The Polisario Front and Moroccan forces are separated by 100 meters and are the closest to returning to war over the Western Sahara since a 1991 United Nations-mandated ceasefire, according to Mouloud Said, the Polisario’s representative in Washington.
“Any small incident could provoke the war, so the war is not something we want but is something on the table,” Said told The Washington Diplomat in a recent interview.
Rabat announced in August that it was deploying a team of security personnel and road builders to a narrow strip in Western Sahara’s Guerguerat region near Morocco’s border with Mauritania to combat criminals and drug smugglers. The Polisario cried foul, accused Morocco of violating the ceasefire by introducing armed personnel into the non-self-governing territory and positioned Polisario fighters in shouting distance from the border.
The Associated Press published a confidential U.N. document in August that said Morocco violated the ceasefire by sending in armed security forces and equipment without prior notice. It also said the deployment of Polisario military personnel violated the ceasefire as well.
Morocco claims the Polisario Front independence movement is the aggressor.
“We launched our anti-smuggling campaign in cooperation with Mauritania, then the Polisario began sending in troops,” a Moroccan Foreign Ministry official told the AP.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on both parties to “suspend any action that alters the status quo and to withdraw all elements so as to prevent any further escalation and permit MINURSO [the U.N. Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara] to hold discussions with both parties on the situation.”
But the two sides have been at loggerheads for decades, with negotiations going nowhere since 1991. Morocco annexed the Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony that is the size of Colorado, in 1975. Today, it controls the bulk of the disputed territory, despite opposition from the Algerian-backed Polisario Front — which says it represents the indigenous Saharan, or Sahrawi people — resulting in the oldest territorial dispute in North Africa.
The U.N.-brokered ceasefire in 1991 established the MINURSO peacekeeping mission to prepare a referendum on the territory’s status, but it has never taken place because the two sides can’t agree on who qualifies to vote. (In 1975’s “Green March,” King Hassan II sent more than 350,000 Moroccans into the territory to push Spain out and bolster Morocco’s presence there.)
Morocco has proposed giving the region wide-ranging autonomy, but the Polisario Front insists on self-determination through a referendum, with independence as an option — a prospect Morocco outright rejects.
Home to phosphate reserves and rich fishing grounds off its coast, the Western Sahara may also possess untapped offshore oil deposits.
Over the years, both sides have been accused of human rights abuses. An estimated 170,000 Sahrawis currently live in abject poverty with diesel-fueled power generators in the Tindouf refugee camps along the Algerian-Moroccan border, where they rely on international aid as they wait in legal limbo. Meanwhile, for Rabat, Western Sahara is one of its most sensitive foreign policy issues.
Ban was severely criticized by Morocco earlier this year for referring to its annexation of a portion of Western Sahara as “occupied.” His March 2016 visit to the Moroccan-controlled territory was met with protests and the expulsion of over 70 civilian MINURSO staffers from the territory. Two-dozen civilian staffers have since been allowed back, but the mission is reportedly not operating at full steam.
“In the Smara refugee camp, I saw firsthand the deep emotions and profound frustrations resulting from more than 40 years of living without the prospect of a better future,” Ban wrote after a visit to the Polisario camps in April. “I recoiled at the inhumane conditions and extremely harsh environment in which the refugees live.”
The U.N. then extended the MINURSO mission another year despite a staff shortage that continues to render it unable to fulfill its mission of ensuring a compliant ceasefire.
Ban is scheduled to return to Morocco in November to attend the U.N. Climate Change Conference, COP22, which will be held in Marrakech.
Morocco was equally critical of conclusions drawn in the U.S. State Department’s annual report on human rights violations, which included citations from an Amnesty International study that between 2010 and 2014, “police and security forces over this period routinely inflicted beatings, asphyxiation, stress positions, simulated drowning, and psychological and sexual violence” against Sahrawis living in Morocco-controlled Western Sahara.
Despite the condemnation, Morocco remains defiant. Last year, on the 40th anniversary of Western Sahara’s liberation from Spanish colonial rule, King Mohammed VI celebrated the Green March, describing it as a “watershed moment in the process to complete the kingdom’s territorial integrity.”
“Those who are waiting for any other concession on Morocco’s part are deceiving themselves,” the king reportedly said. “Indeed, Morocco has given all there was to give.”
The king said that an agreement would be ironed out within the framework of the U.N., but that the region would be incorporated into Morocco and that natural resources, agricultural fisheries and tourism would generate over $7 billion annually.
The following month, however, in December 2015, the European Union’s Court of Justice put a stop to a four-year-old fishery deal between Morocco and the EU on the grounds that some of the products were taken from Morocco-controlled Western Sahara.
And this past September, an advocate general at the Court of Justice in Brussels declared that, “Western Sahara is not part of Moroccan territory and therefore … neither the EU-Morocco Association Agreement nor the Liberalisation Agreement are applicable to it.”
While the opinion is not legally binding, the winding court case is likely to further strain relations Rabat-EU relations and possibly jeopardize a proposed free trade agreement between the bloc and Morocco.
Yet it is doubtful the U.N. Security Council, which has little appetite to wade into the long-running dispute, will take any concrete action. Morocco is considered a stable, moderate ally in the Arab world and has in the past been supported by France (though Paris denies threatening to use its veto power to back Rabat).
Meanwhile, the Polisario Front is dealing with its own internal political upheaval as it tries to combat global apathy of its plight. Mohamed Abdelaziz, the Polisario secretary-general for 40 years, died in May of lung cancer. The new president, Brahim Ghali, has asked the U.N. for a clear agenda toward a referendum for self-determination. A quarter century after the ceasefire that was supposed to usher in that referendum, many frustrated Sahrawis wonder if resuming their armed struggle is the only way to achieve independence.
Mouloud Said, the Polisario representative in Washington, works out of his Northwest D.C. apartment with two staffers. His time is largely spent on Capitol Hill educating lawmakers on Western Sahara. We spoke to him about the recent ceasefire violations and the larger stalemate:
The Washington Diplomat: How would you characterize the current situation with Morocco?
Mouloud Said: Right now we’re on the verge of going back to war. These days we are close, because the Moroccans have been provoking the United Nations in Guerguerat. [T]he Moroccans and our forces are less than 100 meters from each other. Any small incident could provoke the war, so the war is not something we want but is something on the table.
TWD: Morocco says the move is to fight drug smugglers.
Said: No. This is something intentional. Last March, they expelled part of MINURSO. This is an insult to the Security Council itself. Only the Security Council can move, bring or take out people from there — not Morocco.
TWD: What are they doing out there?
Said: They are trying to build this road to bring Moroccan trucks to sell goods throughout Africa — to develop the Moroccan economy, but they will not be doing it at our expense. So, the Security Council told them to stop it — leave the status quo and change nothing. So, the Moroccans, they stopped. Meanwhile, our troops are camping in the middle of that road right now, about 100 meters away from the Moroccans.
The Washington Diplomat: How many of you are waiting there?
Said: There is enough. I can’t say 100 or 1,000, but we have there enough to take care of any situation. And the fact that we are so close together, any time could happen an incident. And when any small incident between two soldiers starts, that can begin a war that nobody can stop.
TWD: Is there communication between the parties? Are they yelling at each other?
Said: No, no. We speak through the United Nations, but they are so close I’m sure they can hear each other.
TWD: What have your troops been ordered to do?
Said: Right now, just to make sure that the Moroccans don’t move.
TWD: And what if they are fired upon?
Said: They will fire.
TWD: Your former president, Mohamed Abdelaziz, died in May. Did he have a final message or any last words?
Said: Yes. I was one of the last people to be with him, and one of the things he told me to tell everyone was to keep the struggle, keep the fight, to keep the unity and to have in mind the freedom for our people. This was the main message he told me every moment we saw each other.
TWD: How are the younger generations of Sahrawi faring? Are they impatient living in the desert without action?
Said: The youth being impatient is an understatement. They are more than impatient. They are fed up with this situation of no peace/no war. And I think during the visit of Mr. Ban Ki-moon to the region, when he visited the liberated area in the refugee camps, he met with a group of youth who conveyed the message that they can’t keep waiting forever and that the United Nations is not doing anything to help this process.
TWD: Who in the United Nations is the main roadblock against a referendum?
Said: The French. In the Security Council, they stop any attempt to start a referendum or advance in this peace process.
Said: Because the French, they are in this conflict since day one. Don’t forget that during the war, the French Air Force was used against the Sahrawis. For the French that’s their backyard, their private garden, that part of North Africa. There’s also the corruption in the French system, with many in the French leadership who have castles in Morocco, have their villas. The last example was [former French President] Jacques Chirac, before he died, they flew him in from Morocco in a special plane because that’s where he was living. That’s their playground: Morocco.
TWD: Are there any other obstacles within the permanent members of the Security Council?
Said: The French are the number one. And we wish the Americans were more forceful in trying to push the peace plan to at least balance the French and the Moroccan obstructionists.
TWD: Why do you think America has not been more helpful?
Said: I think Americans recognize Sahrawis deserve the right of self-determination. Why they don’t go farther than that is our question also.
TWD: How big is the Moroccan lobbying effort in Washington?
Said: My last counting is that they have 14 to 15 companies that are doing lobbying for Morocco on the Hill. Morocco pays these guns for hire because they don’t have a case. We are not against a strategic relationship between the U.S. and Morocco, but not at the expense of the human rights of other people.
TWD: What is your game plan for achieving independence?
Said: It’s the same plan we started on day one. We will continue with the same determination to keep our struggle, whatever time it takes, to make sure our people can freely choose their destinies.
TWD: Do you think the Moroccans are provoking you into a fight?
Said: No, I think they want to see how far they can push the United Nations, because to go for a war will be very costly for Morocco. According to the peace plan, Moroccan soldiers are not supposed to be there. It’s been a red line since the agreement of 1991. This is a message to the international community. And so far, with the complicity of the French, they are succeeding to a certain point.
TWD: If what you say is true, what would it take to get the French to back off?
Said: We don’t know. We just ask for them to respect international legality. They must be realistic, since their interests are much more protected with a stable region without problems. If it wasn’t because of the French, the Western Sahara would be a full independent country by now.
TWD: Why does Morocco want the Western Sahara?
Said: Because of its resources — phosphates, fishing. Morocco has also been inviting companies to look for oil.
TWD: If Morocco loses the Western Sahara, it also means billions in revenue lost annually?
Said: No. They will gain something more important, which is stability in the region. We have made a very generous proposal to Morocco, including the sharing of resources and employment of Moroccans in the region. I’m sure if the Moroccans knew in 1975 that they would have to go through 40 years over this, they would have thought twice.
TWD: Where do you get your guns?
Said: That’s not something I want to answer, but we have many sources. We have more than enough to fight.
TWD: Do you want the Security Council to act within a certain timeframe?
Said: I think you touch on a very important point, and it is one of the concerns of our new president. We just sent a letter to the United Nations asking for a clear agenda — what they are intending to do, what is their timeframe, how long? They are entrusted with this issue and we are asking for a commitment to be made for our people. Will there be a negotiation? How long will it last?
TWD: What is the responsibility of the United States in this matter?
Said: As a member of the Security Council, they are one of the guarantors of peace in the world. The Security Council is not just a place to declare war. We just hope the United States will become much more forceful in implementing the wishes of the Security Council without taking sides. Not defending the Sahrawis, not defending Morocco, but treating the wishes of the Security Council like a bible.
TWD: North Africa is currently besieged by terrorism and rampant corruption. Does going against the status quo and pushing for a referendum potentially endanger the region to become another North African haven for terrorism with a new government in power?
Said: Maybe if we started yesterday, but we have been running a government for 40 years. We are touching the ground running. When there is justice, democracy, you don’t open the opportunity for injustice that fuels terrorism. We should focus on the occupation, because that is an injustice. It seems you are condemning us to failure before you test us. For sure you’ll have a better system than they have in Morocco now, where they have to kiss the hand of the king.
About the Author
James Cullum is a contributing writer and photographer for The Washington Diplomat.