Western Sahara debate reignited

No issue divides the African Union member states like the dispute over Western Sahara. Also known as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, this partially recognised state is a member of the AU, represented by its government in exile. No Western powers recognise it.

The matter has tested the cohesion and existence of the organisation, and in the Moroccan capital of Rabat, the so-called Southern Provinces have united the political and military elite and defined their regional and global relations.

On March 31, the Moroccan delegation abruptly left an African Development Week event that was being held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The Moroccan delegation opposed the representation of the Sahrawi Republic at the event.

The African participants were divided along linguistic lines, with the Francophones echoing the need for an answer, whereas the Anglophone states dismissed the demand.

The incident came in the wake of an unprecedented diplomatic spat around the issue, which was triggered by United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon’s use of the word “occupation” in reference to Morocco’s role in Western Sahara, which is Africa’s longest-running territorial dispute and an issue of continental and international law. Ban was speaking of Rabat’s four decade annexation of Western Sahara at the end of his visit to Sahrawi refugee camps in southern Algeria.


The comment was met with outrage in Rabat. Morocco announced a unilateral reduction of the political staff of the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara, expelled its 83 members and withdrew its $3-million annual contribution to the mission.

Demonstrators took to the streets across Morocco, insulting Ban and burning his picture. A statement from the foreign ministry said Ban had abandoned his “neutrality, objectivity and impartiality” on the Western Sahara dispute.

A UN spokesperson later said the use of the word “occupation” was not planned and deliberate, adding that Ban regretted the “misunderstanding” over his use of the word. Morocco responded that it was not a misunderstanding, but a premeditated act to “alter the nature of the dispute”.

The UN sees Western Sahara as an issue relating to the right of the population of the territory to self-determination, whereas Morocco sees it as a recovered territory following the departure of its colonial power, Spain, in 1975.

The war between Morocco and the Polisario Front lasted for more than 25 years, from 1975 to 1991. The 1991 peace agreement was followed by UN Security Council resolution 725. Passed that year, it established a UN mission to Western Sahara and set up a road map for a referendum, which was originally scheduled for 1992. It failed, because of disagreements on voting rights and other details.

The Baker Plan of 2000, proposed by former UN special envoy James Baker, is considered to have been the last meaningful international attempt to resolve the crisis. Baker suggested a referendum for Western Sahara after a self-rule for five years.

Morocco rejected the plan, announcing it would not accept any referendum proposal that includes independence as an option. Baker resigned from his post in protest.

The UN-led talks are now at an impasse. There have been more than 10 informal rounds of UN-led negotiations since 2009, all of which have ended without any meaningful progress.

Morocco’s best offer is an “autonomy-based political solution”. The Polisario Front, which controls more than a quarter of the Western Sahara territory, says it won’t settle for anything less than a referendum on self-determination for the Sahrawis to choose between independence, autonomy or integration with Morocco – as recommended in the UN Security Council resolution 725.

The Moroccan and Sahrawi republic sections are divided by a wall that extends more than 2 500km. Generations of Sahrawis have had to live in refugee camps. The UN puts the number at 90 000.

Morocco left the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) in 1984 in protest against its acceptance of the Sahrawi republic as a member state. Algeria, which hosts the Sahrawi republic government in exile, is at the forefront of the AU group campaigning for the referendum. A number of key states of the AU, such as South Africa, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Kenya and Ghana, also support the referendum.

But others want Morocco back in the AU and are demanding a review of the AU stance on the matter. The mainly Francophone countries from West and Central Africa, and some countries in the north, such as Egypt, want the Sahrawi republic to settle for greater autonomy instead of independence.

Protest in Spain for independence of Western Sahara
People in Spain demonstrate in support of Western Sahara’s independence. (Juan Medina/Reuters)

The Western Sahara was again on the agenda at the January 2015 AU summit in Addis Ababa. In his first speech as AU chairperson, Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe said: “Africa’s failure to decolonise Western Sahara would be a negation [of the] African ideals and principles” of the OAU’s founding fathers.

Former South African president Thabo Mbeki also called it a matter of “great shame and regret for the continent”.

Given the AU’s strong stance and support of a proposed referendum, Morocco doesn’t consider the AU neutral enough for the negotiations.

In June 2014, the AU appointed former Mozambican president Joaquim Chissano as special envoy of the chairperson for Western Sahara to lead and co-ordinate the AU’s efforts on Western Sahara. Rabat was quick to reject the appointment, saying the AU “has no legal basis, no political fundament, nor moral legitimacy to intervene in that issue, which is the exclusive domain of the United Nations”.

Divisions in the AU were again reflected when the organisation’s Peace and Security Council (PSC) met on April 6 to discuss Western Sahara. Despite the AU decision that the countries sitting on the UN Security Council – Angola, Egypt and Senegal – are representative of the continent and therefore have a responsibility to respect and implement PSC decisions, many take their own path on issues such as Western Sahara.

Morocco is a valuable diplomatic and strategic partner in the West’s “war on terror”. Washington and Paris are unwilling to put pressure on Rabat, a major ally in the global campaign in the Maghreb region and beyond. The United States supports Morocco’s autonomy plan. Analysts say that Spain – the former coloniser of Western Sahara, which had historically sympathised with the Sahrawi cause – is now compromised by the European Union’s economic interests.

The latest meeting of the UN Security Council came as a disappointment to Ban and the UN secretariat because the council, pressured by the Morocco lobby, was unable to support the secretary general, or condemn Morocco’s response. Many in the UN and international organisations expected a rebuke or a strong response from the UN Security Council condemning Rabat’s perceived “bullying” of the UN.

Morocco is accused of illegal mining and fishing in Western Sahara and of denying independent observers access to the territory.

Recently, to the fury of Morocco, the EU’s General Court ruled that a trade pact between Morocco and the EU should not apply to products from Western Sahara.

The recent confrontation has brought Western Sahara back to the attention of the AU and the international community.

It could help bring the forgotten conflict back on to the UN Security Council’s agenda, and remind major powers behind the ineffective mediation that it is time to make meaningful proposals – and to take the difficult decisions needed to implement these. – ISS Today

Hallelujah Lulie is a researcher for the Institute for Security Studies’s Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis Division in Addis Ababa

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