Western Sahara: Is there light at the end of the tunnel?

Published: 1/Nov/2007
Source: Institute for Security Studies (South Africa)

By Issaka K. Souaré

Introduction In its Resolution 40/50 adopted in December 1985, the General Assembly of the United Nations argued that ‘the question of Western Sahara is a question of decolonisation, which remains to be completed on the basis of the exercise by the people of Western Sahara of their inalienable right to self-determination and independence.’

This definition has prevailed over the years and it has led many to consider Western Sahara as the remaining African territory to be ‘decolonised’ after the regaining of their independence – in the 1960s and 1970s – of almost all the other African territories occupied by the different European powers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. (see for example Washington, 2005; Mohsen-Finan, 1999).

The current crisis in Western Sahara started in the early 1970s when Franco’s Spain was forced to announce plans to withdraw from the territory it had effectively occupied since 1934. As Spain withdrew from  the territory in February 1976, the Kingdom of Morocco, which lies to the north of the territory, and Mauritania, located at the east and south of the territory, sent in troops to occupy parts of what was then called ‘Spanish Sahara’, with the lion’s share going to the former.

Each of them laid claim to their occupied parts of the territory, considering them as having been part of their countries well before the coming of the Spaniards. Morocco went further to lay claim to the whole territory, including the areas occupied by Mauritania, as it had laid claim to Mauritania itself and parts of Algeria. Yet, before the withdrawal of the Spanish, a number of Sahrawi liberation movements had been formed in the territory with the aim of combating Spanish colonialism and regaining the total independence of their territory. One of those movements, which has proven to be the most tenacious and durable, was called the Frente Popular para la Liberación de Saguia el-Hamra y Río de Oro (the Popular Front for the Liberation of the Saguia el-Hamra and Rio de Oro, or the Polisario Front for short). Despite a 1975 ruling of the International Court of Justice (ICJ 1975:12), arguably refuting Moroccan and Mauritanian claims of ancient sovereign ties with the territory, the two countries sent in their troops to the phosphate-rich Western Sahara and effectively occupied it.

Thus, having been formed in 1973 to fight Spanish colonialism, the Polisario Front turned its guerrilla war against Morocco and Mauritania, while also escorting a significant number of indigenous Sahrawi population into exile in Algeria which was by then publicly supporting it, in financial, military and diplomatic terms (Hodges 1983: 338 ; De Forberville, 1994 :77;Thompson 1980:136).

Mauritania finally withdrew from its occupied sections of the territory in 1979 following heavy loses in guerrilla wars with the Polisario, opposed to this ‘second occupation’ of their territory. Morocco, however, has held on to the territory to the present day and the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), which was unilaterally proclaimed by the Polisario Front a few days after Morocco occupied the territory, in February 1976, lives in exile, especially in Sahrawi refugee camps in the Tindouf areas in Western Algeria and a tiny area inside Western Sahara itself.

Given the numerous factors involved, the conflict has proven very divisive in the Maghreb region and the wider African continent. The SADR government in exile was soon recognised by a number of African states, leading to its formal admission to the OAU in 1984. This move evidently harmed Morocco’s friendly relationship with these countries and it led to its eventual withdrawal from the OAU, an organisation Morocco had significantly contributed towards its founding. Morocco is still not a member of the AU, which replaced the OAU in 2002, while the SADR is recognised by and represented at the AU. For this, there have been numerous attempts at resolving the crisis, which is becoming almost intractable.

Both the OAU – before Morocco’s withdrawal – and the UN have tried to mediate between the parties and have proposed different peace plans. Both Morocco and the Polisario Front have come, in recent years, to put forward their own peace proposals.

It is these proposals and peace plans that I will attempt to decipher in this paper in a bid to identify the stumbling blocks to peace and suggest a way forward. What is the content of these peace proposals and what were/are the strategies employed by their sponsors to sell them to the parties? Why have they not succeeded in getting the two parties reach a lasting and mutually acceptable solution to the conflict? What are the common grounds between the two parties in these proposals and what are the divisive ones? Is there any possibility to bring the parties closer and eventually get them agree to a mutually acceptable peace plan? What may such a plan be and what strategy can be employed to sell it to the parties? These are some of the questions that the paper will address and try to offer some answers.

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Themes: Nationality and Refugees, State Succession, Statelessness
Regions: Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (Western Sahara)
Year: 2007