No end in sight for bitter Saharan dispute

Africa had but two independent countries a century ago; today, just one colony remains – an area along the Atlantic Ocean that borders Algeria, Morocco and Mauritania called Western Sahara.

Since the mid-1970s, control of Western Sahara has been disputed between the Polisario movement, liberation-oriented entity working for independence with the support of Algeria, and the Moroccan government, which has offered autonomy.

And for more than 30 years, the United Nations has been working to broker a deal to end the dispute.

Its latest bid is scheduled for Nov. 8-9, when representatives of the Moroccan government and the Polisario will meet at the UN’s offices in New York, along with officials from Algeria and Mauritania, to try to find a solution.

If they fail – as usual – the bad blood could get worse. The UN’s latest envoy, Christopher Ross, says the status quo is “unsustainable,” reports The Economist.

“The row has been going on since November 1975, when Morocco’s Hassan II “encouraged” 350,000 of his people to mass on its southern border, in order to bully Spain, which had controlled the territory since the late 19th century, into ceding the territory,” according to the publication.

Spain, in the midst of a sea change following the death of dictator Francisco Franco and a slow return to Republican government, duly did so. The following month, the Moroccan army marched in, prompting a 16-year war with Polisario fighters backed by neighboring Algeria, according to The Economist.

Three-and-a-half decades later, the conflict is barely closer to a resolution, though Morocco has managed to keep Polisario’s guerrillas at bay militarily.

As with much of the conflict in Africa over the past few decades, what’s occurred in Western Sahara has taken place largely out of the limelight, with many of the native Saharawi people being displaced.

After it was invaded by Morocco, its “indigenous population was, in contemporary parlance, ethnically cleansed,” according to The Guardian. “Around 150,000 of those driven out remain in isolated refugee camps in the Algerian Sahara: in tents, in the middle of the desert.”

The Saharawis, an ethnic mix of Arabs, Berbers and Black Africans, have fought back in a guerrilla war that lasted until the 1991 ceasefire.

“The centerpiece of that ceasefire, repeatedly endorsed by the UN and international community, was that there would be a referendum for the people of Western Sahara to decide the future of the territory, and in particular whether it would be an independent state,” according to The Guardian. “It has never taken place.”

Morocco successfully delayed and manipulated the UN organization of the referendum until it ground to a halt. The UN attempts to get “the parties” to agree on a way forward. There has been no progress: Morocco refuses even to discuss a referendum. For this obstruction, Morocco pays no price whatsoever, the publication added.

With Morocco apparently disinterested in giving up its claim to the area, and the Polisario dedicated to independence, it’s hard to see how November’s meeting at the United Nations will bear much fruit.

To the UN’s credit, it recently stepped up complaints about Morocco’s actions in Western Sahara as the UN Security Council seeks ways to find ways to end the deadlock over the territory’s future.

UN leader Ban Ki-moon told the council in a report that the UN mission’s communications from the Moroccan-controlled territory with UN headquarters have been “compromised.”

He added that various “factors have undermined the mission’s ability to monitor and report consistently on the situation” in Western Sahara and asked for the mission to be beefed up.

With years of UN-brokered talks between Morocco and Polisario Front rebels showing no sign of a breakthrough, the Security Council also faces growing pressure to let the mission investigate human rights violations.


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