Western Sahara’s Polisario guerrilla movement is prepared to return to war with Moroccan forces after 25 years of stagnant peace — should diplomatic pressure within the African Union (AU) fail to force its newest member to recognise Sahrawi sovereignty.

That is according to Radhi Bachir, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) ambassador to SA. He was speaking at a seminar at the University of Pretoria last week on the future of the area that he considers an independent state but which Morocco considers an inalienable part of its kingdom.

Morocco was readmitted to the AU on January 30 after SA, and others that consider Western Sahara to be the last colony in Africa, were outvoted by a Francophone-dominated bloc of 46 countries.

It’s easy to go back to war. Our army is ready; we have just re-equipped our army

The ANC views Polisario as a sister liberation movement and on January 6, President Jacob Zuma officially received SADR president Brahim Ghali, an old Polisario fighter. Ghali said afterwards that the “Sahrawi people are struggling to recover the total sovereignty of their state and of all their national territory,” and Zuma responded that “it is unfathomable that Western Sahara ... still remains colonised.”

Last week, Bachir entertained guests by recounting one of his favourite tales, of the time in 1990 that he had acted as translator for the newly released Nelson Mandela. During a lull in the official chatter, Bachir said Mandela told him that whenever things were bleak on Robben Island, the prisoners had tuned in to the BBC and exulted at the reports of Polisario guerrilla actions.

Those days of warfare seem long gone, but Bachir told the seminar that “It’s easy to go back to war ... If the war starts, they have no friends and we are not afraid ... Our army is ready; we have just re-equipped our army.” Jane’s Defence Weekly reported last week that Polisario had acquired new armoured infantry fighting vehicles from Algeria.

Bachir argues that Morocco’s support in the AU was restricted to the less powerful, while predicting that the military “heavyweights” Algeria, SA, Nigeria and Ethiopia, would throw themselves behind Polisario.

Despite the AU vote, Bachir claimed Morocco was increasingly isolated, citing an EU court ruling on December 21 that two politico-economic deals, giving access to Moroccan agricultural produce in exchange for European fishing rights in Moroccan waters and financial aid, did not include Western Sahara, as it was not part of the kingdom and its people had not consented to the deals.

Morocco withdrew from the AU predecessor, the Organisation of African Unity, in 1984 over the admission of Western Sahara as a member; the two countries were then at war, a conflict that began in 1975 and concluded in 1991 with a UN resolution on a
residents’ plebiscite on the territory’s future.

But Morocco tinkered with the demographics by settling loyalists in the coastal strip it controlled, while Algeria refused to allow the UN to take a census in Polisario camps in its southern desert, so the plebiscite never took place.

“We’ve been silent since 1991,” the ambassador said, noting that decades of interventions by “wise men’s missions, old men’s missions” had failed to break the deadlock and bring about the plebiscite on independence.

In the interim, seminar respondent advocate Magdalene Moonsamy said Morocco had “stolen 3,5Mt of phosphates from Western Sahara” and used the sales to support its occupation.

Rabat withdrew its ambassador to SA in 2004 when Pretoria formally recognised the SADR, so no representative was sent to the seminar. But former Moroccan chargé d’affaires to Pretoria, Rachid Agassim, told the Financial Mail in January: “We are not colonising anybody. You know the history of colonialism in Africa is quite clear and Morocco’s experience was among the harshest; we were colonised by two different countries ... This is a question of the territorial integrity of the kingdom. With the AU, it is better to solve questions from inside than from outside.”

Bachir held that war could be averted if the AU pressured Morocco to abide by the AU’s Constituent Act, which requires members to respect colonial-era boundaries. Ultimately, Morocco and Western Sahara needed each other, he said: “There is a saying in Arabic, that a man alone in the desert is a dead man.”

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