A new perspective: Morocco’s King Mohammed VI recasts the Sahara issue in fresh light

This past Sunday, Morocco’s King Mohammed VI delivered his annual speech to mark the 41st anniversary of the Green March. It will be recalled that the Green March refers to the historical event that took place on November 6, 1975, when some 350,000 Moroccan citizens with flags and copies of the Quran crossed into what was then the Spanish exclave of Western Sahara to peacefully undo a colonial injustice. For in the Great Game that 19th century European colonial powers played in Africa, the region of Western Sahara was hived off from Morocco and came under Spanish control. In fact, Morocco itself was a French protectorate till 1956 when it regained its independence.

But the Kingdom of Morocco has undeniable ancient ties to the Sahara. Tribes in the region had long swore allegiance to the Moroccan monarch. This is precisely why Moroccan citizens undertook the Green March to reunite the Sahara with the Kingdom. The 1975 Madrid Accords divided Western Sahara – subsequently known as Moroccan Sahara – among Morocco and Mauritania. However, the latter relinquished its claim to this patch of the Sahara in 1979.

However, from the 1970s a Sahrawi separatist group called the Polisario Front – backed primarily by Algeria – carried out an armed campaign against the Moroccan state for the establishment of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. In 1991 a UN-backed ceasefire was mediated between Morocco and Polisario, leading to the establishment of the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (Minurso). The latter was mandated to monitor the ceasefire and create conditions for a referendum in the Moroccan Sahara. However, the terms of the referendum, especially those related to identifying and registering qualified voters, were never fulfilled due to insincerity on the part of Polisario.

Further, the admission of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic in the African Union – then called Organisation of African Unity – in 1984 compelled Morocco to leave the pan-African body. Since then, the Moroccan Sahara issue has been consistently politicised to hem in Morocco and curtail its influence in the region. In fact, every year the review of the Minurso mandate is held over Morocco like Damocles’ sword. Different international actors use the issue to try and blackmail Morocco. Not only is this patently unfair, but also a reflection of how manipulative UN processes have become – a primary reason why many member states are becoming increasingly disenchanted with the international body.

It’s against this backdrop that King Mohammed’s latest Green March speech needs to be seen. First, as widely reported by the media, the King’s decision to deliver the speech from Dakar, Senegal, was in tune with Morocco’s recent campaign to re-join the African Union. It was a clear expression of the King’s belief that Morocco’s return to the African institutional family will provide a fillip to the continent as a whole. But it’s the second factor which is more interesting. In his speech, the King projected the Moroccan Sahara as a potential bridge between the Kingdom and Africa. In doing so, he made the development and security of the Moroccan Sahara not just a matter of national importance but also a priority for the entire African family. In other words, the King wants Africa to positively contribute towards the Moroccan Sahara issue and become a stakeholder in its progress.

This adds another effective weapon to Morocco’s diplomatic arsenal in countering Polisario and Algeria propaganda on the Sahara. For, should Morocco return to the African Union – a large number of African countries support this – and the Moroccan Sahara issue becomes an African development issue, it would negate the unjustified pressure that non-African players put on Morocco year after year. Besides, there’s no denying the fact that Morocco has invested heavily in the Sahara to significantly boost the local economy. In fact, people in the region receive many benefits that Moroccan citizens in other parts of the Kingdom don’t enjoy.

Taken together, the content and symbolism of the King’s latest Green March address recast the Moroccan Sahara issue in a new perspective. In effect, the King has invited the larger African family to view the issue constructively, contribute towards the region’s development and prevent conflict over this colonial baggage.

Rudroneel Ghosh