Opinions & Features January 10, 2021 at 12:00 pm

After Morocco-US ‘besties’ agreement, what is the future of Western Sahara?

Nii Ntreh January 10, 2021 at 12:00 pm

January 10, 2021 at 12:00 pm | Opinions & Features

The United States has agreed to set up a consulate in the Wesetern Sahara region while recognizing Morocco's control over the territory. Photo Credit: Martine Perret via UN Photos

An independent Republic of Western Sahara moves farther from the grasp of the Polisario Front as the United States has expressed its intentions of establishing a consulate in the contested territory while recognizing Morocco’s right to it.

This development, coming at the tail end of 2020, is a watershed moment in the geopolitics of North Africa. Morocco has scored a victory that allows the country to rest easy as grey areas fast dissipate in the deliberation on Western Sahara. But the agreement also marks what American diplomats would count as their own triumph of a sort, with Washington convincing the Islamic Kingdom of Morocco to initiate diplomatic relations with the Jewish state of Israel.

Morocco is the sixth country in the Arab League, the fourth in the last five months, to have been won over by the outgoing Donald Trump administration in a bid to court amity for the sake of Israel. Sudan was the last country to have taken this path in its own separate discussions with the Americans that included a payment of some $335 million to American victims of terrorism, crimes blamed on Sudan. Sudan was also taken off the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism.

But perhaps, the deal over Western Sahara is a bit more tricky as the destiny of about 600,000 Sahrawis is suddenly put into realms above their power and influence. Polisario Front, the political movement that has been fighting for the independent state since the 1970s, essentially supervenes on the grudge Algeria holds for Morocco. The two countries continue to harbor more than four decades of tension..

The blessing of the United States has been sought by Morocco for a while. There is no armed resistance in Western Sahara that Rabat cannot quiet down, however, it would rather continue to concretize its hold without warfare. They did this while consolidating their relationship with the world’s most influential power.

This leaves Polisario in an unprecedented situation and the movement is now cornered. Sidi Omar, the group’s United Nations representative, says he hopes the incoming Joe Biden administration reverses the agreement with Morocco, which frankly, is the only viable peaceful option.

“The U.S. cannot both support the U.N.’s role in resolving Western Sahara conflict and endorse Moroccan sovereignty,” Omar tweeted. The United Nations has largely supported Sahrawis’ right to self-determination. Former United States governments have supported UN resolutions in this stead.

The territory of Western Sahara was seized and colonized by Spain in 1884, making it one of the European country’s two colonial domains on the African continent apart from Equatorial Guinea.

In 1975, Spain left the territory in the hands of Morocco and Mauritania after some 300,000 Moroccans marched peacefully into the territory to claim ownership. Prior to what has been called the Green March, the Polisario Front, had been formed in 1973 to seek independence for Western Sahara.

But twice in the last 50 years, Morocco has backed out of two proposals aimed at Western Saharan independence. In 1976, the UN hatched a settlement plan that proposed a referendum for ethnic Sahrawis. Morocco and Polisario Front agreed in 1988 in principle for the referendum to happen but when 1992 came, 16 years of efforts went to waste because neither party could agree as to who had the right to vote.

And then there was the Baker Plan of 2003, mediated by UN Special Envoy and American attorney James Baker. The Plan was in two drafts. First, Morocco proposed that Western Sahara would be a semi-autonomous region of Morocco whose defense and foreign policy would be guided by Rabat. But Polisario, as well as Algeria, rejected this.

The second draft of the Baker Plan called for a 5-year free Western Sahara state under Polisario control. After these five years, inhabitants in the territory would vote on independence or joining Morocco. The latter rejected and ultimately ruled out accepting any future proposals that dangled the idea of Western Saharan independence.

The territory under dispute is more than 260,000 kilometers square of what is mostly desert. It has very few natural resources and has very little rainfall throughout the year. But for Sahrawis, the effort is motivated by an ambition of an independent political state and.

We may not have come to the end of their push but the predictions of light at the end of the tunnel are severely lacking. With the recent move by the U.S., the darkness just got starker.

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