When hostilities on pause for 30 years reignite, journalists cannot depend on outdated narratives and “he said, she said” reporting.
Rabat – When a dormant conflict like that in Western Sahara reawakens, reporters often struggle to catch up to new developments. To compensate, journalists often report what both sides have publicly stated while repeating outdated storylines on the conflict’s history. In Western Sahara much has changed since the 1991 ceasefire.
In order to provide international reporters and casual observers with the latest facts and developments, the guide below aims to dispel myths and provide a fact-based overview of current developments. Amid the chaos and fog of war, a clear summary of events can help present the full story and help combat fake news and emotional rhetoric.
The current reawakening of conflict in Western Sahara started less than a month ago. Polisario supporters, backed by its militias, blocked the important Guerguerat border crossing between Morocco and Mauritania.
The UN condemned the act and urged Polisario to allow the reopening of the border, which is the lifeline for the trade in fruit and vegetables between the two countries. The border blockade in Western Sahara caused vegetable prices to skyrocket in Mauritania as civilian and commercial trade ground to a halt.
The blockade took place in the UN-monitored buffer area between Morocco and Mauritania, where the 1991 ceasefire agreement established a zone that does not permit military activity. For weeks truckers remained stuck at the border, prompting Morocco to ask the UN to find a solution.
Weeks of dialogue between the local UN peacekeeping force MINURSO and the Polisario presence blocking traffic resulted in no progress. Morocco’s King Mohammed VI and the country’s diplomats warned that without progress via MINURSO, it would be forced to lift the blockade itself in order to resume trade with its southern neighbor.
Lifting of the blockade
In the face of Polisario intransigence despite UN mediation attempts, Morocco announced last week that it aimed to reopen the border. The night before the operation Morocco announced it was mobilizing forces to lift the blockade in Western Sahara. The following day Moroccan forces moved to the Guerguerat border crossing.
Joined by MINURSO personnel and constrained by tight rules of engagement, Morocco aimed to lift the blockade without violence. Moroccan forces went in with instructions to avoid any contact with civilians and only use their weapons when fired upon. As troops made contact with Polisario personnel, the local militia opened fire, to which Moroccan forces responded with warning shots. Morocco reported no injuries or casualties as it secured the border crossing.
Yet Polisario released a torrent of misinformation, telling tales of brutality and violence. Independent reporting quickly dispelled these myths. Morocco reestablished the vital freedom of movement and cross-border trade on which the EU has insisted.
The operation had concluded without injuries, with Morocco announcing it had lifted the siege in a matter of hours with little resistance from retreating Polisario militias.
As far as Morocco was concerned the matter was settled, yet the day after the operation, Polisario declared it would no longer adhere to the 1991 ceasefire that had allowed peace in the region for decades. Algeria’s allies circulated footage of nighttime artillery fire, filmed in Yemen and Syria, on social media to promote the idea of an active war in Western Sahara.
Meanwhile Polisario supporters and Morocan diplomats exchanged increasingly heated rebukes of each other’s actions. Morocco’s representatives repeatedly referred to Polisario’s acts as provocations without providing sufficient explanation of what occurred in the weeks ahead of Morocco’s operation.
Who is the current aggressor?
The Guerguerat blockade was an apparent last-ditch effort by Polisario to change the diplomatic trend regarding Western Sahara. For three years the militia saw diplomatic defeats stack up as countries around the world increasingly supported Morocco’s autonomy plan as the one realistic framework for a solution to the conflict.
Backed in a corner with support waning, the blockade provided the opportunity for a public clash to reinvigorate the separatist group’s claims and reawaken its supporters. A public clash did not materialize however because of Morocco’s tempered operation that lifted the blockade without violence. These developments led to a flood of fake news in order to conjure up renewed conflict.
Analysis by Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia and US communication specialist Calvin Dark highlighted how Polisario orchestrated the recent tensions to renew attention to its claims. “The Polisario feeds on conflicts, threats, and instability,” Dark explained to Moroccan state media, adding that “without this, they have no reason to exist.”
Consequences of violence
Morocco’s peaceful operation on the border and Polisario’s declaration of war the following day have shown that the ploy for attention appears to have failed. Countries from around the world have announced their support for Morocco’s actions to restore the freedom of movement and cross-border trade in the buffer zone.
Guyana withdrew its support for Polisario claims, the EU expressed support, and African and Arab nations condemned Polisario’s attempt to garner publicity and force a stand-off. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres expressed “grave concern” with the developments and spoke to Polisario leaders hours after they declared the 1991 ceasefire null and void.
While Morocco remains fully committed to the ceasefire, Polisario militias repeatedly attacked Moroccan defensive positions over the weekend. The group stated it is mobilizing “thousands of volunteers who have completed their training.” With “volunteers,” Polisario is likely referring to inhabitants of the Tindouf refugee camps in Algeria where Polisario has instituted mandatory military training for anyone over 18.
Is this an independence struggle?
International reporters continue to frame the current conflict as part of a quest for independence. While the origins of the conflict come from competing claims regarding the decolonization of the region, three decades of peace have transformed the conflict beyond recognition.
For nearly 30 years Western Sahara has experienced peace and has developed economically along with the rest of Morocco. Human rights abuses surely took place during Morocco’s “years of lead” that targeted both Moroccans and Sahrawi inhabitants across the country. Yet Morocco has transitioned to a more free and transparent country under the rule of King Mohammed VI.
As peace and prosperity started to increase, Polisario militias and supporters languished in the Tindouf refugee camps in Algeria. Algeria created the Polisario Front and its influence has turned a small, poorly-equipped group into an effective proxy army, fed, armed, and supported by Algeria.
For Algeria and Morocco, a Polisario victory in Western Sahara would mean nothing less than the total encirclement of Morocco by its regional rival Algeria. With nearly half a century of direct support to the militias, Polisario has always fully depended on Algeria, which dictates its leadership and guides its agenda.
If an independent state would materialize as Polisario supporters hope, it would mean Algeria could use its control with Polisario to dictate policies and essentially block Morocco from the African continent. Morocco supplies its southern provinces with most of their food and produce. Lacking domestic food production, an independent state in Western Sahara would likely be as dependent on external support as Algeria’s Tindouf camps are.
Like many post-colonial claims to territory in Africa, Polisario’s claims do not match the reality of a continent where borders have little to do with the heritage of its inhabitants.
Similar to aspirations for independence in Catalonia and Scotland, the geopolitical reality often works against the apparently heartfelt ambitions of local people. UN resolutions over the past years have repeatedly reinforced this practical reality.
Road to peace?
The only available path towards prosperity and peace in Western Sahara appears to come through Morocco’s autonomy plan. The country has expended great efforts to incorporate the local Sahrawi population into the country while continuing their cultural heritage. Meanwhile, local NGOs attempt to grapple with years of trauma and division while Morocco’s sustainable development initiatives aim to improve living standards.
Morocco’s autonomy plan allows for locals to be a self-governing entity within the Kingdom. The proposal continues to garner support from an increasing number of countries at the UN level. Only Algeria, Polisario and a few countries who continue to see the conflict through outdated 1970s decolonization narratives oppose the plan.
The renewed conflict in Western Sahara is not in Morocco’s interest. The current status quo allows Morocco access to most of its southern provinces with little conflict. Diplomatically the scales tipped in Morocco’s favor years ago and as international consensus grows, Polisario’s “cause” flounders.
For Morocco, the mobilization of forces in the south is costly and unwanted amid its COVID-19 epidemic and the resulting economic fallout. In an unusually hot November month, the last thing military officials want is to deploy troops in the sweltering heat of the Sahara.
With Polisario as the only beneficiary of conflict, international reporting could benefit from a renewed appraisal of the situation. The conflict appears to be nothing but a last-ditch publicity event by Polisario, which fears the evolving position of the international community.
The sad truth is that this publicity is likely to cost the lives of young Moroccans and Polisario fighters who face a needless conflict in the desert. With the UN ready to mediate and de-escalate, Morocco is eager to reestablish peace in Western Sahara. The question remains whether peace in any way serves the interest of Polisario leaders.