Plans by Morocco to devolve some power to its regions appear unlikely to convince independence campaigners in Western Sahara to accept Moroccan sovereignty over the desert territory.
A decades-old dispute over Western Sahara’s future is fuelling tension between Morocco and neighbour Algeria that has scuppered attempts to create an EU-style political and economic union to drag swathes of North Africa out of poverty.
Europe and the United States also fear it is stopping Morocco and Algeria working together to contain al Qaeda-linked militants trying to impose strict Islamic rule in North Africa.
Morocco has been offering limited autonomy for Western Sahara but Algeria-backed independence movement Polisario insists on a referendum with independence as one option. Three years of United Nations-backed talks have gone nowhere.
Morocco’s plan for more regional government is designed to address frustrated hopes for more democracy in the kingdom and show Sahrawis deeply suspicious of the authorities in Rabat that they are serious about sharing power, analysts say.
“Autonomy and regionalisation are the same thing. The regionalisation would be autonomy for Western Sahara and a different thing for other regions,” said Taoufik Bouachrine, editor of Moroccan daily paper Akhabar al Maghrib.
“Were the plan successful, I think Sahrawis would accept it, but I think regionalisation would just redeploy the same system monopolising wealth and power that we have in Rabat,” he said.
Morocco has poured people and money into Western Sahara, a tract of desert the size of Britain which has lucrative phosphate reserves and potentially offshore oil.
No country formally recognises Rabat’s claim to the territory but its allies France, Spain and the United States have pushed its autonomy proposal as a promising starting point.
Moroccan officials have denied the regionalisation plan is part of a diplomatic push on Western Sahara but experts say there is a clear link.
“Autonomy and advanced regionalisation are the same message passing on two wavelengths, to use broadcasting terminology,” said Mohamed Mesari, a former minister and a veteran diplomat.
Rabat officials say Western Sahara would be the first “development lab” for advanced regionalisation.
In a speech this month announcing the establishment of a consultative body on regionalisation, Morocco’s King Mohammed said he wanted to overcome the stalemate on Western Sahara.
“Morocco cannot limit itself to a standstill while antagonists of its territorial integrity make every effort to impede the UN process aimed at finding a realistic political solution,” he said in reference to Polisario and Algeria.
The territory’s pro-independence activists doubt the reform will prompt more Sahrawis to embrace Morocco.
They say that Morocco which suffers widespread illiteracy and a yawning wealth divide needs to address deep-seated social problems and a lack of democracy before it becomes a credible alternative for Polisario’s backers.
“Morocco has proposed autonomy before today, and is adding this advanced regionalisation, but the Sahrawis remain fundamentally unconvinced by the Moroccan government, whom they see as having no right to decide their future,” said Sahrawi rights activist Mohamed Moutawakil.
Regionalisation from 2011
Morocco took over most of Western Sahara after Spain withdrew from its colony in 1975, sparking a war with ethnic Sahrawi independence fighters backed by Algeria.
The war ended in 1991 when the United Nations brokered a ceasefire on the promise that a referendum would be held to decide the territory’s future. Morocco blocked the vote, saying it would be impossible to organise fairly.
Moroccan political analysts say regionalisation will create elected legislative and executive bodies to oversee social development with less interference from Rabat.
Finance Minister Salaheddine Mezouar suggested regionalisation could be implemented early next year.
“At the beginning of 2011, we will focus more on the regional approach. Each region’s elaborate plan will be reflected in the finance law (budget),” he told daily Al Jarida Al Oula in an interview.
But Sahrawi independence campaigners condemn regionalisation as another smokescreen allowing Morocco to tighten its grip over Western Sahara.
“The new offer will give Morocco’s diplomacy a breathing space while opening a door into the territory for its security apparatus,” said activist Moutawakil.
Pic: King Mohammed of Morocco