Francesca Eremeeva is a research associate for the Council on Foreign Relations’ Middle East Program.
Nolan Quinn is a research associate for the Council on Foreign Relations’ Africa Program.
On December 10, 2020, then-President Donald Trump tweeted that because “Morocco recognized the United States in 1777,” the United States should return the favor by recognizing “[Moroccan] sovereignty over the Western Sahara.” This rather explicit quid pro quo, which allowed the Trump administration to secure the final addition to its Abraham Accords, was slammed as a “rash move disguised as diplomacy” by James A. Baker III, who served as both U.S. secretary of state and UN special envoy for Western Sahara. Criticism of the Trump administration’s decision has centered on its norm-breaking abandonment of the UN peace process. Another way to look at the decision, however, is to see it as the natural consequence of a dispute which has lacked effective and impartial mediators, creating a vacuum in which transactional diplomacy trumps multilateral peace efforts.
The conflict over Western Sahara dates back to efforts to decolonize the African continent. When Spain relinquished control over the “Spanish Sahara” in 1975, it agreed to transfer administrative responsibilities to Morocco and Mauritania. A three-way war erupted soon after involving the two African states and the Polisario Front, an Algerian-backed politico-military organization representing the interests of the indigenous Sahrawi population. While Mauritanian involvement in the war proved short-lived, fighting between Moroccan forces and Polisario guerillas continued until a UN-backed ceasefire was signed in 1991. The ceasefire left the political status of Western Sahara up to a referendum to be administered by the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO). Initially scheduled for January 1992, the referendum has yet to take place, leaving Western Sahara under de facto Moroccan occupation.
MINURSO’s task of organizing a referendum was difficult from its inception. The essential first step—identifying eligible voters—quickly became a fierce political dispute. While MINURSO proposed technical solutions to the impasse, it left unaddressed the underlying political problem: both sides were committed to achieving victory in a “winner-takes-all” referendum. Well placed to fulfill that mediating role should have been the Organization of African Unity (OAU) and its successor, the African Union (AU). However, faced with Moroccan intransigence, a growing number of OAU member states—twenty-three by June 1980—decided to recognize bilaterally the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), established by Sahrawi nationalists in 1976 to defend their sovereignty claims over Western Sahara, and sought its admission to the OAU. Morocco warned against admitting SADR on the grounds that it did not constitute an “independent sovereign African State” as specified in article IV of the continental body’s founding charter [PDF]. SADR was nonetheless admitted in 1982, to which Morocco responded by withdrawing its membership from the OAU.
The OAU’s anti-colonial roots made it understandably predisposed to support Sahrawi nationalism. But the decision to admit SADR as a full member effectively put the OAU ahead of the UN stance [PDF] that, while the peoples of Western Sahara were entitled to self-determination [PDF] and independence, SADR did not—and still does not—constitute a state. The legally contentious and politically explosive decision engendered a Moroccan perception that the OAU and, later, the AU, were not neutral enough to take part in negotiations. Subsequent flip-flopping by the AU further reduced the continental body’s ability to mediate the Western Sahara dispute. After a thirty-three-year absence, Morocco was re-admitted to the AU in 2017, and in 2018 the AU formally limited its role in peace efforts concerning Western Sahara, choosing instead to support the UN process—both diplomatic wins for Morocco.
Failures by the OAU and AU have been amplified by the UN Security Council’s unwillingness to apply pressure to break the ongoing diplomatic impasse. Baker, who came closest to achieving a resolution over Western Sahara in 2004 as special envoy, resigned the same year due to intra-Security Council divisions. A pattern of rhetorical condemnation over Morocco's occupation of Western Sahara, coupled with delays to the referendum without political retribution, has led to a stagnant peace process. Outside actors have, in turn, prioritized their bilateral relations with Morocco—or, less frequently, with the Polisario Front—over supporting a viable peace plan. The United States, until Trump’s volte-face, maintained an ambiguous policy of “positive neutrality,” supporting Morocco militarily while maintaining a neutral position on Western Sahara’s political status. Prioritizing bilateral relations is ultimately what made Western Sahara’s “final status” a dispensable concern which President Trump could wield as a bargaining chip. After all, America’s partnership with Morocco was never conditioned on the peace process.
Trump’s norm-breaking over Western Sahara was driven, in part, by the same factors that motivated his support for Israeli claims over the Golan Heights and Jerusalem: securing votes from a relatively small group of U.S. voters for whom supporting Israel is among the more important issues on the ballot. That the interests of such a faraway group, almost entirely unrelated to Western Sahara, could bear influence on the territory’s political status serves to underline the danger of detached diplomacy. The AU, which remains an unwilling and ineffective mediator in the region, should view it as a warning call.
Other latent disputes on the continent that require action are, for the most part, ignored. The AU has done little to bring Somalia and the breakaway republic of Somaliland together for talks, allegedly because it does not want to encourage other independence movements on the continent. Yet allowing Israel and Gulf states to vie unchecked for influence is hardly a better outcome. The AU’s marginal role in discussions on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam allowed the dispute to fester; a first round of AU-brokered negotiations last year showed promise but later failed, prompting calls for outside involvement.
The looming threat from climate change—already causing conflict in West Africa and likely to intensify border disputes—means the AU needs to build stronger frameworks for numerous and varied disputes. The establishment in 2016 of the AU Mediation Support Unit is encouraging, as is the recognition of the crucially important role of regional economic communities, some of which have proven themselves effective mediators. But without a more forward posture in encouraging talks in conflict situations, new institutional arrangements will make little difference in building the AU’s credibility as a mediator.