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Madrid must not adopt a duplicitous approach to the Moroccan Sahara issue

The recent diplomatic crisis between Morocco and Spain clearly demonstrates that the Moroccan Sahara issue has become nothing but a political tool for various nations to fulfil their vested interests. It all started when former US president Donald Trump in December last year issued a presidential proclamation recognising Moroccan sovereignty over the Moroccan Sahara and acknowledging Rabat’s Autonomy Plan as the only just and reasonable solution to the long-running dispute over the territory. This was a huge diplomatic victory for Morocco and its consistent stand on the Moroccan Sahara, which is rooted in historical and legal rights.

Recall that the Moroccan Sahara was hived off from Morocco proper by 19th century European colonial powers and came to be a Spanish exclave. This situation prevailed even after Morocco attained its full independence with the end of the French protectorate in 1956. It was only after the historic Green March of November 6, 1975 that the process to reunite the territory with Morocco was started. The Madrid Accords divided the Moroccan Sahara between Morocco and Mauritania. But Mauritania relinquished its claims over the territory in 1979, leaving only Morocco’s sovereignty claims intact.

However, the Polisario Front separatist group – backed by Algeria — has carried out an armed struggle against Morocco since the 1970s for the creation of a Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. However, a ceasefire was brokered by the UN in 1991 with the aim of finding a solution through a referendum. But the right conditions were never created for a referendum, thanks in large part due to Polisario’s intransigence which has till date refused to conduct a census of the Sahrawi inmates at its Tindouf camps.

Moreover, it was the Polisario that decided to break the ceasefire last November and resumed hostilities in the Guergarate buffer zone between Morocco and Mauritania. Meanwhile, the Moroccan Autonomy Plan for the Sahara, proposed in 2007, has been appreciated by important stakeholders in the international community as a serious, credible and realistic approach to the Sahara question. According to the plan, the Sahara provinces are to enjoy a high degree of autonomy within the sovereignty of Morocco. In fact, the Sahara areas under Morocco today already enjoy their own separate budget amounting to $8 billion for the period of 2016-2021.

Coming back to the Morocco-Spain diplomatic tiff, it is clear that Madrid did not appreciate the US presidential proclamation last year acknowledging Morocco’s sovereignty over the Sahara. In fact, Spain indefinitely postponed a summit with Morocco on the same day the proclamation was made. Then on April 18 this year, Spain allowed Polisario leader Brahim Ghali to secretly enter its territory under a fake name for a hospital stay after he tested positive for Covid-19. Madrid did not bother to inform Rabat, a key trade and security partner, about the arrangement. When news of Ghali’s stay in Spain went public, Madrid tried to pass it off as a humanitarian endeavour, failing to explain why Ghali was travelling under a fake name.

Morocco, of course, protested strongly against this Spanish perfidy and demanded an explanation from Madrid. But none was forthcoming. Then on May 17 and 18 tensions between the two countries reached a new height when 9,000 irregular migrants arrived at the Spanish exclave of Ceuta in Morocco. This led to some Spanish officials blaming Morocco for weaponising the irregular migrants. Madrid then proceeded to lobby against Morocco at the European Union with the European Parliament passing a non-binding resolution condemning Morocco in relation to the Ceuta episode. Finally, the cat was out of the bag when Spain’s foreign minister Arancha González Laya asked US secretary of state Antony Blinken to reverse the US position on the Moroccan Sahara, citing this as the reason for Spain’s diplomatic crisis with Morocco. This makes it amply clear that countries have been using the Moroccan Sahara issue to further their own vested interests. Their arguments are hardly rooted in lofty principles such as self-determination or human rights, but are actually governed by pure politics. Morocco is the gateway to Africa for Europe. The latter, apparently, still harbours traces of its erstwhile colonial mindset whereby it wants African nations to dance to its tunes. In fact, it is clear that many in Europe continue to see Africa as a servile servant.

But the reality is that Africa today is rising and has no patience for Europe’s overbearing attitude. It is no longer willing to be dictated to. And this is the same sentiment that Morocco has in its crisis with Spain. In fact, Rabat would be perfectly justified in raising the issue of decolonisation of Ceuta and Melilla with Madrid.

Therefore, it is high time that Europe ends this charade over the Moroccan Sahara and follows the US in recognising the Moroccainity of this region. Plus, all African nations must come together to support Morocco in this regard and resist European chauvinism. It is welcome that the Pan-African Parliament has urged the European Parliament to not get involved in the crisis between Morocco and Spain. Africa must speak in one voice over the Moroccan Sahara issue.



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Views expressed above are the author’s own.



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