Large Autonomy : a substantial solution to the Sahara issue

Since 1976, the Western Sahara is experiencing a conflict between the Sahrawi independence movement Polisario Front and Morocco, which claims sovereignty over the entire territory. It is no secret that Algeria, which supports and arms the Polisario Front has been seeking an opening on the Atlantic Ocean.

Recently while all eyes were on Mali crisis or replicas facing Tunisia, Libya and Egypt after their “spring”, the U.S. representative to the Group of Friends of the Sahara had proposed to other members (Britain, Spain, Russia and France) a resolution which sought to include human rights monitoring mechanism in the mandate of MINURSO, the UN Mission in the Sahara.

King Mohammed has personally expressed his displeasure by canceling last month joint military maneuvers between his country and the United States. He received the support of all political parties in the kingdom and civil society.

The other members of the Group of Friends of the Sahara have finally been quick to distance themselves from the U.S. initiative. Equally important, the Malian Minister of Foreign Affairs Tieman Coulibalyi said in early February that fighters from the ranks of the Polisario had been spotted in northern Mali. The Western powers did not want to destabilize a little more a fragile region in which Morocco has always been characterized as an island of stability.

 Since the entry into force of the cease-fire in 1991, the final status of Western Sahara remains to be determined.In a resolution adopted at the unanimously April 25, 2013, the “great powers” and the UN Security Council reaffirmed the primacy of the autonomy initiative presented by Morocco. The UN text reiterates that “the status quo is unacceptable” and that we must find a solution to the dispute between the Kingdom of Morocco and Algeria. Mohammed VI can even take advantage of the “serious and credible” efforts made by his country to find a solution to the question of Western Sahara.

No less important were the words of François Hollande during his visit to Tangier and Rabat in early April. The French President reiterated his “firm and unequivocal” position in favor of the Moroccan autonomy plan for the Sahara. He also added: “Morocco makes every day decisive steps towards democracy, consistently paves the way towards development, ensuring its unity based on the recognition of diversity.” Moreover, he hails the Autonomy plan presented in 2007 by Morocco, which advocates a broad autonomy within the sovereignty of the Moroccan. “I repeat here, and this is a serious and credible basis for a negotiated solution.” This project is now supported by France, Spain and to most of the countries of the Arab League, it seems to be the only valid solution.

The ball is now in the camp of Sahrawis and their Algerian ally. Long will they continue to turn a deaf ear to the diplomats who advocate realism, refusing to exert any pressure on Rabat and recall the words of Peter van Walsum, the Special Envoy of the Secretary General of the UN in the region , who said that “independent Western Sahara was not a realistic proposition”

On the ground, the viability of the autonomy solution proposed by Morocco is translated by symbolic gestures. One of these gestures is the refusal of some Sahrawi refugees, who come from the Tindouf camps to the Moroccan southern provinces in the context of the family exchange visit program organized periodically by the UNHCR, to go back to Tindouf and who willingly choose to stay in their homeland. Convinced of the Moroccan government’s sincerity to settle this artificial territorial dispute through its autonomy proposal, many Sahrawis who returned to their homeland, have seized this unique opportunity to put an end to the sufferings and hardships they endured in the camps of Tindouf in the Algerian desert.

If the Sahrawis want to take up the autonomy challenge, they must “take their future in their own hands” and seize the opportunity of the different projects initiated and the tremendous efforts made by Morocco in its southern provinces.

For Morocco’s critics, the history of the conflict begins in 1975. It was at that time that the Green March was launched by the late Hassan II. Morocco’s southern provinces were christened the “Western Sahara” by the UN, and the Polisario was created. Yet if these critics expanded their lenses and went further back in time, they’d find out that 1975 was merely the culmination of decades of Moroccan resistance to French and Spanish encroachments on Moroccan sovereignty and the Moroccan people’s tireless struggle to reclaim their territories. Morocco had existed as a sovereign state for centuries. Most of its dynasties originated from the Sahara. The Almoravids, who founded Marrakech and made it the capital of their far—flung empire, were from that disputed region, most likely from Mauritania.

The ties with the Sahara, all the way to the Senegal, rose and ebbed with events in history. By the time the French and Spaniards started their expansionist designs on the region, most people north of Senegal and the Algerian Sahara paid allegiance to the Moroccan sultan and conducted Friday prayers in his name. These were the markers of sovereignty in pre-colonial Muslim societies, not the precise territorial boundaries that European states had to establish to sort out their own feuds.

Even international law, as the scholar George Joffé noted in an article that is yet to be surpassed in its historical depth and probity, doesn’t condone the dismemberment of a people or nation. And for good reason. If every region were to seek its independence through a concocted process of self-determination, then the world would disintegrate into utter chaos. Spain has refused to let go of the Basque region or Catalonia, even though these two autonomous regions have stronger claims to independence than the Polisario could ever claim.

So why this sympathy for a “Western Sahara” that never existed, a vast stretch of desert the size of Colorado with no arable land at all, and whose borders were delineated by a Franco-Spanish team between 1956 and 1958? For some, it may seem the “progressive” thing to do, and for others, it’s part of a strategic ploy to maintain a precarious balance of power in the region. Either way, Morocco’s adversaries rely on flimsy historical justifications and a lot of colonialist philosophy (Roman law, ambiguous or contradictory provisions in international law, as Joffé indicated).

The solution that Morocco now proposes—autonomy within Morocco—is not a device to circumvent the UN-sponsored resolution; it is, in my opinion, merely the modern version of the old bay’a (allegiance) principle that bonded the Sahrawis with the rest of the country. Because the sultan and his army couldn’t be everywhere at once, substantial autonomy was the de facto solution to government in pre-colonial times. As long as people paid taxes and recognized the sultan in their prayers, they were left to manage their affairs as they saw fit.

 By Said Temsamani