In recent weeks, we have received a lot of news from Western Sahara. Morocco broke the ceasefire that was signed in 1991 in mid-November and thousands of Sahrawis have moved to the border of the occupied zone to face the army. It is clear that there is a conflict in the region and that it is intensifying. The problem is that, depending on the means of communication you read, the responsibility lies with one or the other side. For example, on November 21, ABC published an article titled “The War that the Polisario Front wants to reopen in the Sahara and that Morocco and Algeria reject.” This piece, in addition to whitewashing Morocco’s role in the restart of the war, praises Mohamed VI’s plan to grant greater autonomy to the region, under Moroccan sovereignty, and ensures that it has international support, which is not true.
To better understand what happened in these days, we must first carry out a historical review of the conflict in the region and the events that have brought us here.
The decolonization of the Sahara, a pending issue
“Pending decolonization.” This is the status with which Western Sahara appears on the List of Non-Self-Governing Territories (TNA) of the Special Committee on Decolonization of the United Nations (UN) since 1963. It is the largest and most populated TNA in the world. world and the only one pending decolonization in Africa.
As is known, the Sahara was a former Spanish colony, with El Aaiún as its provincial capital. In 1970, the UN urged Spain to hold a self-determination referendum in the territory. The Franco regime acceded to it in 1974, thanks to pressure exerted by the Polisario Front (founded in 1973) and by Algeria, but King Hassan II of Morocco expressed his disagreement with various international organizations, claiming that it was a Moroccan territory, so the query was suspended.
In 1975, King Hassan announced that the so-called Green March would take place to reclaim the Sahara. He acted spurred by announcements that Spain was willing to leave the region and by the little veiled support it received from the United States, given that the Polisario Front and Algeria held positions close to the Soviet Union. On November 6 of that year, 50,000 civilians and 25,000 Moroccan soldiers crossed the border and camped on Spanish territory. The United States and France gave their approval to the annexation of Western Sahara to Morocco at that time. And, in exchange for Spain leaving and handing over control to Morocco, the Yankee Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, promised King Juan Carlos I that he would support him to consolidate the Head of State (which at that time he held on an interim basis) after Franco’s death.
A few days later, on November 14, the Madrid Agreements were signed between Spain, Morocco and Mauritania, in which the Spanish State promised to abandon its presence in the region and unilaterally dissociated itself from any international obligation related to its administration. And so, in February 1976, Spain withdrew from the Sahara and communicated it to the UN, ending its occupation.
However, the International Court of Justice in The Hague ruled that neither Morocco nor Mauritania hold any title over the sovereignty of the Sahara and that the Madrid Accords are void, because Spain could not unilaterally transfer sovereignty. And, in the same sense, the UN denies that these powers have administrative capacity over the Sahara, which is why, to this day, officially, the Spanish state continues to be the administering power of the territory 45 years after its departure. This is due, in turn, to the fact that France has repeatedly vetoed the recognition of the condition of an independent state in the UN Security Council.
The Sahara War (1976-1991)
In February 1976, after Spain left the Sahara, the Polisario Front, supported by Algeria, proclaimed the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic and began a war of liberation against Morocco and Mauritania.
In 1979, Mauritania declared itself defeated, signed peace with the Polisario Front, and renounced its claims in the territory. While this was happening, Morocco consolidated its occupation of the territory, bombarded the Sahrawi population with napalm and white phosphorus (which constitutes war crimes) and forced their withdrawal into the desert. Since then, the Sahrawi people have been a punished people, with a significant part of their population in exile, residing in refugee camps in the desert. And the Sahrawis who decided to stay behind, in the occupied zone, live under a heavy-handed regime against any movement considered “separatist”.
In 1991, the Polisario Front and Morocco signed a ceasefire and the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) was established, charged with seeking a solution to the conflict.
The referendum that does not arrive
With the ceasefire and the creation of MINURSO, it was agreed to hold the long-awaited referendum in 1992. Since then, it has been postponed successively because of Morocco and, to this day, it has not yet been held.
Nor has Morocco acceded to the various proposals of the more than ineffective MINURSO, approved by the UN Security Council and accepted by the Polisario Front, such as the division of territory into two states. The only concession that King Mohamed VI has made is to offer greater autonomy to the area, but always under Moroccan control. And this is becaue Western Sahara is an area of great wealth of natural resources, with abundant oil (exploited by foreign companies in exchange for generous commissions to the State), phosphate mines and fishing.
Today, 250,000 Sahrawis still live in camps in the Algerian desert of Tindouf, in an area that is economically unimportant. They depend on international aid to survive and the discipline imposed by the Polisario Front is very strict, since they are aware that if they allow their inhabitants to leave these fields, their people will be diluted until they eventually disappear. This translates into frustration, poor living and the desire for a solution for thousands of young refugees who do not have a stable home, who are used to power outages as something natural and who have not known any other situation than the (post)war.
Furthermore, Western Sahara is divided from north to south by a great wall of 2,720 kilometers. Known as the Wall of Shame, it is the longest in the world. Inspired by Israel’s Bar Lev Line, it has bunkers, fences, motion radars and minefields and is defended by 100,000 soldiers. To the west is the territory occupied by Morocco (where, by chance, natural resources are found) and to the east the so-called liberated territories and refugee camps.
The violation of the ceasefire
And it is in this context that the conflict has flared up again. On October 21, dozens of Sahrawi activists occupied the El Guerguerat road, blocking the border crossing between Morocco and Mauritania, to protest the 45th anniversary of the Green March and to denounce drug trafficking that is carried out as a common practice in this part of the border.
The activists remained camped there, blocking the road, until on November 13, the Moroccan army crossed the border crossing with the intention of opening a security corridor and attacked civilians. This resulted in an exchange of fire between the army and the Polisario Front. It appears that there were no fatalities. Hours later, Sahrawi units bombed four military bases and two checkpoints on the wall.
The following day, the general secretary of the Polisario Front and president of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, Brahim Ghali, declared the 1991 ceasefire broken and declared a state of war. Since then, thousands of young Sahrawis have enlisted in the army and a curfew has been imposed in the camps.
For its part, the Moroccan government refuses to acknowledge the confrontations with the Polisario, describing the attacks as mere “harassment” and “provocations.”
At the same time, in recent days, it has detained numerous Sahrawi activists in various raids it has carried out in occupied cities. This is not a minor issue, since the Moroccan Executive has numerous “black” or clandestine prisons (such as those in Ain Aouda and Temara) in which dissidents are extrajudicially locked up and torture is practiced. Faced with these arrests, MINURSO has not said anything.
At the time of this edition, the Polisario Front has published twelve war reports. They report that they have been bombing Moroccan army positions every day since November 13 and that they have caused various breaches in the Wall of Shame.
The future is uncertain, but it seems clear that the conflict is far from being resolved, which will happen only when the right to self-determination of the Sahrawi people is recognized and the referendum is held. And it seems more difficult in a context like the current one, in which Mohamed VI authorizes Western companies to exploit Sahrawi resources and offers to harshly control the entry of sub-Saharan migrants to Europe in exchange for European powers looking the other way and remaining silent in the face of the human rights violations committed by their regime. And it is precisely because of this silence that the Wall of Shame should not only shame the Moroccan State, but should also give embarrassment to us all.
To keep up to date with the latest updates, we recommend the web pages of EC Saharaui and Equipe Media.
In this link you can read the statement of solidarity with the Sahrawi people by the Higinio Carrocera Anarchist Group (Asturias, Spain): https://higiniocarrocera.home.blog/2020/11/17/solidaridad-con-el-pueblo-saharaui/