By Ben Lutz
In Northern Africa, there is a sparsely populated area of desert that is the main point of contention between Morocco and Algeria. This area is the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, more commonly known as Western Sahara. In 1975, Morocco annexed the land from Spain’s colonial holdings and continues administrative control of the region, spurring a war between Morocco and Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el Hamra and Rio de Oro (Polisario), an organization that remains active today for independence. This low-intensity war ended in a United Nations-sanctioned ceasefire in 1991. Luckily, the peace has held in Western Sahara, but there has been no rapprochement between Morocco and Polisario.
Moroccans strongly believe that the territory is rightfully theirs from pre-colonial time due to the linguistic, historical, and cultural influences of the Berber population in Morocco’s national identity – it calls the Western Sahara its southern provinces. Although Algeria and Mauritania have significant populations of Berbers, Morocco has the strongest claim to this land. However, after gaining independence from France, Morocco claimed sovereignty over the lands to its south and east. This enraged Algeria, a French colony, and erased much of the connections between the two lands. The biggest swath of land is the Western Sahara – Morocco has controlled those lands since its annexation, and in response the Polisario has been active to counter this control.
Algeria has continued support the Polisaro throughout this conflict in order to remove Morocco’s control. Algeria has provided financial, military, and diplomatic aid to the Polisario. Furthermore, Polisario headquarters are in Tindouf Province, Algeria as a government in exile. In Tandouf, there are several refugee camps since 1975, with its residents living there for 41 years. The other country that claimed territory is Mauritania, but due to its weak economic status, has remained neutral and supports the United Nations, especially the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO). MINURSO was created as a part of the ceasefire in 1991, and works to maintain the peace in Western Sahara. Although there has been little bloodshed since the ceasefire, negotiations have effectively been stalemated. Additionally, the Arab Mghreb Union (UMA), an economic organization between Algeria, Morocco, Mauritania, Libya, and Tunisia, has not met since 2008 over disagreements between Morocco and Algeria largely revolving around Western Sahara.
The United Nations considers Western Sahara to be a colonized territory – accordingly, Algeria has advocated for a resumption of peace talks through MINURSO. Self-determination is a principle that Algeria champions in discussing Western Sahara is largely seen as an extension of their support of the decolonization of this area. Algerian support in all of its aspects is crucial, but also one-sided and thus Polisario is advocating to the African Union, a council of 54 members, 53 countries and the territory of the Western Sahara. The African continent has 54 countries, and the only country not in the African Union is Morocco, over the dispute of the occupation of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic’s lands. In 1982, the African Union recognized the independence of the Western Sahara, giving them a delegation to the organization. Two years later, Morocco officially left the organization until this summer where they formally announced its wish to rejoin to African Union. The African Union is still committed to holding a self-determination referendum for the people of Western Sahara.
Apart from the land disputes with Algeria, Morocco’s control over the Western Saharan territory is contested due to the phosphate mines. Morocco owns 85% of the world’s phosphate mines, an estimated 50 billion metric tons, and it constitutes much of its export and GDP revenue. The majority of the mines are located in the territory that Morocco controls in the Western Sahara, making the negotiations over this territory more intractable. Morocco will not willingly give up a huge portion of its GDP revenue to an area it deems as its southern provinces.
With the continual failings from the refugee camps, the MINURSO, the UMA, the African Union, and phosphate production, it seems as if the Polisario is stuck fighting for independence with a war of wars. To make matters worse, on May 31, 2016, Mohamed Abdelaziz, their secretary-general, passed from illness. He was one of the main leaders of the fight for the independence of Western Sahara, and his death has reinvigorated the movement’s struggle for freedom. It has led to recent speeches in the African Union and on the United Nations floor to revisit this issue. This new wave of advocacy may be the push to end a 40-year long refugee crisis and create the 55th country in Africa.