The conflict over the former Spanish Sahara is all too often forgotten. But there is a growing feeling in policy circles – shared by companies eager to exploit the territory’s hydrocarbons and mineral potential – that the Western Sahara standoff is overdue a promotion up the international policy agenda.
Crisis in the Sahel, where French and African Union forces have confronted jihadist radicals in Mali, has added to pressures to revisit the intractable conflict, more than 40 years since the Polisario Front liberation movement was formed, 38 years since Morocco’s late King Hassan II organised his ‘Green March’ into the territory, and 22 years since a United Nations-sponsored ceasefire was declared. The 1991 ceasefire was intended to precede a referendum on independence or integration into Morocco, which has never been held; in the meantime two generations have grown up in the Polisario-run refugee camps outside Tindouf, and in the capital Laayoun (El Aioun) and the territory’s few other urbanised areas, which are under Moroccan control.
There have been signs of rising militancy: in October 2011, an Italian and two Spanish aid workers were kidnapped while working in the Polisario camps. The Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa – a major component in the Islamist alliance that in 2012 took control of northern Mali – was said to have swelled its ranks by recruiting unemployed fighters from the Sahrawi camps. UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon recently warned that Sahrawis were vulnerable to recruitment by “criminal and terrorist networks”.
Ban also warned that Sahrawi youths were expressing “support for radical courses of action such as resuming hostilities against Morocco”. The UN is pressing interested parties – including former colonial power Spain and several permanent members of the UN Security Council – to bring both sides together. Ban has called for “genuine negotiations” that embraced “a logic of give and take” to counter the threat of a new regional conflict.
Morocco sees this as an opportunity to push its alternative plan for the territory’s future, by which King Mohammed VI would remain sovereign – in line with the monarchy’s longstanding claims – while the local population, including the returning Polisario, would have extensive autonomy. This ‘third way’ has substantial support among major powers concerned about regional stability but it is opposed by Polisario, which wants full independence, and by the movement’s main supporter, the Algerian government.
A critical issue remains relations between Morocco and Algeria – whose then young foreign minister Abdelaziz Bouteflika was a key player in Polisario’s emergence, 25 years before he became president. Their joint land border remains closed (since 1994), despite periodic efforts to build economic or diplomatic co-operation.
Ramtane Lamamra’s appointment as foreign minister in September has brought a Sahara specialist to lead Algerian diplomacy; in 2007-08, he led the Algerian delegation to the Morocco-Polisario talks sponsored by the US at Manhasset. His appointment to replace Mourad Medelci raised considerable comment in Morocco, where weekly magazine Telquel quoted an “official Moroccan source” as saying: “We know of no one like him, who is able to mix such a knowledge of the dossiers with a constant hostility to Morocco’s positions, no matter what the subject”.
One of Lamamra’s first initiatives has been to propose that Algeria takes a seat on the UN Human Rights Commission that Morocco has also been seeking. Human rights in the territory remain a thorny issue, as shown by the standoff last April when Morocco successfully opposed a US-backed attempt to extend the UN Mission for the Referendum in the Western Sahara (Minurso)’s mandate to include human rights monitoring.
With UN special envoy Christopher Ross struggling to make any diplomatic progress, following ten rounds of ‘indirect talks’ since 2009 alone, both sides remain firmly entrenched in their views. But some parties see potential for movement on the diplomatic front, driven by concerns that a destabilised north-west corner of Africa could add hugely to security concerns in Europe and beyond.
Companies are also seeking to influence the agenda, even if they lack traction to force a diplomatic breakthrough. Oil exploration permits have been issued by both Morocco’s state Office National des Hydrocarbures et des Mines (Onhym) and Polisario’s government-in-exile, the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), but the international consensus is that no significant exploration can be undertaken until the dispute is settled. This follows a legal opinion by the UN General Counsel that stated that exploration and extraction of mineral resources in Western Sahara would be illegal “only if conducted in disregard of the needs and interests of the people of that territory”. It has generally been viewed that exploration for reserves of oil and gas would run counter to this; thus they should stay in the ground pending a definitive resolution.
Moroccan phosphate giant Office Cherifien des Phosphates does produce minerals in the territory; it is allowed to do so on the basis that its operation maintains an existing industry that keeps the local population in jobs – but this has been contested by Polisario and some NGOs.
Big players with Saharan acreage granted by Morocco, led by France’s Total and the US’s Kosmos Energy, would like to revisit the anti-exploration consensus. Industry sources say they are under some pressure from Onhym to drill. Several industry sources have told African Energy that they see more potential within the disputed territory’s waters than further north. According to a Kosmos company statement, its “Cap Boujdour Block is located in the Aaiun Basin, off the Western Sahara, and is one of the remaining frontier exploration provinces offshore Africa. This is an underexplored region offering Cretaceous targets with multiple independent play fairways. Kosmos is maturing the substantial prospectivity on the block from prior seismic acquisition.”
There is even talk of Kosmos lobbying the US administration and Total the French government to support a major new diplomatic initiative. However, any such initiative would have to be at the highest level and involve international commitments so far absent in efforts to settle Africa’s last decolonisation. The Saharan offshore may have to wait longer yet to welcome the drillbit. More importantly, so may the territory’s divided population to find an enduring peace.
This is a View article from the African Energy newsletter, a source of independent analysis on the continent’s energy industries produced by Cross-border Information, a business intelligence company with a long established research focus on the politics, energy and financial sector trends of Africa and the Middle East.