New UN envoy for Western Sahara tours Maghreb capitals
Tunis- The United Nations’ new special envoy for the disputed Western Sahara region has toured the Maghreb in a bid to resume mediation on the decades-long conflict.
The more than 40-year-old conflict between Morocco and the Polisario Front threatened to escalate into a military confrontation last year after the Polisario set up a military post near Moroccan soldiers.
However, with the region facing severe challenges — from a jihadist presence in the sub-Saharan Sahel to fallout from the strife in Libya — both sides need a respite.
The appointment of former German President Horst Kohler as the UN secretary-general‘s personal envoy for Western Sahara renewed hopes of a resolution. Kohler was appointed August 16 after the resignation of Christopher Ross, who was accused by Morocco of being biased towards the Polisario. Ross, a US diplomat, was UN envoy from January 2009 until April 2017.
Other indications of progress are the influence of UN Secretary- General Antonio Guterres, a former Portuguese prime minister who has extensive knowledge of the region, and the role of the African Union, in which both Morocco and the Polisario hold seats. The African body is increasingly pushing for an end to the dispute, which is considered a nuisance in a region being looked to as a new frontier for business and trade.
Kohler met with Moroccan King Mohammed VI and other top government officials on October 17. He met with members of the Saharawi negotiating team at the Chahid el- Hafed refugee camp. Kohler also met with officials in Algeria and Mauritania.
Morocco has called for Mauritania and Algeria to take part in negotiations over Western Sahara.
Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony principally controlled by Morocco, is claimed by the Polisario Front, which is backed by Algeria. The Polisario Front is demanding a referendum on self-determination for Western Sahara’s 500,000 residents. Morocco says the territory is an integral part of the kingdom. The conflict has strained relations between Morocco and Algeria.
Morocco and the Polisario Front fought for control of Western Sahara from 1974-91 when Rabat took over the territory before a UN-brokered ceasefire that was part of a peace plan that included promises of a referendum.
The territory, which lies on the Atlantic coast and spans 266,000 sq. km, is believed to be rich in mineral resources, including phosphate. Its waters are replete with fish.
Erik Jensen, former UN special representative to Western Sahara, warned that failure to move towards a negotiated settlement in Western Sahara posed a risk to the region and beyond.
“A new spirit must prevail. A spirit of realism and compromise must prevail, as well as openness and the willingness to explore options,” he said.
Tensions boiled over last year when the Polisario Front set up a military post in Guerguerat near the Mauritanian border, 200 metres from Moroccan soldiers, in response to Morocco’s construction of a road in the area.
Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz described the situation at the time as “dangerous and explosive.” Jensen said it was on the verge of violence in February.
Morocco pulled out of the area in late February at the request of the United Nations.
The UN Security Council unanimously endorsed attempts to restart talks between Morocco and the Polisario Front and extended its peacekeeping mission there for another year.
Guterres has called for Morocco and the Polisario Front to begin negotiations that would include fresh proposals from both sides.
Against a backdrop of decades of political failure and mistrust, the United Nations welcomed Morocco’s 2007 autonomy proposal as a “serious” effort towards progress. The Polisario Front’s 2007 proposal calls for a referendum between independence, integration with Morocco and self-governance.
Tajeddine el Husseini, an international relations professor at Rabat University, said Morocco was optimistic about a resolution because of the appointment of Kohler, “who has an expertise in dealing with difficult issues, including the problem of refugees.”
“His objectivity in the issue of Western Sahara makes him a neutral broker,” Husseini added.
Other analysts said they would know more about Kohler’s chances after he reports to the Security Council in six months.
“Kohler has a narrow margin to manoeuvre if the Security Council will not give him the means to jump-start a new dynamic to give hope to the last African colony and peace to the Maghreb region,” said former Algerian Ambassador Abdelaziz Rahabi.
The region has few options to secure stability and increase development to ease its restive youth.
The Western Sahara conflict has paralysed the Arab Maghreb Union, a body initiated in 1989 to expand cooperation between Algeria, Morocco, Libya, Mauritania and Tunisia.
Instead of cooperation, however, the relationship has been dominated by the rivalry between Algeria and Morocco. The stand-off prompted an arms race in which Algiers and Rabat diverted crucial resources to the purchase of weaponry.
In early October, Algerian Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia said Algeria’s economic “situation is hell” and that country’s coffers were empty. The oil-rich country has earned $1 trillion over the past 17 years from gas and oil exports, official figures indicated.
King Mohammed VI on October 13 told parliament that Morocco needed a “new model of development” as past programmes had done little for ordinary Moroccans.
He threatened “a political earthquake” if elites in parliament, political parties, trade unions and government officials failed to come up with an adequate model to meet the needs of the population.