TINDOUF, Algeria — On the western coast of North Africa, the battle over Africa’s last colony wages on unresolved, even after 16 years of armed struggle followed by almost two decades of ineffective intervention by the United Nations.
The war over the sovereignty of the Western Sahara (see map below) has gone through many stages, but the conflict between the Kingdom of Morocco and the Polisario Front — the independence movement of the Saharawi people — has kept the Maghreb region in a state of tension for more than three decades.
At stake is not only the stability of the region, but also the legitimacy of the U.N., the lives of more than 150,000 Saharawi refugees living in neighboring Algeria, and the possible return of the territory to armed struggle.
In 1884, the Spanish landed on Western Saharan shores and established a colony. Eighty years later, the U.N. classified the settlement as a Non-Self-Governing Territory, which, under U.N. decolonization policy, required Spain to hold a referendum on the political future of the Western Sahara. The Saharawis were to choose between the options of integration with an existing nation, autonomy under a neighboring state, or independence.
In 1975, the Moroccan king, Hassan II, sent the Royal Moroccan Army (RMA) and more than 350,000 Moroccan citizens to settle in the Western Sahara, which pressured Spain to withdraw its administrators before the referendum. At the same time, tens of thousands of Saharawis fled the Moroccan forces and settled in neighboring Algeria. On Feb. 27, 1976, the Saharawis’ Polisario Front — which had organized a few years earlier to battle the Spanish colonists — proclaimed the creation of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) as the legitimate government of the Western Sahara.
For 16 years, the Saharawis used lightning strike tactics to battle Morocco’s conventional forces (and the Mauritanians, who laid claim to the southern portions of the territories after Spain’s withdrawal, but were driven out by Polisario forces in 1979). In the 1980s, the RMA constructed a 1,500 mile-long wall that still divides the Western Sahara in two, with Morocco controlling the cities and coastal areas on the western side, and the Polisario Front administering the eastern side.
In 1991, a ceasefire sponsored by the U.N. and the Organization of African Unity — now the African Union — was signed, and the U.N. Mission for a Referendum in the Western Sahara (MINURSO) was deployed to begin preparations for a democratic referendum for the Saharawi people.
Eighteen years later, after MINURSO’s failure, a ruling by the International Court of Justice supporting a referendum, countless U.N. resolutions, and several rounds of direct negotiations, the self-determination of the Saharawis and the Western Sahara remains a distant ideal.
In 2003, it appeared as if the conflict were on the brink of resolution, when the second version of a compromise plan formulated by former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker was accepted by the Polisario Front. Morocco’s rejection of the plan, however, resulted in Baker’s resignation.
Meanwhile, both sides continue active diplomacy campaigns to gain international support for their positions. The Kingdom of Morocco argues in favor of an autonomy plan for the Western Sahara, citing its de facto control over the region since the 1980s. The Saharawis refuse to accept any solution that does not include a referendum including the option of Western Saharan independence. Morocco counts on the backing of the Arab world and its main European ally, France, while the SADR has been recognized as an independent nation by more than 80 countries and the African Union.
While the conflict wages on, more than 150,000 Saharawis continue living in inhospitable conditions in the five refugee camps outside of Tindouf, Algeria; international organizations such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the European Parliament’s Ad-Hoc Commission on the Western Sahara, and the U.S. State Department have documented frequent human rights abuses against the Saharawis in the Moroccan-controlled territories, including forced disappearances, rape, and torture; and the Polisario Front assures that it is ready to return to war, if necessary.
The current status quo — called a situation of “neither war nor peace” by the Saharawis — will not last forever. The Saharawi populations in both the Western Saharan territory under Moroccan control and the Algerian refugee camps are increasingly losing faith in the U.N. system, and the Polisario Front is under pressure from its people to take back their territory by force.
While the presence of the Moroccan wall — protected by more than 5 million landmines and guarded by more than 120,000 Moroccan troops armed with tanks, radar and heavy infantry — would make the next round of fighting notably distinct from the war fought in the 1970s and 1980s. If the U.N. continues in its inability to enforce its principle of self-determination in the last remaining colony in Africa, the next stage of the conflict may be a bloody one.
Tim Kustusch has worked with the International Crisis Group and the U.S. House of Representatives. He is currently living in the Saharawi refugee camps outside of Tindouf, Algeria, where he has spent two months as a volunteer reporter with the Saharawi Journalists and Writers Union (UPES).
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