Sunday, February 05, 2006

Is Morocco Serious About Autonomy?

In any territorial conflict, it is only natural to explore all ways and means of resolving the dispute. In the case of Western Sahara, there’s been a lot of talk about autonomy recently. Morocco is offering it, but Western Saharan nationalists don’t seem interested. Is that because they’ll only take independence, or because they have doubts about Morocco’s sincerity?

Given that Morocco just handed down several harsh sentences to several pro-independence activists, one can understand why they might be a little skeptical. Or perhaps it’s the fact that Morocco has yet to acknowledge the fate of some 500 Saharans "disappeared" in the 1970s and 1980s? Or the fact that Moroccan police have killed several Saharans recently. Needless to say, Morocco has a real credibility problem among some Western Saharan nationalists.

The Western Sahara dispute -- between Morocco and the nationalist Polisario Front -- has been under UN mediation for almost 20 years. A large proportion of that time was spent trying to hold a classic self-determination referendum, one that would ask whether or not the native people of Western Sahara want to be with Morocco or be independent.

That project was largely abandoned in 2000 for several reasons. First of all, Morocco had a new King, Mohammed VI, who took the throne in July 1999. Though he had strong support from Washington and Paris, this young and inexperienced leader could not take risks like his father could, especially on an issue like Western Sahara. For most Moroccans, Western Sahara is a part of Morocco. The thought of it becoming independent is, well, unthinkable. Furthermore, the 1999 UN referendum in East Timor -- another colony, like Western Sahara, gobbled up by a powerful neighbor -- incited a bloodbath that seemed all too likely in Western Sahara as well. Around the same time, in September 1999, there were massive demonstrations in Western Sahara for more social, cultural and economic rights. These demonstrations were joined by Moroccan settlers imported to vote for Rabat in the referendum. If Morocco needed any definitive proof that it would lose the referendum, that was it. Finally, the UN Secretary-General acknowledged the fact that,
"Furthermore, even assuming that a referendum were held … , if the result were not to be recognized and accepted by one party, it is worth noting that no enforcement mechanism is envisioned by the settlement plan, nor is one likely to be proposed, calling for the use of military means to effect enforcement"
Here the UN was admitting that the Security Council would not force Morocco to accept the outcome of the likely vote for independence. So before they even got to that point, the UN decided to give up the referendum and try something new.

That something new was called the “third way” -- a solution between absolute independence for Western Sahara and total integration with Morocco. Some kind of agreement between Polisario and Morocco that would give Western Sahara a degree of autonomous self-governance and political freedom within the Kingdom of Morocco.

The person in charge of figuring out the “third way” was James Baker, former US Secretary of State and lead negotiator for Western Sahara since 1997. Between 2001 and 2003, Baker offered two different “autonomy proposals”. In both cases, Baker proposed that Western Sahara would become an autonomous part of Morocco for four years. After that period, Western Saharans and Moroccan settlers would vote on the Territory’s final status. Morocco preferred the first one because it did not explicitly mention independence as an option for final status. Morocco rejected the second one in 2003 because it explicitly offered independence, which was demanded by the Security Council.

Polisario, however, did the exact opposite: rejected the first and accepted the second. After Polisario embraced Baker’s 2003 proposal, the ball was in Morocco’s court. Over two years later Rabat has yet to make a public counter offer.

In November 2005, King Mohammed VI of Morocco declared his willingness to consider autonomy as a way to resolve the Western Sahara conflict. This is nothing new really. Since the Berlin negotiations in 2000, Morocco’s position has been that independence must be taken off the table, but anything short of that can be discussed. For their part, Polisario has rejected autonomy as a lone final status option. Polisario has accepted that autonomy is suitable for a transitional before a referendum, but any referendum must include the option of independence. The other options can include autonomy or integration with Morocco. Yet Morocco wants a referendum only on autonomy. That is, two ballot choices: Do you accept autonomy or Not? No one is quite sure what would happen if the answer is “no”. (Offered a similar referendum on autonomy in 1999, the people in East Timor overwhelmingly voted no, which led to its independence. Though Indonesia had already agreed on that.)

Morocco seems serious about autonomy, but is it? Is King Mohammed sincere, or is he just responding to international pressure? It’s obvious that the Security Council won’t force Morocco to accept the Baker Plan, but will they continue to support the Mission in Western Sahara if Rabat’s offers nothing positive. Indeed, Morocco has done nothing constructive in the past two and a half years since rejecting the Baker Plan. Despite Rabat’s rejection of his Plan in 2003, Baker stayed on for another year, yet Morocco did not offer a viable counter-proposal. When Baker resigned his position, Morocco’s foreign minister chalked it up to the “tenacity” of his foreign policy. When the US government arranged for the release of the last Moroccan POWs held by Polisario last summer, Morocco’s response to this olive branch was to ratchet up its repression against Western Saharan nationalists in LaĆ¢youne.

If Morocco was serious about autonomy, and wanted to undermine support for Polisario, the best move it could make is to start implementing autonomy right now. After withdrawing some of its settlers and most of its army, Rabat should grant a locally elected Western Sahara government, led by ethnic Saharans, exclusive control over its economy, social and cultural affairs and its own policing. This would include control over revenues earned from fisheries and phosphates. Western Sahara would be autonomous in that the central Moroccan government (i.e., the King) would not be able to unilaterally abolish it. While this kind of unilateral move would not solve the Western Sahara conflict to the satisfaction of the international community, it would demonstrate Rabat’s seriousness about autonomy. It would also show many Saharans that Morocco does care about them.

The fact that Morocco will not -- and cannot -- make this move demonstrates that autonomy, for now, is a lot of talk. Besides, the Moroccan military is heavily entrenched in the local economy of Western Sahara. From migrant smuggling to the billion dollar fishing industry, its little fingers are in every part of the Saharan pie. While the Moroccan foreign ministry is going around talking about autonomy, the Interior Ministry and the security agencies are tightening their grip on the Territory. Recent reports of the Secretary General note that Morocco is improving its defenses. Morocco has signed a fisheries agreement with the EU, which includes Western Saharan waters; Rabat has also renewed its oil exploration contracts with Kerr-McGee for areas off the coast of Western Sahara.

Does this seem like the actions of a government that is contemplating autonomy? Under baker's 2001 proposal -- the one Morocco liked -- fisheries and hydrocarbon exploitation would be under the control of the autonomous Western Saharan government. Yet Rabat has not given one indication that it is willing to share, let alone give up, control of these key economic assets in Western Sahara.

The fact that autonomy seems so unlikely in today’s Morocco says a lot about where autonomy is going -- that is, nowhere.

Morocco has stolen a play from Israel’s book: Talk peace, make war. And hope the international community is too preoccupied to notice the difference between the rhetoric and the reality.

1 comment:

Chasli said...

Another very enlightening analysis. Keep it up.

I agree that Morocco’s autonomy plan is neither serious nor sincere.

Just a few observation about why I am so skeptical and what I see as Morocco’s reasons for going down the autonomy road.

Anyone who thinks that Morocco would ever allow the Sahrawi to control any of the territory’s mineral or fishing wealth is seriously suffering from “head-in-the-sand” syndrome. It just won’t happen. As you point out, the Moroccan military, elite, and monarchy have been happily stealing Western Sahara’s abundant resources for over thirty years and are not about to relinquish their cash cow.

Why then is Morocco proposing autonomy now after showing little or no interest in it for over 30 years?

I suspect that US pressure has something to do with it. The US was reportedly disgusted that Morocco refused to embrace Baker II. At the same time, US geopolitical and economic interests have led to increasingly close ties between the two countries (i.e. the US-Morocco free trade agreement, the Trans-Saharan Counter-Terrorism Initiative (TSCTI), and the naming of Morocco as a major non-NATO ally). Much of the success of these initiatives depends on economic cooperation and regional integration in the Maghreb, and clearly the greatest obstacle to this is the unresolved Western Sahara situation. The US just wants the conflict resolved. And to Morocco’s thinking, now with the Maghreb so prominent in US plans is probably as good a time as any to make a big push for a “third way” not including independence.

In addition, the West’s current obsession with the war on terrorism provides a smokescreen behind which Morocco feels it can slip one by the international community. By trying to appear the good guy with a seemingly generous plan for broad autonomy and by softening up world public opinion with an unprecedentedly aggressive and mendacious propaganda campaign (which brands the Polisario as a terrorist organization), Morocco is trying to exploit the window of opportunity provided by the war on terrorism. As long as terrorism is on the front page, Morocco feels it just might gain validation of its land grab through the back door, with the ruse of autonomy.

Finally, and probably most importantly, is oil. A discovery of oil off the Western Sahara would pose a huge dilemma. Economically, Morocco is suffering mightily from $60 plus oil and would want to exploit any finds as quickly as possible. Morocco obviously cannot exploit the oil by itself, but it is open to question whether international oil companies would be willing to drill for oil in a non-self-governing territory under illegal occupation. The big push for autonomy fits in neatly with the current Moroccan imperative to resolve the Western Sahara crisis but while retaining sovereign control of the land. And again, anyone who thinks that an autonomous Western Sahara would realize any economic benefits from oil off its territory has probably been smoking too much of the hashish that the Moroccan government and military habitually smuggle into Europe.

In conclusion, I just can’t find any reasons to think that there is anything sincere or serious about Morocco’s autonomy plan. They are floating it not because they want to, but either because they feel they have to or because they feel they just might get away with it.

All the Best,