Mainstream Magazine, New Delhi, India, Vol. XXXVII, No 24, 03.06.00.




Reader (Retired) Department of African Studies,

University of Delhi, India


The proposed referendum in Western Sahara to determine its political future has been postponed once again. According to the original peace plan, agreed to by both Morocco and the Polisario Front, the referendum was originally scheduled to be held in 1992 but it was postponed first until 1995, then until 1996, then until 1998, and then until July 2000 but seems unlikely now due to the dilatory tactics and obstructionist attitude adopted by the Moroccan King. The Polisario Front, which is spearheading the struggle for the independence of Western Sahara, has waited patiently for ten years but in vain. With no prospects for a referendum in sight, it has now given a sort of ultimatum that it would not wait for a peaceful settlement of the problem beyond 31 December 2000, which means it would be free to resume its armed struggle anytime thereafter.

Western Sahara was a Spanish colony which was partitioned off by Spain in 1975 under a secretly negotiated Madrid Accord. Under the Accord, the southern half of the territory was given away to Mauritania and the northern half to Morocco without ascertaining the wishes of the native inhabitants. This was an illegal act on the part of Spain because the international law does not prescribe this method of decolonization of any territory. Under the circumstances, the Polisario Front, which represented the aspirations of the Saharawi people both within the territory and outside, launched its armed struggle directed against both Mauritania and Morocco, the two beneficiaries of the illegal Madrid Accord. When Mauritania was knocked out of the struggle in 1979, the Polisario Front unleashed its entire force against Morocco. At one stage, it had captured 90 per cent of the territory of Western Sahara, forcing Morocco to erect some walls to protect the economically most important area containing phosphate mines as well as three important cities - Al Ayoun, Smara and Bou Craa - in Western Sahara.

However, as a result of war-weariness and international pressure, Morocco agreed to work for the peaceful settlement of the problem. As the later events proved beyond any doubt, this was only a ploy on the part of the Moroccan King to gain time and consolidate his hold over Western Sahara. Another objective of the Moroccan King in opting for the peaceful resolution of the conflict was to improve the tarnished image of his country in the international arena. In spite of all this, the Polisario Front extended its full cooperation in the search for a peaceful resolution of the conflict. This resulted in a UN-OAU-brokered peace plan, the central feature of which is that the future of the territory would be decided through a popular referendum in which only those Saharawis, whose names figured in the census organized by Spain in 1974, would be allowed to cast their vote. They had to be given only two options ˆ independence or integration with Morocco. These Saharawis would be identified by an Identification Commission set up by the UN subsequent to the agreement on the peace plan. The Identification Commission has by now identified 86, 261 persons out of 198,469 applicants as genuine Saharawis entitled to vote in the referendum, which included those who were listed in the 1974 Spanish census plus many others who had been left out of that census. Now Morocco wants that the cases of the 139,000 applicants who have already been rejected by the UN Identification Commission due to lack of evidence, should be reconsidered. According to the UN, it would take about 3 more years to re-assess each individual case. This means more time and resources for the UN, and more suffering for the Saharawi people. A stalemate has thus been intentionally created by Morocco in the implementation of the peace process because at heart the Moroccan King does not want a referendum because he is not unaware of the fact that the Saharawis would overwhelmingly opt for independence. If the peace plan is abandoned at this stage, it will mean a waste of half a billion dollars spent by the United Nations so far on peacekeeping in Western Sahara, for which Morocco should be held solely responsible. Also, if the Polisario Front is forced to resume the armed struggle, the blame should be laid at the doors of Morocco.

During the protracted peace process, Morocco left no stone unturned in sabotaging the referendum. It blocked the deployment of UN mission (MINURSO) and halted its logistical supplies at the Moroccan ports. Foreign visitors, the media and NGOs were not given access to the territory. The UN telephones were tapped, its mail tempered with, and its staff regularly searched. The Saharawis were harassed and those registering to vote were photographed by the Moroccan authorities and their registration cards snatched away after they had been identified. This was nothing short of thuggery and mafia-type behaviour on the part of Morocco.

Morocco is doing all this because it does not expect the result of referendum to go in its favour if only 86, 261 voters, approved by the Identification Commission, are allowed to cast their votes. Its demand for re-identification of the rejected applicants is unacceptable because the fact is that these people are actually Moroccans, and not Saharawis, and have been purposely settled in the territory to swing the result of the referendum in Morocco‚s favour. If these 139,000 persons had been Saharawis as Morocco claims, they would have been identified as such by the tribal chiefs; these applicants could not produce valid documents to prove that they were Saharawis. In spite of this, Morocco wants them to be counted as voters because it knows very well that it can not win the referendum unless these bogus voters are also included in the electoral roll. The implementation of the peace plan is thus stalled because of Morocco‚s baseless demand.

Officially, Morocco has not backtracked from the peace plan but it has started saying that the implementation of the peace plan is difficult. This is a new tactic on the part of Morocco. It is trying to gain what it could not gain militarily or what it can never gain through a free and fair referendum.

It may be mentioned here that the UN Special Representative, James Baker III, on 14 May 2000, tried to break the impasse and remove obstacles in the peace process but he failed in his mission because of the intransigent attitude of the Moroccan delegation. Mr. Baker will resume his negotiations with both parties next month but not much should be expected from these negotiations because of Morocco‚s unhelpful and adamant attitude.

In fact, referendum based on genuine voters does not suit Morocco because then Western Sahara would slip out of its hands, throwing its plans for "Greater Morocco" into disarray. The "Greater Morocco" plan envisaged the annexation of the whole of Mauritania, south-western part of Algeria, the whole of Western Sahara, north-western part of Mali, the Spanish enclaves of Ifni, Ceuta and Melilla, and northern district of Senegal. This dream of "Greater Morocco" now lies totally shattered. Mauritania has become an independent state recognized by the OAU and the UN. The claims to northern district of Senegal and parts of Mali have been dropped by Morocco. Morocco waged a bitter war against Algeria, soon after its independence, to occupy by force the south-western part of the country but the powerful Algerian defence forces frustrated Morocco‚s obnoxious designs. So, Morocco is now engaged in the hopeless task of trying to retain Western Sahara under its control in a bid to salvage at least part of its "Greater Morocco" dream.

Morocco is able to hold on to Western Sahara through sheer military might. It is reported that about 180,000 of its troops are stationed in Western Sahara to cope with a possible attack by the Polisario army which comprises only 15,000 men. Even with 180,000 troops in Western Sahara, Morocco can not win the war in the desert - a fact confirmed by both American and Moroccan generals. It goes without saying that if armed struggle is resumed, the whole of Maghreb will have to face insecurity and destabilization, apart from massive death and destruction that it will cause, of course, on both sides.

Besides, the Moroccan economy, which is already in dire straits, will be ruined perhaps beyond redemption. Morocco is presently spending $ I million per day on the maintenance of its troops in Western Sahara. In order to meet the cost of the illegal occupation of the territory, people of Morocco are being heavily taxed. Part of the salaries of government employees is being deducted every month to finance the forcible occupation of the territory. Also to meet the cost of occupying Western Sahara, Morocco is raising resources by exporting huge amount of hashish. It may be mentioned here, that Morocco is one of the biggest exporters of hashish in the world.

If Morocco withdraws from Western Sahara, all the expenditure that it is incurring on the forcible occupation of Western Sahara can be saved and used for development work in Morocco. Morocco is facing chronic economic problems. At the end of 1999, Morocco‚s external debt amounted to 20 billion. More than half the population of Morocco lives below the poverty line. About 4o per cent of Moroccans are unemployed. Literacy rate in Morocco is below 50 per cent. Prices of essential commodities are beyond the reach of the common man. These are the problems that need to be addressed by the King. Unfortunately, the Moroccan King cares a fig for the agony of his people. For him, the annexation of Western Sahara overrides every other consideration.

The new Moroccan monarch, realizing that he is sure to lose the referendum, has started talking of an alternative to the UN peace plan. He is now frantically trying to win support for his idea that Western Sahara be made an autonomous province of the Moroccan kingdom. There may be hidden sympathy for this idea in some European capitals but the Polisario Front would never accept it - and justifiably so, because Saharawis have not laid down their lives in thousands to get just an "autonomy". Nothing short of full independence and sovereignty would meet their aspirations. Saharawis know what sort of life awaits them if they become part of Morocco. The Moroccan regime is unable to provide security to its own people who are victims of persecution, victimization, imprisonment, torture, and banishment at the hands of the monarchy. This is why thousands of Moroccans are fleeing to Europe. If this is the fate of the Moroccans, the Saharawis do not expect better treatment for themselves from the monarchical regime. Therefore, the Saharawis will never accept merger of their territory with Morocco. The Moroccan King is wasting his time trying to win support for his "autonomy within Moroccan kingdom" idea. The Western pressure will not succeed in forcing the Polisario Front to dilute its demand for full independence and sovereignty.

If the Western states want to prevent a fresh blood-bath in north-west Africa, they must persuade Morocco to accept the figure of 86,261 identified as genuine voters by the UN after thorough scrutiny of all applications. The ball is now in Morocco‚s court; it must remove all obstacles to referendum. The Polisario Front has always cooperated with the MINURSO, the UN peacekeeping mission in Western Sahara, while Morocco has created obstacle after obstacle with a view to preventing the holding of the referendum. It is unfortunate that, while all Western countries give verbal support to the UN peace plan, they do precious little to pressurize Morocco on Western Sahara issue. Morocco is, therefore, able to defy the United Nations with impunity. Among western countries, pressure is especially needed from France which has tremendous influence in Morocco. Unfortunately, France always takes a position that is opposite to that of Algeria because it is not able to swallow its hurt pride resulting from its humiliating defeat at the hands of the FLN forces in 1962. There is no other reason why France should have a soft corner for Morocco. The trading and investment opportunities are much greater in Algeria than in Morocco, and it will be in the interest of France to improve its relations with Algeria. Besides, Morocco has lost its strategic significance for the West in the post-Cold War era. Why should then the West let Morocco keep a tinder box burning in north-western Africa ?

The West fears that if Morocco is forced to vacate its illegal occupation of Western Sahara, it will destabilize the monarchy as well as the entire Maghreb. This fear is quite unfounded, for the fact is that independence of Western Sahara will provide stability both to the monarchy as well as to the Maghreb. Removal of the hot spot will relieve the Maghreb of the tension which prevails there. So long as Western Sahara does not become independent, the whole of Maghreb will be sitting on a live volcano which can burst any moment and engulf the whole region in a devastating conflagration. Even the monarchy will be more secure if Morocco washes its hands off Western Sahara because then the King will be able to devote his time and energy as well as his resources to some constructive work in Morocco which will benefit the common man.

At present the people of Morocco are suffering immensely largely because of the Western Sahara problem. The Moroccan people are at present groaning under inhuman and brutal rule of the Moroccan King. There is no democracy, no respect for human rights, no freedom of speech and no freedom of the press in Morocco. A number of newspapers and journals have been banned. Le Journal and Ashifa journals were banned because they published an interview with the Polisario Secretary-General, Mohammed Abdelaziz. As far as human rights are concerned, the various reports of Amnesty International are enough to indicate the extent of their violation in Morocco. All this shows that the people of Morocco are not with the Moroccan King. How can the King feel secure under these conditions, especially when his own people do not support him from their heart ?

It is high time when the Moroccan King should realize that Western Sahara's independence may be delayed by his dilatory and obstructionist tactics but it can not be denied for ever. The sooner he sees the writing on the wall, the better it would be for the future of the monarchy in Morocco and for peace and stability in the Maghreb as a whole.

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