Western Sahara independence, which way forward?

THERE have been different names given to the Saharaoui Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), a highly disputed West African territory,  in the course of its long and chequered history.  Western Sahara has a landmass of about 250,000 square kilometers which  is about  the size of the United Kingdom and a quarter of Nigeria. The sparse population of about half a million people today  live mainly in Al Fayoun, the capital and other coastal settlements. The coastal waters along the Atlantic Ocean teems with marine resources, proven deposits of phosphate in the hinterland and possibly crude oil in the desert. The rest of the country is desert wilderness inhabited by nomadic Berber or Amazigh tribes, who like their ancestors had lived and traversed the Sahara Desert for centuries.  The nomadic Berbersin Western  Saharaor Saharaoui are the majority and native tribe in Western Sahara. As a matter of fact the Berbers are indigenous to the Maghreb and are still the majority tribe with different strains of the Berber nation which  spreads  along the Mediterranean Sea.

The coastal countries in the North of Africa along the Mediterranean Sea are hemmed between the powerful European Imperial Powers from the Roman Empire of antiquity to the more recent French, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian empires,  while in search of more  living space, a place in the sun and nations to  plunder invaded Africa along the Mediterranean Coastline.  The Arabs and the Ottomans on the other hand  came from the Middle East and Turkey to join the party of colonizers. The resistance and opposition to the invaders by the native Berber tribes and their successors had led to several bloody wars. During the era of colonialism, France annexed Algeria, and Morocco was placed under its protectorate,  Italy annexed Libya, Spain annexed Northern Morocco and Western Sahara. The unilateral annexation of territories were naturally resisted. The resistance against the annexation of Western Sahara came from the kingdom of Morocco because the former was not an organized nation state with social structures and settled population.

Western Sahara was definitely not a no man’s land, but the sparse population were Berber sherperds who like their  ancestors traversed  the Sahara Desert in caravans to distant lands in the Middle East and the Northern regions of Sub- Sahara Africa. The population in the 18th Century may be as low as 10,000 people which was too insignificant in number to confront the might of the Spanish Empire. After the  occupation of Western Sahara by Spain, Spanish  citizens were brought in to populate the coastal regions and organize social colonial structures and the territory became Spanish Sahara. The war between imperial Spain and Morocco over the Western Sahara and other occupied territories in Northern Morocco started in 1859 and it lasted for 100 years.  The first conflict was the Tetuan war of 1859-60, followed by the Mellila Campaign of 1893-1894, the Rif war of 1909-1927 and the Ifni war between 1957-58. Spain prevailed over Morocco in all these wars with the support of other colonial powers which collectively wanted to consolidate their control of  the Maghreb.

The Ifni war which was the last major war between Spain and Morocco over the Western Sahara ended with the signing of the  treaty of Angra de Citra in 1958. Spain retained  Western Sahara and Sidi Ifni, but returned  the region of Tarfaya  to  Morocco.  However, during  the era of decolonization in Africa, in the year 1950’s-70s,  the colonial powers, now significantly weakened by the Second World  War and internal social crisis lacked the militarymight to effectively defend the colonies. And when Morocco threatened to rene whostilities to recover the Western Sahara, Spain hurriedly signed the treaty of Madrid with Morocco and Mauritania and left the territory  in 1975. The repossession of Western Sahara by Morocco in 1976 was within the context and final conclusions of the Angra de Citra treaty of 1958 which granted partial control of occupied territories  to Morocco and withheld Western  Sahara. Spain had continued to occupy  Ceuta and Mellila in the North Eastern Coast of Morocco.  It must be acknowledged that the struggle to oust Spain from Western  Sahara included forces from the Saharaoui Berber tribes under Moroccan flag, including the Polisario Liberation Front (PLF) which was founded  in 1973 by Mustafa Sayed. The  Saharaoui National Union party (SNUP) was founded in 1974 by Khalelina Ould Errachid with the same objective of ousting Spain from Western Sahara. As soon as Spain left the territory in 1976, The Polisario Liberation Front (PLF)to the consternation of everyone and the International Community  declared the territory as an independent Saharaoui Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) with the support of Algeria.

For the purposes of  clarity, the people of  Saharaoui or Western Sahara are Berbers or Amazigns and not Arabs. The leaders of PLF are Berbers. The Royal family of Morocco  are mixed Berber and Arab. The Declaration of Independence by PLF marked the beginning of a long crisis  over the Western Sahara which should have ended with the departure of Spain, but had now  spanned over 40 years without any solution in sight. It has also resulted in two wars between Morocco and Algeria with casualties on both sides. Alternatively and as a compromise, the Moroccan monarchy had in 2006 proposed autonomy for Western Saharaand to effect its actualisation, the Royal Advisory Council for Saharaoui Affairs (CORCAS) was formed to administer the affairs of Saharaoui. This compromise was accepted and lauded by the international community as a way out of the impasse. Saharaoui would be run as an autonomous province with structures which will control the economy, security and foreign relations in some circumstances.  Khalelina Ould Errachid, leader of Sahara National Union Party (SNUP) was appointed to head the council. The father of the late SADR President, Mohammed Abdelazeez, was a member of the council with other Saharaoui tribal leaders. The presence of these important Saharaoui notables in the council is a clear evidence that the autonomy option enjoys strong support in the territory .

The independence and autonomy options are  two opposing and  immutable positions which have divided the international community and posed the dilemma of who to support and on what basis.?

To be a fair  arbiter, and proffer solutions, the following factors  must be put into consideration :. Theentry of PLF into the protracted war between the Kingdom of Morocco and Spain started onlyin 1973 which was well over 100 years after the struggle began.

On what basis, therefore, did the PLF unilaterally declare the Saharaoui as anindependent state?; the limited support enjoyed by PLF among the tribal leaders  in the Saharaoui.  is  evident in the composition of CORCAS

Thedivergent opinions within Saharaoui is a sure recipe  for disaster and future civil war , if independence is granted..

The referendum option at this time may already be time bad, too late, and complicated because the influx of people into the territory since 1975 has dramatically mixed and increased the population Moreover, how will theSaharaoui people still living in Algeria participate in the referendum? How will the problem of eligibility to vote  be resolved?

The result of the referendum is likely to be rejected  by one of the parties that lost under the pretext  that the exercise was rigged.

The situation on the ground is now cast in iron and the only way out is to find a plausible and practical solution which will be in the interest of the  Saharaoui people, who are pawns in the power game between the PLF, Algeria and Morocco.

The hidden fact  is that the age long rivalry and enmity between Morocco and Algeria isnow playing out in Saharaoui. When Algeria was a province of the Turkish Ottoman Empire, the territory was used by Ottoman Janissaries to attack Moroccan cities. And in turn, Morocco was aloof and probably  played a dubious  role during  Algeria’s bloody war of  independence from France.

The way forward is to bring Morocco and Algeria  to resolve their differences.under the auspices of the African Union (AU) The hidden  interests of both countries in Saharaoui must be taken into consideration. An independent  Saharaoui would de facto become an extension of Algerian territory with free  access to the Atlantic ports in its southern borders.

This concern can be addressed through economic cooperation between Morocco and Algeria. Algeria is an oil rich country with funds which could be invested both in Morocco and Saharaoui. There should be joint projects which would link Morocco and Algeriathrough Saharaoui by rail, road and air.to the Atlantic Ocean.

When the economic interests are given priority, the political issues would recede into the background.

The readmission of Morocco to the African Union (AU)is a positive development. Morocco should be allowed to settle down as a member of the Union before  the issue of the Saharaoui is raised.  The process of negotiations should not be stampeded and rushed. The incidents in Addis Ababa and Dakar which literally placed Morocco in the tight spot must be avoided.

The reality on the ground in Saharaoui must be acknowledged and the best way forward is to work withinCORCAS and ensure that the spirit and letter of its constitution is respected. CORCAS should not be a smokescreen to exploit the resources of the territory.  The autonomy policy must be  credible and  transparent with a plan of action which will give the people  good  education , good medical services,industrial parksand jobs.

The leadership of Polisario should not be excluded from the political process.They  should be allowed to form a political party which can contest for any elective post in Saharaoui, even in Morocco. Polisario security agents who are found suitable should be absorbed  into the police and military establishment of Morocco. Refugees in Polisario camps in Tindouf and elsewhere should be resettled properly inside the Saharaoui territory and allowed to enjoy the privileges of full Saharaoui/ Moroccan citizenship.

The status of SADR/PLFwould be determined over time  subject to the success of the autonomy policy.

The supporters of both countries in this crisis must tone down their  rhetorics,avoid incitement and work in the interest of peace.

The two countries should work out the eventual status of SADR at the AU in a forthright and realistic manner.

With these approaches and measures the Saharaoui  crisis may eventually be on the steady path to stability, peace and final resolution.

  • Ambassador Rasheed was Director of Trade and Investment in Nigeria’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
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