Bombs, Borders, and Blackmail – A look backwards and forwards at the turbulence in the Western Sahara 

The Western Sahara, the territory on the Northwest coast of Africa which is sometimes called ‘Africa’s Last Colony’ due to its listing by the UN as a non-decolonized territory, has had an extremely turbulent year. From escalating violence in the South of the territory to diplomatic fights over international recognition, the already unstable situation has further destabilised.  In this article some of the major incidents of the past months are discussed, and the political strategy of  Morocco behind some of the latest incidents are explored.

The Western Sahara was invaded by Morocco in 1975 before Spain, the former colonial power, had withdrawn from the country. Today, Polisario Front, the Sahrawi liberation movement which had started as an armed liberation group against the Spanish colonisers, is the formal representation of the Sahrawi people and their territory: the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). SADR is recognised by 80 countries around the world and is a member of the African Union.

Western Sahara Map (Photo: Nick Brooks, Flickr)

Bombs – Violence in Guerguerat

 The UN has one of its longest running peacekeeping missions in the Western Sahara called MINURSO (United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara). Since 1991, they have monitored the ceasefire and are stationed all along the Berm, the wall that separates the part of the territory occupied by Morocco from the part controlled by Polisario. MINURSO is also tasked with attempting to organise a free and fair referendum to fulfill the right of self determination of the Sahrawi people .In November of last year, Morocco sent troops into the demilitarized zone around the Berm that separates the two parts of Western Sahara. 

To justify its move in November, Morocco claimed it wanted to reopen a strategic road that leads to Mauritania, additionally voicing a need to drive out a group of Saharawi militants. Polisario however saw this move as a breach of the ceasefire, and both Morocco and Polisario have since been reported firing at each other. The fighting has continued back and forth, and in January of this year, Polisario launched several rockets into the direction of Guerguerat. A senior Polisario official said of the situation: “We have waited 30 years. Thirty years of broken promises, prevarication and untenable waiting.” 

Border – Trump recognition

In the midst of this escalating violence, in December of 2020, the outgoing US President Donald Trump broke with decades of careful US diplomacy when he announced that the US recognises Moroccan sovereignty of the Western Sahara. US recognition politically strengthened Morocco’s position in the armed struggle but, as of yet, no other country in the world formally recognises Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara. 

However, Trump’s recognition likely has little to do with the particular situation on the ground in the Western Sahara. Instead, it can be seen as a ‘quid pro quo’ in exchange for the Moroccan government’s agreement to officially normalise relations with Israel. The Moroccan government already had quite a warm, albeit unofficial, relationship with Israel. The fact that the US now recognises the Western Sahara as part of Morocco is therefore a comparatively massive win over Morocco’s slight changes in relations with Israel.

To get a better understanding of the current situation in the region and Morocco’s strategy behind the deal with Trump, The Perspective spoke with Erik Hagen, board member of Western Sahara Resource Watch (WSRW). WSRW is an international research and campaigning organisation that works in solidarity with the people of the Western Sahara.

Erik Hagen said of the deal with Trump: “Morocco is hoping for a domino effect, that other countries would follow suit after the US.” However, Hagen explains that the strategy to use the US to persuade other countries to also recognise Morocco’s claim over the Western Sahara has backfired. “What instead happened was almost the opposite, European governments are underlining the self determination of the Sahrawi people and basically are rejecting Trump’s position. So it is almost like it had a negative effect.”

Protest of Saharawi’s for recognition of their country and the end of the Moroccan occupation (Photo: Western Sahara, Flickr)

Blackmail – Morocco’s Ceuta refugee crisis 

Morocco probably hoped that Trump’s deal would lead to more favourable relations with many European countries. Instead, they got the opposite, an increasingly strained relationship with the EU. In particular, the relationship between Morocco and Spain has been tense since late April 2021, when the leader of the Polisario Front, Brahim Ghali, was admitted to a Spanish hospital to receive Covid treatment. 

Morocco was outraged over the fact that Spain had agreed to allow Ghali to receive medical treatment in the country. Morocco’s foreign ministry warned Spain that allowing Ghali to stay would have “consequences”. Subsequently, the Moroccan authorities slyly reduced their military border patrols in order to allow refugees into the small, Spanish controlled African-continent enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla.

Given the opportunity by Morocco, thousands of refugees indeed entered the EU via the Spanish cities. The mass crossing into Ceuta in particular resulted in a small humanitarian crisis as the refugees, many among them minors, attempted to enter the EU on inflatable rings and rubber dinghies. Morocco’s use of these vulnerable refugees as political leverage has angered many European governments, and the European Parliament has  responded to the situation with a motion to condemn Morocco’s actions

Spanish border in Murcia (Photo: Johan Barbarà, Flickr)

What lies ahead?

Later this year, the European Court of Justice will rule whether the EU-Morocco accords, that are currently allowing Morocco to export goods from the Western Sahara as if they came from Morocco, are legal or not. In 2016 the Polisario Front won a European Court case ruling that trade deals between Morocco and the EU cannot apply to the Western Sahara, so the Moroccan government is likely feeling the tension about the upcoming ruling.

Erik Hagen posits that the ruling, which is expected to be favourable for Polisario again, may be one of the reasons behind the current conflict with Spain. He says that a few years ago “They [Morocco] also pressured the different member states up towards the first rulings by the European Court of Justice in 2016. There were then several incidents where Morocco pressured countries bilaterally”. Creating an influx of refugees into Spain may thus be a show of strength by Morocco and a way to demonstrate how dependent the EU is on a good relationship with the country when it comes to border security. 

Similarly the SADR ministry of Foregin Affairs argues that Morocco’s political aggressiveness can be explained by Morocco’s idea that “… certain member countries of the European Union could become the engine that endorses Trump’s declaration”. Alternatively Morocco’s diplomatic fight may simply be to underline their strength and importance as an EU neighbour. Whatever the case it is hard to be sure if a diplomatic fight over refugees is really a part of Morocco’s long term strategy. 

The European Court’s verdict will in any case be an important new development for the Western Sahara, and the ruling will likely further challenge the EU-Moroccan neighbour relations. . “The biggest tensions might yet be to come”, Erik Hagen stated. “The verdict means that the EU will be forced to decide whether it will respect its own court rulings and international law, or if it will politically ignore its own court system to please the Moroccan government.”, Erik Hagen stated.    

Kerime van Opijnen

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