Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Western Sahara: What's in it for us?

It is not my intention to present all the details of the conflict, but since it is one of the main reasons halting the unification of the countries of the Maghreb, I believe that it deserves some attention.
I came to learn about this conflict when I was a child, camping in one of the coastal towns of Algeria. I was surprised to see a group of children, who did not speak our language, benefit from luxuries we would have never dreamed of in the camp. Driven by curiosity I decided to visit their dormitory to watch a cartoon on TV (it was a luxury to have a TV in a camp in the eighties). The kids and some adults who accompanied them explained to us that they were from Western Sahara, a colonized country, and they used to talk of torture and war. I was very surprised to learn that the enemy was no other than Morocco.
The conflict has its origins in the seventies (some Moroccans claim that it goes back a long way), when the Spanish decided to hand over the power to the Polisario. Both Morocco and Mauritania seemed to have historical claims over the country. The same argument used by the 19th century colonizers of "terra nullius" or un-owned land was used by Morocco and Mauritania to annex the country to their territories. Major incidents in this dispute include the march of 350,000 Moroccans into Western Sahara, and the armed conflict between Polisario and the Moroccan army, which started in 1975 and ended in 1991.
A UN mission, which was sent to Western Sahara, announced that the Sahrawi people were in favor of independence. However, this has not materialized. The Houston agreement suggested holding a referendum on independence, or unification with Morocco. It still puzzles me that to this day, no referendum was held, but useless negotiations are held sporadically from time to time which lead to no tangible results.
After Mauritania dropped its claims over the country, the parties in conflict remain Morocco and Western Sahara. However, Algeria has pledged it full support for the Sahrawi people to gain their independence. It remains a mystery to many, including myself, as to what Algeria will gain from the conflict. The following are possible reasons, reiterated by the Algerian government, and views of people in forums:
1. Algeria, a country that suffered from 132 years of colonization, which left the country impoverished economically, culturally, and socially, rejects all forms of occupation and supports the right of people to decide their own destiny. Following its independence in 1962, Algeria supported various countries to gain their independence. Therefore this claim is in line with the Algerian policy, which it adopted in 1962 and still stands today.
2. The Moroccans (both rulers and people) believe that Algeria's support for the Sahrawi cause is a demonstration of bitterness felt by the Algerian generals "who were bitterly defeated in the war of sands". The war of sands was between Algeria and Morocco over the borders. The Moroccans waged an attack on Algeria in 1963, a few months after the country gained its independence, claiming that Tindouf  and Bechar were Moroccan territory and that France annexed it to the then French Algeria. It is believed that the Algerian president Ben Bella used his famous “hagrouna” which means we are being bullied to  describe the action of the Moroccans.
3. Another claim circulated by the Moroccans and adopted by some Algerians in the street is that Algeria wants fishing concessions and access to the Atlantic Ocean.
A program on Aljazeera was dedicated to the issue. This program featured an academic from a university in Mauritania, who seemed quite Knowledgeable on the subject, But he was careful enough not to present any facts that would offend any side in the conflict. Interestingly, he claims that in the seventies (cannot quire remember the date precisely) Boumediene was about to drop his support for the Polisario and accept the division of the western Sahara between the two countries (Morocco and Mauritania), however, something happened that no one seems to know, which made him change his mind radically and drop his original agreement to the solution proposed then.
I find it interesting how the average Moroccan in the street views the conflict and how the Moroccan people fully support their government's decision to annex the country. Even the so called "intellectuals" often criticize the Algerian government for supporting the Polisario. One cannot deny that Algeria has fully supported the Polisario in this conflict; but at the same time, Morocco is not short of tricks either. By using the media in the West and the support they get from the US and France, Morocco seems to have held the upper hand in the conflict so far. In addition, they have waged a media war on Algeria, with the latter not failing to respond but in its usual cold manner.
Regardless of the gains or losses that will be incurred by the Algerian government, following a solution to this problem, I fully support the idea of a fair referendum; the Sahrawi people have the right to decide their own destiny. If they decide to be annexed to Morocco, then let it be.  This conflict has been dragged on unnecessarily far longer than it should have been. It is high time a solution is found that will satisfy the parties concerned.

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