It hit me during the State of the Union address. These are the final months of the Obama administration. And yet, consistent with the approaches of each U.S. president since Gerald Ford, this administration has done nothing to compel the Moroccan government to live up to its responsibilities, international law, and the 1991 truce that it signed with the Saharawi liberation movement—Polisario, in resolving the dispute in the Western Sahara.
It has been striking that despite the role of former Secretary of State James Baker as the individual asked by the United Nations to mediate a settlement between the Moroccan government and Polisario; and despite the fact that the Moroccans dismissed Baker despite Baker’s efforts to accommodate some of the Moroccan government’s interests, no US administration has taken a strong stand against Morocco’s disrespect of Saharawi self-determination.
There is urgency in resolving this conflict. Morocco has occupied most of the Western Sahara since it illegally invaded the country in 1975, following Spain’s withdrawal from its former colony. Morocco and Polisario fought a bitter guerrilla war until 1991 when a truce was signed between the parties and an agreement that a referendum would be held to resolve the status of the former colony. Yet since 1991, the Moroccan government has done absolutely nothing to advance the cause of peace. Much like Israel in its occupation of Palestinian territories, the Moroccan government seems to feel quite content in waiting out the clock, hoping that what are described as the “facts on the ground” will ultimately settle the matter in favor of Morocco’s annexation of the Western Sahara.
Polisario, by all accounts, has abided by the terms of the ceasefire. Yet conditions for the Saharawis are not improving. Thousands of Saharawis remain in refugee camps in Algeria, just on the other side of the border. Others have migrated out of the entire region in search of a better life. And within the refugee camps, there is a growing and quite understandable impatience with the situation. In fact, though it has not been either the rhetoric or the policy of Polisario to suggest a return to war, there are those voices in the camps who have posed the question differently: what have the Saharawis gained as a result of respecting the truce?
The Moroccans appear to feel no particular need to step away from their intransigence. There has been no price to be paid. Morocco is a key ally of the French and of the USA. The USA views the Moroccan monarchy as an ally in the so-called war against terrorism. Yet, by failing to insist that the Moroccan government respect the agreements that it has itself signed, both the USA and French are laying the conditions for an inflammation of the crisis in northwestern Africa.
One of the gravest dangers in northwestern Africa is that a failure to peacefully and justly resolve the demand for Saharawi national self-determination could result in alternative military organizations emerging. One such organization in the region is Al-Qaida in the Maghreb (AQIM) which has been active in Algeria, Mali and quite possibly in Burkina Faso. Though they have no base among the Saharawi refugees, there is no certainty that this will continue, particularly if there is no movement towards a peaceful solution.
This brings us back to President Obama’s final months. While it is the case that there is, yet another special assistant to the United Nations Secretary-General from the USA—Christopher Ross—and while this should, at least theoretically, indicate some interest by the current U.S. administration in a solution to the Western Sahara dispute, one should not get one’s hopes up. Just as James Baker was, for all intents and purposes, blown off by the George W. Bush administration, there is no particular reason to believe that Ross will be any more successful with the Obama administration unless sufficient pressure is brought to bear on the Obama administration. That pressure needs to be directed at moving the USA away from its complicity in the Moroccan occupation and, instead, in favor of the just and peaceful solution to the conflict.
The Obama administration may believe, as apparently its predecessors believed, that the Western Sahara conflict will simply fade into oblivion, like a deserted city after a sandstorm. Such a view is not only callous but ill-conceived. With the flow of weaponry in northwest Africa, in part as a result of the collapse of the Qaddafi regime in Libya and, more importantly, with growing frustrations among the Saharawi people, a very different outcome is probably more likely. A return to military conflict, regardless of who leads it, would probably not remain a matter settled on the deserts of the Western Sahara, but would more than likely spread elsewhere.
Is that a chance worth taking?
Bill Fletcher, Jr. is the host of The Global African on Telesur-English. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and at www.billfletcherjr.com.