Monday, January 23, 2006

Why Autonomy for the Western Sahara is a Bad Idea

A Reuters story on January 22 reads: “Morocco plans to submit a proposal in April to grant autonomy to Western Sahara, home to Africa's longest-running territorial dispute, a Moroccan source close to the situation said on Friday.” At first glance, I can think of three reasons why such a proposal should not be taken seriously.

1) Under international law, Morocco does not have the right to “grant autonomy.”
2) The Polisario and most of the Sahrawi oppose autonomy, would never agree to it, and would violently resist it.
3) Granting autonomy to the Western Sahara would be for Morocco only a short stop on the road to full annexation and subjugation of the territory.

Autonomy is Contrary to International Law

The UN designation of the Western Sahara as a non-self-governing territory plus the International Court of Justice ruling that Morocco never exercised territorial sovereignty over the area unambiguously give the Western Sahara the right of self-determination. Morocco quite simply does not have the right to “grant autonomy.” Autonomy would require either:

-- a referendum, which Morocco refuses to hold, or
-- a negotiated settlement, which the Polisario would refuse to consider, or
-- a UN ruling, which after over 30 years of championing self-determination is highly unlikely, or
-- a unilateral move by Morocco in defiance of the UN, which would solve nothing given that Morocco has already been defying the UN since 1975.

Forced Autonomy Would be Violently Resisted

If autonomy were forced down their throats, the Polisario and the Sahrawi would fight and the last thing anyone wants is more instability in North Africa. While Morocco has for years been propagating the fantasy that the Polisario represents only a small percentage of the Sahrawi people and that the majority of the Sahrawi would prefer to return to the bosom of the motherland, the reality is quite different. Thousands of international observers who have been through the refugee camps can attest to the strong support for the Polisario among the refugee camp population. And the increasingly large demonstrations in the territories by Sahrawi displaying the SADR flag suggest widespread support for independence. It is the Moroccan rejection of the Baker II Plan, however, that is most revealing. The referendum spelled out in Baker II would allow most of the Moroccan settlers in the territories to vote and the indigenous Sahrawi would be outnumbered by some three or four to one. That Rabat would reject a plan that is seemingly so stacked in its favor tells me that they still think they might lose. The point here is that any forced autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty would almost certainly be met by substantial resistance and violence from a large portion of the Sahrawi population.

Autonomy is annexation in disguise

I see no possibility that Morocco could or would keep their word about granting real autonomy to the Western Sahara. For over thirty years the Moroccan Monarchy, military, and elite have been enriching themselves by plundering the natural endowments of the Western Sahara – in particular the phosphates and the fish -- and would be extremely reluctant to relinquish control of their cash cow. Given the pervasive corruption in Morocco, the kingdom’s social, economic, and political backwardness, and its long history of lying, duplicity, and reneging on agreements and promises regarding the Western Sahara, it is inconceivable that any kind of autonomy would be respected. Autonomy would very rapidly turn into annexation.

Most of those who have jumped onto the autonomy bandwagon seem to think that granting autonomy to the Western Sahara will somehow miraculously lead to peace and tranquility in the Maghreb. It is hard to see, however, how refusing to hold the referendum, taking the option of independence off the table, and then arrogantly proposing to "grant" autonomy can be anything other than a recipe for disaster. After almost 15 years since the cease-fire, by rejecting all electoral and negotiated solutions and playing the autonomy card Morocco will, in effect, be declaring war on the Polisario. It didn't have to come to this.


  1. Dear Chasli,

    Thoughtful and timely post.

    I don't think anyone is suggesting that Morocco should impose autonomy. Rabat knows that the international community would no more accept that than it accepts its sovereign claims.

    My understanding of the Moroccan position is that they want to negotiate some kind of autonomy with Polisario and Algeria. Once an agreement is reached, it would then be put to the Western Saharans to either accept or reject -- yes or no. This was the formula used in East Timor, except "no" meant independence and I don't think Morocco would go for that. No will have to mean, Go back to the negotiating table.

    I think Morocco's thinking is that if they enter into good faith negotiations with Polisario and Algeria, finding an agreeable autonomy will be easy.

    It's probably in Polisario's interests to see where the Intifada goes, but Spain, France and the U.S. are pushing Morocco to make a really good deal on autonomy. So once Morocco makes a proposal, the ball will be in Algeria's and Polisario's court -- and the Baker Plan is all but dead these days.

    Polisario should make an offer right now based on the British commonwealth system. Symbolic recognition would be given to "Morocco's historical ties to the Territory" and the King could have some role in appointing the Western Saharan president. But other than that, it would be an independent country. If they did that, it would be another diplomatic coup in their favor.

  2. Thanks for your comments. I've wanted to comment on some of the postings on your very fine blog, but it's not set up for that.

    I think I am alot more pessimestic than you are. Agreeing to Baker II was an extraordiary stretch for the Polisario. They gave up so much more than they had ever been willing to give in the spirit of concluding this thing once and for all. I've gone back over the events between 2001 and 2003 and am convinced that the only reason Morocco floated the whole idea of autonomy plus a referendum including most of the settlers is that they didn't believe in a million years that the Polisario would accept such a plan. For the Polisario to take the courageous step of accepting Baker II and then have Morocco reject it demonstrates Morocco's unbelievable capacity for duplicity and bad faith. I strongly believe that the Polisario has given all they are capable of giving. After Baker II I don't believe that they will be willing to even discuss autonomy per se and I certainly don't think they would agree to any referendum without independence as an option.

    I also wonder about your statement, "I think Morocco's thinking is that if they enter into good faith negotiations with Polisario and Algeria, finding an agreeable autonomy will be easy."

    After watching Morocco negotiate for 15 years I just don't think that the words "good faith negotiations" are in their vocabulary. I think that what Morocco is thinking is that if they can finesse all the parties into a juicy autonomy deal, the coast will be clear for total annexation, subjugation, and continued exploitation of the territory.

    I am currently working on an essay about the cautionary tale of Eritrea . In 1952 the UN under strong pressure from the US (who for various geo-political reasons was cozying up to the Ethiopian Emperor)forced Eritrea into an autonomy deal within Ethiopia, against the wishes of perhaps 75% of the Eritreans. Despite UN guarantees that the autonomy deal could not be changed without UN agreement, Ethiopia immediately went about dismantling autonomy and officially annexed Eritrea in 1962 without a wimper from the UN. Thirty years of bloody misery followed until Eritrea won independence in 1993.

    As I outline in my last blog, I think that autonomy would be an unenforceable farce and that Morocco is incapable of living with Western Saharan autonomy of the British Commonwealth variety, or any variety.

    I do agree with you that "It's probably in Polisario's interests to see where the Intifada goes." While it would hardly be a preferred development, an escalation of violence in the territories would get peoples attention. My guess is that after Morocco officially floats its autonomy proposal in April, the Polisario will refuse to negotiate and will wait and see where the intifada leads. I on't think they are ready yet to give up the dream of independence. I guess we'll know pretty soon who is right on all this.

    Thanks again for your comments.


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  4. Hey Chasli,

    There are some amazing similarities between Eritrea and Western Sahara. Check out the book Fate of Africa. It's also interesting because Eritrea had no one nearly as powerful as Algeria helping them.

    It's correct that Morocco brought up autonomy (at the Berlin negotiations in 2000 -- the last time Morocco and Polisario have met face-to-face). But the idea of including settlers in the vote was Baker's idea. He knew Morocco rejected the idea of independence, so he tried to make the deal as sweet as possible for Rabat. This is what makes Morocco's rejection so mind-boggling -- 120,000 Moroccan settlers versus 110,000 Western Saharans (voting age). I'm sure Baker was at a loss for words when Rabat rejected it.

    You're also right about the Baker Plan being a major concession on the part of Polisario. But did they accept it because they really liked it, or did they accept it because they knew Morocco was going to reject it? I think it's the latter, and it has paid handsomely for them. Given Moroccan diplomacy's pathological irrationality, I think Polisario thinks it can easily embarass Morocco out of the Sahara. Morocco has mastered the art of shooting itself in the foot.

    I was taking "good faith" from the Moroccan perspective, as the Moroccans do want to negotiate autonomy if Polisario will just turn around and call for a No vote when the time comes.

    But you're right, Morocco and good faith negotiations is a kind of oxymoron. (I think it was Morocco's anatagonistic approach to negotiations that made Baker revert to shuttle diplomacy in 2001, and why there hasn't been a face to face meeting since.)


    PS I think my blog's comments are on. Check again and let me know. You can email me too.

    PSS I deleted my first draft 'cause I forgot something.

  5. Dear Ya'qub,

    I'm ordering The Fate of Africa tonight. I just finished reading a book called I Didn't Do It for You : How the World Betrayed a Small African Nation by Michela Wrong about Eritrea. The Eritrean story is incredibly depressing, but incredibly relevant to alot of things going on now. Especially in regard to autonomy, it is scary all the parallels between Eritrea and Western Sahara. Even a relatively small thing like Haile Selassie sending 1000 Ethiopian troops to fight alongside the US in Korea has an exact parallel in Hassan's support of the US in the first Iraq war. Anyway, the blog goes on.