Tyler Falish is an intern for the Council on Foreign Relations Africa Studies program, and a student in Fordham University’s Graduate Program in International Political Economy & Development.
On March 22, at the request of the Moroccan government, the United Nations (UN) closed its military liaison office in Dakhla, a city in Western Sahara, the disputed stretch of sand in northwest Africa claimed by the Kingdom of Morocco and the Polisario Front. Two days earlier—also prompted by Rabat—seventy-three UN personnel were “temporarily reassigned” away from the headquarters of the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO). These steps—along with the threat from Rabat to call home the 2,300 soldiers and police it contributes to UN peacekeeping missions—are the kingdom’s reaction to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s use of the term “occupation” to describe the Moroccan presence in the territory on his recent visit to refugee camps in southern Algeria, home to an estimated 150,000 ethnic Sahrawis.
One million Moroccans marched in Rabat on March 13 to protest the secretary-general’s remarks, calling to mind the nationally heralded Green March in 1975, in which 350,000 Moroccan civilians—escorted by 20,000 troops—walked into what is now the Western Sahara. The march led to the Madrid Accords (under which Morocco and Mauritania were given control of the territory) and to a low-intensity war fought mainly between Morocco and the Polisario Front (with the support of neighboring Algeria) that lasted until a ceasefire in 1991. That ceasefire has since been monitored by MINURSO, and the Polisario Front has threatened war unless the UN peacekeeping mission is fully restored, a decision Morocco claims is “irreversible.”
The Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), created by the Polisario Front in 1976, claims the entirety of Western Sahara, but controls only a thin strip—east of a 2,700 kilometer long, landmine-peppered sand berm—it calls the Free Zone. Morocco controls the remaining territory, referred to as its Southern Provinces, where most of the roughly 570,000 inhabitants of Western Sahara live. The Moroccan-held side includes the lucrative fishing of a long Atlantic coastline, all major settlements including the capital of Laayoune, and a phosphate mine contributing one-tenth of Morocco’s output. (Morocco possesses over half of the world’s phosphates reserves.)
Morocco is serious about retaining control over what has been called “Africa’s Last Colony.” Morocco is the only African country not in the African Union (AU), and refuses to join unless SADR’s membership is revoked. However, the AU has reiterated its commitment to the Sahrawi right to self-determination. Although the UN Security Council has called for the hasty return of UN personnel to MINURSO, it did not release a strong statement on Western Sahara. Morocco’s plan for autonomy—and not independence—enjoys the support of the U.S. government, and Secretary Kerry recently reaffirmed that support.
Although the Polisario Front enjoys some diplomatic support, Morocco has a clear military advantage, so renewed armed conflict is unlikely. This long-stalled territorial conflict will continue to play out in diplomatic statements, and there will be pressure from various parties on the Moroccan government through economic channels, as recently occurred when the European Court ruled an EU-Morocco farm trade deal to be invalid, based on a suit brought by the Polisario Front. Morocco has long been an important partner to the U.S., and the kingdom’s economic relationship with the EU continues to grow; Rabat is counting on the primacy of those factors. However, tens of thousands of Sahrawis remain in the effectively permanent refugee camps in Algeria, some entering their fifth decade of residence there. And, this issue stands in the way of the normalization of relations between Morocco and Algeria and a more integrated Maghreb, as well as the full integration of Morocco in the African community through the AU.