The Sahrawi people of the Western Sahara are split off from the rest of civilization by a 2,700km wall stretching across the desert: a stark physical reminder of an independence struggle which remains unresolved after 40 years. In the four decades since Moroccan troops entered and occupied the remote territory in 1975, the resulting conflict and struggle for independence has barely been reported, and has largely been overlooked by the international community.
This ‘media invisibility’ is in stark contrast to coverage of other situations where a population has been divided: such as the Cold War separation of East and West Germany, and the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine. Even on the rare occasions when the territory does make the news, there is often a lack of background context to the dispute, which dates back to the end of the colonial era.
What is today known as Western Sahara, was a former Spanish Colony up until the 1975 ‘Madrid Agreement’, in which Spain agreed to end colonial rule, and control of the area was passed on to Morocco and Mauritania. Mauritanian troops soon withdrew, and Morocco annexed the territory. These events were followed by a 14-year guerrilla war between Moroccan troops and the Polisario Front – a group fighting against the perceived occupation, operating from neighbouring Algeria.
To counter the rebel movement, Morocco built a 2,700km wall in the 1980’s to separate the troubled territory from the rest of the country. The wall remains in place today, manned by an estimated 120,000 Moroccan soldiers and surrounded by thousands of landmines which have wounded more than 2,500 people over the last four decades. The heavily-militarized wall remains in position despite the fact that the conflict officially ended in 1991, after a UN-brokered ceasefire agreement was signed by both sides.
In the years immediately after the violence ended, the outlook began to look more positive: the UN set up a Peacekeeping Mission in 1992, known as the ‘UN Mission for a Referendum in Western Sahara’. The aim of the mission was to give the Sahrawi people a vote on self-determination; yet 25 years later this has still not materialized, and the political situation remains deadlocked.
The lack of any meaningful progress is a cause of increasing frustration amongst the native people of Western Sahara, with more than 155,000 of them still living in refugee camps in neighbouring Algeria after being displaced by the conflict. Morocco has continually rejected independence as an option, and has been accused over the years of abusing human rights and using excessive force against protestors. For example, several people were killed when security forces broke up a pro-independence demonstration, at a protest camp just outside the capital Laayoune in November 2010.
The Moroccan government has a different perspective on the situation, claiming that Morocco has rightful historical claims to the land. In support of this, the Almoravid Dynasty encompassed both of what is now present-day Morocco and Western Sahara, long before the Spanish colonial era began in 1884. In the current context however, continued control of the area gives the ruling Monarchy legitimacy in the view of many Moroccan citizens, whilst many envisage a path towards the eventual legal annexation of the territory.
A factor making independence an even more unlikely prospect is Morocco’s extensive control over economic activity in Western Sahara. The territory is rich in fisheries, phosphate and possibly offshore oil – whilst the Moroccan government has also spent billions of dollars on infrastructure development across the country. As a result of this ‘economic entrenchment’, many now argue that there is too much at stake for Morocco to consider allowing a referendum to take place: independence would mean that valuable economic gains would be wiped out, damaging Morocco’s position as one of Africa’s fastest-growing economies. Morocco’s economy has been growing at an annual rate of around 4.5% per year, whilst the country has developed strong relationships with Western governments, who also have an interest in Morocco’s continued political stability and economic progress.
Since the turn of the 21st Century, there have been several attempts to reach a peace agreement, which have all ended in failure. The key issue is the process of ‘identification’: effectively the problem of deciding who would be eligible to vote in a future referendum. In 2001, UN Special Envoy James Baker mediated peace talks, and submitted a framework agreement known as the ‘Third Way’. This proposed autonomy for the Sahrawi’s under Moroccan sovereignty, with a referendum taking place after a four-year transition period, in which Moroccan settlers in Western Sahara would also be entitled to vote.
Unsurprisingly, this proposal was rejected by Polisario and neighbouring Algeria, as the Sahrawi people remain resolutely committed to achieving full independence. Alternative proposals put forward by the Sahrawi people have been rejected by Morocco, who insist that Moroccan settlers residing in the territory should also be granted the right to vote. A lack of compromise from both sides has resulted in the political stalemate which persists today.
Whilst the situation remains stagnant, the frustrations of the Sahrawi population are increasing, and sentiments are again growing stronger. Several observers have predicted that if a way forward is not found soon, the violent conflict which ended in 1991 could soon re-ignite.
However, even if a referendum is held and Western Sahara does gain independence, the problems will not necessarily be resolved. Any new government of the self-proclaimed ‘Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic’ would face huge challenges in ensuring that the state is economically viable. Either autonomous or independent, Western Sahara would still be heavily reliant on Morocco for trade, development and security for many years to come.
Given the decades of stalemate and continuing tensions, a solution which would suit both parties seems unrealistic, out-of-reach and almost impossible to achieve. However, the current situation is unsustainable: the longer it goes on, the greater the risk of Western Sahara returning to a state of conflict. To achieve a realistic settlement which advances the rights of the Sahrawi people whilst maintaining the political and economic stability of the area, compromise and dialogue is necessary on both sides of the wall.