Global Policy Forum

Behind the Baker Plan for Western Sahara


By Toby Shelley*

Middle East Report Online
August 1, 2003

On July 31, 2003, the UN Security Council voted to "support strongly" former Secretary of State James Baker's proposals for resolving the Western Sahara dispute, the last Africa file remaining open at the UN Decolonization Committee. Baker has been the personal envoy of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan since 1997, charged with making progress in the 1991 Settlement Plan for the Western Sahara even after Annan had damned it as a "zero-sum game," while also pursuing alternatives.

Argument over the proposals, described in the resolution as "an optimum political solution on the basis of agreement between the two parties," went right down to the wire. The mandate for MINURSO, the UN monitoring body in the Western Sahara, would have expired at midnight on July 31. In the event, the US watered down the resolution's initial draft, which said that the Council "endorses" the plan. This phrase was interpreted to mean that the UN would push forward with Baker's plan despite the reservations of the Sahrawis and, more to the point, Morocco, which has occupied Western Sahara since the territory was vacated by Spain in 1975. The compromise wording "calls upon the parties to work with the United Nations and with each other towards acceptance and implementation of the Peace Plan." For good or ill, this wording may prove to be a crucial dilution, as one of the key messages in Annan's recommendation of the proposals was that negotiations between Morocco and the POLISARIO Front, the Sahrawis' recognized representative, were all too often counterproductive.

Devil in the Details

In essence, Baker has reheated 2001 proposals for a period of several years of autonomy for the Western Sahara under provisional Moroccan sovereignty, followed by a referendum in which the bulk of the Moroccan settlers introduced since 1975 would vote alongside UN-authenticated Sahrawis. The choice would be between integration with Morocco or independence, with the possibility of a third option, mostly likely continued autonomy, being added. The arithmetic would be weighted in Morocco's favor.

Baker's proposals contrast with the UN Settlement Plan, drawn up in 1988 and approved in 1991. That document foresaw a referendum offering a straight choice between independence and integration. The electorate would have been based on the Sahrawi population as identified in a Spanish census of 1974.

The official responses of POLISARIO and Morocco were published in May 2003, and it looked as if Baker's plan would be declared dead. Both parties spoke against it. For Morocco, the added detail in the five-page plan made it a different proposition from the exploitable ambiguities of the initial one-page document. Talk of decentralization in the kingdom remains just that; Morocco fears any solution that would grant real economic, political and judicial powers to the Sahrawis. Local powers that Sahrawi nationalists saw as insufficient to meet their aspirations at the same time were too much for Rabat. Furthermore, Morocco's long-term strategy has been to allow progress along the UN track only when it is more beneficial than simply sitting tight and deepening the occupation. Accepting the vague 2001 proposals had helped to sideline the more explicit 1991 Settlement Plan, while the addition of Moroccan settlers to the proposed voter rolls was construed as a major shift toward legitimizing Moroccan rule. The Settlement Plan has been sidelined. But Baker's current proposals define the contours of Sahrawi autonomy more clearly, as well as suggesting that the two parties would not be intimately involved in every aspect of developing the eventual referendum. Sensing a possible loss of control over the territory's fate, Rabat decided to obstruct Baker.


The resurrection of Baker's second iteration of his plan followed a surprise shift in the position of the POLISARIO Front, the top leadership of which reiterated rejection of the plan only a month beforehand. At that time, Mohamed Abdelaziz, secretary general of POLISARIO, told Middle East Report: "The only solution that has the acceptance of the parties and international community is the Settlement Plan.... We accept only that plan. We can make adjustments but it is the only basis."

Ahead of the Security Council discussions, POLISARIO diplomats argued that their change of stance was qualified and did not constitute a breach of long-standing principle. The movement accepted the positive elements of the plan -- that it retained the notion of self-determination and withdrawal of Moroccan administration -- but everything else, it maintained, would have to be negotiated with the UN. The proposed voter rolls for the eventual referendum remained entirely unacceptable, and so did the length of the transition period. What lies behind the change in the Sahrawis' official position, and has it moved the dispute into a new phase?

At the tactical level, POLISARIO has achieved a diplomatic victory by discomfiting Morocco. While both the kingdom and its adversary opposed the proposals, rejection was relatively risk-free for each. For Morocco, a country that trades on its role as a US ally and, talking of trade, is in the midst of free trade agreement negotiations with Washington, opposing a US- (and British-) supported plan drawn up by a former US secretary of state is distinctly less comfortable. After the standoff over the Iraq war at the Security Council, having France as a principal supporter probably does not help matters either. The outcome is the second blow in little more than a year to the Moroccan diplomatic corps. It had welcomed the first iteration of Baker's proposals and was convinced the Security Council would push it through in the spring of 2002. In fact, the plan was thrown out, raising rumors that Baker would resign from his job as special envoy out of pique.

As POLISARIO officials publicly acknowledged, their about-face came only after pressure had been exerted. UN representative Ahmed Boukhari spoke of "the insistent wishes expressed by several countries inside and outside the Security Council, including Algeria and Spain [the former colonial power and outgoing holder of the Security Council presidency]." In private, other Sahrawi diplomats said the pressure had been intense. According to an Algerian press report, Abdelaziz was summoned by three leading Algerian officials at the end of June in an attempt to press him to change the independence movement's stance.

POLISARIO is not an arm of the Algerian security forces, as Morocco claims, but Algeria has been the movement's key sponsor and supporter since Spain handed the Western Sahara to Morocco and Mauritania in 1975. (Mauritania subsequently renounced any claim to the territory.) POLISARIO's refugee camps, housing at least half the Sahrawi people, lie inside Algerian territory and are supplied from Algeria. Many Sahrawi students train there and Sahrawi diplomats are supported by the Algerian foreign ministry. POLISARIO is not in a position to refuse firm demands from its principal sponsor. The movement may have been persuaded to change its tune through rational argument or realpolitik but, certainly, many of its leaders had little appetite for the shift.

Regional Optic

In 2002, Algeria's critique of Baker's proposals was excoriating. Yet a year later, Algeria was referring to the reworked version as "a historic compromise in favor of peace." A first reading of the new Algerian position paper was sobering for POLISARIO, and clearly came as a surprise to at least some senior officials. Within days the movement issued its official interpretation. "The packaging is soft but the core is hard," said Mohamed Khaddad, a senior Sahrawi negotiator. After the show of US dominance in the Iraq war, the Algerians could not simply reject Baker's plans. But their caveats were so fundamental that if inserted they would return the process to the essence of the 1991 Settlement Plan, the Sahrawis' argument went. Algeria's insistence on proper UN monitoring and guarantees alone would push the Moroccans toward rejection, even if the Security Council could or would find the resources to do the job. Raising the issue of identifying the electorate awakened the specter of the wasted years when Morocco and POLISARIO fought over who would vote in the referendum that was to be part of the 1991 Settlement Plan.

Perhaps Algeria has simply carried off another of its diplomatic tours de force; Moroccan officials ruefully admit to the skillfulness of Algerian diplomacy. But Algeria's support for POLISARIO has to be seen through the optic of regional and international politics. That support is an expression, not a cause, of Algerian-Moroccan rivalry for preeminence in the Maghrib. Other expressions have been border closures, the pitiful levels of economic cooperation and the still unresolved issue of common borders, particularly around the Tindouf area where -- not coincidentally -- the Sahrawi refugee camps are located. The pace of Algerian-Moroccan competition has quickened in recent years. Post-revolutionary Algeria -- once avowedly "socialist," a price hawk within OPEC and a champion of Third World liberation -- has moved toward becoming a liberalized economy with falling dependence on oil prices and greater dependence on natural gas export volumes. The country has also been at war for a decade with the Islamist bogeyman. Through the Eizenstat initiative, the US is pushing for a unified North African market. As the economy of Algeria liberalizes and becomes more globally integrated, so the power elite must realign its interests economically and politically. The cause of Sahrawi independence will be affected.

Earlier in 2003, former Algerian military strongman Khalid Nezzar expressed the view that the Western Sahara should no longer separate the "the two brother countries." In an age of great regional blocs, it was necessary to create "our own Maghribian space." Resorting to the language that had signaled the demise of the UN Settlement Plan and its replacement by Baker's plan, Nezzar said that a solution "would be to go towards the thesis of no winner, no loser." While Nezzar's comments brought criticism, the critics' main complaint was that he seemed ready to sell the Western Sahara without extracting a reasonable price, not that he was willing to sell it. Can this incident be isolated from the language of Algeria's response to Baker's revised plan? Can it be isolated from increasing US-Algerian and (sometimes competing) French-Algerian cooperation? Is it significant that Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika is the same man who in 1975, when foreign minister, urged his government to concede the Western Sahara to Morocco and Mauritania in exchange for a firm border agreement? Whether or not Bouteflika gets a second term of office could be important to determining Algeria's eventual attitude.

Frustration in the Camps

POLISARIO has also been feeling internal pressure. Since the 1991 ceasefire ended the movement's war with Morocco, the 160,000 residents of the refugee camps have been marginalized. Their guns have been silenced. Their only other weapon, the vote in the referendum that was quickly to follow the ceasefire, has been withheld from them by Moroccan intransigence and UN irresolution. In the spring of 2003, and not for the first time, POLISARIO officials began to let slip to journalists that the leadership was under pressure from its constituency to return to the armed struggle. There is a willingness in the camps to fight -- perhaps widespread, perhaps not -- but, in any case, the practicality of the proposal is questionable. After three decades of isolation in a harsh environment, POLISARIO's constituency wants to see progress. Youngsters who have never seen their homeland and senior officials alike rail in frustration at the years of neither war nor peace.

A return to armed struggle would likely have been symbolic. While Morocco's standing army has developed over the years of ceasefire, POLISARIO's guerrilla fighters have mostly been stood down. Veterans are now too old to fight, and the weapons stock is likely to have deteriorated. Nor is it certain that Algeria would ever permit a resumption of hostilities from its soil. A meeting of the POLISARIO National Secretariat in June agreed that the leadership would advise the October congress against military action. That path of action ruled out, the leadership still faced pressure to come up with something. Baker's plan looked like the only game in town. Ironically, far from militant rejectionism, POLISARIO has opted for what many have described as the Western Sahara's Oslo accord.

Of course, the frustration felt in the camps (and in the occupied territory too) has two faces. One is the demand for movement. The other is withdrawal from the struggle. The camps have become less collectivized over the last decade. There is an embryonic economy centered around petty commerce, animal husbandry, vehicle repairs and the like. Several thousand young men have gone to Spain to work as migrant laborers. Their remittances have improved living conditions but also have changed the nature of camp society. There is talk of the "normalization of exile," of pilfering of aid material, petty theft, resumption of dowries. Some professionals trained at overseas universities complain about not being able to exercise their skills. Some with necessary skills are tempted to go into commerce where they can earn money rather than devote themselves to unpaid work for the community.

Nearly thirty years into exile, the surprise is perhaps that such social changes have taken so long to come about and that they may strengthen the independence movement rather than weaken it. But they do constitute another pressure on the leadership.

Digging In

Morocco has suffered a diplomatic defeat. POLISARIO has been pressured into some form of acceptance of Baker's plan. For its part, the US got its resolution through the Security Council but in a diluted form. Morocco has already stated that the resolution imposes upon it no new obligations. King Mohammed VI recently declared that the Western Sahara issue has been closed, supporting the analysis of the POLISARIO leadership that Rabat is digging in. There will be pressure on the kingdom from the US, perhaps manifesting itself at the ongoing trade negotiations. If the pressure becomes too intense, Rabat will begin some form of discussions around the Baker plan but, as the precedent of the 1991 Settlement Plan shows, it will only allow progress in those talks as long the gains outweigh those of illegitimate occupation.

POLISARIO greeted the passing of the resolution by saying it was proof the Council would not allow the status quo to continue. It has achieved movement. But since key elements of the plan are poison pills to Sahrawis' aspiration to independence, the new resolution may offer only dangerous, short-term comfort. If indeed the tectonic plates of globalization and geopolitics are slowly reshaping the Maghrib through the media of Baker, Annan and US Ambassador to the UN John Negroponte, a small nation divided between refugee camps and an occupied homeland is not well-placed to resist. That said, the US, like France, has been trying to maintain a balance between Algeria and Morocco in its North Africa policy. If Morocco's obstructionism toward Baker has lessened Washington's good will toward the kingdom, the Sahrawis may reap some benefits as the details of the plan are further clarified.

*Toby Shelley is writing a book on the Western Sahara for Zed Books in London. He works for the Financial Times.

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FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.