The U.N. Scrambles to Contain an Escalating Conflict in Western Sahara

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The decades-long dispute between Morocco and the pro-independence Polisario Front in the region of Western Sahara is threatening to erupt into a full-blown war. Frustrated by the lack of international attention to its cause and angered by a recent Moroccan military operation in a United Nations-monitored buffer zone, the Polisario Front broke a three-decade-long cease-fire agreement last weekend. U.N. officials are scrambling to restore the broken deal, as Moroccan and Polisario forces have continued to exchange fire.

Morocco launched its operation last week after accusing Polisario forces of blockading a key trade route to neighboring Mauritania. The two sides exchanged gunfire when Moroccan troops crossed into restricted territory to establish a security cordon around the highway outside Guerguerat, a town in the far southern corner of Western Sahara. Polisario officials then declared the cease-fire over, announcing the “resumption of armed struggle in defense of the legitimate rights of our people.” Shooting has continued along the 1,700-mile buffer zone that separates the two sides, according to U.N. officials. Though no casualties have been confirmed, experts warn the fighting could escalate.

The Polisario Front first emerged in the early 1970s, when Western Sahara was a Spanish colony. After Spain withdrew in 1975, the Polisario Front declared its independence as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, but Morocco and Mauritania annexed the territory, prompting the Polisario Front to launch a guerrilla war.

A 1991 U.N.-brokered cease-fire, with a peacekeeping force patrolling the buffer zone, left Morocco with control of the vast majority of Western Sahara, including lucrative phosphate deposits and fisheries off its coast. The Sahrawi leadership is currently exiled in Algeria, though some Polisario forces remain active in desert areas in Western Sahara’s interior.

That territorial outcome has been hardening into an internationally accepted reality in the decades since the U.N. agreement was reached, much to the alarm of Polisario’s leadership. Though the cease-fire deal had promised a referendum on the future of Western Sahara, Morocco and the Polisario Front have been unable to resolve who should even be allowed to participate in such a vote. Meanwhile, Morocco has been fostering a narrative that the Polisario Front is an Algerian-backed separatist movement.

The Polisario Front’s declaration of war has succeeded in drawing international attention to Western Sahara again. But rather than seek a long-term solution, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and other world leaders are focused on efforts to restore the 1991 cease-fire—an agreement that appears to be past its expiration date.

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Here’s a rundown of news from elsewhere on the continent:

East Africa

Ethiopia: As the federal government continues its military operation against the northern Tigray region, Ethiopia’s military announced it was closing in on the Tigrayan capital, Mekelle. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed called the operation the “final critical act of law enforcement” in Tigray, though the status of the conflict is difficult to independently verify due to a government-imposed internet blackout. On Thursday, Ethiopia’s military was accused of bombing Mekelle, injuring dozens of university students. Tigrayan forces reportedly fired rockets into the city of Bahir Dar, in the neighboring Amhara region, the same day.

Abiy is aware that his popular support outside Tigray will wane if he does not deliver a quick victory against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, the regional ruling party that has attempted to defy his attempts to expand the national government’s influence, as Frida Ghitis explained in her WPR column this week. A protracted conflict could spur other ethnic groups with grievances against the government to rebel, even as the humanitarian crisis in Tigray deepens. Already, more than 33,000 people have fled to neighboring Sudan, and those who remain are cut off from food, fuel and medical supplies.

The World Health Organization has also been drawn into the crisis. Ethiopia’s army chief made unsubstantiated allegations that WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, a Tigray native and the former foreign and health minister in the TPLF-dominated federal government that preceded Abiy, was lobbying nearby countries to provide arms to Tigray. Tedros denied the charges, writing in a statement, “I am on only one side and that is the side of peace.”

Uganda: Security forces have killed at least 16 civilians across the country during two days of protests following the arrest of presidential candidate Bobi Wine on Wednesday. At least 65 people have also been injured and 350 more arrested. Wine, a pop star who won a seat in Uganda’s parliament in 2017, was detained while campaigning in eastern Uganda for violating COVID-19 restrictions that limit events to fewer than 200 people. Wine is the main challenger to President Yoweri Museveni in presidential elections scheduled for January. He has tapped into deep-seated resentment among young people, a powerful constituency in a country where over 75 percent of the population is under 30 years old. Many young Ugandans are frustrated over the slow pace of development and lack of job opportunities under Museveni, who has held power since 1986, as Liam Taylor reported from Kampala for WPR in August.

A supporter of Ugandan pop star-turned-lawmaker Bobi Wine, in Kampala, Uganda, Sept. 20, 2018 (AP photo by Ronald Kabuubi).

Southern Africa

Zambia: The country missed a $42 million interest payment on some of its foreign debt late last week, as it reels from the economic fallout of COVID-19. Zambia was already struggling with a $12 billion debt load before the pandemic, and its debt-to-GDP ratio is expected to top 100 percent this year. The government had asked for a delay until April 2021 on interest payments for $3 billion in Eurobonds, but creditors are looking for Zambia to demonstrate improved economic management before making any concessions. With more than 40 percent of low-income countries experiencing debt distress even before COVID-19, the shock of the pandemic means Zambia will likely not be the last country to default, as Layna Mosley explained in an October WPR briefing.

West Africa

Nigeria: Officials unveiled plans this week for a museum to house the Benin Bronzes, a priceless collection of metal plaques and sculptures that the British army seized from the Benin kingdom, in what is now southern Nigeria, at the end of the 19th century. The bronzes would be the centerpiece of the Edo Museum of West African Art, which is scheduled to open in five years in Edo state’s Benin City, the center of the former kingdom, if organizers can raise the funds. The effort to repatriate the Benin Bronzes, currently on display in museums across Europe and North America, has come to symbolize the broader campaign to return antiquities that colonizers looted from Africa. But European museums have only agreed to lease the artifacts to the Edo Museum. That has done little to resolve the ongoing debate over who actually owns the looted art, which Ayodeji Rotinwa reported on from Nigeria for WPR last year.

Central Africa

Democratic Republic of Congo: After two outbreaks in three years, the country is officially Ebola-free. The World Health Organization declared an end Wednesday to an outbreak in northwestern Congo that infected 130 people, killing 55 of them. The outbreak, centered in Mbandaka, the capital of Equateur province, erupted as an unrelated epidemic in eastern Congo—the second-worst in history—was coming to an end. The outbreak in the east, which lasted two years and killed more than 2,000 people, was marred by community mistrust of the response teams, fueling attacks on health workers, as Emmanuel Freudenthal reported from the region for WPR last year.

North Africa

Egypt: Security forces arrested three senior officials from a prominent human rights advocacy organization this week, in what observers warn is a “chilling escalation” of a crackdown on civil society by President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. The arrests come weeks after members of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, or EIPR, delivered a briefing on the human rights situation in Egypt to senior Western diplomats. The organization’s executive director, Gasser Abdel-Razek, was arrested at his home outside Cairo on Thursday. Two other members of EIPR’s staff, Karim Ennarah and Mohamed Basheer, are currently in 15-day detention, and Basheer faces trumped-up charges of joining a terrorist group, spreading false information and funding terrorism.

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Oil and Angola’s ‘Crusade’ Against Corruption: In 2017, Angolan President Joao Lourenco took over a country mired in corruption, with well-established systems of transferring state wealth directly to the bank accounts of powerful individuals. Sonangol, the state-owned oil company, has been central to these schemes, and is thus an obvious target for the anti-corruption efforts Lourenco promised when taking office. But rather than launching a systematic investigation of all of the graft schemes linked to Sonangol, Lourenco’s government appears to be selectively targeting his political enemies, as Antonio Tomas writes for Africa Is a Country.

Africa Watch will be off next week. It will return Dec. 4.

Andrew Green is a freelance journalist based in Berlin. He writes regularly about health and human rights issues. You can view more of his work at www.theandrewgreen.com.

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