2020 Morocco – Western Sahara: One of the oldest conflicts in Africa on the verge of a new war?

International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies (IFIMES)[1] from Ljubljana, Slovenia, regularly analyses developments in the Middle East and the Balkans. In the analysis titled “2020 Morocco – Western Sahara: One of the oldest conflicts in Africa on the verge of a new war?” IFIMES analyzed the latest mounting of tensions between Morocco and the Polisario Front in Western Sahara. We bring the most interesting excerpts from a broader analysis.

2020 Morocco – Western Sahara:


One of the oldest conflicts in Africa on the verge of a new war?


The situation in the desert border area between Morocco and Mauritania has become very tense after the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Oued Ed-Dahab (also known as the Polisario Front) had closed the Guerguerat border crossing on 21 October 2020 and obstructed passage of people and goods between the two countries.


After almost four years of relative peace in the Sahara region, the Guerguerat[2] village and the border crossing of the same name are back in the focus. Since 1991 the ceasefire signed by Morocco and Polisario, which had been in conflict over the region, has been in effect. However, there is growing fear now that the tensions could lead to wider conflicts. 


The new escalation took place in Guerguerat, a demilitarized zone controlled by UN peace troops under the MINURSO (United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara, established by the UN Security Council resolution no. 690 (1991)[3]) mandate.


The Guerguerat border crossing has become a point of tension in the summer of 2016, after Morocco had launched a major military operation aimed against smuggling and illegal trade.  As a response to the operation, the Polisario Front deployed a group of its armed members at the border crossing, which caused regional tensions.


UN between Morocco and Western Sahara


A number of reports of the UN Secretary General António Guterres to the UN Security Council on the crisis associated with the Guerguerat border crossing have revealed the details of the armed provocations by Polisario Front members. The UN mission in Sahara, MINURSO, initiated air surveillance operations as a precautionary measure, and established a surveillance center in the proximity of the border crossing in order to monitor military movements in the area and prevent escalation of violence.


After months of tensions in the region, the Moroccan crisis ended in February 2017, when Morocco responded to the request of the UN Secretary General to withdraw its forces stationed in the region in order to prevent arrival of Polisario Front members from their bases.


The cause of the latest tensions is that the Polisario Front did not allow truck drivers to cross the border in the respective region, which led the Mauritanian army to send reinforcement to the region in order to prevent escalation of the situation and protect the northern border of the state.


Western Sahara covers some 266.000 km2 (Front Polisario controls 20% of the territory), which is bigger than Great Britain, and has a 1,100 km long coastline at the Atlantic Ocean. This is the only region on the African continent whose status has not been regulated after the period of colonialism.


Mauritania and Morocco divided Western Sahara in 1975 in line with the Madrid Agreement. However, in 1979, after signing the peace agreement with The Polisario Front, Mauritania withdrew from the Oued Ed-Dahab region, which represents a third of Western Sahara, and in line with the agreement renounced all claims to Western Sahara. However, Morocco merged this region with the Saguia el-Hamra region, which was under its control and constitutes two thirds of Sahara, as an integral part of its territory.


Morocco's historical rights on Western Sahara


Morocco has historical rights on the Western Sahara region that go back several centuries, and since the annexation it has invested billions of dollars, and plans to invest additional seven billions to improve living conditions in the poor region of Western Sahara.


Since 1999, when King Mohammed VI came to the throne, Morocco has improved human rights standards in Sahara, but also in Morocco as a whole.


US diplomatic reports revealed that the region is to some extent an economic burden on Morocco. The Kingdom of Morocco has earmarked 800 million dollars for a support projects in Western Sahara, which make it one of the biggest support programs in the history of the region.


Western Sahara suffers from shortage of sources of potable water. Within the framework of the development strategy for Sahara, the Kingdom of Morocco supplies the city of Laayoune in Sahara with potable water that comes from the desalinization centers at a price of three dollars per cubic meter. Namely, the national price of water in Morocco is 0.0275 dollars per cubic meter, but the Moroccan government covers the difference in prices. The fuel price is subsidized and amounts to half the true price as in the rest of Morocco. Fuel is one of the main subsidized raw materials. The companies doing business in the region are exempted from payment of taxes for the purposes of supporting their financial liquidity and provision of social support to Western Sahara residents. However, international economic experts believe that the region is not economically sustainable and that residents of the region would not be able to survive without the subsidies provided by the state.


Operations at the border


Morocco has confirmed that it had deployed its units in the Guerguerat buffer zone on 13 November 2020, because it had no other choice but to take responsibility and stop the obstruction of crossing of the border and movement, that is to provide unimpeded flow of people and goods.


Morocco has invested substantial funds in development of desert areas, modernization and development of infrastructure and sustainment of jobs for Sahara residents. On the other side, the Polisario Front wants to end the status quo. Namely, the status quo does not suit it, which is why it has decided to test its power.


According to the analysts of the International Institute IFIMES, the Polisario Front is striving to draw the attention of the UN Security Council on the Sahara issue and the appointment of the new UN envoy, who is to succeed Horst Köhler, former German federal president, who had resigned from the position in May 2019.


Algeria, which is the Polisario Front's biggest supporter, has a plethora of its own internal problems and it will not risk getting involved in a new war at its western border. All the parties to this conflict are aware that a possible war would benefit only the militant groups in the Sahel region, and not the interests of North Africa states.


Morocco is addressing this issue prudently and patiently, and should continue in the same manner. However, at the same time, Morocco also has the right to defend its territorial integrity.


Resolution of the Sahara issue requires strong political will, not just on the part of the belligerent parties, but also on the part of the neighboring states (particularly Algeria) and the international community. The key impediment to devising of a solution is the mutual distrust among all parties. Trust building requires time and diplomatic efforts to prompt the Polisario Front to continue the peace talks and find common language for the final resolution of the issue with Morocco within the framework of the UN resolution.


Unfreezing numerous “frozen” conflicts?


Numerous “frozen” conflicts have once again become a topical issue in the international public. Recently the Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić said he was against a “frozen” conflict in the case of Serbia and Kosovo, and that the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan was proof that such conflicts were dangerous and a testimony of the impotence of the entire international community.


Analysts believe that the developments in the Nagorno-Karabakh and the Azerbaijan's military operation in this volatile region have also instigated other countries to resolve their “frozen” conflicts, such as the one in Western Sahara. In this context, a change in the stance of the administration of the new US president Joseph Biden is expected. Simultaneously, an inevitable question is whether there will be a new wave of unfreezing of “frozen” conflicts around the world.


Ljubljana/Brussels/Washington, 17 November 2020



[1] IFIMES – International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies (IFIMES) from Ljubljana, Slovenia,has a special consultative status with the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC)/UN since 2018.

[2]  Guerguerat is a small geographic area in the Western Sahara region, 11 km from the border with Mauritania and 5 km from the Atlantic Ocean. The village is under the control of Morocco. Its length does not exceed 3.7 kilometers. In line with the ceasefire agreement signed between the two conflicting parties, the Kingdom of Morocco and Polisario Front, on 6 September 1991, the UN defined the area as a demilitarized zone between Polisario and Morocco.

[3]The United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO)  https://minurso.unmissions.org/background