The two opposite sides in the conflict in Western Sahara have both presented blueprints for autonomy of the disputed region to the UN this week. The Moroccan government presented their plan on Wednesday, just one day after the independence movement Polisario presented theirs. Although both plans are not yet in the public domain, UN diplomats say the two sides still looked far apart because Morocco was not willing to permit the referendum on independence that Polisario has demanded.
Western Sahara is a former Spanish colony with a population of 260,000 people. Morocco has ruled the country since 1975, an occupation that has been continually opposed by the Algerian-based Polisario. The UN brokered a ceasefire agreement in 1991 that promised a referendum on independence but Rabat now rules it out, saying autonomy is the most Morocco will offer.
Polisario released a statement on 10 April which outlined their proposal to the UN. Their proposal was submitted, it said, “out of concern to contribute to the more than 30-year-old decolonization conflict between Morocco and the Sahrawi people and consequently to the advent of a fair and lasting peace in our region”. Polisario claimed their solution was “flexible and constructive” and “guarantees Sahrawi national rights in conformity with resolutions of the UN…which all call for the exercise of Sahrawis' right to a vote on self-determination though a free and legitimate referendum."
Western Sahara has been troubled by invaders since the 19th century. In 1884 Bismarck called a meeting of the European powers of the day. The subject of the meeting was to carve up Africa. The Berlin Conference saw the colonial powers scramble to gain control over the interior of the continent. Spain had lost much of its power since the glory days of Phillip II. They had to be content with Rio Muni and Western Sahara. They confirmed their rule with a series of wars against the local tribes.
Western Sahara avoided occupation in World War II due to Spain’s neutrality. But it became caught up in the wave of nationalism that swept Africa in the post-war years. In 1967, Mohamed Sidi Brahim Bassiri created the Movement for the Liberation of the Sahara known as Harakat Tahrir. The movement quickly gained the support of the indigenous Sahrawi people.
Ethnic Sahrawis (Arabic for Saharan) claim descent from one of the Hassaniyyah Arabic-speaking tribes geographically associated with the Spanish Sahara. Sahrawi culture combines nomadic roots and Islamic practices. Like most nationalist movements during the 1960s-70s, Sahrawi nationalism grew in response to colonialism. Harakat Tahrir was at the forefront of this movement.
In 1970 the group made its first public stance in the capital, El Aauin. A large group gathered to present a list of demands to the colony’s governor. The governor heard the petition and then ordered the crowds to disperse. Police arrived to arrest the protest leaders and then the Spanish Foreign Legion opened fire on the restless crowd. At least eleven were killed. In the aftermath Spain cracked down on Harakat Tahrir. Out of the ashes of this movement was born the Polisario Front.
The name Polisario comes from the Spanish abbreviation Frente Popular de Liberación de Saguía el Hamra y Río de Oro ("Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Río de Oro"). Polisario ran a highly successful guerrilla war campaign. By 1975 an exhausted Spain was gripped by Franco’s death-throes and finally agreed to demands for a referendum on independence. But neighbours Morocco and Mauritania had other ideas. Both countries claimed that Western Sahara was an artificial European construct and demanded the lands be subsumed into their countries. Algeria meanwhile was suspicious of Morocco’s land grab and threw its weight behind Polisario.
The UN and the International Court of Justice (ICJ) attempted to intervene and declared that Western Sahara had the right to self-determination. But Morocco put pressure on Spain by launching the 350,000 strong Green March, a strategic mass demonstration of mostly unarmed people who gathered near the border waiting for a signal to invade. Madrid was unhinged and secretly signed a tripartite agreement with Morocco and Mauritania to allow them to take over Western Sahara. Spain would be allowed to keep its financial interest in Western Sahara’s phosphate mines at Bu Craa.
When the last Spanish troops withdrew in 1976, Morocco invaded from the north with the implicit support of the US who refused to intervene. They quickly claimed two-thirds of the country. Mauritania invaded from the south and claimed the bottom third. Polisario, supported by a marginalised Algeria, bitterly resisted the double invasion. The war which followed bankrupted Mauritania and it withdrew its forces in 1979. Morocco then took over the whole of Western Sahara.
In 1984, the Organization of African Unity (OAU) recognised the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), Polisario’s civilian arm. Morocco withdrew from the OAU in protest. It remains the only African country not in OAU’s successor, the African Union (AU). In 1988 Morocco and Polisario accepted a UN plan for a referendum that would allow the Sahrawis to decide between integration with Morocco or independence for the territory. Scheduled for 1992, it was postponed due to a dispute on a list of eligible voters, despite both parties previously accepting an updated version of the Spanish census of 1974. The process dragged on until 1996 until it was abandoned.
Although Western Sahara remains subject to Moroccan law, the Sahrawi population have difficulty obtaining Moroccan passports. Sahrawis are subject to close monitoring and harsh treatment from police and paramilitary forces. But while such treatment makes an independence referendum likely to succeed, the confluence of economic and military interests in the Sahara underpins Morocco’s rejectionist attitude of a plebiscite. Morocco illegally earns billions of dollars each year from the rich fishing off the coast and as well as inheriting Spain’s interests in phosphate. Now Moroccan state owned oil company Onarep Wessex has begun exploration work drilling for oil. Top generals in the Moroccan armed forces now have controlling stakes in those key industries.
Ahmed Boukhari is the Polisario representative to the UN. He said the issue must be decided by elections. Boukhari said Polisario was ready to "engage in direct negotiations" with Morocco. He said Morocco's proposal was "based on something that cannot be acceptable. It is based on that all of Western Sahara belongs to Morocco".