Traveling along the otherworldly, deserted coastline of Western Sahara, it is hard to imagine the region is one of political significance, much less one of entrenched conflict. Covering some 266,000 square kilometers (103,000 square miles), Western Sahara is larger than the UK, yet with a population of under 600,000, the territory is one of the most uninhabited corners of the globe. One can drive for hours along its windswept Atlantic coastline, more than 1,100km (around 700 miles) in length, barely encountering living beings aside from the camels, flamingos, and other exotic wildlife that populate the desolate landscape.
Despite this appearance, Western Sahara is the theater of one of Africa’s oldest conflicts – a bitter dispute between the state of Morocco, which currently occupies the whole coastline from Tangier to Mauritania, and the independence movement, led by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Oued Ed-Dahab, also known as the Polisario Front.
Guerguerat has often been a pressure point in the conflict and was the site of the previous escalation in 2016.
This conflict, which has lain more or less entirely dormant for the past four years, is now in danger of being ignited once more, following escalations throughout October and November between Moroccan troops and Polisario forces at the Guerguerat crossing on the border of Mauritania. Guerguerat has often been a pressure point in the conflict and was the site of the previous escalation in 2016, when the Polisario blocked the movement of Moroccan troops engaged in operations allegedly targeting smuggling.
On October 21, 2020, the Polisario again acted to block the passage of people and goods between Morocco and Mauritania, with the Polisario alleging that Moroccan troops had fired on peaceful protesters. On November 13, the Moroccan government confirmed that army units had been deployed to the Guerguerat buffer zone, stating that the army had no choice but to act to stop the obstruction of the movement of goods and people across the border. According to both sides, there have been no casualties to date, but many in the international community worry about the standoff’s potential to erupt into more serious conflict.
On November 13, the Moroccan government confirmed that army units had been deployed to the Guerguerat buffer zone.
Guerguerat is situated in an officially demilitarized zone controlled by UN peacekeeping forces under the command of MINURSO (United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara) established in 1991. This “referendum” is key to the current deadlock. Since 1991, a ceasefire agreement between Morocco and the Polisario has been in effect, drawn up by the UN. Under the terms of the ceasefire, the Polisario were promised that a referendum on Sahrawi independence would take place within one year. However, the proposal has been repeatedly blocked by Morocco on the basis of who was eligible for the census and, almost 30 years later, the referendum is yet to take place. This state of affairs has led some to refer to Western Sahara, formerly a Spanish colonial possession, as “the last remaining colony in Africa.”
Spain’s control of Western Sahara came to an official end on November 14, 1975, with the signing of the Madrid Accords, which divided the territory between Morocco and Mauritania. The agreement followed the historic “Green March” of November 6, 1975 in which some 350,000 Moroccan citizens marched into the territory of the then Spanish Sahara to demand what they regarded as a reinstatement of Morocco’s historic rights over the territory. During that period, around 100,000 Sahrawis escaped into neighboring Algeria, where many still live in refugee camps today. Many choose to live in the camps because deciding to settle somewhere else may constitute giving up refugee status and relinquishing their claim to their homeland. Most of the younger inhabitants have never set foot on the territory of Western Sahara. Further complicating matters, Morocco has sent huge numbers of settlers to live in Western Sahara over the 40 years that have passed since the Green March. These families, some now numbering three or four generations, will claim the right to vote in any eventual independence referendum.
In 1979, four years after the Green March, Mauritania signed a peace agreement with the Polisario and withdrew from the Oued Ed-Dahab region (representing about a third of Western Sahara), renouncing all claims to territory in the former Spanish colony in the process. The Moroccan state then took control of Oued Ed-Dahab, merging it with the region of Saguia el-Hamra. This situation persists to this day.
Today, Morocco officially controls around 80 percent of the territory of Western Sahara, with the remaining 20 percent controlled by the Polisario.
Today, Morocco officially controls around 80 percent of the territory of Western Sahara, with the remaining 20 percent controlled by the Polisario. The two sections are separated by a barrier known as the Berm or the Sand Wall. At around 2,700km (1,700 miles) the Berm is arguably the second longest wall on earth. It is flanked by the world’s longest minefield, totaling some 7 million landmines.
The Polisario controlled territory includes no coastline and consists of almost completely uninhabitable desert. As a result, the group largely conducts its operations from the Tindouf Province of Algeria, where it has its headquarters. Algeria’s broad support for the Polisario is one cause of the frosty relationship between Morocco and its western neighbor. The Morocco-Algeria border, which winds for around 1,500 km (around 950 miles) through the Sahara desert, has been closed since 1994, making it one of the longest closed frontiers in the world.
The potential for conflict between Morocco and Algeria is the most dangerous aspect of the refusal of the Moroccan state and the Polisario to reach a settlement. However, both sides have long counted on this being only a remote possibility. Algeria is currently dealing with unprecedented internal problems and is unlikely to risk direct military involvement on Moroccan soil. The governments of both countries are well aware that war between them would benefit only the various militia groups that operate across the Sahel.
The Polisario’s motivations in blocking people and cargo are likely rooted in an attempt to draw the attention of the world’s media and of the UN Security Council, as the body is in the process of appointing a new Personal Envoy to the Western Sahara, after former German President Horst Köhler resigned from the role in May 2019.
The inaction of the UN is the most likely catalyst for inflammation of tensions in Western Sahara.
The inaction of the UN is the most likely catalyst for inflammation of tensions in Western Sahara. Polisario leaders have spoken out against MINURSO over many years, claiming that, in practice, it is they who protect the UN agency, rather than the other way around. “MINURSO is not protecting anything. It only extends the war and we’re finding it hard to control our youth. They’re ready to break the peace agreement and to take up arms again,” Ahmed Salem, Commander of the Polisario’s Second Battalion, told Vice News in 2014.
Emhamed Khadad, member of Polisario leadership and Sahrawi coordinator with MINURSO, shares Salem’s frustration. “The failure is the fact that, since 1991, the United Nations has spent more than a billion dollars and we have not moved an inch towards the goal of the referendum,” he said. “At the same time, there is no protection of the civilians – there are violations of human rights, there is the plundering of the many resources of the territory. The Sahrawis are only asking for the right to determine their future – to vote. Why is this right valid for Timor, for Kosovo, for South Sudan, for Namibia, and elsewhere, and yet Western Sahara is still an exception?…. [MINURSO] is the only peacekeeping organization established by the United Nations since 1978 without a mandate of human rights monitoring.”
While the International Court of Justice has recognized legal ties between the state of Morocco and certain Sahrawi tribes, no country or major international body officially recognizes Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara today. In practice however, many countries continue to trade with Morocco for Western Sahara’s natural resources. Alongside the vast and ongoing prospecting for oil and gas, the region boasts the world’s largest reserve of phosphates, crucial in food production the world over, and is the world’s largest producer of sardines.
The reality is that the Polisario lacks both the resources and the international support to mount a full-scale war against Morocco. Furthermore, not all Sahrawis support the group, which has stagnated under the same leadership since 1976. However, the mounting frustration at the occupation and the continuing inaction from the international community could yet boil over with extremely serious consequences for those living in the region. “When there is no progress in the resolution of the conflict; when there are no programs for education or for creating jobs, there is frustration,” explained Emhamed Khadad ominously. “This frustration has a limit, and we cannot determine when that limit will be reached.”