THE war between Morocco and the Polisario Front, which represents the government of Western Sahara that ended in 1991, is now threatening to erupt again. The Moroccan government which occupied a major chunk of the territory after the hasty withdrawal of the Spanish colonial power in 1974, has refused to honor its commitments to the international community and allow the holding of a United Nations supervised referendum. The former UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, had said last year that Morocco was in illegal “occupation” of the territory. Most Africans feel that the decolonisation process on their continent will only be complete after Western Sahara gets complete independence. The former South African president, Thabo Mbeki, has said that the matter was “of great shame and regret for the continent”.
The Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) representing the Sahrawi people has been a full fledged member of the African Union since 1983. South Africa and Nigeria are among the leading African regional powers that recognise the SADR. The AU sent a high profile delegation to Tindouf, an Algerian border town, where the majority of the Sahrawi refugees reside, to mark the 40 anniversary of the SADR's declaration of independence. Morocco's claims to the Western Sahara were rejected by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 1975.
After 16 years of war, the Moroccan government and the SADR had signed a cease fire agreement in 1991. An uneasy peace existed along the informal border that is more than 2500 kilometers long. The Moroccans had built a wall to fence off the territory it had seized from the Sahrawis. Two thirds of Western Sahara is now under Moroccan occupation. It is also the most productive part, as it contains huge phosphate and other mineral deposits. Much of the fish exported by Morocco is harvested along the Western Sahara's Atlantic coastline. A significant percentage of the Sahrawi populace has been driven from their homes because of the war and has been living as refugees. 1,65,000 Sahrawis live in crowded refugee camps in miserable conditions.
For more than two decades and a half, the UN supervised cease fire was generally observed by both the sides. But in August last year, the Moroccan army violated the cease fire by entering into an area known as Guerguerat, situated near the Atlantic Ocean coast. It is a buffer zone close to Nouadibhou, a thriving Mauritanian port town and a hub for smuggled merchandise. Mauritania had given up its claim on Western Sahara and recognised the government of Western Sahara. In response to the open breach of the cease fire agreement by the Moroccan side, the Polisario Front sent in its troops to the area. The Polisario Front accused Morocco of breaking the cease fire agreement by trying to build a road on the buffer zone that divides the two sides.
The two forces were involved in a tense standoff for months. UN peace keepers had to be stationed between the forces of the two sides to prevent a confrontation. In the last week of February, Morocco announced that it was withdrawing its troops from Guerguerat. The move came after a phone call between the new UN secretary general, Antonio Gutteres and King Mohammed of Morrocco. The Moroccan foreign ministry said that the King had ordered “a unilateral withdrawal from the zone” at the request of the UN secretary general. The UN was of the view that Morocco had violated the 1991 cease fire agreement by sending armed personnel into the buffer zone without alerting the peacekeepers stationed there.
Before the incursion of the Moroccan troops into the buffer zone, the government in Rabat had expelled more than 70 members of the UN observers mission in Western Sahara known as MINURSO. The Moroccan government was angry with the observations that the then UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon had made last year about the prevailing situation in Western Sahara and the stonewalling tactics of the occupying power on the referendum issue. Ban had gone to the extent of describing the plight of the Sahrawis “as one of the forgotten humanitarian tragedies of our times”. In retaliation, the Moroccan government also said that it would withhold its $3million contribution to the MINURSO operations. According to reports, Morocco had tried to block the then secretary general's visit to Western Sahara by denying landing permission to the plane that he was flying in. The Moroccan King had refused to give him an appointment but that did not stop Ban Ki-moon from meeting with the leadership of the Polisario Front and visiting their capital in exile, Bir Lahlou.
Most of the UN observers were admitted back after the UN said that Ban's statement was a “personal” viewpoint and that the UN remains impartial on the Western Sahara issue. “His use of the word was not planned, nor was it deliberate. It was a spontaneous, personal reaction. We regret the misunderstandings and consequences that this personal expression of solicitude provoked”, the UN spokesperson said. France, a veto wielding UN member, along with the US, has been strong and consistent backer of their regional ally, Morocco. These two countries have helped Morocco sidestep the UNSC mandated “Peace Plan for the Self Determination of the People of Western Sahara”. James Baker, a former American secretary of state, was the man responsible for drafting the Plan. He was the personal envoy of the UN secretary general, Kofi Annan to Western Sahara from 1997-2004. Baker had to quit in frustration as he did not get backing even from the American state department.
France and the US are now openly backing Morocco's proposal of giving the Sahrawis so-called “autonomy” and not the option of full independence. Interestingly, both these countries have also not recognised Morocco's claims of sovereignty over Western Sahara. Only a few countries like Turkey, Pakistan and members of the Arab League have fully backed Morocco's position on the Western Sahara issue. The Baker Plan was the last serious effort made by the UN to resolve the conflict. The Sahrawis, unfortunately do not have a strong backer in the UNSC. The craven apology that the UN had to issue for the matter of fact statement issued by its then secretary general is a reflection of this reality.
The Sahrawi cause has however got a boost when the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled in December 2016 that a trade pact the European Union had signed with Morocco should not be binding for products from occupied Western Sahara, dealing a serious blow to Rabat's claim over Western Sahara. In its judgment, the Court for the first time recognised “the distinct and separate status guaranteed to the territory of Western Sahara under the Charter of the United Nations”. In retaliation, Morocco announced that it was suspending contacts with EU institutions. Morocco has also banned the entry of IKEA, the large Swedish multinational into its territory after the Swedish parliament voted in 2011 to recognise the SADR. Stephen Zunes, a professor at the San Francisco University and an author on a book on the Western Sahara issue, has said that the ECJ's ruling confirmed the long standing international consensus on Western Sahara's legal status. “As with the EU's decision in 2015 that products from Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank could no longer be labeled as made in Israel, products from the occupied Western Sahara can no longer be labeled as made in Morocco”, he said.
Morocco's obduracy coupled with its military muscle flexing is making the Polisario Front reconsider its options. The new president of the SADR, Brahim Ghali, while stressing on the need for a peaceful settlement of the conflict said that the Sahrawis are also willing to fight for their freedom. Ghali took over the presidency after the death of Mohamed Abdelaziz in May last year. Abdelaziz had led the Polisario since its formation. Ghali is also a founder member of the Polisario Front. At his swearing in ceremony attended by many African leaders, he said that the door to a peaceful negotiated settlement is open but warned that the “Moroccan kingdom will bear all consequences when closing it, because the Sahrawi people will relentlessly cling to defending their rights by all means”. He also emphasised that the MINURSO should not be deployed just to maintain the peace. “MINURSO as a symbol of the world's commitment to the decolonisation of the Western Sahara, should conduct its full mandate, namely to organise a referendum for the Sahrawi people to decide on their fate” he said.
In October, the Polisario Front accused France of blocking UNSC action on Western Sahara and requested the other permanent members to play a more proactive role in resolving the conflict. The Polisario Front's foreign minister, Mohamed Salim Ould Salek, has warned that the movement was now closer to war than to peace. He said that the holding of a referendum is the only way to complete the decolonisation process. Meanwhile, Morocco in a diplomatic maneuver has successfully sought readmission to the AU in January this year. The kingdom had walked out in a huff after the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), the AU's predecessor, had admitted the SADR as a full member 33 years ago. Morocco was admitted back into the pan African organisation despite opposition from regional heavy weights like South Africa and Nigeria. Egypt and Senegal were the main backers of Morocco.
The Moroccan King had extensively toured the continent to garner support for his country re-entry into the AU. The SADR foreign minister said that with both Western Sahara and Morocco now under the same roof, it would be easier to pressurise the kingdom to fulfill its obligations to hold a referendum. He said that the other African leaders would now start questioning Morocco's reluctance to hold a referendum. Morocco will also have to adhere to the AU's charter which states that the borders of member states are “inviolable”. The AU had appointed the former president of Mozambique, Joachim Chissano, as special envoy for Western Sahara. Chissano had requested the UNSC to set a date for the holding of the referendum in Western Sahara and include a human rights protection mandate for its peace keeping mission. Chissano also asked the UNSC to denounce the illegal exploitation of Western Sahara's natural resources by the occupying power, Morocco.