Is the region finally moving towards peace and development?
With the world’s attention remaining totally focused on critically important issues, and their potential long-term implications for all, like the runaway coronavirus pandemic, a most consequential presidential election in the United States, uncertainties surrounding the oil-rich strategically-located Middle East, Sino-US saber rattling, amongst others, a significant positive development on the tip of North Africa appeared to have been lost in the global discourse.
For long, many in the international community remained ambiguous about the status of a piece of territory bordering the Kingdom of Morocco, Algeria, and Mauritania, known as the Sahara. This ambiguity has been caused by the unfortunate legacy of the French and Spanish colonial past in this strategically located part of the African continent.
It also ignored the historical fact that the Saharan region has always been seen as an integral part of Morocco. The reality got further muddled with the onset of the Cold War at the end of WWII. Although the Cold War primarily impacted Europe with sharply divided ideological zones and belligerent military alliances, it also traversed Africa and Asia and across the shores of the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean in very large measures.
Countries as far east as Vietnam and Korea got caught in this mesh, with disastrous wars and huge loss of lives. The Saharan region also became a victim of this global polarization, with Algeria getting involved over parts of the Sahara and providing military and political support to an insurgent group which came to be called the “Polisario Front.”
The 1960s and 70s were also a time when countries in southern Africa were engaged in legitimate and widely supported armed popular movements against deep-rooted institutionalized racial and political injustices. The question of “Western Sahara,” with the support of only a few, got tagged with these movements. The matter was then brought within the remit of the United Nations and prolonged negotiations followed, again among ideologically divided lines.
A cease-fire between the Polisario Front and Morocco, monitored by MINURSO, was declared and it has been in effect since 1991. Part of MINURSO’s mission was to monitor the cease fire and supervise a referendum in accordance with the Settlement Plan. The referendum was originally scheduled for 1992, but differences over voter eligibility prevented it from ever being held. Consequently, MINURSO’s role has become limited to ensuring the maintenance of the cease fire only.
Over time, global attention on the issue of the status of Western Sahara began to wane considerably and it was being increasingly seen as a Cold War relic. The Polisario’s shrinking members, roughly numbering 50,000, have remained confined to virtually uninhabitable and inhospitable areas in the desert, with its headquarters located in the Algerian city of Tindouf.
At the same time, Morocco, under the leadership of King Mohammad VI, has emerged as a responsible player and a growing economy in the African continent, culminating with its return to the African Union in 2017, thus giving Rabat a more visible role in the region. Since the end of the 1980s, several disillusioned members of the Polisario decided to discontinue their military or political activities for the Polisario Front and most of them returned from their camps in Algeria to Morocco.
Among them were a few founder members and senior officials. Some of them are now actively promoting Moroccan sovereignty over the Saharan region. In April 2007, the government of Morocco proposed that a self-governing entity will govern the territory with a significant degree of autonomy for Sahara under the sovereignty of Morocco. The plan was presented to the United Nations Security Council in mid-April 2007 and quickly gained French and US support, among others.
Since the end of 2019, an increasing number of African countries began to recognize Moroccan sovereignty over the Saharan region. This found practical manifestation when as many as 15 African countries, and counting, opened consulates in the Saharan cities of Laayoune and Dakhla. This was followed by the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain also establishing their own consulates in Dakhla, becoming the first Arab countries to do so.
The Kingdom of Jordan has also decided in principle to do the same, although the location has not yet been announced. The Caribbean country of Haiti also opened a consulate in Dakhla. This process of recognition marked a turning point in the history of this long running issue and set new thresholds for the region as a whole for peace and development.
In December 2020, US President Donald Trump, in one of his last diplomatic moves, formally recognized Moroccan sovereignty over the entire Saharan region and reaffirmed its support for Morocco’s autonomy proposal as the basis for a just and lasting solution to the issue over the Saharan territory.
At the same time, his administration announced that the United States will open its consulate in Dakhla very soon. It can safely be assumed that the administration of President-elect Joe Biden will maintain this position.
With more and more countries recognizing Moroccan sovereignty over the Saharan region and supporting the kingdom’s autonomy plan, it is perhaps time for others to see the reality on the ground in a fast changing post-Cold War world and accordingly move with the times.
Shamsher M Chowdhury, BB, is the former Foreign Secretary of Bangladesh.