Africa News blog

African business, politics and lifestyle

Western Sahara poser for UN

By Reuters Staff
April 28, 2009

Morocco serves as the backdrop for such Hollywood blockbusters as Gladiator, Black Hawk Down and Body of Lies. The country’s breathtaking landscapes and gritty urban neighbourhoods are the perfect setting for Hollywood’s imagination.

Unbeknown to most filmgoers, however, is that Morocco is embroiled in one of Africa’s oldest conflicts – the dispute over Western Sahara. This month the UN Security Council is expected to take up the dispute once more, providing US President Barack Obama with an opportunity to assert genuine leadership in resolving this conflict. But there’s no sign that the new administration is paying adequate attention.

The story of Western Sahara would make quite a movie. There was high diplomatic intrigue when Moroccan troops occupied the territory, after Spain abandoned its long-time colony as Generalissimo Franco lay dying in 1975. The subsequent war between Morocco and the Algerian-supported Polisario Front, which sought Western Saharan independence, furnished plenty of action sequences in the desert. There is also the real human tragedy of the Western Saharan refugees, who have languished in exile for more than three decades.

In 1991, the Security Council created the UN mission in Western Sahara, MINURSO, whose mandate has been ritually reauthorized ever since. MINURSO’s original task was to organise a referendum in Western Sahara in which the residents would vote up or down on self-determination. Morocco, on the other hand, lobbied that tens of thousands of Moroccans be counted, a demand that Polisario resisted. 

It was not until 1997, when former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan called in former US Secretary of State James Baker as envoy that the debate got unstuck. However, the deadlock ensued once more in 1999 when Morocco’s new king, Mohammed VI, dropped all support for a referendum. Baker resigned – in part due to the (at best) weak support of the Security Council for his mandate.

Morocco’s latest stance is that Rabat share power in Western Sahara with indigenous groups. An autonomy proposal Morocco advanced in 2007 is in fact a credible starting point for negotiations aimed at a power sharing agreement. But Polisario will not discuss power sharing until Morocco recommits to a referendum on self-determination.

It has long been assumed in Western capitals that the Western Sahara question will be resolved through power sharing, but such a solution cannot simply be imposed. Only a negotiated settlement can bring about comprehensive peace.

But the UN does not push effectively for negotiations. Indeed, in rolling over MINURSO’s mandate year after year, the Security Council seems to hope that one party or the other will give in – an attitude that favours the more powerful actor, Morocco, a state that is closely allied with Security Council members France and the US.

The last thing the world needs is more de facto partisanship from the ostensibly neutral Security Council.  Peace in Western Sahara will require that both Morocco and Polisario accept something they do not like. Polisario must accept that the achievement of a comprehensive power sharing agreement with Morocco is a prerequisite for a referendum. Morocco, on the other hand, must commit to a self-determination referendum as a necessary condition for power sharing talks. How to cut the Gordian knot?

The new man in charge of MINURSO is Christopher Ross, former US ambassador to Algeria and Syria. Ross can boast of fluency in Arabic and an extensive background in North African affairs.

King Mohamed and UN envoy to Western Sahara Chris Ross









Instead of waiting for conditions to ripen, the new envoy should, at the next round of negotiations, secure the commitment of the parties – in writing – to a strong Security Council resolution calling for both a negotiated political solution and a referendum. This approach not only balances the interests of the parties but it also unblocks the mutual suspicion currently stalling talks.

 If one side or the other refuses to sign, the Security Council must be willing to wield the weapon of shame and name names. The Obama administration should back Ross to the hilt as enforcer of the UN’s writ.

Western Sahara is not a problem of imagination that needs a Hollywood producer or two. It is problem of political will. With strong, consistent leadership from the US, inside and outside the Security Council, Morocco and the Polisario Front can be put on the right track toward peace.

Jacob Mundy is a PhD candidate in the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter. He is coauthor of the forthcoming Western Sahara: War, Nationalism and Conflict Irresolution.


Thanks for the rich backgrounder. One missing thing is more Algeria’s involvement in the Western Sahara conflict. Algeria has a sway on the Polisario and its role in resolving the conflict should not be ignored. The relations between Morocco and Algeria are actually strained because of this conflict(only symbolic diplomatic relations exist while the joint borders have been closed since 1976). But I still agree that given Algeria’s strong trade and political interests with France and the US, a stronger engagement by the US leadership would refresh the stalled political negotiations.

Posted by Abdallah | Report as abusive

As a PhD in the matter, I was hoping this article would invoke Algeria’s malicious part in these negotiations and its influence on Polisario.. .therefore the rot of the problem.
Another point which was “misleading” was the fact that the Sahara was NOT abandoned by the spanish… Morocco, the Moroccan King led millions of Moroccans to a peaceful march which WAS the reason why the Spanish left!

These 2points are very important for readers with little knowledge on the topic.

Thank you

Posted by Bouchra | Report as abusive

Interesting article indeed..
But, what is more interesting also is to understand the historical background of the issue(conflict). Interinstingly enough, when Africa was ‘split’ by the Europian colonialist contries, Morocco fell between France and Spain. Spain would take the northern and southern part of Morocco and France would take the middle(the rest). While Morocco gained its independance in 1956 from France, it was still struggling getting the rest of its territories. Consequently, in the north, Spain retrtained as far as Cetta and Milella, both of which are the sole cities in the morccan side that are still occupied. The south of morocco, however, took longer to be free. And it was until 1975 that Hassan 2 decided to regain Morocco southern part utilizing “The Green March”. Now that Spain is out, new opportunist powers showed up. With the help of Algeria and other countries, I have to say, The Polizario Front was established. Many analists of the matter think that Algeria backed Up, if not created, The Polizario in order later on to have access to the Atlantic Ocean. Another reason why The Polizario Fronf was Created, I believe, is related to the cold war conflict between communism and capitalism. We know that the Polizario Front has been backed up with countries like Algeria, Libia, and Cuba. These countries were allies to the Soviet Union. Morocco, on the other hand, was likely an ally to the capitalist regimes. So, I believe, there is a hidden story behind all this.
Anyways, when we go back to the real world, we find that the big victims are the people who are forced in a camp in Tendouf.

Posted by Bouabid | Report as abusive

Post Your Comment

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see