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The Battle for Western Sahara: Africa’s Last Colony

Michael Hilliard

Image Credit: Stuart Price

Western Sahara has become one of the most overlooked conflict zones on the planet, with nations around it such as Mali and Niger absorbing the lion's share of international attention and peacekeepers. However, the outcome of this conflict may have long-term impacts on not only Southern Europe, but also on the post war rules-based order.

To understand the situation on the ground, we have to go back to the 1960s in the heart of Africa’s decolonisation period. During this time, the territory of Western Sahara was being administered by the Spanish and had become a good source of phosphates for the fledgling European power, but over time the cost of the occupation had begun to exceed the profits that could be made there. In 1970, the Spanish economy was at a low point, forcing Madrid to officially leave its African possession, with the plan that the territory would host a referendum to decide its own fate within a few months. At this point, the population of Western Sahara was mostly made up of the Sahwari people, a semi-nomadic tribe ethnically close to the Berbers in modern-day Algeria. It is important to note that most of the experts we spoke to for the research in this piece, agree that if the referendum had taken place at that point it would have likely birthed a Sahwari led ‘Sawahri Arab Democratic Republic’. That referendum, however, never took place due to its northern neighbour Morocco.

To put it mildly, the leadership in Morocco has a tense relationship with its eastern neighbour Algeria, even claiming that a good chunk of Algeria should rightfully belong to Morocco. Morocco became very apprehensive about being surrounded on all sides by Algeria, and an Algerian aligned Sahwari state, so with the Cold War backing of the United States and Paris Morocco led a demonstration of 350,000 Moroccans south into Western Sahara in 1975 to colonise and control the southern state before a referendum or local government could take hold. This event came to be known as ‘The Green March’, and to this day it is one of the major pillars of the Moroccan sovereignty claims. Following this march, a bloody civil war ensued that still continues today.

Currently, Morocco is in control of around 90 per cent of the territory, with the Sahwaris relegated to a sliver of land in the eastern desert along the border with Algeria. The idea of a Sahwari Arab Democratic Republic has gained recognition from a large number of nations, as well as the African Union. At this point in time though, the major outside powers are either playing neutral or siding with Morocco on this issue, forcing Sahwari leadership to base itself out of the small desert village of Tindouf in the South-West of Algeria.

The conflict here saddles the international community with a tough decision, to support the democratic rights of the Sahwaris or to back their partners in Morocco. The fear from Paris in particular is that no matter the result of a referendum, the outcome will be bloody and counterproductive with neither side accepting the election results. This fear stems from claims that the outcome may not be representative of the area due to large of amount of settlers who Morocco has moved into the territory over the last few decades. Not allowing a referendum though is a somewhat tacit endorsement by Paris and Washington for the changing of borders through military force, something not seen very much since the end of WWII.

The main reason Washington and France tend to side with the status quo is likely a strategic one. Morocco has been a staunch ally of the United States’ War on Terror for many years and regularly provides assistance to Western powers for operations in the Middle East and North Africa. To side with the Sahwaris may lose them a crucial regional partner. To add to this is the fear that a loss in this region after so much Moroccan bloodshed would possibly break the Moroccan peoples' faith in the king, and the US may not have as good a relationship with the likely religious-focused government to come after the removal of the monarch. The Moroccan king has for decades now worked closely with Spain and France to prevent Morocco from becoming a highway for African refugees to transit across the narrow Strait of Gibraltar into southern Spain, a mere 16 kilometres wide, and without the king there can be no guarantee that arrangement would continue.

The phrase that comes to mind here is ‘democracy, when it’s convenient’. The Sahwaris being denied a referendum on self-determination is yet another stain on the record for Europe’s history in Africa, but at the same time there is merit to the ‘stick with the devil you know’ mentality here. There have been dozens of occasions where the subsequent power vacuum after the abdication of a long-time leader or monarch has quickly devolved into a devastating civil war. This exact scenario is unfolding in nations like Libya, South Sudan and the CAR, and with the expeditionary forces of many of the European powers already vastly overstretched, national leaderships will be eager to keep a lid on any conflict in Africa they can. With the support of Paris, Washington and Brussels for the Moroccan position, it seems strategic partnerships will once again take precedence over ideological democracy in this area of the world.

If you want to learn more on this subject you can listen to a full 90-minute analysis with Stephen Zunes (University of San Francisco), Riccardo Fabiani (Crisis Group) and Jalel Harchaoui (Global Initiative) on the situation in Western Sahara if you can click here:

Michael Hilliard is an investigative journalist and defence writer based in Australia, he is also the Communications Director for the Oxus Society of Central Asian Affairs and the host of The Red Line Podcast.

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