Budapest, Hungary | Contact Us:

The Polisario Front: Shattering a Three-decade Long Ceasefire

Published by Foreign Affairs Bulletin by IDSA on

The leader of a pro-independence group in Western Sahara…

…has declared war on Morocco, threatening a full-blown military conflict. The announcement came after Morocco launched a military operation in the United Nations-patrolled buffer zone of Guerguerat near Mauritania.

Rabat said its aim is to “put a stop to the blockade” of trucks travelling between Moroccan-controlled areas of the disputed territory and neighbouring Mauritania, and “restore free circulation of civilian and commercial traffic”.

According to the Polisario Front, Morocco had broken their ceasefire and “ignited war”, but Rabat denied the accusations of any armed clashes between the two sides and the shattering of the ceasefire. Escalating tensions between the groups have drawn concern from the UN, the African Union and the MENA region.

Rabat controls 80 percent of the territory, including its phosphate deposits and its fishing waters, while thousands of Sahrawis live in a protracted displacement situation near the Algerian town of Tindouf. Morocco has offered autonomy but insists it will retain sovereignty. However, the Algeria-backed Polisario Front demands a referendum on self-determination.

A ceasefire was signed in September of 1991 under the aegis of the UN after 16 years of war, but the planned referendum to decide whether the people of Western Sahara would choose independence, or rather integrated with Morocco has been continuously postponed, due to a dispute between the two sides over who makes up the indigenous people of the territory, and who should therefore be permitted to participate in the vote.

The negotiations have stalled since 2019, after the former special UN envoy resigned. Some observers worry that terrorist groups might gain a foothold in the vast desert haven and further undermine the stability in the region.

The operation could reignite an armed struggle and exacerbate years of animosity between Morocco and its neighbour Algeria. Morocco’s foreign minister has accused Algeria of being directly involved in Iran’s support of the Polisario Front.

Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita told French publication Jeune Afrique that Algeria offered more than a meeting venue for members of the Polisario Front and Lebanese group Hezbollah, which Rabat accused Iran of using in its support of the independence movement.

The eruption of hostilities in Western Sahara adds to the instability roiling some of Africa’s biggest countries, with a protracted war in Libya, insurgency in Mali, and the threat of a civil war in Ethiopia.

— Szebasztian Simity is an Associate Editor at the FA Bulletin, currently majoring in Political Science at the University of Szeged —