New Delhi

March 15, 2000


The Conflict Continues

Saharawis blame Morocco for dilatory tactics while Morocco persists with its claim on the land.


by Anuradha Dutt


In 1985, when India recognized Western Sahara as sovereign country, the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic, it treaded on Morocco's toes. This sparsely populated land, with an area slightly larger than England and a population currently estimated at about 2 lakhs, has the Atlantic Ocean on the West, adjoins Morocco in the east, Algeria in the Northeast and Mauritania in the south.

It was held as a colony by Spain till its withrawal in February 1976 and subsequently invaded by Morocco and Mauritania. In 1978 the latter withdrew and recognized SADR in 1984. Morocco still continues to occupy territory in the former Spanish colony, claiming it as its own.

But in wake of India's recognition, Morocco reacted sharply by snapping diplomatic ties, which were resumed only in 1989 on account of trade compulsions since India happens to be a major importer of Moroccan phosphate. Despite pressure by Morocco to withdraw its recognition, more recently by Prime Minister Abderrahmane Youssoufi during his visit to New Delhi last month, India remained resolute. When quizzed on the issue by Indian journalists, he gave the Impression that India was contemplating reviewing its stand. Still the fact is, to Quote a senior official of the Ministry of External Affairs, India supports UN efforts, which aim at holding a referendum among the Saharawi people on the question of self rule.

Parallels with the Kashmir problem have been drawn but observers of the North African politics feel that these are infructus. India's stand reflects that of the majority of the nations that belong to the Organisation of African Unity (OAU). Most OAU countries have recognized SADR. In 1984, SADR was admitted into the OAU, an event triggered Morocco's withdrawal. The recognition by India came at a time when Non-Aligned Movement had adopted a resolution suporting decolonization. Meanwhile, the US and the most western powers and even Pakistan have not preferred their recognition, though the former have expressed support for the UN sponsered referendum. This, however, is yet to materialise, though the SADR and Morocco agreed to this process as far back as 1988-1989.

It was then decided that the referendum would be conducted on the basis of the 1973 Spanish census, which reportedly placed the Saharawi population at a meargre 74,000. However, a large scale influx of Moroccans into the country is blamed by the Saharawi side for having altered its demographic pattern, thereby enabling Morocco to file 140,000 applications in the UN, for the Saharawi identification process.

Originally slated for 1992, the referendum has been repeatedly postponed because of the impasse over identifying genuine Saharawis. There are estimated 165,000 of them living in refugee camps in Algeria. A government operates from the unoccupied territory, with a state of cease-fire prevailing since late 1991.

As per Houston Agreement finalised in 1998, the identification process was resumed, reaching completion early last year. The UN identified 130,000 people, of whom 84,000 had the right to vote. Morocco tendered the applications of the further 65,000 people, whom Saharawis dismisses being Moroccan descent. At UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's behest, this additional number was also scrutinised and only 2000 of them apperentaly identified as Saharawis. This brought the number of eligible voters to over 86,000.

Yet, the referendum, scheduled for July this Year, has again been postponed because of disagreement over the identification process. The UN Secretary General's personal envoy James Baker has been directed to facilitate the implementation of the settlement plan by monitoring a fresh identification exercise, which is to be completed within three months. Fears are rife that in the event of the referendum being further delayed or its outcome failing to find consensual implementation, there could be a return to hostilities between Morocco and SADR. Saharawi sources in Delhi blame Morocco for dilatory tactics. Morocco on its part, persists with its claim on this land, with a coastline rich in fish and large deposits of phosphate, uranium, gas petrol and other mineral wealth.

In view of the decline of the Non aligned Movement, after the end of the Cold War, there was an apprehension that India might withdraw its recognition of Western Sahara. Sustained pressure by Morocco to secure India's capitulation was expected to achieve this end. But, Saharawi diplomatic sources in India are elated by what they perceive as the failure of the Moroccan Prime Minister to obtain any such commitment during his visit.

Thus, while many trade agreements were signed, India refrained from being party to any pact that might infringe on SADR's rights over the phosphate reserves in disputed territory. They view this as vindication of their stand and India's continuing support of the decolonization process.

It is a measure of India's growing clout in world affairs that the Morocco Prime Minister, though hopeful of India's reviewing its policy on Western Sahara, refrained from clubbing it with Kashmir. In the past, Morocco had largely been blamed for thwarting India's attempts to find representation in the OIC. This time, it found itself in a piquant situation, with its Prime Minister disassociating Morocco from the stand of the OIC's contract Group on Kashmir.

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