I have meant to do a series on frozen conflicts for a while, and I’m glad that my North Africa focus has finally led me to do a video on one of the oldest and dumbest. The frozen conflicts in the former Soviet Union are probably the most famous, including Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan, Transdneistria, Ossetia and South Abhkazia in Georgia, and now Donetsk and Luhansk in Ukraine. These conflicts are famously a way for the dastardly Putin to keep his border unstable, and maintain a Russian sphere of influence. The conflicts that the US maintains aren’t generally referred to this way, but they serve the same purpose. Korea, Afghanistan, Iraq and now Syria are also frozen or lukewarm conflicts that the United States maintains for its own (wrongly) perceived strategic interest.
Most of these conflicts are unlikely to be solved, because a regional or world power has an interest in them. That’s not the case for Western Sahara. France definitely has an interest in the continued fight between Morocco and Algeria, but nobody else does really. The fact that this conflict has derailed Moroccan-Algerian relations for almost 50 years is just dumb, as I explain in today’s video.
Video Transcript after the jump…
Hey there. Today I would like to talk about one of the world’s dumbest frozen conflicts, the one in the Western Sahara. Now I don’t want to belittle the very real struggle and real interests of the half million or so Sahrawi people. What I find so infuriating though is the fact that this tiny conflict has derailed the economic aspirations and success of the 75 million people of Algeria and Morocco for over 4 decades now. It’s also holding back the rest of Africa, and we should all be sick of it. Let’s dive in.
In the 1950s Morocco won its independence back from both Spain and France, who had controlled different parts of the country. But France did not want to let Algeria go. Morocco, along with Tunisia, played a key part in helping the Algerians kick the French out in one of the bloodiest wars of independence of the 20th century, finally ending in 1962. The groundwork was laid for real cooperation between the newly liberated countries. As early as 1958 North Africa was already planning for a possible existence as a joint economic bloc. Cooperation between these countries would have presented a real challenge to continued European dominance of Africa and the southern Mediterranean.
Unfortunately it never happened. The French had intended to stay in Algeria forever, so in the 1930s and 1940s they had added traditionally Moroccan pieces of land to Algerian territory. Within two years of the French withdrawal, Algeria and Morocco were fighting over that territory. Paris must have laughed itself silly. Two countries with big, justified grievances against France were now buying French weapons to kill each other, over decisions that French imperialists had made.
What is now known as the Sand War was resolved through mediation by other African countries. The border issue was settled by the late 1960s, and the hope was that these two African titans could finally get down to some serious economic development. And then the Western Sahara issue came up in 1975.
Spain gave up on most of its Moroccan territory in the 1950s, but they stubbornly held onto the territory known as the Spanish Sahara. Ironically, the Sahrawi resistance movement was born in Moroccan universities. When the Spanish finally left in 1975, their chief legacy was the oddity that that resistance group, in a largely French and Arabic speaking region, is still known by a Spanish name, the Polisario front. Both Morocco and Mauritania made claims on this territory, but Polisario declared the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, launching decades of war. Polisario spent around two years fighting the Spanish, and has now spent 45 years fighting Morocco.
Western Sahara is mostly desert. Despite its large space on the map, and decades of Moroccan colonization, it is still in 2020 only reckoned to include like half a million people. Yet it became the major stumbling block in the relationship between Morocco and Algeria nonetheless.
By 1979, Mauritania decided the fight wasn’t worth the trouble and recognized the SADR. The Moroccans control the coasts and the larger cities, but the SADR has a firm grip on some territory because of its power base in refugee camps in Western Algeria. There has been a cease fire, and an on-going series of failed peace plans since 1991.
This conflict persists, not because of any real benefit that the Algerian or Moroccan people could get out of the sparsely populated desert territory, but because it’s important to the mythologies surrounding each of the country’s elites. In the early 1970s Morocco’s monarchy looked shaky. There were two attempted coups by the military, and monarchies had fallen in newly independent countries all over the world.
Launching the war in Western Sahara killed two birds with one stone. It kept the military busy fighting outsiders rather than plotting coups, and it gave the King a nationalist cause to champion. Despite the international community not being particularly convinced by Morocco’s claims, the Moroccans spent the resources necessary to take most of the territory, largely because of propaganda from the monarchy that made the fight for Western Sahara central to Moroccan national identity.
It’s become central to the Algerian regime’s identity as well. Algeria does not claim the territory of Western Sahara, though they probably wouldn’t mind having a grateful ally with an Atlantic coast. Their support has to do with Algeria’s own independence fight. In the later 20th century the Algerians were revolutionary heroes worldwide. The military regime positioned itself strongly as the advocate for freedom from colonial oppression worldwide, and in Africa in particular.
Algerian support for Polisario became central to the regime’s self-image as an international advocate for the oppressed. That’s why the problem of this tiny country is so weirdly unsolvable. The Western Sahara conflict is much more about justifying the existence of the none too impressive governments in Rabat and Algiers than it is about the interests of the Sahrawi people.
The costs of this conflict have been immense. In 1994, tensions over this issue and others led to the closure of the border between Algeria and Morocco. This costs each country billions of dollars in GDP every year, and blocks the development of all of Northwest Africa. This single crappy relationship may be one of the biggest drags on the economic development of the entire African continent. Economically successful countries do most of their trading with their neighbors. Despite all their independence rhetoric, Algeria and Morocco still do most of their trading with the old imperial masters of Europe, or the new ones in the US and China. This is a problem across Africa. Algeria and Morocco were some of the best positioned countries to lead the way out of this dependence, but they have failed to do so, in part because of the Western Sahara conflict.
This issue is deeply frustrating, but there is some hope here. The Moroccan monarchy is vastly more secure than it was in the 1970s. Since the Arab Spring it has taken more concrete steps towards being a constitutional monarchy in fact as well as just on paper. Morocco’s government almost certainly doesn’t need the fight in Western Sahara as much as it used to. And Algeria’s military oligarchy is about to get desperate for ways to improve the economy. Do I think this means a Western Sahara solution is likely? Actually, No. But that shouldn’t matter.
Now that the Western Sahara issue is less important to the elites, it can fade away into the background. There is some precedent for this. Spain actually still holds African territory. Morocco’s official policy is that these European, Christian enclaves are an outrage, and that’s been Moroccan policy for centuries. But this anger hasnt stopped billions of Euros in cross border trade between Spain and Morocco every year. Algeria and Morocco can agree to disagree on Western Sahara, and get on with the business of building up economic cooperation. In fact that’s what they did for most of the actual war over Western Sahara. The economically ruinous border closure only dates back to 1994, after the ceasefire.
Believe it or not, letting this conflict fade into the background of Moroccan-Algerian relations would also probably be the best thing for Western Sahara as well. If Algeria and Morocco finally develop into the middle income or even rich countries they have always had the potential to be, it’s inevitable that this wealth would spill over to the entire Saharan and sub-Saharan region as well. What I am talking about here is the next step in African independence from France, Europe, and even the United States and China. Opening the border between Morocco and Algeria is the next step in this on-goingl struggle for freedom.
Thanks for watching, please subscribe, and click on the bell next to the subscribe button if you want to get notifications whenever I upload a new video.