Time flies everywhere in the world. But not in Western Sahara’s de facto capital, Tifariti.
As European colonization in the African continent crumbled in the mid to late 20th century, it brought about euphoria and optimism of a splendid future of self-governance. That was similarly the case in Western Sahara, a country larger in size than the United Kingdom, that received independence from its colonial master Spain in 1975.
The Spanish even exhumed all their cemeteries to grant the new nation, one of its two colonies in Africa (the other being Equatorial Guinea), full sovereignty.
That never happened. Days after independence, Morocco invaded the new nation on the pretext that the land belonged to them. Using their advanced military against the pro independence movement – Polisario Front, they seized 75% of the land. Even Laayoune the capital was lost, forcing the sovereign government and hundreds of thousands of Sahrawis to flee to exile in neighboring Algeria.
Western Sahara is rich in minerals. It has the largest untapped deposits of phosphates in the world, and huge quantities of zinc, magnesium, and iron ore, most of which are mined by the occupying entity, Morocco.
The territory is located in the Maghreb region of North Africa, bordered to the northeast by Algeria, east and south by Mauritania, and to the north by Morocco proper. It was inhabited almost entirely by 500,000 Sahrawi pastoral nomads until the mid-20th century.
Moroccan immigration has altered the composition and dramatically increased the size of Western Sahara’s population. Morocco maintains a large military presence in Western Sahara and has encouraged its citizens to settle there, offering bonuses, pay raises, and food subsidies to civil servants and a tax exemption, to integrate Western Sahara into the Moroccan Kingdom and, Sahrawis contend, to marginalize the native population.
A United Nations ceasefire agreed in 1991 ended the conflict although the promise of a referendum to decide the country’s future never took place. The Polisario Front governs what’s left of unoccupied Western Sahara. At least 150,000 Sahrawi refugees live in camps in Algeria, hoping to return home one day.
Now that ceasefire is in jeopardy after the leader of the Polisario Front, Western Sahara’s independence movement, said on Saturday the group had ended a 29-year ceasefire with Morocco to resume its armed struggle following a border confrontation.
Morocco maintains it will stick to the truce though its collapse signals a change in strategy for the occupied nation. It also carries the potential of aggravating decades of friction between Morocco and neighboring Algeria which hosts the Polisario.
Polisario leader Ibrahim Ghali said he had signed a decree announcing the end of the group’s commitment to abide by the truce, and blamed Morocco for breaking it.
His statement was carried by the group’s official news agency, which also said Polisario fighters had attacked Moroccan positions along different parts of the frontline, which stretches hundreds of miles across the desert.
Rabat did not say its forces had been attacked.
Morocco’s army on Friday entered a buffer zone at the south of the territory to open a road blocked by Polisario supporters backed by armed fighters, an act the independence movement characterized as igniting war.
The road at the Guerguerat crossing to Mauritania represents the mainland link between Morocco and the rest of Africa. Polisario supporters, who call it an illegal crossing point, had been blocking it since October 21.
The Moroccan army said it had reopened the road to traffic.
Morocco regards Western Sahara as part of its territory despite the United Nations and African Union terming the move “illegal under international law.” Western Sahara is also a member of both international entities and recognized as a sovereign state by all African nations bar Morocco.
Led by the UN and involving Morocco, Polisario Front, Algeria and Mauritania, negotiations over holding a referendum that was agreed in the ceasefire 30 years ago have been suspended for several months.
France on Friday asked that “everything possible be done to prevent an escalation” in Western Sahara after Morocco launched a military operation and the Polisario (pro-independence) Front ended a ceasefire in force since 1991.
“These events demonstrate the importance of a rapid reorientation of the political process, which should involve the appointment as soon as possible of a new Personal Envoy to the UN Secretary-General,” added French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.