Kalonzo’s shame over
the Western Sahara issue
By David Lumbasi
THE Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) purported to open a diplomatic mission in Nairobi at an event shunned by government officials.
The only prominent person present at the function was the former Vice-President Kalonzo Musyoka, who is no longer in government and must have attended the function like any other invitee and not as a representative of the Kenya government. Even then, being a former Foreign Affairs Minister himself and knowing too well that SADR alleged statehood is neither here or there, questions must be asked why a former Vice President should expose his country to this level of embarrassment.
It was not lost on many observers that a function of this magnitude—opening of a diplomatic mission in a foreign country—is not done by junior officials. In the absence of a Foreign Minister either another cabinet minister could have been assigned by the government or Permanent Secretary for Foreign Affairs could do it on his behalf which was not the case during that occasion. Could this have been a hoax by the SADR in conjunction with “mentor” state Algeria or the Kenya government is avoiding a repeat of what caused a diplomatic tiff in 2005 when it announced the recognition of the Sahrawi separatist group alarming Morocco which instantly withdrew its envoy from Nairobi?
The previous week, President Uhuru Kenyatta received credentials from four new foreign envoys. A day earlier word had spread in the capital Nairobi that Mr Bah Med accredited as ambassador to Kenya representing Western Sahara would also be among envoys presenting credentials to the President at State House. The rumour raised a great deal of tension particularly at the Moroccan embassy in Gigiri, Nairobi. Fortunately this did not come to pass.
In diplomatic circles the issue of opening a mission for the SADR in Nairobi is a delicate one for Kenya given the strong ties that have developed between Nairobi and Rabat in the last ten years. Before the issue of the Western Sahara conflict is resolved Nairobi would be taking a slippery path if it allows SADR to open a mission now taking into account political, strategic and security reasons.
What we are witnessing happening in Nairobi is actually an extension of the conflict surrounding the Western Sahara that has affected stability in North Africa especially causing tension between Morocco and Algeria for over 40 years.
We need to look at the background of this Western Sahara conflict to appreciate how delicate this issue is. Rabat claims that Western Sahara was for hundreds of years, part of Morocco until the colonization of that part by Spain during the partition of Africa in 1884-1885 in Berlin. Legally, insists Morocco, the then Spanish Sahara, as it was called during the colonization by Spain, was decolonized through negotiations initiated by Morocco with the administering power (Spain) after the signing of the Madrid Agreement in 1975. Since then the colonial period was lifted.
The Western Sahara War was an armed conflict that lasted from 1975 to 1991, involving the Polisario Front and Morocco. The conflict erupted after the withdrawal of Spain from the Spanish Sahara in accordance with the Madrid Accords, by which it agreed to give administrative control of the territory to Morocco and Mauritania.
However, the Polisario Front, backed by Algeria and Libya, opposed this arrangement opting instead for the establishment of an independent Sahrawi state in the territory. They fought both Mauritania and Morocco in quick succession, in an attempt to drive their forces out of the region.
As the war raged, in 1979 Mauritania withdrew its forces from the disputed territory, and the Polisario Front and Morocco reached a ceasefire agreement in 1991. The war resulted in somewhere between 14,000-21,000 casualties on both sides. Some 40,000-80,000 Sahrawi were displaced and became refugees as a result of the conflict. At present, most of them still reside in various refugee camps throughout the Tindouf province of Algeria.
Polisario was created in 1973 in a particular international and regional context characterized by the prevailing Cold War then and the willingness of Algeria to challenge the completion of the territorial integrity of Morocco. According to Rabat, Polisario has neither the legal basis nor popular and democratic legitimacy to aspire to be the representative of the indigenous Sahrawi people.
The Organisation of African Unity (OAU), the precursor of African Union (AU), undertook to mediate the warring factions but the mediation fell flat due to the partial position the protagonists thought the pan-Africanist organization adopted in the consideration of the dispute over the Sahara.
The OAU having failed in its mediation mission to reach an African solution , Morocco resorted to the United Nations to find a solution to the dispute. The UN kicked off negotiations which materialized in the settlement plan of 1990 which included a ceasefire and a referendum providing the choice between the integration of Western Sahara to Morocco or independence. The Agreement was signed in 1991.
Unfortunately the settlement plan ran into problems in the application of its main provisions beginning with the identification of the electorate which constitutes the critical element. Successive adjustments were made to the plan at the technical level, but it turned out to be ineffective.The referendum, originally planned to be held in 1992, was to afford the local population of Western Sahara the option between independence and affirming integration with Morocco, but it quickly stalled. In 1997, the Houston Agreement attempted to revive the referendum proposal, but likewise it never met with success.
By 2010, negotiations over the terms of any potential referendum had not resulted in any substantive action. At the heart of the dispute lies the question of who qualifies as a potential voter; the Polisario has insisted on only allowing those found on the 1974 Spanish Census lists to vote, while Morocco has insisted that the census was flawed by evasion and sought the inclusion of members of Sahrawi tribes which escaped from Spanish invasion to the north of Morocco by the 19th century. Consequently, both sides blame each other for the stalling of the referendum.
In 2006 the Moroccan Royal Advisory Council for Sahara Affairs (CORCAS) proposed a plan for the autonomy of Western Sahara and made visits to a number of countries to explain and gather support for their proposal. Citing the Spanish approach to regional autonomy, the Moroccan government plans to model any future agreement after the cases of the Canary Islands, Basque Country, Andalusia or Catalonia. The plan was presented to the UN Security Council in April 2007, and has received the backing of many countries including the United States and France.
In that same month, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 1754, which both urged the involved parties to "enter into direct negotiations without preconditions and in good faith" and extended the MINURSO mission until October 31, 2007.
As a result of the passage of this resolution, the parties involved met in Manhasset, New York to once again try and settle the dispute. The talks between the Moroccan government and the Polisario Front were considered the first direct negotiations in seven years between the two parties, and hailed as a landmark in the peace process.
Also present at the negotiations were the neighboring countries of Algeria and Mauritania, a nod to the role they play in the ongoing conflict. The first round of talks took place on June 18–19, 2007, during which both parties agreed to resume talks on August 10–11. After another inconclusive round of talks, the parties finally, on January 8–9, 2008, agreed on "the need to move into a more intensive and substantive phase of negotiations".[
An additional round of talks was held from 18 March to 19 March 2008, but once again no major agreement was reached. The negotiations were supervised by Peter van Walsum, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s personal envoy for Western Sahara. To date, all negotiations have failed to resolve the dispute.
For nearly 30 years Morocco has worked ambitiously to bring the Western Sahara territory to a developmental level comparable to the national level, with the political objective that development would bring both domestic acceptance of Morocco’s rule within the territory and tacit international approval of its rule over Western Sahara. This dual track approach to the issue of Western Sahara, has won the support of many but at the same time has had its critics.
While the former implies a careful and balanced national policy aimed at economic and human advancement, the latter is currently based on an autonomy proposal, which has not yet reached the negotiating stage. A number of nations appear to back this approach giving way to acceptance of Moroccan rule through international support of Rabat’s autonomy plan apart from Algeria and the pro-independence Polisario Front it backs.
In this context, Rabat, for both economic and political reasons, has committed itself to a thorough evaluation of its development policy in the southern region, looking at the critical linkage between development growth, stability, and long-term settlement of the dispute in the territory. Morocco has put in place an impressive array of policy and institutional tools to promote investment and leverage developmental goals in Western Sahara.
Finally as one writer has stated “ the Western Sahara territory, in its current international borders, will have to find a fitting place in this complex developmental, political, and international architecture Morocco had created to strengthen its claim and further entrench its administration of the territory. Though it makes sense—from a historical, social, developmental and national perspective—for Morocco to treat the territory as part of the geographically broader ‘Southern Provinces,’ the specificity of the territory’s international legal and political requirements will have to be factored in sooner rather than later.”
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs Africa Desk in Nairobi should be able to advise the Foreign Cabinet Secretary and by extension the President to handle the issue of SADR with a great deal of caution the way former Foreign Minister Raphael Tuju did so as not to upset the diplomatic relations with a strategic country like Morocco, at least not in the current dispensation.(The writer is a freelance journalist and a former editor of the defunct Kenya Times)