Colonial legacies, more exceptionally the inherited colonial border adjustments of postcolonial States, have sowed the seeds of instability in Africa and elsewhere. The colonizer sought to extend a logic of territorial disintegration that retains control and neocolonial advantages, ignoring this way the precolonial realities to the benefit of rootless fashioned identities. Morocco, a case in point, was under the capture of two colonial powers, which of course torn apart its lands, and it took long, nearly 20 years, to completely decolonize these lands, and gain full independence. By questioning territoriality here, of course with regard to the colonial experience and its repercussions on the aftermath of colonialism, it should be noted that, unlike other parts of the North Africa, Morocco was ruled under the centuries-old Alawite monarchy, predating the European expansionist activity, and resistance and the fight for independence were in the name of the Sultan. It is true that the relationship between the ruler and the ruled was one of allegiance, with all its substantive political and religious embodiments. However, the French and the Spanish colonialist administrations in Morocco have adopted two divergent approaches while seeking to subjugate the insurgent regions. The Spanish, dominating the north and south, paid no much attention to the establishment of any centralized form of governance, since priority was given to securing the coastal line of the Sahara against any threats to its economic goals in the region. France, covering the middle zone, sought to perpetuate the hegemony of the colonial state through its endeavors to obliterate all regional insurrections, without challenging the Alawite legitimacy as a central ruling authority. However, the dividing line between these two colonies/colonial mindsets will be later referential for separatist theses sponsored by geopolitical rivals to Morocco.
The emergence of the Polisario’s separatist ambition, which was initially part of the Moroccan nationalist liberation movement, benefitted from an ambiguous postcolonial context marked by Algeria’s growing hegemonic spirit that would subsequently result in heated competition with Morocco, more remarkably after the sixties border war between these two North African rivals. This historical factor, among other factors, justifies the role of the Algerian diplomatic apparatus in rallying for international support to Polisario, using its entire resources to serve the plans of what seems to be a proxy player, the self-proclaimed Sahrawi republic, in an endless zero sum game, blatant to the international community.
Very simplistic studies seem to deliberately reduce the Sahara issue to the application of the ‘self-determination’ principle from a political perspective, ignoring the untrespassable historical and cultural factors in understanding the Sahara conflict dynamics, which undermine the whole Polisario secessionist thesis. Before going deeper into the deconstruction of cultural discourses, it should be noted that the ‘referendum’ option, which was accepted by all parties to the conflict, including Algeria, proved impracticable and very difficult to opt for, with the absence of a cultural and social reference to define the ‘Sahrawi Identity’ and decide on the lists of voters eligible to the referendum. The bone of contention that led to the suspension of the ‘identification process’ was in fact due to the incommensurability in ‘knowing who is the Sahrawi?’. Since then, the UN line of thought has witnessed a shift towards a more realistic stance in approaching the Sahara issue.
For the benefit of Polisario, and of Algeria in the backstage, the ‘self-determination’ principle has to be fulfilled hinging exclusively on the lists of the 1974 Spanish census. This census is in fact a colonial historical document produced in a limited period on a demarcated territory for a ‘tailored identity’ that would be used later in history as an instrument to justify secession. The census tunes out, however, the indigenous cultural and historical determinism that gives shape to a Sahrawi nomadic mindset that relies on transhumance as a mode of production and on mobility as a lifestyle.
The Spanish colonizer was more attentive to land control, without putting much pressure on the mobility of tribes across the colonial borders, nor was it willing to change the local lifestyle, as the Spanish administration maintained ‘Jmaa’, the group of tribal chiefs (Shioukhs), as the legitimate representative mechanism of the local population. These Shioukhs, who admit allegiance to the Alawite longstanding monarchy, draw their legitimacy from a traditional sense of belonging that emanates from grounded social and religious beliefs.
The Spanish 1974 census cannot stand as a genuine source to define the ‘Sahrawi identity’, as it uproots part of the population from its broader cultural sphere, and enforces a deracinated postcolonial identity unfittingly labelled as ‘Sahrawi People’. During the UN-led identification process in 1997, the Polisario leaders sought to bring new realities to the political arena, as they were cautiously selective in recognizing some ‘Sahrawis’ as eligible voters and many others as not. Should we go back to the lists of Sahrawis covered by the UN in 1997, we would discover an ideological rather than cultural/ethnic explanation of this identification. Strong evidence lies in the fact that the Polisario has accepted members of some Sahrawi families as ‘eligible voters’ to make up the lists for a desired referendum at that time, and excluded other members of the same families from these lists. For the Polisario, an alleged reference to the Spanish 1974 census should be the dividing line between two separate identities, which seems to look at ‘self-determination’ through referendum as one-size-fits-all approach that is expected to lead to a mechanical transition from one situation to another using standard parameters.
Astonishingly, the Polisario front contradicts itself, and subverts its alleged rightfulness, by recognizing as Sahrawis, but not eligible to the referendum, all those who support its political claims, even if they belong to areas (Guelmim, Assa, Tantan) beyond the so-called ‘Western Sahara’, and were not covered by the Spanish 1974 census. The fact that Polisario recognizes the existence of part the Sahrawi community in other parts of Morocco, and of a cultural entity broader than the alleged ‘Sahrawi People’ destabilizes the legitimacy of its claims, and gives meaning to initiatives mindful of the multidimensionality of the Sahara issue, and enhances the legality of Morocco’s territorial integrity after a long decolonization process.
The international community shows a growing, though belated, realistic understanding of the intricacies of the Sahara issue, which justifies the tendency towards brokering a solution based on compromise. The realism in the UN consciousness was more conspicuous in former UNSG Personal Envoy Peter Van Walsum’s straightforward statement that “the question of Western Sahara does not stand a chance of ever being understood as long as Algeria’s deep involvement is not taken into account”. Several years later, Horst Kohler, who holds the same position, invites Morocco, Algeria, Polisario and Mauritania on equal footing to convene for roundtable consultations on the Sahara issue. This is another unmistakable recognition of Algeria’s meddling in the Sahara matter, and of the instrumentalization of human rights discourses that cloak Algeria’s geopolitical aims, and blur any consideration of local historical and cultural specificities to achieve a peaceful solution to this regional conflict.