FEATURED | Western Sahara : Liberating Africa's Last Colony

FEATURED | Western Sahara : Liberating Africa's Last Colony

By Ifeoha Azikiwe

Western Sahara, or The Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), has been variously described as Africa’s last living vestige of colonialism; the difference, however, being in the dominant colonial power.

FEATURED | Western Sahara : Liberating Africa's Last Colony

Since the exit of the original Spanish colonial occupiers in 1975, the territory is still struggling to liberate itself from the clutches of “internal” colonial domination of her close neighbor, Morocco. In addition, geographically located at the Northwest coast of Africa, the entity is sandwiched to the hinterland by Algeria, Mauritania and Morocco. While politically, at the continental level, the African Union (AU) remains unequivocal on the status of SADR as a nation, and to that extent, members accord her diplomatic status with considerable compliment of staff in most countries. For example, the SADR maintains an embassy at ambassadorial level in Nigeria.

At the 1984 Summit of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), the POLISARIO government-in-exile was admitted to take a seat as a member of the organization. Morocco expressed concerns and withdrew from the continental body in protest over OAU’s support for the independence of Western Sahara. Much as Morocco would love to belong to the continental body in the new spirit of African Union, her claims to territorial rights over Western Sahara remain a great hindrance for three running decades. Moreover, in the United Nations, the status of the territory is yet to be determined, 24 years after the deployment of a United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO). The UN intervention mission is yet to conduct its main assignment that would clearly determine the socio-political future of over one million Saharawians.

The growing span over its sovereignty status has left the entity at the peak of agitation, calling for independence by Algerian-backed Frente POLISARIO (Frente Popular para la Liberación de Saguia el-Hamra y de Río de Oro), which was created on May 10, 1973, as a revolutionary group to fight against Spanish colonialism. At that time, Mauritania and Morocco were on top of each other, laying claims to the territory. Mauritania’s claim started way back in 1960. While King Hassan II of Morocco regarded Western Sahara as the southern extension of his country. In what was known as the “Green March”, Hassan, in November 1975, ordered 350,000 demonstrators led by 20,000 Moroccan troops to invade the Spanish Sahara, apparently to force Spanish authorities to hand over the disputed territory to his government. Eventually, in December 1975, Spain left, and handed over the territory to the joint administration of Morocco and Mauritania. 

This transfer of authority over the disputed African land did not go down well with Algeria, which supported total independence for the territory. Operating from Algeria, the POLISARIO Front engaged Morocco and Mauritania in guerrilla warfare in pursuit of the struggle for independence, leading to frequent clashes between Moroccan and Algerian forces.  As the conflict ensued, authorities in Algiers in 1976, declared Western Sahara an independent State, and renamed it the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic, with POLISARIO as Government-in-exile under President Mohamed Abdelaziz. Defying the autonomy of SADR, Morocco and Mauritania annexed the territory. Morocco occupied the northern two-thirds portion, and Mauritania the rest of the territory. Mauritania later withdrew, having struck a peace deal with the POLISARIO in 1979. But Morocco quickly took possession and occupied the entire disputed region. In this political turmoil, the guerrilla war in Western Sahara has claimed over 10,000 lives on both sides and created approximately 102,000 Saharawi refugees. Thereby, in spite of UN intervention in 1991, the conflict lingers, constituting a cog in Africa’s aspiration to full continental liberation.

The international community is polarized over the conflict in Western Sahara as the status of the territory is yet to be determined, 24 years after the UN-brokered ceasefire. Since September 1991, MINURSO has made several unsuccessful attempts to determine the status of the territory through an acceptable referendum. While the SADR enjoys diplomatic relations with African nations, some others still await UN pronouncements. In 2007, the Kingdom of Morocco presented a blueprint for the autonomy of Western Sahara to the United Nations. The POLISARIO Front rejected the Rabat initiatives, and took commensurate actions by submitting a counter roadmap for the independence of the territory to the world body. This has created a stalemate as none of the parties is willing to moderate their position.

Over the years, the gulf between Morocco and the African Union seems to widen due to Morocco’s opposition to AU’s involvement in the peaceful resolution of the disputed territory. African Union currently maintains an observer mission in Laayoune, capital of the SADR, led by Yilma Tadesse of Ethiopia. This mission receives logistical and administrative assistance from AU resources, independent of the general UN annual budget. What is important to note, that the African Union takes the issue of Western Sahara very seriously. Irked by the apparent lack of progress, the Special Envoy of the African Union for Western Sahara, former Mozambiquean President Joaquim Chissano, in June 2014, met with the UN Deputy Secretary-General, the Special Envoy of the Secretary General, and other United Nations officials in New York to convey the concern of the African Union over the lack of progress in the ongoing negotiations. On the contrary, as stated in a letter dated June 9, 2014, the Permanent Representative of Morocco at the UN emphasized on Moroccon “Government’s firm opposition to any involvement of the African Union on the question of Western Sahara, stating that the organization had lost any legitimacy to play a role in the settlement of the dispute by taking a position in favour of one party. In a second letter dated July 1, 2014, he rejected the appointment of Chissano as null and void.

According to the Report of the Secretary-General on the situation concerning Western Saharadated April 10, 2015, AU Commission Chairperson, Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, addressed a letter to the Secretary-General. That is, dated March 30, 2015, Zuma transmitted the communiqué of the 496th meeting of the AU Peace and Security Council, as well as her report on the Western Sahara negotiations and related issues, and asked that they be distributed to the Security Council and the General Assembly. However, authorities in Rabat, insist that the AU should have nothing to do with the Western Sahara. As in a letter to the Secretary-General of April 5, 2015, the Minister for Foreign Affairs of Morocco reiterated “the categorical opposition of the Kingdom of Morocco to any role for or involvement by the African Union, in whatever form, in the issue of the Moroccan Sahara.” This was a follow up to an earlier correspondence from His Majesty King Mohammed VI in June 2013- advancing a number of reasons why AU should not participate in the negotiations.

Given these political tensions, the UN must take a decisive role on Western Sahara and thereby, take all necessary measures to break the long-standing deadlock on Western Sahara. The conclusions of the Secretary-General, as stated points that: “Forty years after the beginning of this conflict and eight years after presentation of the parties’ proposals, there can be no justification for continuing to maintain the status quo and failing to engage constructively and imaginatively in the search for a solution.” In this view, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, warned that growing frustrations among Western Saharans, coupled with the geographic expansion of criminal and extremist networks in the Sahel-Sahara zone, present increased risks for the stability and security of the region. He further stated that “A settlement of the Western Sahara conflict would mitigate these potential risks”.

Whatever position the Kingdom of Morocco may hold on this matter, Rabat must understand that the role of the African Union is indisputably crucial. The international community expects maximum cooperation from King Mohammed VI and the enlightened Moroccan authorities.  They must appreciate the fact that Africa’s continental body remains the base and main facilitator for the peaceful resolution of the conflict. No meaningful negotiation could be achieved without constructive engagements between Addis Ababa and Rabat. AU is resolute on the status of Western Sahara, and it may be difficult for the UN to go contrary to the aspirations of the continental body.

While the rejection of the African Union clearly indicates that Rabat may not be willing to tackle Western Saharan conflict with the seriousness it deserves. Recent developments obviously lead to the inevitable conclusion that all along, authorities in Rabat have merely been playing the ostrich, employing delayed tactics to frustrate the efforts of the international community. The future of the territory is at stake and the world can no longer take a backseat, watching Morocco institutionalize colonialism in this turn of a new millennium. The people of SADR reserve the right to self-determination, more so, when there is no historical imperative to justify Moroccan claims.

About The Author:

Ifeoha Azikiwe (O-8644-2015is a veteran Nigerian journalist with over 30 years of professional experience was born on January 3, 1956. Educated in Nigeria, Ghana and France, he has held senior editorial positions in local and international media organisations and was, from 2003-2007, the Director of Information, ECOWAS Mission in Cote d”Ivoire, which spearheaded diplomatic efforts towards the peaceful resolution of the Ivorian crisis. Fluent in English and French, Azikiwe is adequately exposed to the dynamics of international diplomacy as a result of his coverage of major events across Africa, Europe and America. He is the author of a biography and two books which are as follows: 

1.  Memoirs of a Patriot, (2002),
2. Africa: Conflict Resolution And International Diplomacy (2009). ISBN : 978-1449063061
3. Nigeria: Echoes of a century, 1914-2014. (2013) , ISBN: 9781481729260
4. Asagba Prof. Joseph Chike Edozien, His Thoughts, Words, Vision (2015), ISBN 978-1-5049-2561-7
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