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Western Sahara: salvaging the peace plan.

The referendum on the future of the Western Sahara is now more than a year overdue. Morocco and the Polisario Front are still at odds over who should be entitled to vote, while the United Nations wants its peace plan to go ahead by the end of this year.

ON A WINDSWEPT plain in a remote corner of the Western Sahara lies Bir Lahlou, one of the military bases of the Polisario Front which has been fighting for independence for the territory since 1975. But the guns have been silent over the past 18 months, following the introduction of a United Nations-sponsored ceasefire in September 1991.

The truce ended a bitter 16 year war between Polisario and Morocco which controls most of the former Spanish colony. The battlefield has now moved from the Western Sahara to the corridors of the United Nations in New York, where the two sides are at odds over who should be entitled to vote in a proposed referendum on the future of the territory, which is now more than a year overdue.

In a last ditch attempt to salvage the UN peace plan, the five permanent members of the Security Council have given the Secretary General, Boutros Boutros Ghali, until May to find a formula acceptable to both sides. There is a new urgency to the problem, as the UN has stressed it wants to hold the referendum before the end of the year.

Boutros Ghali faces an almost impossible task. In his latest report to the Security Council, he described the chances of reaching a compromise as "very slim." The electoral register for the referendum is based on 75,000 names included in a census of the Western Sahara taken by Spain in 1974. Morocco wants the UN to add a further 120,000 names to this list, but Polisario is fiercely opposed to widening the voting criteria, arguing this would guarantee Morocco victory.

If Boutros Ghali fails, the UN may opt to press ahead with the referendum, with or without the cooperation of the two sides. ln this case, the UN is likely to use an electoral register including the voters proposed by Morocco.

Polisario has no illusions about the UN peace plan and the fighters at Bir Lahlou are already gearing up for a possible resumption of hostilities. "We want the peace plan to work, but the Moroccans are creating obstacles," said Mohamed Salem, a young recruit. "Now the plan is in danger so we are ready to fight again, and I am sure we will win."

Despite the bravado, Polisario poses little military threat to Morocco. In the early stages of the war, Polisario scored some successes in attacking Moroccan industrial installations in the Western Sahara. But the construction of Morocco's defensive wall of sand in the mid-1980s effectively sealed off the territory and put an end to the guerrilla incursions. Polisario's army of 15,000 men is heavily outnumbered by the 165,000 Moroccan soldiers stationed in the Western Sahara.

Polisario's key lever on the Moroccans is not military but financial. The presence of its fighters in parts of the Western Sahara acts as a constant drain on Morocco's resources. The Moroccan annual defence budget swallows up more than $1,000 million, most of which is spent on keeping four-fifths of the army in the territory.

Whether Polisario abandons the UN peace plan will depend largely on the position taken by its main sponsor, Algeria. The Algerian government has urged the UN to continue with the current negotiations to find a compromise satisfactory to both Polisario and Morocco.

Last year, Algerian support for Polisario appeared to be waning, following the appointment of the pro-Moroccan Mohamed Boudiaf as head of state in January 1991. During his brief term in office, Boudiaf stressed he wanted to resolve the differences between Algeria and Morocco over the Western Sahara. But his assassination last June, followed by the appointment of Belaid Abdessalam as prime minister, marked the return of the old guard, who appear more firmly committed to Polisario. As a sign of the change, Polisario officials in Algiers are now treated with the respect accorded to visiting ministers.

Algeria's renewed enthusiasm for Polisario has undermined relations with Morocco. Relations were at a low point already, following an interview by King Hassan in which he said an Islamic fundamentalist government in Algeria would have been an interesting experiment for the region. His comments outraged Algiers and led to an almost daily anti-Moroccan polemic in the Algerian press.

Relations between the two countries are, in the words of King Hassan, at a strict minimum. This makes a mockery of the Arab Maghreb Union, which is intended to bring together the countries of North Africa. King Hassan did not attend the last heads of state summit and his foreign minister, Abdellatif Filali, said recently that the Maghreb countries had decided on a pause in the building of the union to give them time to "clarify the differences between them."

The main stumbling block to a greater union in North Africa is the United Nations embargo against Libya. Tripoli has accused the other Maghreb countries of breaking their commitments by going along with the sanctions. But even if the sanctions issue were to be resolved, or Libya were to carry out its mumbled threats of leaving the union, the question of the Western Sahara would continue to divide Morocco and Algeria, and undermine the aims of the Maghreb Union.
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Title Annotation:Current Affairs
Author:Hermida, Alfred
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Apr 1, 1993
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