The World Today

monthly magazine of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, London,

vol 56, No 1, January 2000, pp 19-21.


Sheikhs, Soldiers and Sand

* Adekaye Adebajo


The Western Sahara conflict, unresolved for over two decades, must qualify as the worldís most neglected. It has been relegated to the background by higher profile disputes in Bosnia, Kosovo, Angola and Somalia. The recent referendum in the former Portuguese colony of East Timor, which led to it being granted independence by Indonesia, as well as current political changes in Morocco, should focus international attention on the similar case of Western Sahara.

Western sahara and east timor are both examples of irresponsible Iberian decolonisation. The two were abandoned by their colonial masters, Spain and Portugal, who did not bother to discover the wishes of the people before leaving. This led to military annexation by rampaging neighbours: Indonesia in East Timor and Morocco and Mauritania in Western Sahara.

Independence movements waged guerrilla struggles in both, challenging what they saw as alien occupation. For decades, both Indonesia and Morocco ñ allies of the West ñ were considered too important to trouble with issues as trivial as self-determination. The fall of Suharto in Indonesia was followed by a referendum and the granting of independence to East Timor. The United Nations (UN) supervised vote was not the organisationís finest hour.

Will the death in July of King Hassan II of Morocco give the UN another chance to sample opinions on independence, this time in the Western Sahara?

Sons of the clouds

Slightly larger than Britain, Western Sahara is a barren, desolate territory of unending sand in northwest Africa. A former Spanish protectorate, it has rich phosphate deposits, fishing resources, and a small population of some 300,000.

The territory was inhabited by nomadic Saharan tribes, the sons of the clouds, who migrated long distances, with camels and goats, in search of water and pasture. The liberation movement that claims to be their descendants is the Frente Popular para la Liberacion de Saguia el-Hamra y de Rio de Oro (the POLISARIO Front), which was founded by Saharan students in 1973. The roots of this desert conflict lie in ancient claims by Morocco and Mauritania that their sultans and emirs historically controlled Saharan tribes who owed them sovereign allegiance.

An International Court of Justice (ICJ) advisory opinion in 1975 noted that, though there were legal ties of allegiance between the monarchs and some, but not all, Saharan tribes, these were not a deciding factor in the issue of self-determination and did not constitute ties of territorial sovereignty since there was no administrative presence until Spanish conquistadors appeared in 1884. The ICJ supported the view of the UN General Assembly that the people of Western Sahara be allowed to determine their own future through a referendum.

Green march

In November 1975, Moroccoís King Hassan ordered 350,000 of his subjects into the territory on the ëgreen marchí to pressure Spain to abandon it. They claimed they were mujahedin fighting a jihad against Spanish infidels. Having unleashed these nationalist demons, Hassan could not call them off without serious political repercussions.

Socio-economic grievances had led to two narrowly failed military coups díÈtat in Rabat in the 1970s as the fall in the international price of phosphates coincided with severe droughts. The palace was especially keen not to be outflanked by nationalist opposition parties on the issue of Greater Morocco, which, for a while, involved irredentist claims on western Algeria, northern Mali, and all of Mauritania and Western Sahara.

Having organised a census in Western Sahara in December 1974 to prepare for a UN-supervised referendum, fascist Spain made a stunning volte-face. With Generalissimo Franco on his death-bed that November, the territory was divided between Morocco and Mauritania.

A massive exodus of Saharans ensued, with nearly half of the population trekking across the desert to the southwestern Algerian town of Tindouf. Over 150,000 Saharan refugees still eke a destitute existence in refugee camps in this barren desert terrain, where POLISARIO has organised a mass of dedicated supporters.

That Morocco was prepared to cede to Mauritania a third of a territory it had claimed entirely on historical grounds, exposed the political expediency in what Rabat had presented as strictly legal claims.

Desert war

In February 1976, POLISARIO declared the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) a government-in-exile. Its Saharawi Peopleís Liberation Army (SPLA) launched a guerrilla war, forcing Mauritania to withdraw from the conflict in August 1979. The SPLA then targeted the 100,000 Moroccan soldiers in the territory.

Unable to gain an outright military victory, POLISARIO tried to make the war such an economic drain on Morocco, that Rabat would be forced to withdraw to avoid domestic political instability. By 1987, Morocco had built a 2,700 kilometre-long fortified sandwall, the berm, to shield the main population centres of Western Sahara from guerrilla attacks. Though not impregnable, the berm altered the military balance in Moroccoís favour. POLISARIO was reduced to controlling a sliver of barren desert in the south and east.

A political settlement is made difficult by the consensus that has emerged between crown and citizens, and political parties and press, on the Moroccanity of the Sahara. Aside from the political capital, Rabat has invested much in the territory, building roads, ports, schools, and hospitals. Between 1976 and 1989, Morocco spent an estimated US$430 million annually on military and civilian affairs ñ three percent of its Gross Domestic Product.

Despite Rabatís efforts to win the support of the inhabitants, there have been sporadic protests and opposition by POLISARIO, most recently in 1992 and 1995. Human Rights Watch reported that Morocco has arrested, detained, and sometimes tortured, hundreds of Saharans. There are still unresolved cases of disappearances.

King Hassan eventually accepted the idea of a joint United Nations-Organisation of African Unity (OAU) referendum in Western Sahara in 1981, largely to ward off recognition of the SADR. This proved unsuccessful and Morocco left the OAU in 1984 after twenty-six of its fifty-one states recognised the SADR as a member.

In August 1988, UN Secretary-General, Javier Perez de Cuellar, secured agreement between Morocco and POLISARIO for a referendum to enable the people of Western Sahara to exercise their right to self-determination, choosing between independence and integration with Morocco.

The settlement plan proposed a six-month transition encompassing: a cease-fire; an exchange of prisoners; UN control of key aspects of administration; a reduction of Moroccan troops from 100,000 to 65,000; disarmament and confinement of troops to designated locations; the return of about 120,000 Saharan refugees from Algeria and Mauritania; the identification and registration of voters; the organisation of a referendum following a three-week campaign; and the withdrawal of Moroccan soldiers or the demobilisation of POLISARIO troops, depending on the outcome of the vote.

Friends and Foes

A tangled web of regional politics has fuelled and sustained the conflict. Algeriaís primary reason for backing POLISARIO was its desire to curtail Moroccoís regional ambitions. Both states had fought a brief border war in October 1963, and Algeriaís military brass-hats felt that any weakness towards Morocco could revive irredentist claims on parts of Algerian Sahara. The Western Sahara became a stage on which the rivalry for Maghreb leadership was played.

Recently, there has been speculation that Algiers would sacrifice POLISARIO on the altar of Maghreb unity. The Arab Maghreb Union (UAM) was established between Algeria, Morocco, Mauritania and Tunisia in February 1989 to promote regional economic cooperation. With the outbreak of a savage civil war in Algeria in 1992, analysts questioned Algiersí continuing commitment to POLISARIO.

The main extra-regional actors are France, Spain, and the United States. France provided much military and diplomatic support to Morocco, a country of strategic value for maintaining influence in Africa. Paris has supplied Rabat with fighter jets and other arms and strongly backed it in the UN Security Council.

Spain has also provided Morocco with arms, signed a fishing agreement with it that covers the waters of Western Sahara, and concluded a bilateral trade agreement. POLISARIOís frequent attacks on Spanish fishing vessels in Saharan waters led to friction.

US policy has also tended to favour Morocco. Hassan played an important role in Middle East peace efforts and sent troops to Zaire in 1977 and 1978 to rescue the pro-Western regime of Mobutu Sese Seko. Rabat granted transit facilities for the US Rapid Deployment Force for Middle East emergencies. Washington, Paris, and Madrid have, however, striven to balance close diplomatic ties with Morocco with lucrative commercial contact with Algeria.

Who is Saharan?

The UN mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) was established in September 1991, with a cease-fire and two hundred UN military observers. Both parties embarked on an arcane dispute over the criteria for identifying voters making impossible the expected January 1992 referendum. This delayed the transition that was meant to follow automatically, deprived the UN of its powers to administer the territory, and effectively halted the settlement plan for three years.

Controversy erupted in December 1991 when, on the eve of his departure as UN Secretary-General, Perez de Cuellar expanded the criteria in a way that was widely believed to favour Morocco. From an electorate based entirely on the Spanish census of 1974, potential voters would now be able to claim other ties to the territory.

The two primary requirements for inclusion in the referendum are being at least eighteen years old on 31 December 1993, and membership of one of the eighty-eight subfractions of the ten tribes listed in the 1974 Spanish census. Selection centres on five key criteria, with every applicant having to satisfy at least one. Supporting evidence to be produced consisted of official documents issued by colonial Spain; exceptionally, oral testimony by sheikhs; and traditional documents certified by respected elders.

POLISARIO objected vehemently to the expansion of the criteria beyond the revised 1974 census list, considering it a ploy by Morocco to flood the referendum with non-Saharans. Morocco, on the other hand, urged the widening of the criteria, arguing that Saharan migrants resident in Morocco, as well as the great-grandchildren of people born in the territory, be included.

POLISARIO stressed the importance of written evidence, in the form of authentic documents issued by the Spanish colonial authorities, while Morocco argued that oral testimony was equally important in a nomadic, largely illiterate society, and asked that documents issued by its government also be permitted. These issues were eventually resolved by UN reassurances and the identification process finally got underway in August 1994.

Searching For Sheikhs

The identification process is necessarily painstaking. Candidates are first photographed and fingerprinted, before submitting documentation to establish their identity and eligibility. UN identification commissioners interview each applicant, assisted by Arabic-speaking registration officers, in the presence of Moroccan and POLISARIO representatives, OAU observers, and sheikhs from both sides.

The identification commissioners review the evidence and testimony before making a decision on eligibility. The role of the sheikhs is crucial since they confirm the identity of applicants.

Only sheikhs elected to the djemma (assembly) under Spanish colonial rule are automatically eligible to testify. In cases of incapacity or death, they can be replaced by their eldest surviving son. In the absence of sons, unsuccessful candidates from the 1973 sheikhsí election are chosen. Lacking such candidates, each party submits a list of three notables, with the UN picking one. Most sheikhs elected in 1973 are already aged and incapacitated and many have died, leaving twenty-nine of the eighty-eight subfractions without any living sheikhs, surviving sons or candidates from the 1973 election. This has led to serious disagreements.

Both parties have manipulated the indispensability of the sheikhs to stall progress. They sometimes refused to accept replacements for deceased sheikhs or announced to incredulous UN officials that sheikhs had mysteriously vanished to Las Palmas, Bilbao, Havana, or Nouakchott without leaving forwarding addresses. The sad case of the missing sheikhs became an almost farcical part of MINURSO folklore. This remote, sleepy UN mission has experienced frequent stoppages and interruptions over substitute sheikhs and contentious subfractions. The identification process has drifted precariously between tragedy and farce.

End-game in the Sahara?

In March 1997, James Baker, the respected former American Secretary of State, was appointed as the UN Special Envoy for Western Sahara by new UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan. During talks in London, Lisbon, and Houston, in the summer of 1997, Morocco and POLISARIO agreed to complete identification. This had been stalled for two years.

The participation of such a prominent American diplomat was considered crucial in wringing concessions from both sides. Washington was a strong ally of Moroccoís which therefore felt obliged to cooperate. POLISARIO had consistently demanded the attention of powerful states as a way of pressuring Morocco to hold a referendum.

The list of eligible voters identified by MINURSO has increased Moroccoís nervousness. As many as forty-three percent of applicants, many presented by Rabat, were rejected for not meeting the criteria. 84,251 out of 147,249 applicants identified so far (out of a total of about 200,000) were found eligible. This has bolstered POLISARIOís confidence. If this trend continues, the 72,000 people in the revised census would be the core of an electoral roll, as POLISARIO has consistently demanded.

Nearly 40,000 of the successful applicants are thought to be POLISARIO supporters based mostly in the refugee camps and in Mauritania, while Morocco is less certain about the allegiances of the largely living in Western Sahara. Rabat could very well lose the referendum. Some observers have accused Morocco of stalling through the current appeals process in which nearly 80,000 excluded names have been submitted for review.

Will it fly?

These events coincide with dramatic changes in Morocco. The death in July of King Hassan, after a thirty-eight-year reign, has created uncertainty about future stability. The recent sacking of hard-line Interior Minister, Driss Basri, by the new King Mohammed VI shortly after a brutal crack-down by Moroccan police on peaceful demonstrators in Laayoune, in September, symbolises a change in style that could have far-reaching consequences.

With the removal of Basri and the creation of a Royal Commission to address the socio-economic grievances of the Saharan population, Mohammed seems to be asserting his domestic authority and attempting to win the support of the Saharan population.

The young monarch has pursued a rapprochement with Algerian leader, Abdelaziz Bouteflika. There are negotiations to open their common border, which has been closed since 1994. There are also plans to revive cooperation in the Arab Maghreb Union. But Bouteflikaís recent statement that Morocco is harbouring Algerian Islamists reflects continuing tensions.

The Maghreb region is often compared to a bird, with Algeria, Mauritania, and Tunisia forming the body and Morocco and Libya the wings. But this is a bird which has been so incapacitated with internal conflict, that it has had great difficulty gaining flight.

Some analysts have suggested an autonomy deal for Western Sahara which would grant POLISARIO some authority over internal affairs but allow Morocco to claim sovereignty. But it is far from clear that either side would accept such a plan which would, in any case, be fraught with dangers for POLISARIO.

Once the international community recognised Moroccan sovereignty, any military action by Rabat would be considered a purely internal affair. POLISARIO would then have to rely on moral pressure without the benefit of legal remedies: recent lessons from the initially lethargic international response to East Timor, Kosovo, and Chechnya cannot be too encouraging.

Following events in East Timor, Saharan refugees have expressed concern about the UNís ability to guarantee their security if they returned to vote in Western Sahara. The UN will be keen to avoid a repetition of the debacle.

The East Timor vote, progress in the identification process, the eight-year cease-fire, and recent political changes in Morocco, all suggest that there is a fair chance that the momentum towards a vote will continue. Much still depends on whether the West will be prepared to pressure a young king to risk losing a referendum in a strategically important country.

Some observers think the Sahara referendum will never take place. Optimists, however, continue to hope that the sheikhs will one day lead their flock on an exodus from the Algerian wilderness to the promised land; that the soldiers will bid a final farewell to arms; and that the sand that stretches across this vast desert territory will be spared the spilling of further blood.

* Dr Adekeye Adebajo is a Research Associate at the International Peace Academy in New York.

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