Morocco Stacks the Saharan Deck

A LARGELY forgotten United Nations peacekeeping force in the North African desert (MINURSO) has been mandated to organize a referendum on the future status of the Western Sahara and its indigenous population, the Sahrawi. It was to deploy throughout this former Spanish colony and supervise elections in a free exercise of self-determination. In principle, the Sahrawis would either choose independence or accept integration with Morocco. Instead, a pervasive Moroccan administration has determined the future

of the area.

Hope for a referendum must be abandoned. Moroccan control of the Western Sahara is so total that UN-sponsored elections could not have a free or fair outcome. They could only serve to legitimize historical claims to the territory by King Hassan II, who shows no sign of relinquishing any part of the "homeland."

Moroccan interest in the Western Sahara intensified after 17 years of war against the Polisario Front guerrillas. Popularity of the throne is now linked to the king's ability to retain the Western Sahara. It is also believed that the phosphate-rich area has the potential for oil.

Consequently, Morocco has been stealing the Sahara, and the theft is now all but complete.

Security agents swarm in cities in the Western Sahara: informants, spies, not-so-secret servicemen in ill-fitting suits and uniforms of every variety - police, gendarmes, the Moroccan Army. They watch you in the hotels and follow you wherever you go. They will arrest you, as they did this author, if you take a photo or try to contact UN officials.

In breach of the terms of the peace process, Morocco is repopulating the Western Sahara to alter the numbers of eligible voters. Daily, military transport vehicles drive into towns such as El Ayoun, the capital, and Es Semara, closer to the eastern front, filled with civilians prepared to vote for Morocco. Already 120,000 names, in addition to the 74,000 Saharans who were to serve as the electorate in the referendum, have been put forward for registration by Morocco.

THE settlers are housed in enormous tent cities erected by Morocco. Incentives for living in the Sahara are great. In the tent cities, food and accommodation are free. Elsewhere gasoline and food are half the price they are in Morocco, and there are no taxes. Inviting facilities have been built, including a new stadium in El Ayoun, and a housing boom for Moroccan settlers has doubled the population of El Ayoun.

"Developing" the Western Sahara, economically and politically, costs Moroccans some $250 million per year. This investment has strengthened the resolve of Moroccans to keep the occupied territory.

In contrast, there is virtually no UN presence. To foster a sense of security before a referendum, most UN missions conduct voter education, preceded by a public-awareness campaign through a show of UN flags and signs, and contact with local inhabitants.

But MINURSO headquarters is sealed off by the Moroccans, as are the hotels in which MINURSO officials are housed. UN vehicles drive between the two, but nowhere else. Check points punctuate all routes throughout Western Sahara. There is no freedom of movement, a necessity to build confidence in the process.

Even if some kind of elections were possible, the infrastructure of the Western Sahara could not easily be severed from Morocco. New high-power lines are being erected to provide electricity to the increased population of the Sahara and to guarantee its dependence on Morocco. They follow the only good roads, leading to and from Morocco.

The main supply port for the area is Agadir, well north of the Western Saharan border. As the UN has discovered, local reliance on this Moroccan-controlled supply route is complete. Equipment bound for MINURSO is often delayed by Moroccan authorities.

Those are not the conditions for a free and fair referendum. Of the elections supervised by the UN in Namibia, Nicaragua, and Haiti, none have been interfered with as much as the referendum in the Western Sahara. Even the Khmer Rouge, which controls only parts of Cambodia, does not threaten proposed elections there in the way that Morocco can dictate the outcome.

The UN will not be able to fulfill its mandate without the cooperation of Morocco. How should the international community respond? Should Morocco be condemned or its absorption of the Sahara be accepted as inevitable? What will be the fate of the Sahrawis? Recasting the peace plan to account for these questions will be a first step.

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