The United Nations considers Western Sahara to be the last African colony. Until 1975 it was a non-self-governing territory legally recognized as being administered by the European colonial power of Spain. Instead of achieving independence when Spain withdrew, Western Sahara and its offshore waters were seized by Morocco in what many observers view as a settler-colonial occupation.
War has broken out in Western Sahara and few have heard the news. At a crossroads between sub-Saharan Africa and North Africa, the Saharan desert has long been misconstrued in colonial discourses as a largely unpeopled geography deemed culturally marginal and largely assimilable to Maghrebi post-colonial nation-states. As a result, Saharan political identities occupy a blind spot in social scientific area studies. Partly for this reason, the political demands of hundreds of thousands of Sahrawis who support the Polisario Front—an anti-colonial national liberation movement established in 1973 to recover sovereignty over Western Sahara—are systematically sidelined in global political agendas and mostly ignored in mainstream media.
This issue of Middle East Report on “Maghreb From the Margins” addresses the evolving challenges that the peripheries are posing to power structures in Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Tunisia and the Western Sahara.
The Sahrawi people have been struggling for self-determination in Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara since 1975. Despite years of nonviolent resistance, there has been no significant change in the stalled process of decolonization. Until now. The sudden end to the long-running ceasefire and Trump’s tweet recognizing Moroccan control over Western Sahara and Morocco’s normalization of relations with Israel have suddenly altered the political dynamics. Mark Drury explains what this means for Sahrawi aspirations.
The end of 2018 witnessed potentially promising peace talks in Geneva between the Polisario Front liberation movement of Western Sahara and the Kingdom of Morocco in an effort to kickstart the stalled peace process for the nearly 45-year conflict over this North African territory. Nevertheless, the forces protecting the status quo, and thus Morocco’s ongoing colonization of Western Sahara, remain durable, and it is unclear whether this new round of talks will presage a broader resolution to one of the oft-forgotten conflicts of our times.
Morocco serves as the backdrop for such Hollywood blockbusters as Gladiator, Black Hawk Down and Body of Lies. The country’s breathtaking landscapes and gritty urban neighbourhoods are the perfect setting for Hollywood’s imagination.
Unbeknown to most filmgoers, however, is that Morocco is embroiled in one of Africa’s oldest conflicts—the dispute over Western Sahara. This month the UN Security Council is expected to take up the dispute once more, providing US President Barack Obama with an opportunity to assert genuine leadership in resolving this conflict. But there’s no sign that the new administration is paying adequate attention.
In late February 2007, Western Saharan nationalists celebrated the thirty-first anniversary of their government, the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic. The official ceremonies did not take place in Laayoune, the declared capital of Western Sahara, but in the small outpost of Tifariti near the Algerian border. This is because most of Western Sahara is under the administration and military occupation of Morocco, which claims the desert land as its own.
Democratic reforms in the Middle East and North Africa are both warranted and wanted—not only among the leaders who gathered earlier this month on Sea Island for the G8 Summit but also by the majority of the region’s citizens.
While there is little agreement on what form change should take, the most shocking dimension of the Bush plan for regional reform, The Broader Middle East and North Africa Initiative, or BMEI, is the administration’s continued partnership with authoritarian regimes and the exclusion of democratic reformers.
On July 31, 2003, the UN Security Council voted to "support strongly" former Secretary of State James Baker's proposals for resolving the Western Sahara dispute, the last Africa file remaining open at the UN Decolonization Committee. Baker has been the personal envoy of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan since 1997, charged with making progress in the 1991 Settlement Plan for the Western Sahara even after Annan had damned it as a "zero-sum game," while also pursuing alternatives.
Within two months of the death of King Hassan II and the enthronement of his eldest son, King Mohammed VI in July 1999, a series of demonstrations erupted in the Western Sahara. This territory has been administered by the Kingdom of Morocco since 1976, though Morocco’s claim of sovereignty in the Western Sahara is not recognized internationally. Since September 1991, the United Nations has deployed a mission there to organize a referendum that would give qualified Sahrawi voters the choice of integration into Morocco or independence.
In his January 1996 report on the UN operation in the Western Sahara, Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali expressed the Security Council’s “frustration…at the absence of even a reasonably clear indication of when the [referendum] process might come to an end.” This was one of Boutros-Ghali’s most candid official statements about an operation that, by most accounts, has gone awry. With a mandate to organize and conduct a referendum asking Sahrawis to choose either independence or integration into Morocco, the most important issue now confronting the UN mission is whether the referendum process, which began in September 1991, has already been so compromised that it no longer offers a realistic means for resolving the conflict.
In early 1989, the movement toward Maghribi integration, coupled with signs of a peaceful resolution of the conflict in Western Sahara, generated a great deal of optimism. The reality a year later is far less rosy. The major factor is Morocco’s procrastination in moving forward with the UN peace plan which it, along with the Sahrawi independence movement, Polisario, agreed to in August 1988.
Tony Hodges, Western Sahara: The Roots of a Desert War (Westport, CT: Lawrence Hill & Co., 1983).