What if Western Sahara became independent?
Western Sahara is often considered the "last colony in Africa". Your colonial ruler, Morocco, is holding on to the desert country bitterly and shows little interest in a dialogue. The underlying conflict has global economic and security interdependencies that revolve around one raw material: phosphate. A brief overview
When South African authorities confiscated the NM Cherry Blossom on its way to New Zealand in May 2017, the world pricked up its ears. Because on board were 55,000 tons of phosphate from the Western Sahara regions. And the decades-old conflict over the disputed territory, which has a direct impact on global food supplies, landed at the top of the agenda again.
It is estimated that just 500,000 people live in the area of Western Sahara. Nevertheless, the long-running conflict will have a lasting impact on the future of the world. It is about the right to self-determination, which has been granted to the population for more than 40 years but has never been observed, the migration and security policy of the European Union, supremacy in the African Union, and perhaps the most important raw material of the future.
The West-Sahara conflict - a historical overview
The current conflict in Western Sahara goes back to a division of the country between European colonial powers in 1912. While what is now Morocco was assigned to France, what is now Western Sahara became Spain's area of influence. Although colonial interference has certainly contributed to the current political situation, it is not the only cause of the underlying conflict.
Western Sahara is rich in phosphate, iron, and fish. In addition, Sahrawis and nomadic Berbers make up the original population of Western Sahara, who accepted Islam but were never Arabized.
Shortly after its independence in 1957, the Kingdom of Morocco began to claim the territory of Western Sahara as a historical part of Morocco. Heavy fighting between the Spanish colonial army and Moroccan units resulted in a defeat for Morocco. Sahrawis then questioned Spanish rule intellectually and peacefully. In 1970 there was another unsuccessful uprising, as a result of which in 1973 Sahrawi activists founded the "Polisario Front" (Spanish for Front of Popular Liberation of the Saguía el Hamra y Río de Oro; the two historical regions that together form Western Sahara). Polisario uprisings quickly drove back Spanish troops, while Franco's rule in Spain lost ground. In 1975, Spain withdrew from Western Sahara, giving Morocco and Mauritania administrative control of the area, but never sovereignty.
The International Court of Justice (ICJ) came to the rescue in 1975 and ruled that the Sahrawis have the right to self-determination. Morocco's King Hassan I, however, opposed the demands of the ICJ and in the same year organized the “green march”, during which around 300,000 Moroccans settled in Western Sahara. An annexation policy comparable to that of China in Tibet. A bitter guerrilla war ensued between the Moroccan army and the Polisario, during which Algeria became the patron saint of the Sahrawis and began to support the Polisario with weapons and military advisers. In 1976 Sahrawis called the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), and were able to achieve numerous victories with Algerian support and in the fight against the inexperienced Moroccan army.
France and the USA intervene
In 1982 there were hardly any Moroccan troops left in the Western Sahara, whereupon France and the USA intervened on the Moroccan side. Both countries saw Morocco as an important economic and political partner. They provided Morocco with counterinsurgency and anti-guerrilla warfare advisors and equipment, helping turn the tide of the war.
Hundreds of thousands of Sahrawis were forced to flee to neighboring Algeria, where a large part of the Sahrawi population still lives today. In order to consolidate its claim, Morocco built a wall through Western Saharan territory, which de facto awards almost all significant raw material deposits and settlements to Morocco.
Nevertheless, the Polisario achieved a small political victory on the international level: In 1984, the SADR was accepted into the Organization for African Unity, whereupon Morocco left the Union. In 1991 there was a ceasefire negotiated by the United Nations (UN) and the UN peacekeeping mission MINURSO (Mission des Nations Unies pour l'Organisation d'un Référendum au Sahara Occidental) was established by resolution 690. However, MINURSO was the only UN mission in the world not to have received a mandate to monitor human rights.
As a next step, the Sahrawis were promised a referendum, which however never took place, as Morocco insisted that the settlers of the Green March could also vote in the referendum. The Polisario vehemently refused. Morocco then offered to allow Western Sahara regional autonomy, which the Polisario also refused.
To date, the legal status of Western Sahara has not been adequately clarified. In 2013, calls were made in the USA to give MINURSO a human rights mandate, which Morocco in turn rejected. In the same year the General Assembly of the United Nations passed a resolution “[...] to reach a solution which allows the Sahrawi people to exercise their right to self-determination.” Relations between Morocco and the United Nations bottomed out in 2016 when the Office of the Secretary General described the annexation of Western Sahara as an "occupation", prompting the Moroccan government to hire a number of MINURSO staff personae non gratae explained.
Increasing international attention
One year later, in June 2017, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres appointed former Federal President Horst Köhler as special representative for Western Sahara. It is now up to him to restart the dialogue between Morocco and the Polisario, while the conflict continues to internationalize. Reasons for this are increasing trench warfare for supremacy on the African continent between Morocco, Algeria, Nigeria and South Africa, the desire of European countries for good cooperation with Morocco, as well as the increasing importance of phosphate.
In December 2016, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled that a free trade agreement between Morocco and the EU does not apply to exports from Western Sahara. Despite this ruling, an EU product list for 2017 still includes products from Western Sahara - trade continues. The ruling has brought to the surface the divisions within the EU over the Western Sahara issue, if at all. The disagreement of the EU is reflected in its official position: While all EU member states with the exception of France, the Netherlands, Romania and Bulgaria neither recognize the Polisario, nor the SADR, nor the claims of Morocco, the group around France supports Morocco's territorial claims and the proposal for regional autonomy.
Europe does not agree
A group from the Nordic countries and a growing group of European parliamentarians are strongly advocating a ban on these exports and a tougher approach to Morocco. France and Spain, on the other hand, are trying to maintain rather good relations with Morocco. After all, Morocco has proven to be a reliable partner in the fight against terrorism and an efficient bulwark against irregular migration.
Last but not least, Germany is pursuing a laissez-faire strategy towards Morocco and Western Sahara. Although the federal government is increasingly campaigning for the postponed referendum of 1992 to take place, the support is mainly of a verbal nature. This is not surprising given that chemical industry giant BASF is one of the buyers of cheap Western Saharan phosphate. In addition, Germany is finding it difficult to denounce Morocco's human rights violations, given that Morocco is to be declared a safe country of origin. Officially it says:
"State repression measures against certain people or groups of people because of their race, religion, nationality, belonging to a certain social group or because of their political convictions cannot be ascertained."
The good Moroccan help in stopping irregular migration also comes in handy for Berlin politically. Germany fully supports the official EU position of not being on anyone's side and continuing to benefit from the status quo.
It is also about supremacy in the African Union
In January 2017, Morocco was re-admitted to the African Union. At the same time, SADR received an official invitation to the AU-EU summit meeting in Abidjan on November 29 and 30, 2017, which solidified its status as a state. In the preparations for the summit, the rifts in the AU became clear: both Morocco and South Africa claim to assume a leadership role in the African Union. South Africa has long historical relationships with the Polisario, which in the 1980s had close contacts to the African National Congress (ANC), the South African anti-apartheid movement around Nelson Mandela. In 2004, South Africa even established official diplomatic relations with SADR.
Then, in May 2017, South African authorities confiscated the NM Cherry Blossom on its way to New Zealand. 55,000 tons of phosphate from the Western Sahara regions were on board. South African courts decided to allow the Western Saharan activists' action, which they saw as a huge step towards recognizing their right to exist as an independent state. The South African judges relied on a decision of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in their complaint.
The case received international attention as the upcoming ruling by the South African courts could set a precedent in the African Union - whether Moroccan exports from Western Sahara are legal. The ruling could also set a precedent in other Commonwealth of Nations that use the English legal system.
Phosphate - the white gold
Morocco and Western Sahara are rich in phosphate. By the mid-nineteenth century, the use of fertilizers revolutionized agriculture and enabled the population to grow rapidly. Phosphorus and nitrogen are the most important chemical components of modern fertilizers. However, while nitrogen can be obtained directly from the atmosphere using the Haber process and is therefore in fact endlessly available, phosphorus can only be mined in the form of phosphate. It cannot be produced chemically, and there are currently no efficient recycling technologies in agriculture.
It is estimated that without fertilizers, only half the amount of food available today could be produced worldwide. At the same time, the demand for phosphate for fertilizers will double by 2050 due to increasing meat consumption in emerging countries, increasing demand for biofuels and a surge in the population of Africa.
Morocco has a quasi-monopoly
Phosphate stocks are both limited and very unevenly distributed around the world. According to a 2016 study by the United States Geological Survey (USGS), approximately 72 percent of global phosphate reserves are located in Morocco and the controversial Western Sahara territory claimed by Morocco. The second largest reserves in the world are located in the People's Republic of China, at 6 percent. Morocco thus has a quasi-monopoly position. For comparison: Saudi Arabia controls 22 percent of the global oil reserves, followed by Iraq with around 13 percent. Morocco's potential power position is unprecedented and could have enormous consequences for the food supply of developing countries.
USGS also evaluated that all known phosphate reserves will be depleted within the next century. In the course of the financial crisis in 2008, the price of fertilizers rose at times by up to 500 percent. While commercial farms in industrialized countries can keep up with the rise in prices, violent rioting erupted in Vietnam, India, Kenya, Nepal, Nigeria, Egypt, Pakistan and even Taiwan.
Morocco's monopoly on the valuable raw material is controversial, however, as a large part of Moroccan phosphate is stored in the territory of Western Sahara.
The fate of the people of Western Sahara is becoming increasingly internationalized. It is certain that considerations about the phosphate trade, as well as regional struggles for supremacy, as well as the European security and migration policy will have a fundamental influence on the life of the nomadic Sahrawis.
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