A brewing conflict in the Sahara if left unchecked could contribute to destabilizing forces across North Africa and the Sahel. Renewed clashes between Polisario, a leftist rebel group, and Morocco is the latest armed confrontation riling the continent. The past few months have seen an increase in insurgent activities in Mozambique and an outbreak of a new war in Ethiopia. In contrast, the United States has largely been distracted by the 2020 presidential campaign. The deterioration in the status quo between Morocco and Polisario in the Western Sahara deserves greater attention because decisive action now may be able to preserve a ceasefire which has largely held since 1991.
It is also worth noting that African Lion – a major military exercise involving the United States is set to take place in Morocco in a few months. That exercise will involve some 5,000 military personnel from the U.S., Egypt, Morocco, Mauritania, Senegal, Tunisia, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom, Australia, the Netherlands and Portugal. Morocco will be one of the hosts for this exercise along with other countries in the region including Senegal, Spain and Tunisia.
The Chairperson of the African Union Commission Moussa Faki Mahamat has described conflict under these terms: “the Western Sahara conflict remains the oldest unresolved conflict on the continent.” While technically not true (the conflict in Katanga which dates to 1960 is a decade older) the quote speaks to the perception of the conflict as an intractable one.
The current crisis focuses on a thin strip of land along Morocco’s border with Mauritania that is controlled by Polisario. Last month Polisario forces set-up a roadblock to prevent traffic between Mauritania and Morocco. This blockade stranded some 200 Moroccan truck drivers and trade with Morocco and parties across West Africa and the Sahel. Under the terms of the ceasefire a line of control divides the two parties and a United Nations observer force, MINURSO, monitors the situation though such trade is supposed to continued largely uninterrupted since 1991.
A recent extension of MINURSO’s mandate – which the United States supported in October appears to have been the final straw for Polisario which is frustrated by a perceived lack of progress on ameliorating the conflict. Strategically the resumption of the armed conflict may have been meant to take advantage of President Trump’s lame-duck period to create new realities which it can use as barter in future negotiations. Indeed, a recent UN report on that current crisis noted multiple such “freedom of movement” provocations in recent months.
Polisario’s declaration of war comes following a recent United Nations report which called on to respect the terms of its ceasefire and highlighted those freedom of movement violations. Perhaps even more alarmingly the report noted discrepancies “observed between the order of battle and the number of heavy weapons held by Frente POLISARIO units in Agwanit, Bir Lahlou and Tifariti in the restricted area were declared violations in January, March and April. Requests by MINURSO to remove them from the restricted area remained unaddressed.” This seems to suggest the current clashes may have been part of a broader strategy. Even so, Morocco’s King Mohammed has reiterated his comment to the ceasefire and peacebuilding.
If Polisario had hopped to capture international attention with the conflict, they might have been badly misguided. Already, Guyana has severed ties to the group following the resumption of clashes. Sadly, a Polisario that is even more isolated on the national stage may not make it more conducive to international peace. It may also open opportunities for narco-traffickers who are increasingly using the Western Sahara as a transit area to increase their activities. This would be in no one’s best interest. Given the precarious nature of the situation, it is essential for the United States and the United Nations to move quickly to ensure this obscure conflict does not spiral into full open war.