Western Sahara: Still Uncertain Bargaining

Another UN Resolution · Adopted unanimously, the latest UN resolution on Western Sahara marks the beginning, under the new general secretary Antonio Guterres, of an umpteenth cycle of negotiations aimed at settling a conflict which has lasted nearly half a century. While some see in it some chances of success where its predecessors have all failed, this will depend on the political good will of Morocco and the Polisario Front, on the role Algeria might play, and on the new proposals made on both sides.

Minurso headquarters in El Aaiun, Western Sahara, June 2, 2012.
Guillaume Galdrat, 2 juin 2012.

There are signs that do not lie. Resolution 2351 on Western Sahara was voted unanimously by the UN Security Council and praised all but unanimously by both Morocco and the Polisario Front as “positive”, “turned towards the future” and “an encouragement to resume negotiations.” The document spells out a number of recommendations in a language meant to be positive so as not to provoke either Morocco or the Polisario Front and so that negotiations might be resumed.

As has been the case every year, the diplomatic marathon over Western Sahara began in April with the presentation of a report from the UN General Secretary on the situation then, at the end of the month, by the voting of a resolution. Moroccan diplomats registered their satisfaction when the report was presented. Moroccan officials were worried lest the former UN special envoy for Western Sahara, Christopher Ross, might have included, as one last symbolic gesture, recommendations for “the monitoring of human rights by Minurso, or the issue of natural resources in the region” according to a Moroccan diplomat who feels that ‘on the whole, the general secretary’s report was positive.’

The issue of Minurso’s monitoring human rights has indeed been at the centre of the tensions between the Sharifian Kingdom and the previous UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon. While the Polisario Front and several NGOs have been denouncing the absence of human rights within Minurso’s jurisdiction—which makes it the world’s only peacekeeping mission to be divested of that competence—Morocco has vigorously rejected any extension of its mandate in that respect. As early as 2012, Moroccan diplomats worried about ‘ a scenario which would extend Minurso’s competence to cover human rights’ for shadowing ‘a planned Timorization of the Sahara issue,’ according to a diplomatic cable leaked by the hacker Chris Coleman.

Morocco’s rather exaggerated fear in this matter is that ‘such a step [would create] two parallel jurisdictional orders, one in the North, in Maroccan Marocco, governed by existing Moroccan laws, and another which [would depend] on the UN mechanisms in western Sahara,’ as that diplomatic cable further reads.

In his report, the UN Secretary General recommends that the monitoring of human rights in Western Sahara be conducted independently, which the Moroccans interpret as allowing the Kingdom to develop its own efforts on the ground, notably through its National Council on Human Rights (NCHR). While Rabat considers this a ‘diplomatic victory,’ it has not been given a blank check. Indeed, the Kingdom will have to step up considerably its efforts to guarantee the respect of human rights in the region.

Similarly the issue of natural resources which first appeared in the Secretary General’s report in 2014, has now vanished. Yet if Morocco wishes to obfuscate its exploitation of natural resources in Western Sahara by focusing attention on its investments in the region, the question of natural resources is making a forceful return and in future will probably be a major factor in the diplomatic warfare between Morocco and the Polisario Front.

Thus, only a few days ago, a freighter carrying 54,000 tons of phosphates from the Boucrâa mines in Western Sahara was impounded while refuelling at Port Elizabeth in South Africa at the request of the Polisario Front which has sued the Sharifian Phosphate Office (SPO). While the SPO claims to be operating in the Laayoune District, ‘in strict respect of international law’, the Polisario Front points out that the exploitation of mining resources in Western Sahara is a violation of international law, since Western Sahara is regarded as a non-self-governing territory by the UN.

In 2016, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEY) handed down a decision stipulating that the agricultural agreement between Morocco and the EU did not apply in Western Sahara. One of the consequences of this decision is that the region’s resources may not be exploited without the consent of its inhabitants.

The Guerguerat Crisis

The adoption of Resolution 2315 was not without its share of twists and turns. After nine successive versions, drafted by the USA in its role as ‘penholder’1 of the Group of Friends of Western Sahara, which also includes France, Russia, Spain and the United Kingdom, the Security Council did not adopt it until April 28.

Originally scheduled for the 27th, the vote was finally adjourned to the following day, evidently in order to leave time for the Polisario to evacuate Guerguerat. This small village is located in the buffer zone, in the south-west region of Western Sahara, on the border between Morocco and Mauritania. It was at the heart of a crisis between Morocco and the Polisario. In August 2016, Morocco began paving a road in that area, which it justified by its determination to “combat smuggling in the region.” The next day, the Polisario front deployed armed elements in the area and lodged a protest against Morocco on the grounds that this work was in violation of the terms of the cease-fire. On February 24, King Mohammed VI warned the UN Secretary General of the risks involved in the presence of armed Polisario elements in the area. On Sunday, February 26, 2017, at the request of the UN, worried about the dangers of a conflict, Morocco withdrew from Guerguerat. but the Polisario army remained on the spot. It was not until April 27 that the troops withdrew from Guerguerat, after the United States had proposed to condemn the presence of armed elements of the independence movement—a proposal opposed by Russia and the UK, lest the Polisario react by taking a tougher line.

Moroccan and UN Diplomacy After Christopher Ross

On Monday, May 1st, three days after Resolution 2351 was passed, the Polisario Front, in the person of one of its leaders, Mhamed Khadad, declared that it was prepared to ‘begin negotiations with Morocco on the basis of the Sahrawis’ right to self-determination." Addressing a press conference in Algiers, he also called for the matter to be dealt with “jointly by the African Union and the UN with an eye to “achieving freedom and national independence” for the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR).

In making this demand, the Polisario pulled off a two-fold diplomatic gambit. On the one hand, it erased the Guerguerat setback and appeared determined to find a solution to the conflict. On the other, by demanding that the issue be treated by the African Union (AU) it has drawn Morocco onto a territory where it does not yet fully comprehend the workings and where it would seem at first glance that it can no longer opt out of the process. One of the reasons it has returned to the UA was to persuade it to “play a positive and neutral role in settling the Sahara question” as a Moroccan official phrases it. Now for a long time, Morocco refused to let the AU become involved in this issue. Will it be able to keep this position now that it has joined again? On the face of it, such a stance would be hard to justify.

Although Morroco has not yet responded to the Polisario’s proposal, negotiations are expected to resume when Hörst Kohler, the Secretary General’s new special envoy for Western Sahara, has taken up his post. After eight years on the job, his predecessor Christopher Ross had to resign on January 23. Accused of being openly pro-Polisario and pro-Algerian, and even “anti-Moroccan,” by the Moroccan media, one wonders exactly how Christopher Ross was actually viewed by Moroccan diplomats. “In absolute terms, it is not possible to say that he was anti-Moroccan” said a confidential memorandum leaked by Chris Coleman (in which a Moroccan diplomat expressed the opinion that Ross “is undeniably skeptical about the Moroccan determination to extend democratic reforms and the rule of law”. If Morocco has rejected him, it is because “while formally working for the UN, Ross actually represents the American view of this issue. Since his nomination, Washington has decentralized the handling of the matter. And in fact, the American position is greatly influenced by Mr. Ross himself. It is this dual role, one official and the other unofficial, which makes the situation difficult.”

The manoeuvres undertaken by Rabat to push him aside were successful. And American diplomacy, which had put pressure on Morocco during the Obama presidency regarding a number of issues—notably those involving human rights—seems to have become less insistent. Several amendments favourable to Morocco have been proposed by the US delegation on the Security Council.2

The outcome will now depend on Morocco’s and the Polisario’s good will, and on UN efforts to involve Algeria in the negotiations. Yet while Moroccan diplomats have approved Guterres’s appeal to the neighbouring countries, urging them to implicate themselves further, Algeria’s contribution to a settlement does not yet seem to be a given.

The setbacks encountered by all the previous UN special envoys for Western Sahara should also prompt Guterres to reconsider their role on the basis of a new “road map” capable of creating a consensual framework for discussions, and of encouraging a new departure in negotiations aimed at finding that “fair and mutually acceptable solution” sought by the UN.

The UN has attempted two successive approaches to the solution of this conflict. In the eighties, several plans for a settlement were submitted to both parties ; after 2004, priority was given to direct negotiations between the two parties. In the absence of any tangible progress, should a new approach be considered? The present stalemate has lasted since 1975 and the negotiations are running out of steam. Both these facts point to the need for a new approach, a new mode of negotiation. The determination to involve the neighbouring States in the negotiations is a good starting point but may well lead to the cacophony.

The Plan for Self-government

The Kingdom itself should rethink its original proposal. Its “Plan for self-government in the Southern Provinces” , tabled in 2007, would empower the head of a Sahara government, elected by the regional parliament, invested by the King and exercising competences in the areas of economic development, territorial administration, general development and external relations. Within this framework, the State would retain sole competence in matters of national security, defence, foreign affairs and religious policy. Now, “it must be said that the Self-government plan, which has remained unchanged for ten years, is out of date. First, because its sweeping principles, presented on only two pages, are not sufficiently detailed, especially with regard to the workings of the jurisdictional mechanisms,” wrote Ali Amlar, editor of the Maroccan website Le Desk, in a recent article. And this is how one should understand the recent UN resolution, which calls upon both parties to “show greater political determination to reach a solution, particularly by examining in greater depth their respective proposals.”

Closely linked with “advanced regionalisation”, a reform of the regional arrangement in response to galloping urbanisation and the unequal growth of various regions, together with a rural exodus which has proven difficult to stem and the emergence of intense competition between certain regions—the Self-Government Plan proposed by Morocco to settle the Western Sahara conflict suffers from the fact that ”this regionalisation to which so much lip service is paid and in which the future self-governed Sahara region is supposed to be enshrined, has yet to exist,”Ali Amar went on.

Clientelism, Annuities and Parliamentary Over-Representation

The credibility of the Moroccan proposal will depend not only on its acceptance by the international community and the various parties involved, but on the efforts Morocco will make towards building a genuine collectivity which Sahrawis can appropriate for themselves and whose legitimacy they can recognise. For despite intensive efforts in development, Morocco is still struggling to create a genuine social and citizenship pact with the inhabitants of the region.

The present political administration rests, in particular, on the old formula of co-optation and clientelism. Which causes its share of collateral damages, including “the non-renewal of elites and the persistence of mechanisms of clanic, tribal and clientelist co-optation (especially in electoral periods, with the aim of gaining privileges), which have kept the younger generation from rising to positions of local power,” as the sociologist Laurence Aïda Ammour has observed. She reminds her readers that by deliberately choosing to appoint to positions of responsibility local notables who were not necessarily trusted or respected by the Sahrawis, the State discredited from the start the local political administration, and this nobiliary system ultimately created a glass ceiling.

To this was added an electoral system “which ensures an over-representation of the so-called Saharan provinces. Six out of the seven provinces involved elect one MP for fewer than 20,000 registered voters, whereas the national average is one MP for 44,617 registered voters,” as the geographer David Goeury has pointed out.

Various subsidies and other privileges complete the picture: gasolene and essential goods like flour, oil and sugar are subsidised, civil servants are paid double wages, investors are exempt from VAT and corporate taxes.

In order to “moroccanize” this territory, the Kingdom encourages Morrocans from the north to settle in Western Sahara. The idea is to dilute the native population in view of the referendum on self-determination—a referendum which has never been held on account of disagreements between Morocco and the Polisario as to the composition of the electorate.

Are these privileges about to be abolished? In November 2015, King Mohammed VI alluded to the need “to break with an economy of annuities and privileges.” For in addition to having created “what many community activists call positions of unearned privilege, a way of buying social calm which they consider contrary to the construction of a community of citizens.” In the words of Laurence Aïda Ammour, this system of privileges has also “helped perpetuate prejudices about the Sahrawis held by people in the north : lazy, indolent, unable to fend for themselves, etc.”

A Confrontation of Remembrances

Language, culture, memories. Other aspects of the same struggle, wherein each side invokes the broadest possible range of precious achievements, and the loser is condemned to a shapeless identity. Thus Morocco has inscribed Hassanya Arabic in its Constitution, making it a common heritage. Article 5 guarantees its preservation, “as an integral part of united Moroccan culture.” A national program aimed at classifying the hassanyan oral heritage was launched in April 2015, festivals will be organised to honour the culture of the South and a fund of fifteen million dirhams will be devoted to financing documentaries about the Sahara.

Despite these efforts, meant to give pride of place to the South in the overall cartography of Morocco, Moroccans have not displayed much interest in Hassanyan culture. Which doesn’t prevent them from showing their affection for the “Southern Provinces.” In this respect, the Green March3, that gesture of unification, lives on in people’s memories. Conducted both to recover territories which Morocco considers its property and to reunite national ties distended by two attempted coups followed by fierce repression, the machinery of nationalism still seems to function, helped along by an official version of History which claims that Morocco has always enjoyed undeniable sovereignty over that region.

On the Polisario side, the search for memories is anchored in armed struggle. A historical narrative is directed against Morocco but hesitates to define an attitude towards the Spanish occupation, thus appearing more as “a sum of amnesias—synthesised in the nationalist rhetoric depicting the permanence of a Sarawhi identity spanning the territory’s thousand-year history—than the narrative of a common history, however incomplete, composed of federative moments,” writes Francesco Correale in “La narration de l’histoire en situation de crise. Revendications et contradictions dans la construction mémorielle sahraouie », Les Cahiers d’EMAM, 2015.

Thus two mutually exclusive official memories exist side by side, each drawing on what is, in many respects, a shared history, but telling two contradictory tales. And yet the choice of events is not infinitely extensible. These fragmentary histories, on the basis of which both Morocco and the Polisario attempt to define their respective positions, are endowed with different meanings on the two sides, carefully trimmed to fit into the general economy of remembrance. Between Moroccan patriotism and the provisional ideology of the Front, the youngest Sahrawi generations have finally chosen a middle ground, a religion of agnostics so to speak. Because “when you have one uncle in Tindouf, another working for a ministry in Rabat and a third who’s in prison, you can’t help being torn between conflicting causes and identities. Thus Polisario rhetoric has come to represent an alternative form of self-assertion,” writes sociologist Laurence Aïda Ammour who believes that this friction between several identities has caused “many of the young to espouse human rights movements where they have found a way of reformulating their demands by linking them with a universal cause which goes beyond strictly local stakes.”

A Need for Dialogue

The Moroccan government thought—wrongly—that it would be possible to strengthen national ties and bind Western Sahara to the rest of its territory through the simple magic of subsidies and other incentives and stepping up investments. But none of this proved capable of producing any collective enthusiasm. These policies could not diminish unemployment among the young, prevent the social demotion of parts of the population or contribute to the redistribution of wealth.

The venues for negotiation and mediation in Western Sahara, like the Royal Advisory Council on Saharan Affairs have themselves become symbolic of the poor handling of the question by Rabat and the exclusion of most Sahrawi from the process of decision-making. Thus, a better dialogue with the populations of the region is absolutely necessary.

There is also a need to break down the barriers between the forms of rhetoric, portrayals and demands, and thus allowing the various associations and the champions of independence to express themselves publicly. Their contribution could well turn out to be decisive on the long road to the end of the conflict could have a tempering effect in Western Sahara and constitute a positive contribution to the Morocco-Polisario negotiations, since welcoming an opponent’s rhetoric is a token of good will. Indeed, the political issues are often diluted into other forms of rhetoric and other demands, for fear of repression, but resurface violently in times of tension.

It is also important to dispense with rhetoric incompatible with Sahrawi aspirations to integration, a rhetoric which considers those who live in the camps at Tindouf to be “passive prisoners,” “liberated” at last when they rejoin Morocco. Equally dismissing “separatists of the interior” and the Sahrawi of the Polisario Front, this rhetoric is mired in aporia, associates in a single gesture rejection and the repulsion inspired by wrongheadedness, and yet also the wish to see Sahrawi knocking at the door to regain entrance to Morroco. And it is not the least paradoxical aspect of this conflict, this wanting to bring back into one’s own camp an enemy depicted in such negative terms.

1Editor’s note. In the vocabulary of the UN, this term refers to the delegation that writes the first version of a draft project.

2See for example “ Western Sahara Resolution”, whatsinblue.org, 28 April 2017.

3Editor’s note. March originating in Morocco on November 6, 1975, organised by King Hassan II to “liberate” Western Sahara from Spain.