On the western edge of Africa lies the country of Western Sahara, the last European colony in Africa whose fate has yet to be decided. If you don’t know where it is, the inverted “L” is shaded with “No data” on each map. Most of the world seems to be ignoring this region and choosing instead to focus more on surrounding countries like Mali and Niger, but this war is starting to become significant and external players are starting to get involved.
I sat with a panel of experts this week to talk about what is happening in Western Sahara, and what awaits the country in the future. On this week’s board it was.
Stephen Zones> (Author / Cornell University)
Ricardo Fabiani> (International Crisis Group)
JALEL HARCHAOUI> (Global Initiative)
To oversimplify Western Sahara was once a colony of the Empire of Spain, rich in oil and phosphates. The main peoples of the country were the semi-nomadic Sahwari tribe who lived in the area for years under Spanish rule, but with the death of Franco, the Spanish began to abandon the area because the oil fields there were not very profitable with Libya pumping a lot. From him at that time.
Like many African countries, the region was supposed to have a vote on its future, either becoming independent or being absorbed into Morocco or neighboring Mauritania. This vote did not take place even though tens of thousands of Moroccans accompanied by the Moroccan army marched south to Western Sahara in what became known as the “Green March”, where Rabat occupied most of the main towns and cities. Madrid granted Rabat rights to administer the region until a referendum could take place, but again this vote never came.
When it became clear that Morocco would never allow a vote on this issue, a bloody 16-year civil war erupted between Morocco and the Polisario Front (backed by Russian weapons provided by Algeria). At the time, the United States feared that the Polisario was closely linked to left-wing countries, and was concerned that if they were to win the war, they might support the Soviets, so the United States provided funding and weapons to the Moroccan king in hopes of ending the war. . The fighting finally ended in 1991 as Morocco controlled 90% of Western Sahara and the Polisario Front owns 10% of the arid Sahara on the eastern edge of the country. The Polisario leadership left the country and settled in Tindouf, a small town in the extreme southwest of the Algerian Sahara.
This has been the case for a long time now, with so much of the African Union supporting the Sahwa, and France and the Gulf states siding with Morocco, but the conflict continued to boil over. The last leadership in Morocco is looking forward to resolving the conflict permanently now and ending the war. They do this by intensifying construction on a huge highway through the Sahara region (hopefully connecting West African countries to Moroccan ports), and by initiating bombing and clearing operations in the southern regions controlled by the Sahrawis.
But the major change is the international community’s engagement more openly than ever before. The Israelis and the Turks began providing the Moroccans with drones, the French supplied them with intelligence, and in the final days of Trump’s presidency, the United States fully recognized Morocco’s claim to the entire region.
Morocco has been an important partner of the United States and Europe for decades now, and both are fighting with the United States in the “war on terror” and maintain refugee status just 15 kilometers from southern Spain. Washington hopes for Morocco’s support to build this region to improve the highway down the western coast of Africa, and for the king to maintain his popularity, as there were real fears in Paris that if Morocco lost this war, the people might turn against the Moroccan royal family, the United States and the European Union. One of its most important African partners.
Supporting the West in spite of Morocco raises an interesting question: Can the borders be changed by force? When countries like Saddam’s Iraq moved to other countries, they were met with an international response, but it seems that this conflict is still under the radar. The sources we all spoke to indicated that if a referendum were held today, Western Sahara would almost certainly vote for independence and become the “SADR,” which is why Morocco will always refuse to hold an official referendum. In some terms, this action by Rabat seems very close to an occupation in everything but the name, and the current situation has the approval of everyone from Paris to Washington.
External parties may argue that Morocco has bought stability in the region, and generally West Africa will be better economically in light of the current situation, but all of this comes at a direct expense for the Sahrawi people who are currently fighting and dying in large numbers. .
I ask the question though, what is the best option? Should there be a self-determination referendum for the Sahrawi people, or is the stability of the Moroccan government and the building of the West African Highway more important than that? I would love to have your thoughts and comments on them.
You can check out our full discussion on this issue here at any of the links below.
YouTube >> https://youtu.be/ymGvtiP9UY8