Wednesday, October 20

The Sahara conflict: why it started and why it remains unresolved

The current tensions between Spain and Morocco have their origin in November 1975, when the extremely weak Francoist Spain signed the Madrid Tripartite Agreement with Morocco and Mauritania as a result of a very clever move by Hasan II: the Green March. This agreement ceded the temporary administration of what until then had been one more Spanish province. Since then, the conflict in Western Sahara has gone through various stages, with none of the parties in dispute having yet achieved its objectives.


For the UN – which already in 1960 identified that territory as subject to colonial domination and, therefore, recognized its right to self-determination – it has been impossible to implement its original idea and its 1991 peace plan, which contemplated the deployment of a Mission of the United Nations for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO). The good offices of the special envoys have been of little use in practice onusians, including the so-called Baker Plan (validated by the Security Council in July 2003), in view of the Moroccan reluctance to accept the idea of ​​a popular consultation of self-determination, even after having achieved acceptance of its proposal to allow the participation of many of the settlers who had been installing in the occupied territory.

In fact, since 2008, successive Security Council resolutions have even stopped mentioning the referendum, assuming de facto the Moroccan position expressed by its monarch in 2004 and which offers limited autonomy to the Sahrawis under Moroccan sovereignty. In addition, since May 2019 the post of special envoy for the Sahara remains vacant, as a clear sign of disinterest in the search for solutions to the conflict.


For the Sahrawis, divided between those who continue to inhabit the area occupied by Rabat and those who chose to become refugees in the hamada Tindouf, neither the dying leadership of the Polisario Front (created in 1973) nor the creation, in 1976, of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR, a member of the African Union, but not recognized by the UN) have allowed them to exercise their right to choose a state of their own. Those who inhabit what Morocco calls “southern provinces” suffer a visible marginalization and those who live poorly in the Tindouf camps find little solid footholds to cover their basic needs (dependent on a dwindling international charity).

In the military field, as has been demonstrated after the declaration of “total war” proclaimed by the Polisario on November 14 after a Moroccan military action that broke the 1991 ceasefire, it is inevitable to conclude that they do not have sufficient means to counteract the power of the Royal Armed Forces. And in the diplomatic field it is equally obvious that they have been practically alone (with Algeria as their last support), without support that allows them to compensate minimally what Rabat accumulates, with the United States and France in the lead. Support that has also served to ensure that MINURSO has never had the mandate to monitor respect for human rights in its area of ​​responsibility.


For Morocco, sovereignty over that territory constitutes one of the few points of confluence of all the social and political voices of the country, apart from the fact that even the International Court of Justice already ruled in 1975 that there were no sovereign ties between the Sahara and the Alawite kingdom. Even so, the crown has managed to add supporters to the cause and make it a fundamental pillar of the national agenda and an anchor point for the monarchy itself. Added to this is a considerable investment effort to exploit (with the active collusion of the European Union in its fishing and agricultural agreements) the resources of the area, which it already controls 80%, sheltered by the 2,700km of walls built up to 1991 in line with his military campaigns.

Thanks to its military superiority (with some 100,000 troops deployed), the collaboration of the hundreds of thousands of settlers located there and the growing international support it has gathered over the years, Rabat understands that time is running in its favor. And the gift of Donald Trump in the form of recognition of Moroccan sovereignty is what has made him grow to the point of daring to take a step that he believed was definitive to convince locals and strangers of his sovereign will. It is in this context that we must understand the political crisis that Mohamed VI has decided to provoke a few weeks ago, playing with the lives of his own people and making the misery to which he condemns them even more visible.


For Spain, along with the social persistence of a predominantly pro-Saharawi position, the position of successive governments has been swinging from an initial attempt to comply with what was agreed in Madrid and in line with the UN guidelines, to the current more pro-Moroccan position , although appearances may indicate otherwise.

For decades, Spain has shielded itself in a formal position of “active neutrality”, which implies strictly adhering to what the UN determines, knowing that said body is, in real terms, inoperative. In reality, this position, which supposes in passing a abandonment of historical responsibility with a population that has been abandoned to its fate, barely concealed the calculation that while the conflict continues and Morocco is so absorbed in imposing its dictates there, the lesser it will be. the pressure on Ceuta, Melilla and the rest of Spanish territories in North Africa (all of them claimed by Rabat, without forgetting the Canary Islands).

In the last decade, however, that position has given way to another that, in exchange for achieving Rabat’s collaboration in the fight against jihadist terrorism, drug trafficking and irregular emigration, is willing to forget the Sahrawi cause, reduced to a residual humanitarian issue. And so, falling into a recurring blackmail promoted from Rabat, Spain has been exposed both to its own population, which still has memory of what happened, and to Rabat, which does not hesitate to press even more to achieve definitively tip the balance to its favor.

Thus it loses international law, the UN and, above all, the Saharawi population; But at this point it only remains to be seen how far the Tindouf refugees will resist before the Polisario is finally overtaken by its own people or before it returns to the negotiating table to accept the framework designed by Morocco. And until that time comes, it is unfortunately easy to predict that there will continue to be more disappointments and more suffering.