Western Sahara territorial dispute opens old sores

Algeria and Morocco need to diffuse the crisis and sort out the issue of Western Sahara
 NEW YORK -- None of the participants at the African Conference of Solidarity with the Saharawi people, held in Nigeria last month, expected that the gathering would reactivate the long-festering conflict between Morocco, which annexed Western Sahara decades ago, and Algeria, which supports the independence-seeking Polisario Front – yet it certainly heightened tensions.
The three-day conference held under the theme Liberation of Western Sahara: Ending colonialism in Africa issued a statement calling on the African Union member states to impose economic, military and diplomatic sanctions against Morocco.
The declaration also denounced the “Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara and France’s position that stands in the face of any political solution” towards decolonisation of the region.
Western Sahara came under Spanish rule in 1884. Algeria helped militarily and logistically to establish the pro-independence Polisario Front in 1973, but on November 6, 1975, Morocco set in motion the “Green March”, a strategic mass demonstration by some 350,000 Moroccans who, escorted by 20,000 Moroccan troops, advanced into Western Sahara.
On November 14, 1975, following the Madrid Agreement, Spain agreed to end colonial rule and the territory was partitioned.
Morocco obtained two-thirds in the north and Mauritania the remaining third.
The Polisario challenged the accord and waged a guerrilla war on Morocco and Mauritania, forcing the latter to pull back from the area it occupied. When Mauritania pulled out, Morocco annexed the territory.
In 1991, the United Nations helped broker a ceasefire in Western Sahara.
Both Morocco and the Polisario agreed to hold a referendum to decide the status of Western Sahara – whether it would become a full-fledged state or remain an integral part of Morocco. But as the kingdom and the Polisario both took issue with the electoral roll, the vote became a distant possibility.
In 2007, there was a coup de théâtre. The Moroccan Makhzen came up with the idea of granting internal autonomy to Western Sahara under Moroccan sovereignty. France and the US, along with a large number of Saharawis, welcomed the initiative. But the Polisario refused to abandon its demands for independence.
Addressing the Abuja Conference last month, Algeria’s minister of justice read out a statement on behalf of Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the ailing Algerian president, insisting on the necessity to extend the scope of the UN mission in Western Sahara. Mr Bouteflika also objected to “the flagrant violations of human rights committed by the Moroccan state against Saharawi civilians in the occupied Western Sahara”.
He said that Algeria “is committed to the liberation struggle”, and reiterated his call for “a referendum on self-determination to be held in Western Sahara.”
The Moroccan government reacted swiftly, calling the Algerian president’s declaration “yet another diversion to hide a precarious internal situation” and claiming the speech revealed “Algeria’s continuous provocation and hostility towards the kingdom”.
Dozens of Moroccans protested outside the Algerian consulate in Casablanca against Mr Bouteflika’s remarks, following which the Moroccan nationalist party Istiqlal called for the government to reclaim Eastern Sahara territories.
It should be noted, however, that only Moroccan nationalists make the claim over “Eastern Sahara”.
According to them, Eastern Sahara consists of major Algerian cities such as Tindouf and Béchar and the Kenadsa region – rich in phosphate and iron, and which makes up approximately a third of the Algerian Sahara territory.
They assert that Morocco has the right to rule all those regions that were once part of the Moroccan Alaouite Dynasty.
This “Greater Moroccan Kingdom” is considered to be made up of Morocco itself, the Algerian claimed regions, Western Sahara, Mauritania and the northern part of Mali, besides the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla.
This view is in conflict with the founding principles of the Charter of the African Union, which guarantees the inviolability of the borders inherited from colonial rulers.
The consulate protests and the declarations by the Istiqlal party prompted Algeria to call for Morocco to show restraint and declare that “this incident, as well as the outrageously expansionist statement by the leader of a Moroccan political party, are totally unacceptable and irresponsible”.
Algeria and Morocco need to defuse the crisis and sort out the issue of Western Sahara that has been the main impediment to the construction of the “Arab Maghreb Union”.
The two countries share a great deal: not only borders, but a common history, culture, religion and language.
This situation also shows that the interests and aspirations of the people in the Maghreb are often ignored by those in the corridors of power.
Dr Abdelkader Cheref is a professor at the State University of New York at Potsdam. Dr Abdelkader Cheref is an assistant professor at the State University of New York at Potsdam. This article first appeared in The National, Abu Dhabi