Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Autonomy? How about a confederation?

Autonomy for Western Sahara is all the rage. Moroccan officials and parties can’t stop lauding King Mohammed VI’s autonomy project. After thirty years of conflict with the Polisario independence movement, Rabat seems to think that it has found the magic wand. Just grant Western Sahara autonomy and all their problems will vanish.

The Moroccan elite seems to think they can solve the Western Sahara dispute unilaterally without having to sweat the little details -- you know, a twenty-year old bilateral peace process with Polisario, self-determination and the right to vote on independence, decolonization, international law and Security Council resolutions and the fait accompli of Western Saharan nationalism.

But Paris and Washington can’t wait to be done with Western Sahara, so they’re happy to encourage Rabat. The other option, coercing Rabat into accepting the international consensus, the 2003 Baker Plan, is not an option. When it comes to Morocco, its all carrots.

The other problem is that no one really knows what Morocco’s ‘autonomy’ means for Western Sahara because Morocco has yet to produce any details for a specific proposal. Forget the nitty-gritty; we don’t even know the broad generalities. Who will defend the territory, what happens to the settlers, and who can dissolve the government? Does autonomy mean, in reality, just special regional status, or does it mean that Western Sahara will enjoy the same freedoms Catalonia now has from Madrid? Despite these vexing, superficial and preliminary questions, which have yet even been discussed in open, autonomy presses on.

From Rabat to Madrid to Paris to Washington, everyone seems to think autonomy's the natural solution. It’s a compromise! Morocco gets a little and Polisario gets a little. Morocco’s ‘sovereign rights’ are respected, as are Polisario’s national rights. The tricky part is working out the details. Oh, and that pesky right of self-determination that has kept Western Sahara on the United Nations agenda since 1964.

But is autonomy the only compromise? There’s division, of course, but who wants an even smaller, less stable and less secure -- and thus less independent -- Western Sahara? And does Morocco get Al-Ayoun, what many Sahrawis consider their capital? And Smara, their spiritual capital? No, division is not a good option.

So what’s left? Federalism, but which requires a massive overhaul of the Moroccan constitution? So then Moroccan voters would have a veto over the Western Sahara peace process. And even the loosest federalism still makes Western Sahara just another region of Morocco. That's not very attractive to Polisario.

There is another option, one that has been largely ignored. That is confederation: Western Sahara would become largely independent, with its own government and military. In exchange for this freedom, Western Sahara would exist as a part of Morocco’s internationally recognized ‘historical territory’, the Moroccan flag will fly alongside the flag of Western Sahara, and the King of Morocco will approve the Prime Minister of Western Sahara in much the same ceremonial fashion as in the United Kingdom. Morocco gets a little, and Polisario gets a little. Morocco agrees to never invade or interfere with the government of Western Sahara and Polisairo agrees never to secede and to always recognize their deep historical relations. This agreement can be established through a treaty between Polisario and Morocco; no messy constitutional overhaul necessary. We all live happily ever after -- once this is approved through self-determination.

Indeed, the late, great King Hassan II of Morocco once said something to the effect of, leave the stamp and the flag Moroccan, and everything else is negotiable. But the problem is that Mohammed VI isn’t his father … yet.


Chasli said...

As I have mentioned before on this blog, the Eritrean experience should give anyone lots of pause before endorsing any kind of autonomy arrangement for the Western Sahara. Eritrea agreed to federation within Ethiopia to a large degree degree based on UN guarantees that only the General Assembly could alter Eritrea's autonomous status. It took Ethiopia a decade to cancel this autonomy and fully annex Eritrea. Needless to say the UN did nothing, and Eritrea had to fight a long and bloody war to separate itself once and for all from Ethiopia's clutches.

One need only remember that the Western Sahara would today be independent if Morocco had only lived up to its agreements starting with the Ceasefire Agreement to hold a referendum. Morocco has broken absolutely every agreement it has ever made with the Polisario. Whether Morocco agrees to federation, confederation, or whatever kind of autonomy, it takes an incredible leap of faith to believe that Morocco would stand by its agreement.

In your post you don't mention the economics of all this this. It is inconceivable that the Polisario would agree to any arrangement that didn't give the Western Saharans control of their natural resource assets -- most notably the phosphates and fish. These alone would give the small population of the area a good per capita income, probably well above Morocco's. And if oil is discovered does anyone really think that Morocco would allow the Western Sahara to control the petrodollars. I don't see it.

Morocco just isn't Spain. It is an autocratic, impoverished, thoroughly corrupt kingdom, with education numbers on the level of the least developed countries, and whose main exports are terrorism and hashish. Given Morocco's lack of success in governing its own people, I find it incredible that anyone would even consider entrusting even more people (the Western Saharans) to them. Maybe we should be talking here about returning Morocco to the French.

Any autonomy agreement of whatever variety would not be worth the paper it was written on.

All the best,


sahara-watch said...

You're quite right to draw attention to control over the natural resources. But actually, under Baker II the 'Western Saharan Authority' would have had control over resources to do as they saw fit. Under confederation, I imagine that they would have even more control over their own economy.

You're right though; autonomy is a pipe dream at this point. And the Eritrea example is telling. West Papua is also relevant. And if the international community can tolerate 5 million dead in Congo, genocide in Darfur and years of 'anarchy' in Somalia, would they even shrug if Morocco annexed Western Sahara after an autonomy had been established?