Western Sahara: Forty-five years is too long to wait for a referendum

Bouela Lehbib, who was a Middle East Institute research intern with me in 2019 during his time as the first Fulbrighter from Western Sahara, writes:

The 29-year UN-brokered ceasefire that had been in place since September 1991 between the Polisario Front and Morocco has collapsed. Morocco’s military incursion on November 13 in the Guergarat’s buffer-strip — a UN- designated demilitarized zone in the south-western corner of Western Sahara — prompted the Polisario Front, a liberation movement seeking independence, to resume armed struggle.

Morocco claims its operation comes as a response to “restoring free circulation and commercial traffic” towards sub-Saharan Africa. It had been blocked since October 21 by dozens of Saharawi civilians protesting peacefully against what they consider Moroccan occupation of their land and plundering of their natural resources.

The Polisario Front sees Morocco’s move as a violation of the ceasefire and a bid to alter the status quo in its favor. Both parties had agreed according to the UN peace plan of 1991 to keep maintain the status quo until the final status of the territory is decided.

Tensions have been on the rise in Guergarat since 2016, when Morocco tried to asphalt an approximately 5-km road in Western Sahara, across the buffer strip and into Mauritania near Nouadhibou. The Polisario interfered with the work, claiming it was illegal. The military agreement No.1, signed in the late 1990s, forbids any military presence in the buffer strip. It allows, though, Saharawi civilian circulation under Polisario Front control.

There was no crossing point at the time of the ceasefire agreement. It was introduced by Morocco on March 2001. Although MINURSO, the UN mission for the referendum in Western Sahara, warned Morocco the road construction and change of the status quo “raised sensitive issues and involve activities that could be in violation of the ceasefire agreement,” the latter went ahead with the work.

For Rabat, ensuring a crossing point and an asphalted road in Guergarat is strategically and economically significant. Since 2010, Morocco has invested widely in West African countries, becoming the first investor in the region and the third in all Africa, with its communication, construction, and bank enterprises leading the market. In 2017, it had officially requested to become a member of ECOWAS, the Economic Community of West African States. Though admission was blocked, Morocco still has political and economic clout in the region and seeks to neutralize the Saharawi Republic in the African Union, which it joined on January 2017. An asphalted road in Guergarat would link Morocco to ECOWAS economically but, most importantly, it contests the Polisario Front in the 20% territory it considers liberated.

Pundits blame the UN for the region slipping into tension. MINURSO has not fulfilled its mandate of holding a self-determination referendum according to Security Council resolution 690. Nor has it maintained a neutral position as an independent entity. Its vehicles carry Moroccan plates and its staff passports carry Moroccan stamps. The UN is playing a waiting game.

Security Council members, including the US, bear some of the blame. Its do-nothing policy and effort to ignore 45 years of low-intensity conflict have allowed the return of war. Joe Biden’s victory has raised the possibility that a shift in US policy towards Western Sahara could fix past mistakes. A self-determination referendum that both Morocco and the Polisario Front accept and the UNSC ratifies remains by far the best way out of this long-standing dispute.

With war in Libya and chaos in Mali, the new conflict in Western Sahara is likely to expose the region to much more instability. But it can also be an opportunity for the new Administration, as the moment looks ripe to bring a just solution to what many see as the last colony in Africa.


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