching the front of the line only to be told that he could not bring his car into the territory. As the ‘a’id told it, he used “convincing language” [kalam muqni‘a], holding his ground until a more senior Moroccan Customs Official descended from his post and ultimately approved entry for this man and his car.

  • 16 . The number of ‘a’idin, and criteria for admission, have shifted over time. For example, Alice Wil (...)

22In this way, the success story of using “convincing language” (the friend was quick to point out that “convincing language” did not entail getting angry or yelling at the gendarmes), provided an example for how ‘a’idin could strategically assert their agency in the face of a vast political machinery meant to intimidate them. As background to this example, however, the ‘a’id from Dakhla stressed the important role played by luck (al-’azzhar, ‘endhu dur kebir) in determining how long one has to wait to earn the “right of return.” The same would end up being true of the prospective ‘a’idin listening to this man’s advice, as they, too, ended up waiting in Nouadhibou for months before being granted the “right of return.” Whatever the logic and timing to getting approval, the group of prospective and current ‘a’idin seemed to agree that the decision-makers were officials posted at the Moroccan consulate in Nouadhibou whose brief was actually in intelligence. Everyone believed that these intelligence officials are the ones who are really running the Consulate. The process seemed, on the one hand, not very complicated: prospective ‘a’idin present themselves at the Moroccan consulate in Nouadhibou to register, claiming that they want to “return to el-Watan” (Morocco), and then wait for a decision. The rest, as the group consensus seemed to believe, was up to intelligence officers. This inference was itself a recognition that the process, although seemingly straightforward, was entirely opaque – and, therefore, as the ‘a’id from Dakhla acknowledged, obtaining the “right to return” seems to depend, to a certain extent, on “luck”16.

23In conceptualizing the increasing centrality of borders to social processes and political formations globally, Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Neilson emphasize that the border is not merely a mechanism for exclusion, like a wall that prevents passage. Rather, they suggest that borders often facilitate inclusion in a manner that differentiates subjects from one another – migrants from citizens, for example – through a variety of legal, regulatory and temporal regimes: Our focus on what we call processes of differential inclusion entails a conviction that the figures who inhabit the world’s borderscapes are not marginal subjects that subsist on the edges of society but central protagonists in the drama of composing the space, time, and materiality of the social itself. (Mezzadra and Neilson, p. 159)

24In this way, Mezzadra and Neilson conceptualize borders in terms of legal, temporal and even cognitive boundaries that form through processes of filtering and differentiation. Significantly, they show how border regimes subordinate those appealing for passage not simply through exclusion and rejection, but through processes of subjection, or “differential inclusion.”

  • 17 . Since the 1990s, Mauritanians have been recruited to serve in public administration in Moroccan-o (...)
  • 18 . Drawing upon Moroccan census data from 2004 that overlaps with areas in southern Morocco and does (...)
  • 19 . I am unaware of any specific marking on their passports to distinguish ‘a’idin. However, their st (...)

25Since the UN-brokered ceasefire in 1991, Morocco has pursued a policy of inducing, recruiting and sometimes forcing people to relocate and resettle in the portion of Western Sahara that it occupies. Initially targeting Moroccans from urban peripheries, the state subsequently recruited Mauritanians to move to Western Sahara, often to fill posts in public service, ranging from education to police and intelligence work17. The effects have been drastic, transforming the demographics of the territory, and contributing to rapid urbanization in cities such as Dakhla, Boujdour and Laayoune (Mundy, 2012; Jensen, 2012)18. Over the past fifteen years, Morocco’s attempt to remake Western Sahara demographically has also led to the acceptance of greater numbers of ‘a’idin coming from the Sahrawi refugee camps. As the conversation in Nouadhibou between prospective and recently anointed ‘a’idin suggests, “returning” to Morocco is a process that involves subjecting oneself to the whims of the Moroccan security state. Waiting for an inscrutable process to unfold is the first phase of this subjection but, as the ‘a’id from Dakhla noted, the passage through the border is another site of “differential inclusion,” where ‘a’idin are distinguished from citizens and other subject positions in Moroccan society, and marked, at the moment of inclusion, by their previous “betrayal” of the national cause19.

  • 20 . “Struggle, in this sense, refers not only to organized movements and political actions but also t (...)

26For most of the ‘a’idin-in-waiting that I encountered in Nouadhibou, the decision to “return” to Morocco had little to do with loyalty, betrayal, or political allegiance. Some are indifferent to the main parties to the conflict, while many remain supportive of Sahrawi self-determination, if not SADR. Most are seeking to move to Morocco in pursuit of educational opportunities for their children, for medical reasons, or for work. This last reason, often overlooked in the literature on Western Sahara, can provide some insight into the effects of the northern Mauritanian border. Mezzadra and Neilson suggest that borders are increasingly important to understanding contemporary social processes and political belonging, precisely because of the disaggregation of the relationship between citizen and laborer. With national labor markets upended by neoliberalism, border crossing becomes increasingly pivotal to the process of finding or carrying out work. Borders become sites where “devices of subjection are confronted with practices of subjectivation” (p. 252) – in other words, borders are increasingly sites of labor struggle. While often imagined as the kind of violent clash that generates media attention, the struggle referred to by Mezzadra and Neilson may be, in many respects, more quotidian and mundane.20 Understood in these terms, the ‘a’id’s experience of successfully standing up to the border guard at Guerguerat with “convincing language” – not confrontational, but “convincing” – can be read as a practice of subjectivation. The Moroccan Customs Officer’s effort to force this ‘a’id to submit to arbitrary state power contributed, in this instance, to a moment in the ongoing formation of this ‘a’id’s political subjectivity. For the ‘a’idin in Nouadhibou, like the Mauritanian returning from Morocco with an expired visa, and for countless others who encounter the border’s regime of “differential inclusion,” the Guerguerat border sits at the center of this process of subject formation.

27What distinguishes the Guerguerat checkpoint in terms of western Sahara’s fragmented political geography, however, is that this process of “differential inclusion” is not limited to categories of citizen and migrant. In the context of prolonged political conflict, and within a longer history defined by a tenuous relationship between political belonging and territorial borders, the ‘a’id epitomizes the ambivalence – indifference, even – toward the relationship between borders and belonging in this region.

Border Conflict, Border Smuggling

28In early February 2019, the Sahara Press Service, a media organ of SADR, issued the following press release:

On 27 January 2019, Ahmed Salem Ould Ahmed Ould Lemgheimeth staged a sit-in at the Guerguerat crossing when the Moroccan Customs, in pursuit of their usual discriminatory policies against Sahrawis, confiscated the goods that he was transporting (about 10 kg of tea). In reaction, members of the Moroccan military intelligence tried to remove him by force whereupon he tore off his Moroccan passport as a sign of protest. At the end, he was promised to be issued a new passport and that his case would be dealt with duly.

However, instead of fulfilling the promises made to him, members of the Moroccan Customs Service removed him by force and threatened him with severe punishment if he would return to his protest. Being pushed to the point of desperation, the young man set himself on fire in public, and now his life is in great danger. (Sahara Press Service, 2019)21

29This brief summary hardly provides enough context to make sense of such a dire event, which led to Ahmed Salem Ould Ahmed Ould Lemgheimeth’s death a little over a week later (UNSG, 2019). We learn very little about Ould Lemgheimeth beyond his political identity, which is cast in the binary terms (“Sahrawi” and “Moroccan”) of nationalist conflict. Nor do we learn about the background to his confrontation with Moroccan border officials. We do not know if Ould Lemgheimeth’s protest resulted from the accretion of many slights based on regular harassment at the Guerguerat checkpoint over time, or if he responded to unusually egregious and arbitrary treatment on the day of the protest. We do not know whether this response, replicating the famous act by another petit commerçant, Mohamed Bouazizi, whose self-immolation helped to spark uprisings in Tunisia and across the Middle East in what became known as the Arab Spring, had an effect on those around him. We do not know who, or if anyone, came to his aid.

30If this incident highlights a particularly tragic example of the border’s role in propelling and regulating trade across the Sahara, it also foregrounds the border’s role in shaping and complicating – but not necessarily defining – political belonging, a particularly fraught matter across western Sahara. The fact that this incident is legible only in relation to nationalist conflict should not go unmentioned, particularly as the Guerguerat border has increasingly become a flashpoint in the Western Sahara conflict over the past several years (Armstrong, 2017; Saadoune, 2018)22. In August 2016, Moroccan security forces crossed into the buffer zone in one of the most flagrant breaches of the terms of the ceasefire since its establishment in 1991. SADR responded in kind later that month.23 The UN Secretary-General’s 2018 report on Western Sahara noted that SADR forces withdrew from the Guerguerat buffer zone on April 28, 2017, but subsequently notified MINURSO, the UN peacekeeping body, of plans to return to Guerguerat if a pre-organized car rally passed through in December of that year. A year later, the UN Secretary-General’s report noted that the military incursions into the buffer zone had ceased, although the contentions surrounding the annual desert car race repeated in January 2019, and the politically-motivated threat of roadblocks at Guerguerat persists.

  • 24 . Interview, December 26, 2014, Laâyoune, Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara.

31When the Moroccan Customs Officials first threatened to confiscate the tea he carried, Ould Lemgheimeth “tore off” his Moroccan passport. While this was merely the preliminary act of defiance in an escalating confrontation, Ould Lemgheimeth’s willingness to discard his passport is indicative of a broader disjuncture between people, borders and belonging across the region. Many Sahrawis who support Western Saharan independence but live under Moroccan rule treat any sign of Moroccan sovereignty with contempt. Some willingly destroy their Moroccan passports even as they live in Moroccan-occupied territory24. On the other hand, many others – Mauritanian, Sahrawi, Moroccan and Algerian, alike – accumulate passports that enable them to move and work across borders. The pragmatic pursuit (or, occasionally, renunciation) of passports and visas that facilitate movement and mark political belonging only underscores the fluidity of national identity in a region where other forms of identification (including bidani, Arab, Muslim, and myriad tribal identities) have much longer histories and more encompassing geographies.

32While the press release does not reveal much in terms of detail and context, it is nonetheless important as far as highlighting the ongoing centrality of the border to local economies of trade, as well as political confrontation. Among the handful of details included in this report, the confiscated goods stand out. Ould Lemgheimeth could not have been transporting more ordinary cargo across the border than the 10 kg of tea that was confiscated from him. In focusing on historical shifts as well as contemporary, quotidian interactions at Guerguerat, this paper highlights the uneven and changing effects of the northern Mauritanian border over time and across space, and its pivotal role in producing and reproducing disjunctures between people, territory and sovereignty across western Sahara, particularly since decolonization. From Ould Lemgheimeth to the ‘a’id from Dakhla to the Mauritanian working in Moroccan-occupied territory, the northern Mauritanian border sits at the center of contemporary processes of labor and value production, as well as dynamics of power and subject formation.

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Map 1: Cropped from UN-issued MINURSO Map No. 3691 Rev. 81 January 2017 (Colour).

Map 2: Cropped from Mauritanie Sheet 6, Edition 3, Series 2201 US Army Map Service, 1958, a public domain US army map at the PCL collection. Cropped version:

Map 3: Les confins algéro-marocains. Source: Frank E Trout, Morocco’s Saharan Frontiers (Geneva: Droz, 1969): 536-7.

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1 . Place names follow common spelling in use in the region. Because I am referring to the city currently under Moroccan rule, I follow the orthography commonly in use in Morocco. (Cf. el-Ayún, and other variants, in SADR and Spanish spelling.) Transliteration of other Arabic terms (‘a’id, bidan) follows IJMES standards, modified to limit the use of diacritics.

2 . See also James McDougall’s point, drawing from Paul Nugent, that borders are “reinforced on a daily basis by the peoples who live among [them].” (Nugent et al., 1996, p. 36; McDougall, 2012, 84).

3 . For a concise overview of the decisive role of the berm in the armed conflict, see Stephen Zunes and Jacob Mundy, Western Sahara: War, Nationalism, and Conflict Irresolution, 1st ed. (Syracuse N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 2010), 20–24.

4 . The term “western Sahara,” refers to a region that encompasses parts of southern Morocco, southwest Algeria, northern Mali and all of Mauritania. It is not coterminous with the geopolitical territory of Western Sahara. My use of the term “western Sahara” follows from the French “L’ouest saharien,” with an historical, geographical and cultural referent much broader than the political label “Sahara occidental,” or “Western Sahara,” which references the geopolitical territory.

5 . My use of the term “connectivity” refers specifically to the notion of “regional connectivity,” used by Scheele, and by Scheele and McDougall’s collected volume, which refers to the Sahara as “an area that is characterized by such a high degree of micro-regional specialization and hence large-scale, long-distance, and long-term patterns of connection and interdependence.” (McDougall and Scheele, 2012, p. 12; Scheele, 2012). On mobility amidst the stasis of conflict, see (Wilson, 2017).

6 . Defined in contradistinction to Amazigh/Berber (shilha, pl. shleuh) and non-Arab Black African identities (kury, pl. l-kwar), bidani identity corresponds to the socio-cultural space of Hassaniya-speaking Saharans.

7 . See Trout, Morocco’s Saharan Frontiers for a detailed study of France’s manipulation of Saharo-Maghrebi borders throughout this period.

8 . Méharist regiments are camel cavalry police or military units. During colonialism, these regiments were usually comprised of bidani soldiers and led by French or Spanish colonial officers.

9 . “makatib bifaransa,” “makatib bisbaniya”

10 . Aside from recent contributions, scholarship on Jaysh al-Tahrir is limited and fragmented, but see (Evrard, 2014; Hernández Moreno, 2012; Ait Iddr, 2001; Chaffard, 1965).

11 . Although Mann focuses on Mali in this chapter, he notes that the headline in a 1963 Mauritanian newspaper “Faut-il freiner l’emigration massive des travailleurs africains à l’étranger?” showed that similar concerns existed in Mauritania. (Mann, 2015, p. 141).

12 . MIFERMA (Société Anonyme des Mines de Fer de Mauritanie) was renamed SNIM (Société Nationale Industrielle et Minière de Mauritanie) in 1974.

13 . For many, the name is a misnomer: for those that grew up in refugee camps, for example, moving to Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara is not a “return” at all, but their first time living there. For studies of ‘a’idin from two very different perspectives, see: (Hernández Moreno, 2001; Boulay, 2014).

14 . The word (shilha, sing.) refers to the Amazigh, or Berber, people of southern Morocco, distinguished by their language, tachelheit. (Taine-Cheikh, 1990). Tashelheit-speaking Amazigh people have historically been Sahrawi’s immediate neighbors to the north. In my fieldwork, shilha-shleuh was commonly used by the bidan to refer to Moroccans or Algerians, in general, as people from north of the Sahara. In Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara shilha frequently simply refers to Moroccans.

15 . The unregulated nature of this space between borders leaves it vulnerable to arbitrary intervention. Residents of Nouadhibou reported that sales of second-hand vehicles from Europe had flourished in “Kandahar” throughout the 2000s until the President of Mauritania, Mohamed ould Abdelaziz, enacted new regulations restricting the kinds of automobiles that could be imported into Mauritania.

16 . The number of ‘a’idin, and criteria for admission, have shifted over time. For example, Alice Wilson notes that, following Gdim Izik protests in 2010, the Moroccan state stopped granting ‘a’id status to single men. By 2014, at the time of my fieldwork, the number of ‘a’idin was estimated to be between 10,000 and 11,000 in total, [Fieldnotes, 6/17/14, 6/30/14, Laayoune], although the official tally is lower. See (Wilson, 2014).

17 . Since the 1990s, Mauritanians have been recruited to serve in public administration in Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara. Those recruited tend not to have kinship ties to those tribes most numerous in refugee camps (Rgaybat, Wlad Dlim, Laaroussiyin and Tekna). Based on my fieldwork research in Laayoune, their presence in education and security sectors (which have significant overlap) is particularly pronounced because of their presumed neutrality relative to the political conflict.

18 . Drawing upon Moroccan census data from 2004 that overlaps with areas in southern Morocco and does not distinguish between Moroccan, Sahrawi or Mauritanian, Mundy argues that demographic growth from 1994 to 2004 “is highly suggestive of a state campaign to populate the region” (Mundy, p. 108).

19 . I am unaware of any specific marking on their passports to distinguish ‘a’idin. However, their status – which includes access to housing, stipends, and, in increasingly rare circumstances, government work – is closely monitored by Moroccan state intelligence services.

20 . “Struggle, in this sense, refers not only to organized movements and political actions but also to social practices and behaviors that can be fundamental preconditions for such movements and actions but are often assigned to the realm of the prepolitical” (Mezzadra and Neilson, p. 265).

21 .

22 .;

23 . Ibid. SADR is frequently referred to by the original name of the liberation front, Polisario.

24 . Interview, December 26, 2014, Laâyoune, Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Map 1: UN map of Western Sahara. Guerguerat is in the lower left-hand corner.
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Titre Map 2: Guerguerat at the border of what was then French West Africa and Spanish Sahara, 1958. Cap Blanc is the French name for Ras Nouadhibou.
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Titre Map 3: Les confins algéro-marocains.
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Mark Drury, « On the Border in Northern Mauritania », L’Année du Maghreb, 21 | 2019, 325-340.

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Mark Drury, « On the Border in Northern Mauritania », L’Année du Maghreb [En ligne], 21 | 2019, mis en ligne le 05 décembre 2019, consulté le 24 janvier 2020. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/anneemaghreb.5910

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Mark Drury

Lecturer in Anthropology at Princeton University.

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