Abrupt and unprecedented developments have characterised a long week in Moroccan-Sahara diplomacy. Signs of disagreement arose when UN chief Ban Ki-moon refused to reschedule his visit to North Africa. The impetus behind the Moroccan request for this was to avoid misleading April’s annual UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) meeting in New York; nobody expected the visit to fuel Moroccan wrath.
In fact, the visit aggravated an already vulnerable situation. A few days earlier, there was some minor military friction on the sand belt between Morocco and the Polisario Front. However, the UN peace-making efforts received a blow when Ban Ki-moon commented to the Algerian press that he understood the Sahrawi people’s anger towards the continued occupation of their lands. He was also accused of siding with the Polisario when, it is claimed, he bowed to the partially-recognised Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) flag. Though decisive measures have been taken, the immediate reaction by Morocco to Ban’s comments was to ask whether he is implicated in the conflict.
Morocco tried to differentiate between the UN’s official take on the issue and Ban’s opinion. With the absence of a palace press release from Rabat on the incident, the head of the government, public media and academics focused on the idiosyncratic nature of the comments. They all highlight that what Ban said contradicts what UN resolutions, previous secretaries general, annual reports and peace-making efforts have achieved both in avoiding war and bringing Morocco and the Polisario to the negotiating table. As the end of his term in office is approaching, Ban Ki-moon’s comments even oppose his own previous reports, as Mustapha Khalfi, the Moroccan government spokesperson explained to the media.
Ban’s visit aimed to reanimate the stalemate of the negotiations. Nevertheless, his media comments and the untimely visit to Bir-Lahlou in the disputed territory harm the UN’s image in the region in different ways.
For a start, they demonstrate the UN as an international power that promotes the division of countries. In times of alliances and a strategic need for building unions to prosper, clinging to the right to self-determination as a sole approach to solve conflicts, neglecting the readiness to negotiate alternatives, is what pushes Morocco to accuse Ban of lacking neutrality. Dividing countries leads to calls for further subdivision, creates border wars, weakens economies, militarises regimes and, consequently, requires continuous UN involvement. Breaking countries into tiny entities is one reason behind continual wars in Africa, thus crippling the development of the continent, or at least perpetuating its de facto annexation by foreign powers.
Furthermore, the UN can be viewed as a biased organisation. Instead of guaranteeing all parties’ serious engagement in the negotiations, Ban preferred to level his criticism at Morocco. Addressing the Algerian press and visiting refugee camps on Algerian territory indicate the involvement of Algiers in the conflict, which the authorities there deny, despite providing unconditional financial and diplomatic backing to the Polisario.
Meanwhile, the UN chief did not mention that the main obstacle to a referendum in the Sahara is the inability of MINURSO to conduct a census of Sahrawi refugees on Algerian territory. The lack of verifiable information not only incites a dispute about numbers but, most importantly, also devalues the referendum as an option. Morocco also reminded Ban of human rights abuses in the Polisario camps, including detention, slavery, forced labour, torture and the absence of aid transparency. Thus, what are the criteria which have prompted the UN leadership to take sides?
In the main, the UN may be viewed as a warmonger. The “occupation” remarks may encourage more Sahrawi activism and destabilising advocacy inside Morocco and on the front lines. Morocco reacted to the remarks by reducing its financial contribution to MINURSO and ordering 84 of its civilian staff to leave the country. Immediately, the SADR declared that it would go back to war if the UN mission quit totally. Yet Morocco focused on civil staff, not military ceasefire monitors, accusing them of transcending their role in the reports they provide for the UN chief.
A return to the jargon of war benefits no one. Morocco prefers to stay faithful to the narrative of stability and gradual — albeit unsteady — reform in all matters, including the Sahara issue. The eruption of hostilities will extend vulnerability and motivate those promoting separatism and extremism.
Furthermore, the Polisario Front, though repeatedly threatening to end the ceasefire, faces two key problems. The first is a shortage of finance, especially after the demise of ousted Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, Algeria’s economic crisis due to low oil prices and growing appeals for investigations into the front’s fraudulent management of EU aid. Then we have its closeness to Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM), aggravated by the situation in Libya and the Sahel. The recent attack on Tunisia’s border town of Ben Gardane and continuous threat from the groups in the Chaambi Mountains ensure that North Africa is threatened with more sub-state group radicalisation.
Indeed, both Algeria and Morocco face security threats from extremist groups. The Moroccan anti-terrorism agency, BCIJ, publicised the dismantling of a militant group that had plotted to carry out a chemical weapons attack and set up a training camp in the mountainous area of Sehb Elharcha in the Sahara. In Algeria, a gas installation was attacked a few days ago, also in the south, reminiscent of the bloody assault and hostage crisis in the Ain Amenas gas plant in 2013.
Security challenges, the benefits of peace, possibilities for economic cooperation and the need to sustain all of the efforts that the UN has invested in the Sahara conflict provide enough context for Morocco and Algeria to join together and embark on regional reconciliation to end the Sahara conflict. The creation of another tiny country, no matter how harsh or barren life will be therein, will simply encourage other cultural and ethnic groups in the two countries to seek their own independence, with all of the turbulence and unrest that such moves imply.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.