After three decades of peace, the rebels in Africa’s last colony...

In November, new acts of war broke out in Western Sahara. With that, one of the world’s forgotten conflicts has flared up again.

29. nov. 2020 21:46

Last updated just now

In 1991, the UN negotiated a ceasefire agreement between Morocco and the liberation movement Polisario in the occupied Western Sahara. Since then, the dispute over the former colony area has been raging. A forgotten and frozen conflict. The parties never agreed, but have managed to keep the peace for almost three decades.

On Friday 13 November, peace ended when Morocco launched a military operation in Western Sahara. The liberation movement now believes that the ceasefire has been broken. The development gives cause for serious concern, says a spokesman for the UN Secretary-General.

What triggered the flare-up?

The backdrop for the military operation began on October 21. A group of protesters from the local Saharawi population are said to have prevented trucks from driving through the Guerguerat border area, which connects Western Sahara and Mauritius. Morocco responded with threats to remove the protesters by force.

And that is exactly what happened on Friday 13 November. Moroccan soldiers entered Guerguerat, an area which, according to the 1991 agreement, will function as a buffer zone, and which is patrolled by UN soldiers. Morocco’s version is that they will reopen the free flow of commercial and passenger traffic between Western Sahara and Mauritania.

Polisario, for its part, believes that Morocco broke the ceasefire by entering the buffer zone. On November 19, they claimed to have launched a major attack on Morocco’s border wall through Western Sahara. With that, one of the world’s forgotten conflicts has again ended up on the agenda.

But what is the conflict really about?

On November 13, Moroccan soldiers entered the Guerguerat border area, at the bottom left of the map. The red line illustrates Morocco’s border wall through Western Sahara. Photo: UN connection.

A dispute over an occupied land

The conflict over Western Sahara dates back to the 1970s, when the area was a Spanish colony. After Spain withdrew from what is being described as Africa’s last colony in 1975, Morocco occupied two thirds of the territory. They decided to stay and have since settled hundreds of thousands of Moroccans in Western Sahara.

Morocco’s narrative has always been that the area was stolen from them by Spain. In this they get little support. The International Court of Justice in The Hague rejected the claim as early as 1975.

On the other side of the conflict is the liberation movement Polisario. They represent the Sahrawis, the indigenous people of Western Sahara. The movement controls the eastern part of Western Sahara, which has been named the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR).

Soldiers from the liberation movement Polisario hold a military parade in the village of Tifariti in Western Sahara in 2011. The movement now claims that Morocco has broken the 1991 ceasefire. Photo: Arturo Rodriguez, AP / NTB

2. The referendum that never happened

Both Morocco and the liberation movement Polisario claim to be entitled to the whole of Western Sahara. And here lies the core of the conflict: Part of the 1991 ceasefire agreement was that a referendum should be held on whether the country should become independent or incorporated as part of Morocco.

But the referendum was never held. There is one reason in particular for this, according to Morten Bøås, senior researcher at the Norwegian Institute of Foreign Policy (Nupi).

– The big question has always been who should get a vote. Polisario believes that only the indigenous population should be allowed to vote. Morocco, on the other hand, demands that everyone living in Western Sahara have the right to vote. That includes the Moroccan settlers, he says.

Brahim Ghali is the President of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). He is also the general secretary of the liberation organization Polisario, which wants to drive Morocco out of Western Sahara. Foto: Ramzi Boudina, Reuters / NTB

Neither party has let itself be moved. Until the question of voting rights is decided, it is impossible to hold a referendum. For Morocco, it is perfectly fine not to, according to Bøås.

– For them, it is not just about income from natural resources in Western Sahara and free connecting lines to neighboring countries. Morocco neither can nor will accept people of Moroccan descent who will leave Western Sahara if the area were to gain independence, says the Nupi researcher.

To maintain control in the central areas, Morocco has erected a 2,000-kilometer-long wall of sand that divides Western Sahara in two.

A wall of sand separates the area that Morocco controls from the area where Polisario rules. Morocco is also said to have set up barbed wire and laid landmines along the wall. Photo: François Mori, AP / NTB

A global conflict

The dispute over Western Sahara is not just a conflict between Morocco and Polisario. Algeria has also signed up. Around 173,600 refugees from Western Sahara live here, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). In addition, the country is Polisario’s most important supporter. It is hardly a coincidence.

– The relationship between Algeria and Morocco is already complicated. Algeria continues to house these refugees, because they know that it irritates Morocco to some extent, says Bøås.

Women from the Saharawi population demonstrate during a UN visit to a refugee camp in Algeria. The country houses the majority of refugees from Western Sahara. Photo: Zohra Bensenmra, Reuters / NTB

The conflict also extends beyond North Africa’s borders. Morocco has its closest ally in France, which protects Morocco in the UN Security Council and is also Morocco’s entry into the EU.

– The great powers also have security interests in stability in the region. The fears, among other things, that an independent state in Western Sahara will be vulnerable and unstable. It can provide fertile ground for radicalism, says Bøås.

Therefore, the international appetite for finding a solution is small, he believes. In addition, when dealing with two such locked positions as Morocco and Western Sahara, what the UN can do is limited.

– The last secretaries general have tried to keep the conflict calm to avoid an explosion on their guard. The subtext is that the referendum is postponed, he says.

Do we see the start of a new war?

With the exception of Algeria, the liberation struggle in Western Sahara has few significant supporters. Norway does not recognize either Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara or the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). In 2019, Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide (H) stated that “Norway supports the UN’s work for a political solution to the conflict in Western Sahara”. However, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs advises Norwegian companies not to conduct business activities in the occupied territories.

Polisario’s latest provocations are most likely a cry to put the forgotten conflict on the international agenda, Bøås believes. However, the other party seems to be happy with the status quo.

– If there is a more military provocation on the part of Polisario, it is conceivable that Morocco will launch a major military project in Western Sahara. But in principle, Morocco has no incentives to do anything, he says.

Bøås also sees no reason why the international response will change immediately.

– Morocco is very useful for both Europe and France. As long as there is not too much fuss, they do not have to do much for the refugee issue in Western Sahara. Most likely there will be some noise now before it settles down, he says.

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