The Transition in Western Sahara

Jagdish P. Sharma

U.S. imperialism and its feudal client state Morocco have long attempted to hold back the process of national liberation in Western Sahara. The Indian government had recognised the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) in 1985. About seventy countries at present give recognition to SADR. A rude blow was recently given by the Indian government to the peoples of Western Sahara by the derecognition of the SADR on the eve of the meeting of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference. This was a concession to the pressure long exerted by the Moroccan government in return for anticipated support for the Indian government’s stand on the Kashmir question — the Indian state as is known denies the democratic right of the Kashmiri people to self-determination and secession.

It is disheartening to learn that the referendum on the future of the disputed Western Sahara scheduled for July 31, 2000 has been delayed by at least several months: The peace process in Western Sahara is about to collapse as Morocco shows no sign of following Indonesia's example in East Timor. The identification process for voters in the referendum in Western Sahara is still creeping forward, but one cannot help wondering where the next obstacle will come from. Observers are still studying the new Moroccan king's pronouncement that he is committed to defending Morocco's territorial integrity by holding the ‘confirmative’ referendum in Western Sahara.

The United Nations proposed plebiscite in Western Sahara, which has been put off repeatedly since 1991, was recently scheduled by the United Nations for July 31, 2000. Voters in the former Spanish colony are to choose between independence and being part of Morocco, which annexed the territory in 1975. It is interesting to examine the second part of the provisional list of voters by the UN mission on Western Sahara, Minurso (Mission d' Observation des Nations Unies pour le Referendum au Sahara Occidentale). Of the 51,220 applicants from the three 'contested’ tribes, 2,130 individuals were recognised as having the right to vote. Added to the first list of 84,251 voters, the total number of voters is 86,381 out of about 200,000 auditioned applicants. The most contentious issue is the identity of 65,000 applicants who Morocco claims are indigenous people with the right to vote. The pro-independence Polisario Liberation Front says these people are immigrants sent to swing the referendum Morocco's way.

The long planned U.N. sponsored referendum for Western Sahara had to be postponed frequently owing to the stonewalling tactics adopted by the Moroccan government in the last five years.

Western Sahara represents one to the last problems of colonial political independence in the world today. Originally this territory was known as Spanish Sahara on account of its being a colony of Spain since 1884. This phosphate-rich patch of desert covers 102,700 square miles. Spain had promised the country independence, but pressure from Morocco and the U.S. forced the Spanish government, in the midst of its own delicate transition from fascism, to capitulate. On November 14, 1975, Spain entered into a tripartite agreement with Morocco and Mauritania, the northern and southern neighbours of this economically prosperous desert region, to partition this territory between Morocco and Mauritania, though within three years, the whole territory came under exclusive Moroccan control. This occurred despite the landmark October 1975 decision by the International Court of Justice that upheld the right of the people of Western Sahara to self-determination. The conflict raging there is a dispute over sovereignty between indigenous Western Saharans or 'Sahrawis' and their powerful neighbours to the north, that is, the Moroccans. The U.S. sided with Morocco due to its cold war calculations and concern about the likely prospects of an independent Western Sahara under the left-learning Polisario Liberation Front and also a wish to boost the political fortunes of Morocco's pro-western monarch, the late King Hassan II. Moroccan forces invaded the territory, but initially suffered heavy losses to the Polisario Front.

Unable to occupy the country by force, in 1980 the Moroccan army built the Hassan wall, to keep out Polisario and the Sahrawis generally. However, the Sahrawis found refuge in Algeria from where their leaders declared the independence of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). The Organisation of African Unity (OAU) and a total of 70 countries had recognised SADR by 1990. The Moroccan army has never been able seriously to restrict Polisario's activities, despite a Hassan wall garrison of 110,000 and advanced surveillance systems. Some 80,000 troops are in the area. Several encounters between the Polisario forces and the Moroccan army took place during the early 1990s. In December 1990 Amnesty International reported to the UN that several hundred people had 'disappeared' after being arrested by the Moroccan security forces since 1975. Many of the victims came from the south of Morocco and from Western Sahara, and were suspected of supporting Polisario. Mauritania was defeated outright and withdrew. Morocco succeeded in conquering virtually two-thirds of the territory, including the former Mauritanian sector. The U.S. blocked enforcement of the 1975 UN Security Council resolution which demanded Morocco's withdrawal and recognised Western Sahara's right to national self-determination. The region remains occupied today, with most of the indigenous population known as Sahrawis, exiled in refugee camps in neighbouring Algeria.(2)

The late King Hassan II of Morocco had made the conquest of Western Sahara an issue of national pride. Besides, this region contains some of world's richest phosphate deposits, uranium and oil off its 1,200 km of coastline, and the finest fishing grounds. In 1996, the two parties did reach a ceasefire agreement in the Western Sahara. According to the then UN plan, a referendum was to be held the following year on the future of the former Spanish colony. But it could not be accomplished owing to the conflicting postures on who should be entitled to vote in the proposed referendum on the total independence of the Western Sahara or integration of the territory into Morocco. The Polisario or the Western Sahara Liberation Front defended the last Spanish colonial census of 1974 counting 73,000 Sahrawis and objected to the participation in the referendum of Moroccan citizens who had been ‘transferred’ into the territory as a result of the Moroccan sponsored famous ‘Green March’ of 1975 and 1991. Over 145,000 potential voters have been identified, but the Moroccans insist on pressing the claims of another 65,000: They have apparently started their referendum campaign and anticipate the voting to take place in July 2000. Others are less sanguine, which puts the ball in the court of James Baker, the former U.S. Secretary of State. In fact, during the debate, president Nelson Mandela of South Africa linked Western Sahara and East Timor as two issues long overdue for resolutions and Ghana's Jerry Rawlings expressed the unacceptability of an African country behaving in a colonialist way. Moroccan Foreign Minister Abdellatif Filali had another way of looking at it. He referred to 'Sahrawi brothers who have been waiting for more than 20 years to return to their homeland, Morocco’.

Although Algeria seems to hold the key to peace in the Western Sahara conflict it could not succeed in persuading the late King Hassan of Morocco to change his mind.(3) To the Algerians, the latest U.N. initiative under Kofi Annan was meant to give impetus to the delayed peace process signed between the Polisario Front and the Moroccan government. A U.N. brokered ceasefire has been in place for the last seven years with the U.N. Peacekeepers (Minurso) ensuring that it is not violated. Morocco, along with the Government of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), which is a member of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), and is recognised by about 80 countries, had agreed to a referendum to be held under U.N. auspices. Many deadlines for the referendum have come and gone and the latest one that had been set for July 31, 2000 has been postponed to the end of 2000. Morocco is already typing to wriggle out of its commitment. However, this time it may not succeed owing to strong world pressure, particularly the UN and U.S. attitudes. After Kofi Annan took over as UN Secretary-General, Minurso was galvanised. Annan was determined to accelerate the process towards Sahrawi's self-determination. In March 1997 Annan appointed James Baker, former United States Secretary of State as his personal envoy to Western Sahara. Baker used his diplomatic skills and his international stature to make Morocco agree to a proposal on voter identification and a code of conduct guaranteeing the U.N. the authority to oversee a fair and free referendum. Since the Houston agreement(4) brokered by Baker in 1997, the peace process has made significant progress. Most people who are eligible to vote in the referendum have been identified. The U.N. Secretary-General has warned Morocco that if it continues its stalling tactics, he would ask the Security Council 'to reassess the situation and the viability of the mandate of Minurso,' The Sahrawis have threatened that if Morocco reneges on its commitments again, they will re-ignite the war which forced King Hassan of Morocco to deploy on a permanent basis tens of thousands of soldiers in the arid sands of the Sahara. Mohammad Abdelaziz, the SADR President, has also stressed 'that the Polisario Front would abide by and respect the Sahrawi people's choice under the conditions that the referendum is fair, free and democratic by allowing only Sahrawis to vote.'(5) As an inter-African conflict, the Western Sahara war has become a major challenge for the Organisation of African Unity (OAU). Indeed in 1982, the Saharan conflict produced such acrimony within the OAU that the organisation was almost on the verge of collapse.(6) Besides this the success of the Arab Maghreb Union (1989) according to some depends on the liberation of Western Sahara.

A permanent peace in Western Sahara is the need of the hour. It would provide socio-politico and economic stability not only to Morocco and the Western Sahara region but to the whole Arab-Maghreb region. The ongoing occupation of Western Sahara and the prevailing conflict would only contribute to the impoverishment of the Moroccans(7) and add to the suffering of the Sahrawi people by pushing them into refugee camps in neighbouring countries. In addition to aggravating the tensions in the region, the delay in ending the conflict there would further contribute to the waste of precious human, natural and economic resources which could be gainfully utilised for the socio-politico-economic development of the region as a whole.(8) It is time the international community realised the centrality of the peace process in Western Sahara. An independent Western Sahara would strengthen the aspirations of the neighbouring people and promote harmony in the Arab-Maghreb region. Commenting on the overall results of the voter identification process during a press conference in Algiers, the Sahrawi Minister of Foreign Affairs warned recently that any delay in the referendum would force the Sahrawis to resume armed struggle. It is hoped that the identification of the voters would be completed as per the new schedule paving the way for the people of the Western Sahara to decide their own political and economic future once and for all.


1. UN spokesman Fred Eckhard quoted in Asian Age New Delhi, 6 November, 1999.

2. Stephen Zunes, 'Foreign Policy in Focus: Morocco and Western Sahara' paper published in December 1998.

3. ‘Crescent International’, Ontario, November 1-15, 1989, p.3.

4. The Houston accords were negotiated between the Polisario Front and the Government of Morocco under the auspices of former US Secretary of State Mr. James Baker.

5. Quoted in ‘Frontline’, Chennai, February 12, 1999.

6. Tony Hodges, ‘The Western Saharans’, n.d., p.3.

7. K.R. Singh, ‘The Sand Wall is Crumbling’, ‘Strategic Analysis’, New Delhi, Vol. XII No. 5, August 1988, p. 494.

8. Jagdish P. Sharma, ‘Western Sahara: Progress towards Referendum’, ‘National Herald’, New Delhi, April 22, 1999.

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