The 36th African Union (A.U.) summit occurred in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on February 18th-19th, 2023. The Sahara Press Service reported that at the summit, Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune announced his support for a referendum that would allow voters in Western Sahara to decide if the region should become independent from Morocco. This nation controls most of Western Sahara, although a small part of it is controlled by the Polisario Front who wants the entire region to be an independent country called the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (S.A.D.R). In his speech, President Tebboune also said he wanted the A.U. to support the independence referendum. However, the A.U. is neutral in the conflict and wants the United Nations (U.N.) to resolve the dispute through negotiations with Morocco and the Polisario Front.
Western Sahara was a colony of Spain until 1975 when the Madrid Accords divided the region between Morocco and Mauritania. The Polisario Front opposed the Accords, as it wanted independence. This caused a war to occur between the Polisario Front, Morocco, and Mauritania, although the latter later withdrew from Western Sahara. The war between the other two continued until 1991 when the U.N. was able to get both parties to agree to a ceasefire. An independence referendum was planned to occur in 1992. However, that didn’t happen because Morocco prevented people from submitting applications to vote in it. The ceasefire ended in 2020, when the Polisario Front blocked a road in Morocco to protest Morocco’s opposition to a referendum, and this caused the Moroccan Royal Armed Forces to send troops to the region to remove the protesters.
The U.N. has supported the decolonization of Western Sahara, and self-governance for the region. Staffan de Mistura, the U.N. envoy to Western Sahara, has wanted to start negotiations to end the conflict between Morocco and Western Sahara, but that hasn’t occurred since the end of the ceasefire in 2020, and the two sides have not agreed to a solution to resolve the dispute. The Polisario Front has supported an independence referendum, but it is unlikely this will occur due to being opposed by Morocco who has backed giving Western Sahara autonomy, which would allow the government of the region to have some power. Though the Polisario Front opposes autonomy and has only been supportive of an independence referendum.
Algeria should rethink an independence referendum in Western Sahara, as it is possible this would cause the Polisario Front to agree to solutions that are more likely to end the dispute with Morocco. In addition to this, the Middle East Eye reported Algeria gave military equipment to the Polisario Front, including tanks and guns. The Polisario Front received most of its weapons in the 1980s and 1990s, and Algeria has not given them military equipment in recent years. However, the weapons could still be used in attacks, and there are concerns the conflict with Morocco will worsen. Instead of backing the Polisario Front’s attacks against the Moroccan troops, Algeria should encourage the Polisario Front to agree to a ceasefire and start negotiations.
Morocco has wanted Algeria, along with Mauritania, to be being involved in peace talks to resolve the dispute, as it considers the Western Sahara conflict to be a regional issue impacting both countries. According to MENA Affairs, Algeria has opposed being in the negotiations because it did not want Morocco to portray it as backing the Polisario Front. However, if Algeria ended its support for an independence referendum, it is unlikely Morocco would accuse Algeria of supporting the Polisario Front. Additionally, Morocco would be more likely to start peace talks if Algeria and Mauritania agreed to be involved. Arab News reported that Omar Hilale, Morocco’s Ambassador to the U.N., said, “Let’s hope that the wisdom will prevail in Algeria, and we can come back to the round-table because there will be no solution without discussion all together and having compromise.” This makes it important for Algeria to be involved in the negotiations, where it should encourage a solution to the dispute that both parties can agree on.
Algeria’s support for the Polisario Front has worsened conflicts in Western Sahara. However, other countries have been supportive of Morocco and will also need to be neutral in the dispute. In 2020, U.S. President Donald Trump recognized all of Western Sahara as part of Morocco after Morocco established relations with Israel. Most nations do not recognize Western Sahara as part of Morocco, and Morocco’s occupation of the region is considered illegal under international law. Additionally, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez has supported Morocco’s plan to give Western Sahara autonomy, even though it is opposed by most people in the region. According to Politics Today, Spain’s decision to back this plan might have been caused by Morocco agreeing to not claim Ceuta and Melilla, two cities in Spain which border Morocco. The U.S. and Spain’s backing for Morocco will encourage the nation to support autonomy and could make it less likely that Morocco will agree to negotiate an end to the conflict with the Polisario Front.
If the other countries are neutral in the Western Sahara conflict, it is more likely Morocco and the Polisario Front will support peace talks and agree to an end. Though if fighting between the two sides continues, the U.N. can also work to encourage Morocco and the Polisario Front to start peace talks. The International Crisis Group reported both parties might be more likely to start talks if the U.N. came up with financial incentives for resolving the dispute. One way this could occur is if the U.N. supported the creation of an international development fund after the both sides agreed to come to a stop. Money for the fund could be given by the World Bank or African Development Bank and be used to support job creation, improve infrastructure in the region, and resettle refugees who left Western Sahara during the war. A development fund would be helpful for Western Sahara as many refugee camps (mostly located in Algeria) have not received enough humanitarian aid to help all the refugees.
When Morocco and the Polisario Front agree to talk, it will be important for the U.N. to encourage a solution to the conflict that both parties can agree upon. According to the European Council on Foreign Relations, it is possible both sides could agree to allow the S.A.D.R. to have free association with Morocco. Free association has similarities to autonomy, as each allow power-sharing between the two parties. In both plans, Morocco would be responsible for the S.A.D.R.’s defense and foreign policy, and the S.A.D.R. would have its own president and legislature. Because Morocco has supported autonomy for Western Sahara, it is possible it would also support free association, as each plan would allow Morocco to have some control over Western Sahara, and not cause Western Sahara to be an independent country.
Despite the similarities between free association and autonomy, there are some differences between the two plans. Free association would allow the S.A.D.R. to control Western Sahara’s natural resources, but autonomy would allow Morocco to control the region’s resources; most of its oil, phosphate, and fish exports come from Western Sahara. If the S.A.D.R. controlled Western Sahara’s resources instead of Morocco, there would be a number of benefits as this would lower unemployment, and increase economic growth in the region. Also, Morocco’s plan for autonomy would allow the Supreme Court to oppose laws made by the authorities of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. However, the Supreme Court would not have this power if the S.A.D.R. was in free association with Morocco. For these reasons, free association would give the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic a similar amount of power it would have if it were an independent country, making it likely the plan would receive more support from people in Western Sahara than autonomy.
The Western Sahara conflict has lasted for a long time because Morocco and the Polisario Front cannot agree to support an independence referendum or autonomy for Western Sahara. Algeria and other nations need to be neutral in the conflict, and not encourage either side to back a solution that is unlikely to occur. The U.N. might be able to end the Western Sahara dispute if it can convince the both parties to restart negotiations. This will most likely happen if there are financial incentives for resolving the conflict, and if the U.N. supports a realistic solution to end the dispute that both sides can agree upon.