Renewed clashes in Western Sahara shed light on the plight of the Sahrawi people

Hostilities between Morocco and the Sahrawi people over control of Western Sahara defy a 1991 peace treaty that hasn’t been brought to fruition.

The spectre of war is looming over Western Sahara. After a 29-year truce, Morocco and the Polisario Front fighting for the independence of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (RASD, República Árabe Saharaui Democrática) recently took up arms once again. The Moroccan army responded forcefully to the mobilisation of Sahrawi activists in the border village of Guerguarat, which Morocco has de facto control over in violation of the 1991 peace agreement. Both sides opened fire, but the number of casualties and those injured haven’t officially been reported. What is clear, however, is that the fragile balance that existed beforehand and which heavily favoured Morocco has been broken.

Western Sahara’s self-determination denied

Western Sahara, located between Morocco and Mauritania on the Atlantic coast, is the world’s largest non-self-governing territory. It used to be a Spanish colony, and in 1976 the local population proclaimed the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. 85 countries recognised it as a nation-state, and it is a full member of the African Union. However, it is included in the list of Non-Self-Governing Territories compiled by the United Nations and most importantly, Morocco has never recognised the SADR as an independent state, continuing to exercise sovereignty over most of Western Sahara’s territory.

The Polisario Front, a movement with socialist roots, has been fighting since the 1970s for the self-determination of the Sahrawi people in the territory that was left behind after decolonisation from Spain. In 1979, the Front signed an agreement with Mauritania, which withdrew from the region while Morocco continued to occupy Western Sahara. The guerrilla insurgency pitting its armed forces against Polisario Front militias went on for years, forcing hundreds of thousands of Sahrawi people to flee to neighbouring countries.

The 1991 peace agreement divided the territory into a larger portion under Moroccan administration and a strip of land controlled by the Polisario Front. Rabat ordered a 2,700-kilometre wall of sand, peppered with landmines, to be built along the border between the two territories, meant as a temporary measure. Dedicated UN mission MINURSO was created to monitor the ceasefire and organise a referendum on Western Saharan independence. 29 years later, the vote has yet to be held.

Sahrawi hopes betrayed

For almost three decades the Sahrawi people have been waiting for the opportunity to be given a say concerning their independence, as promised by international institutions. Initially, in the 1990s, the main obstacle was the difficulty in carrying out a census of Sahrawi voters, who live either in desert tribes or have been forced to flee to refugee camps in Algeria. Organising an election was logistically complex, but this became an easy excuse for inaction. Morocco has benefited the most from this situation, exploiting natural resources and raw materials such as metals, oil and major phosphate mines in the large portion of Western Sahara it occupies.

In October 2020, the United Nations postponed its blue helmets mission by another year, a decision seen by the Polisario Front as the umpteenth move aimed at protracting a status quo that has little to do with what was established in the 1991 agreements. What is more, the latest UN resolution makes no reference to a referendum, demonstrating not only that no progress is being made, but that things actually appear to be regressing.

A paradoxical situation, especially considering that in 2016 then-Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called Morocco’s presence in Western Sahara “an occupation”. The current prevailing interests seem to be determined by Morocco’s good trading relations with world powers such as France, which make any international initiative that might anger Rabat much less likely. After almost three decades of broken promises, the Sahrawi people are no longer willing to wait and have decided to take up arms once again.

Hostilities with Morocco resume

Over the past few weeks, tensions between the Polisario Front and Morocco have been rising. The friction is localised in Guerguerat, a sort of no man’s land near the border with Mauritania that neither side officially has jurisdiction over. Morocco uses this buffer region to allow freight lorries to transport goods for export, and in recent years the country has built transport infrastructure here. The Polisario Front has denounced Rabat’s interference in a territory that doesn’t belong to it under the 1991 treaty. For this reason, Sahrawi activists started protesting near road checkpoints, even causing roadblocks that led to a 200-lorry-long traffic jam and stopping Moroccan traders from continuing on their journeys.

On the 13th of November, the Moroccan army opened fire on Sahrawi protesters in an attempt to remove the roadblocks. The Polisario Front responded in kind, and in the following hours the clashes spread to other contested areas. The fighting continued for several days, with Sahrawi units carrying out attacks on several Moroccan outposts, reportedly also using a missile. Hospitals in the region began admitting the first few injured Moroccan soldiers according to local sources. At the moment, however, there is no official death or injury toll.

It appears that the fragile balance that had existed in Western Sahara has come to an end. Brahim Ghali, President of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic and General Secretary of the Polisario Front, wrote a letter to UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, stating that Morocco’s aggression seriously undermines “any chances of achieving a peaceful and lasting solution to the decolonisation question of Western Sahara”. The group has thus declared war against Rabat.

“We have land, but Morocco illegally occupies it”

“My family and the other people I know who live in Sahrawi refugee camps are both hopeful and worried about what’s currently happening in Western Sahara. For many years, the Sahrawi people have tried to reach agreements and manage an impossible situation using peaceful means. If they have gone back to fighting it is out of exasperation, but most of all it is a matter of self-defence as it has been proven that Morocco opened fire first”. These are the words of Lehbib Nafe, 32, a Sahrawi émigré who has been in Italy since the late 1990s. His family still live in refugee camps in Algeria, hopeful that they will one day be able to return to Western Sahara.

“Most Sahrawi people have been imprisoned for decades in foreign refugee camps. Without a valid referendum and acceptable, enforced agreements, there’s no chance of returning to our homeland. As a people we have our land, but Morocco illegally occupies it,” Nafe continues. Recent tensions and skirmishes and the international attention they have generated around the conflict – forgotten by, if not entirely unknown to many people outside the region – could bolster the Sahrawi cause.

So far, the strategic, economic and political interests that link powerful countries to Morocco have prevailed. Gradually, however, more people are beginning to focus on what’s behind all this: the massive, blatant denial of a people’s right to self-determination. “What’s happening is a signal, and many hope that the countries involved such as Spain, Morocco and France might change their approach and start listening to us”, Nafe concludes. “No one ever wants war, war doesn’t help. We have to find a peaceful solution to a saga that has gone on for far too long”.

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