A 30-year peace deal was ended on 14 November by the leader of the Polisario Front, Brahim Ghali, who has accused Morocco of breaking the ceasefire by sending troops into the region. Morocco denies any wrongdoing. Ghali has since issued a decree announcing the “resumption of armed struggle in defence of the legitimate rights of our people.” The Polisario’s “declaration of war” comes in the wake of several new conflicts that have emerged throughout the continent in recent weeks.
Ghali’s statement comes after Morocco reportedly set up a security cordon within the Guerguerat buffer zone, separating the two territories. The instigation of this military post has been seen by the Polisario to breach the peace treaty brokered by the United Nations in 1991. Moroccan representatives have said that a security cordon was necessary due to obstructions by Western Saharan protesters who were blocking access to the trade route which connects Morocco to neighbouring Mauritania. Both sides have reported exchanges of fire near this outpost but neither have confirmed the size of the firefight or if there were any injuries or deaths.
On Saturday, the Algerian-backed rebel group said they have since responded: “attacks of the Sahrawi People’s Liberation Army units continue against various hiding places of the Moroccan enemy along its positions in the occupied parts of the Sahrawi territory, causing loss of lives and equipment and disrupting its military plans.” This claim, however, has not been verified by Morocco or any international bodies.
UN secretary general António Guterres has voiced his “grave concerns” surrounding the most recent developments in Western Sahara warning against “violations of the ceasefire and the serious consequences of any changes to the status quo.” He further conveyed his disappointment that, despite launching several initiatives to tackle the problem within the Guerguerat buffer strip, none had been successful. While the UN has been active in the region dating back to 1975, Sidi Omar, a Polisario representative at the UN, publicly protested last Saturday that the UN had largely ignored the worsening humanitarian situation in Western Sahara, while calling the Moroccan government “occupiers” of the region.
The situation between these two powers has been very much a frozen conflict up until now. For years, members of the Prolisario have accused Morocco of exploiting the area’s mineral resources and fishing grounds while Morocco has termed the rebel group a dictatorship and a military puppet for Algeria. The rebel group, along with human rights groups including Amnesty International, have also accused Morocco of restricting “the rights to freedom of association and assembly by preventing some groups critical of the authorities from operating and using unnecessary or excessive force to disperse demonstrations.” Recently, talks were underway for an UN-led self-determination referendum which would have established whether the people of Western Sahara wanted independence from Morocco or integration. However, neither side could agree on who would be eligible to vote, a decision that would fundamentally affect the result, leading to one Moroccan politician to state that talks were “dead and buried.”
Now, the apparent end to this ceasefire and declaration of war threatens to resume 16 years of bloody conflict between Morocco and the Polasario. Morocco has had control of the majority of Western Sahara since 1975 while the Sahrawi Republic, led by the rebel group makes up around a third of the region. Roughly 100,000 people were killed during this conflict and over 200,000 were displaced, a large number of which still reside in camps in the region, provided aid by humanitarian organizations. Around 180,000 Sahrawi refugees also live in camps in southwestern Algeria, where the Polisario set up the government in exile of its self-proclaimed Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. Much of the aid is provided by Algeria, who have reportedly sent 60 tons of food and medical aid to these camps in response to recent events.
Doubt remains as to the reality behind the rebel group’s threats. “The Polisario feeds on conflicts, threats, and instability. Without this, they have no reason to exist,” noted Calvin Dark, a U.S. international analyst. Even in Spain, where a number of media platforms are known to sympathize with the Polisario’s cause, it has been suggested that the Guerguerat crisis was an escape route for a Polisario leadership hampered by diplomatic setbacks and intense scrutiny over embezzlement and torture allegations. One Spanish newspaper, Lavanguardia, commented that the new dispute gave the Polisario Front an opportunity “to appease internal criticism and return to the front lines without having to resort to an open war, for which it would not be prepared.” Certainly, in the last 30 years funding for the Polisario cause has diminished after the end of the Cold War, while Morocco is still the fifth largest economy in Africa.
However, while it may seem that many have been quick to brush off the Polisario Front’s bold threats as nothing more than guff, the threat of conflict spilling over into one of Africa’s economic powerhouses within the current context of the African region should be more worrying. In recent months we have seen Mali go through its second military coup in 10 years, the continued war in Libya shows no signs of abating: violent protests in Nigeria, a growing terrorist threat in the Sahel region, and most recently the apparent threat of a civil war in Ethiopia.
Widespread uncertain economic and political environments created by conflict are a breeding ground for extremism and radicalization, best shown by the growth of ISIL in the Middle East in the mid-2010s. Recently, the Pentagon has released a report noting a “marked upward curve of claimed cumulative attacks and casualties” in Africa by the Islamic State Africa Province (ISWAP), whose supporters “have been engaging in attacks that have exceeded the scale and complexity of those being deployed by their counterparts in Syria and Iraq for at least a year now.” Most worryingly, the report indicates that ISWAP groups have been most active in West Africa, including the bordering nation of Algeria. While no ISWAP attacks have occurred in Morocco or Western Sahara, the increasingly rapid growth of the jihadi organization’s numbers and capabilities across the continent should be a warning sign to foreign powers to appease the situation within the region as quickly and soundly as possible. It is imperative now that Algeria also step in and help calm the current situation, instead of fanning the flames with fake news stories on state television.
As the Polisario’s main backer, Algeria have a responsibility to prevent this situation from escalating or being manipulated by other organizations. Working with Morocco, both sides should encourage a peaceful de-escalation of the current violent rhetoric in order to prevent the conflict from reigniting. While it’s not expected that situation in Western Sahara will result in full scale war between the two sides, the UN should prioritize peaceful and constructive discourse within the region and across Africa in order to prevent a repetition of recent history. The OWP will continue to monitor the situation in Western Sahara and in Africa closely.