A Stalled Conflict in Sahara Risks Reigniting as Trade Blocked

Protesters in the disputed region of Western Sahara blocked Morocco’s main trade route to West Africa, prompting a warning that a conflict suspended for three decades could reignite.

Dozens of supporters of the Polisario Front, which seeks independence for the partly Moroccan-controlled territory, have picketed the southern border for two weeks, demanding a long-delayed vote on the region’s status, local media reported.

Halting what was an average of 150 trucks crossing per day, they’re seeking leverage by impeding Morocco’s burgeoning trade with sub-Saharan Africa. Protesters have also approached Moroccan military outposts.

Escalation in the already tense situation threatens to revive fighting in Western Sahara frozen since 1991. Regional giants Morocco and Algeria would be on opposing sides, just as they both face the prospect of renewed anti-government unrest.

A Stalled Conflict in Sahara Risks Reigniting as Trade Blocked

The rising tensions are causing economic pain and threatening to unravel the cease-fire, according to a Moroccan government official. They asked not to be identified in line with government policy.

The United Arab Emirates this week became the first Middle Eastern nation to open a consulate in the region, handing a symbolic victory to Morocco, which considers it part of Moroccan territory.

Bitter Contest

Stretching along the Atlantic coast and rich in minerals, Western Sahara is larger than the U.K. and has been bitterly contested since its 1975 annexation by Morocco after the withdrawal of ex-colonial power Spain. Sporadic fighting between Morocco and Polisario claimed about 9,000 lives over 16 years until a United Nations-brokered agreement was reached.

About four-fifths of Western Sahara is controlled by Morocco, while Polisario governs the inland remainder, divided by a vast sand berm. A referendum on self-determination for the overall territory, part of the UN deal, has been continually delayed, mainly due to disputes over who would be eligible to vote.

The UN’s role has been “reduced to monitoring the cease-fire, and this is no longer acceptable,” Mohamed al-Amin Abaali, a spokesman for Polisario based in neighboring Algeria, said by email. The movement’s supporters consider the UN “weak and biased in Morocco’s favor,” while the border post “is illegal and must be closed,” he said.

Morocco, which saw anemic economic growth even before Covid-19, has pumped investment into the territory and plans a $1 billion port project. The blockade has already had a knock-on effect for prices of fresh produce in Senegal, Mali and Mauritania, according to Francophone media.

Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita said at the opening of the UAE consulate that the UN’s demand for a lasting solution could only be met by Rabat’s offer of limited autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty. He called self-determination “a delusion.”

Polisario counts South Africa among its diplomatic supporters.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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