Western Sahara: Who is getting involved?

Published March 13th, 2016 - 01:39 GMT
A woman shouts through a megaphone at a protest for the independence of Western Sahara in Spain (AFP / Javier Soriano)
A woman shouts through a megaphone at a protest for the independence of Western Sahara in Spain (AFP / Javier Soriano)

Sometimes described as Africa’s last colony, the Western Sahara is the site of the continent’s longest territorial dispute. The stretch of resource-rich land was effectively annexed in 1975 by Morocco, which is opposed by the Polisario Front who say the land belongs to the indigenous Sahrawi population.

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon waded into the dispute this month when he visited Tindouf, a Sahrawi refugee camp in Algeria, and spoke publicly about the crisis. His comments caused uproar in Morocco where he was accused of having “dropped his neutrality”.

The spat put the spotlight on a conflict that’s rarely recognised in the media. Over the years the Western Sahara has received scant international attention and only a few players have taken sides. Who are they, and why?

Algeria: Morocco’s neighbour has been significantly caught up in the dispute, and more than 150,000 Sahrawi refugees are living in camps in the country. It’s a major backer of the Polisario Front, and regularly reaffirms its “resolute” support of the Western Sahara.

Ikea: A Casablanca branch of Ikea was ready to open last September when it was blocked by the Moroccan government – reportedly in protest at Swedish government plans to review the status of Western Sahara. Now Sweden has opted against formally recognising the territory, however – and the barriers to Ikea’s Morocco opening have been lifted.

African Union: The Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic – the name for an independent Western Sahara – is recognised by the African Union. This week, Nigeria’s President Buhari publicly made a statement of support for the self-determination of the Sahrawi people, reiterating that of other AU members.

France: Although it claims neutrality on Morocco, France is one of the most important Western supporters of the Kingdom’s plan for the Western Sahara, and has even been accused of attempting to block UN plans to place human rights monitors in the territory.

United States: Last April, the USA released a statement that it supported negotiations for a just solution in Western Sahara – in the context of the Morocco’s plan for partial autonomy of the region.


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