Rabat – Shortly after UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres made public his latest report on the situation in Western Sahara, the Polisario Front’s leadership went ballistic.
In a letter to Guterres and Vasily Nebenzya, Russia’s UN representative and the current president of the UN Security Council, Polisario leader Brahim Ghali said the report was “reductive” and not reflective of the real situation in the disputed region.
According to Polisario’s “official” press service, Ghali was especially outraged that Guterres’ report and the entire UN-led trust-building enterprise in Western Sahara now look as a scheme to legitimize Morocco’s agenda.
Under the misleading guises of neutral peace talks and effective peacekeeping, Ghali suggested, the real purpose of the UN-led political process is to normalize a pro-Morocco status quo and ultimately make Sahrawis give up on their “legitimate” self-determination aspirations.
“The report does not reflect the alarming reality,” the separatist group’s media quoted Ghali as saying. To Gueterres’ recommendation of more talks and Geneva roundtable-like dialogue to find a middle ground between the conflicting parties, Ghali stressed the need for “more practical and serious measures” to assist the “decolonization of… Africa’s last colony.”
But there was more to Ghali’s frustration, especially as MINURSO, the UN peacekeeping mission in Western Sahara, took the bulk of the Polisario leader’s smacking.
Problems with MINURSO
In his report, the UN chief recommended that the Security Council extend the mandate of MINURSO. According to Guterres, the body’s on-the-ground monitoring and reports are essential to the UN-led political process.
“MINURSO is the main and often sole source of impartial information and advice to me, the Security Council, the Member States and the Secretariat concerning developments in the Territory. In this regard, the Mission is a vital early warning mechanism,” said Gueterres’ report.
“MINURSO also fills an indispensable conflict-prevention role and provides visible and enduring testimony to the commitment of the United Nations and the international community towards achieving a just, lasting and mutually acceptable political solution to the conflict in Western Sahara in accordance with resolutions.”
For Ghali, however, the UN mission has become complicit in Morocco’s “occupation” and “colonization” of its southern provinces. Rather than a neutral peacekeeping operation, the UN body has “regrettably become a passive bystander to the unlawful actions that aim to consolidate Morocco’s illegal occupation.”
In a way, Ghali’s reaction to the UN report was to be expected. In fact, given the prevailing mood of desperation in the pro-Polisario ranks, it would have been surprising for the militant group not to fume at yet another consolidation of Morocco’s diplomatic gains on the Sahara dossier.
Of tangential relevance here is Polisario’s irritation at the UN’s and MINURSO’s supposed lack of neutrality, or support, for Morocco’s “occupation.” At bottom, Polisario’s growing frustration with the UN-led political process is akin to the bitterness of realizing that you are only another guest at a party you thought was all about you.
Since the adoption of Resolution 2468 in 2019, two points in the prevailing UN consensus have increasingly made some of Polisario’s decades-long talking points part of the furniture.
These concern the inclusion or acknowledgement of Algeria as a primary stakeholder in the conflict and the unanimous inclination towards “compromise” and “realism” as the most viable route to sustainable peace.
The two occurrences are part of the “new realities” that have convinced the majority of UN diplomats, including Guterres himself, that “a compromised-based political solution” is the best option in the offing for Western Sahara.
As this stance happens to be consistent with Morocco’s 2007 Autonomy Plan — especially the insistence on compromise, pragmatism, and realism — the pro-Polisario camp has concluded that the whole process is rigged. And one way of disrupting the UN’s so-called “pro-Morocco agenda,” as Ghali warned in his letter, is for Polisario to disengage from the political process and retrench to its familiar outpost of war threats and insistence on a referendum.
But there is another important point to make here. While the consensus around a politically negotiated resolution has predictably exasperated the ever dwindling pro-Polisario camp, another — and even more important– factor behind the group’s fury at the recent UN report may have to do with the document’s detailed coverage of Polisario’s violations of military agreement No. 1.
The UN report listed more than 50 violations by Polisario, including “increased incursions” in the buffer strip, obstruction of traffic, the relocation of several Polisario units in Tifariti, as well as the presence of heavy Polisario weaponry in Agwanit, Bir Lahlou, and Tifariti.
Such reports constitute yet another deadly blow to a leading pro-Polisario narrative: Morocco’s “obstruction” of the UN-led process. They show that Polisario unitis, and not Morocco, are the chief obstructors of the ceasefire agreement. And that, while Rabat has mostly cooperated with MINURSO and stood by its professed commitment to the political process, there have been notable discrepancies between Polisaro’s discourse and its actions on the ground.
Or, as the UN chief put it in his report, “I am concerned about the recent decline in compliance with military agreement No. 1. This undermines the arrangements that are the basis for the lasting ceasefire. I call on Frente POLISARIO to meet with the MINURSO Force Commander and swiftly resolve the many outstanding violations of military agreement No. 1. I call on Morocco to maintain the military cooperation I cited in my previous report.”
In this sense, one can read Ghali’s letter, as well as his condemnations of the UN’s pro-Morocco momentum and MINURSO’s perceived partiality in pro-Polisario quarters, as an effort to reverse the burden of proof.
The idea is that, until the UN proves its reliability and credibility by going back to a referendum as the only solution, Polisario has no choice but to boycott, disengage, and resort to military confrontation. In other words, Ghali’s ferocious response to Guterres’ report is a calculated affront to either excuse Polisario’s documented breaches of the UN-imposed status quo in Western Sahara, or justify any other defiant actions the militant group may embark on in the future.
Rather than genuine war threats — military confrontation is highly improbable, as the situation currently stands — the group’s constant denunciations and invocations of war read more like desperate, attention-catching bravura to tilt the UN momentum back to its political comfort zone: Decolonization and referendum.
One of the most consistent markers of pro-Polisario symbology is the mobilization of postcolonial solidarity. This mainly consists of raising skeptical eyebrows about the ongoing, UN-led diplomatic efforts, while mischievously likening Morocco’s “occupation” to Apartheid and the plight of Palestinians.
Consider, for example, the latest pro-Polisario jeremiad from Tito Mboweni, South Africa’s Finance Minister. “Why in this day and age, one African country is allowed to colonize another? Oppress a people! Our own comrades, brothers and sisters! This must end,” Mboweni tweeted on October 12. “Freedom for Western Sahara must come now!Urgent task.This diplomacy thing is not working. Let us be loud and clear!!”
It is not hard to pin down what is at play here: A distorted, grievance-inspired vision of history that is rich in equivocations and sanctimonious pronouncements but very poor in nuance, context, and historiographic subtlety.
That is perhaps why, when confronted with the complex history of Western Sahara, or the fact that the latest UN regulations do not exactly encourage Polisario’s reading of the way forward, a pro-Polisario’s best rejoinder is outrage and moral indignation.
Buttressing this is a black-and-white approach to history. The point is to be on the side of the downtrodden, if need be at the expense of facts and of a more realistic end to the predicament of the very wretched one claims to defend.
Guterres’ optimism that sustained diplomatic efforts will eventually find a common ground between two diametrically visions of Western Sahara should fall within the broader, prevailing certainty that war is not really an option at this point. To be sure, neither Ghali’s anti-MINURSO cris de coeur nor Mboweni’s unadorned repudiation of “this diplomacy thing” will radically derail the UN-led process.
But they undermine, however slightly, Guterres’ optimism. They constitute fresh reminders that the next UN envoy will most likely have to start from scratch monumental trust-building tasks, rather than swiftly pick up where Horst Kohler left off.