Abdo Alaoui
21 January 2024

Truth or Dare: Behind-the-Scenes of Granting Spanish Nationality to People from Former Spanish Sahara

Truth or Dare: Behind-the-Scenes of Granting Spanish Nationality to People from Former Spanish Sahara
Truth or Dare: Behind-the-Scenes of Granting Spanish Nationality to People from Former Spanish Sahara

If passed into law, Podemos’s proposal to grant Spanish nationality to Sahrawis born before February 1976 will have dizzying ramifications for Algeria and Spain alike.

On February 14 of this year, the Spanish Congress of Deputies gave the green light to the examination of a bill that would grant nationality to people from Western Sahara territory born before February 26, 1976. This refers to the period prior to Spain’s withdrawal from the region in the aftermath of the Madrid Agreement, which Spain, Morocco, and Mauritania signed on November 14, 1975. The confederate group representing the Unidos Podemos party initiated the proposal. The bill obtained 118 votes for, 118 votes against, and 53 abstentions.

To be eligible, applicants should produce a certificate of registration in the census for the referendum in Western Sahara issued by the United Nations, a birth certificate issued in the refugee’s camp in Tindouf and legalized by the Polisario representation in Spain, and a birth certificate or family register issued by the Spanish administration.

The aim of this article is to examine the rationale behind the above mentioned proposal. It will focus on three aspects to assess the risk the initiators and their mentors take by being either shortsighted or opening the door wide to controversial interpretations, or by having a sound vision as to participating in resolving the artificial conflict over the Sahara.

The first aspect concerns the significance of obtaining a nationality and its timing. The second aspect depicts the existence of similar attempts in the region (in Mauritania and in Algeria). The third aspect highlights the more plausible and realistic option Morocco initiated forty years ago or so.

Granting nationality is a Spanish internal issue

The idea of granting nationality to people from Western Sahara is not a new proposal. Indeed, on January 12, 1958, in the heat of the decolonization process in Africa, the Spanish government included Rio de Oro (Oued Eddahab) and Saguia el Hamra into its overseas territories. Then, under specific conditions, the populations of both territories were granted official Spanish documents. They were allowed to enjoy some other subsequent rights. By the same token, the decision allowed Morocco to recover Tarfaya the same year and Sidi Ifni in 1969.

Later, in 1976, a decree allowed people to seek Spanish nationality if they met certain conditions. In 1974, Spain announced its intention to hold a referendum on self-determination in 1975. To this end, it conducted a census with the aim of enlisting people’s adherence to its project of an autonomous region with full allegiance to Spain, in fact creating a vassal state.

These developments happened while the countries involved in the conflict had been experiencing hard times at both internal and regional levels. The main parties were Spain, Morocco, and Mauritania, and, behind the scenes, Algeria. The projected referendum couldn’t be held because of Franco’s illness and changes on the geopolitical chessboard.

Needless to recall events related to this period of the region’s history; however, it is worth it to remember that when Morocco organized the “Green March,” the conflict escalated, even though it burgeoned in the signature of the trilateral agreement (Spain, Morocco, and Mauritania) on November 14, 1975, ending Spain’s presence in the territory.

Spain was more concerned with the internal political transition, while Algeria was forced to change its strategy. Algeria declared itself a party to the conflict in a verbal note that its ambassador and representative to the United Nations addressed to the General Assembly in 1975, stating that countries interested in the conflict were Morocco, Mauritania, and Algeria. No mention whatsoever of the Polisario, created by Muammar Gaddafi and not yet co-opted by Algeria. This happened in the aftermath of the Madrid Agreement.

As it did not accept the change in the rules of the game in the region, Algeria used Polisario, a secessionist movement that was originally created by Libya’s Gaddafi, to keep the conflict unresolved and advance its geopolitical agenda in the region.

Mauritania signed a separate agreement with the Polisario in 1979, and, as a result, it withdrew from Teris al Gharbiya (Oued Eddahab). It goes without saying that, even though cases of Sahrawi people seeking Spanish nationality have been recorded over the last twenty years, the issue of nationality pertaining to people in the region has been put on hold. Indeed, in its ruling on May 29, 2020, the Spanish Supreme Court denied Spanish nationality to Sahrawis, arguing that Western Sahara was not part of Spain for the purposes of granting nationality to all Sahrawi residing in the territory.

Meanwhile, people living in both Sakiet el Hamra and Oued Eddahab were granted de facto Moroccan nationality and they have since 1976 been participating in local and regional elections. They have also elected their representatives at the local, regional, and national assemblies.

Mauritania, for its part, experienced a different fate. The separation agreement former President Mohammed Khouna Ould Haidallah signed with Polisario paved the way for hundreds of individuals affiliated with the separatist movement to seek and obtain Mauritanian nationality.

This was a smart move to force Mauritania to cease coordination with Morocco and, by the same token, allow Algeria to control the political situation in Mauritania in the same spirit as former president Mokhtar Oul Daddah’s call to get people in Sakiet el Hamra and Oued Eddahab to join efforts and be part of independent Mauritania in the mid-1960s.

How about Algeria? The country managed to showcase the Sahrawi in Tindouf camps and present them as a special category of refugees. Yet, Algeria’s decision-makers never allowed the UNCFR to conduct a census despite several UNSC resolutions urging Algeria to comply with such demands. On the contrary, they used the refugees as electoral puppets so they could participate in different electoral venues. It registered them as Algerian citizens. In this respect, all Polisario members travel with Algerian official passports.

However, the situation appears to be giving Algerian decision-makers insomnia. Last month, Algeria’s President Abdelmajid Tebboune stressed in remarks before an audience of governors and local authorities that it is out of the question to offer the Sahrawi in the refugee camps the opportunity to become Algerians.

This was also part of Algeria’s plan to displace the Sahrawis, who live in Tindouf, to the north of Mauritania. The main goal was to create a fait accompli, so there would be no direct borders between Morocco and Algeria. The Guerguerat saga in late 2020 was aimed at reaching the same goal.

In the past, Algeria played the tribal card in order to push people in the region to adhere to its view on the conflict over the Sahara. Evidence showed recently that in the late 1960s, Algerian decision-makers tried to get all Sahrawi belonging to the Rguibat tribe to federate in the Tindouf region, so they would later convince those among them living in Morocco and Mauritania to support Algeria’s policy and wage war in the disputed territory.

Algeria’s double-standards

Reports leaked recently showed that Algeria worked to convince branches of well-known Rguibat families to choose to be Spanish or move to Tindouf, at a time when Madrid was thinking of holding a referendum to grant autonomy to the territory.

To some extent, Algeria used the same argument that France used in Morocco when it played Arabs against Amazigh, or what it called “blad al-makhzen” or “blad assiba.” Since its independence in 1962, Algeria has relentlessly endeavored to divert Morocco from claiming to recover the eastern Sahara, a territory that France gradually annexed from Morocco when it was ruling Algeria.

Morocco has had a different approach. It has never dealt with the Sahrawis of its southern provinces as foreigners. Instead, it has always considered and treated them as fully Moroccan. Because Moroccan nationality is rooted in the principle of allegiance to the King, iIt is never lost, except in some cases expressly defined by the Code of Nationality expressly. Yet, the allegiance principle is based on mutual commitments, and when applied in a political and cultural sense, it reflects full sovereignty over the territory.

That explains why, as a gesture of goodwill, Morocco urged Sahrawis living in the Tindouf camps to come back to their homeland. Morocco’s late King Hassan II issued an attractive and yet genuine slogan, “The motherland is clement and merciful,” to give them a chance to reintegrate Morocco.

Many embraced Morocco’s call, including some founding members and ex-top-ranking officials of the separatist Polisario movement. In this respect, Podemos’s arguments put forward in the bill granting Spanish nationality to the Sahrawis are highly debatable for three main reasons.First, it seems obvious that Podemos’ proposal is intended to impact the chessboard of internal Spanish politics. Even though the Podemos Party is part of Spain’s government’s coalition, it has always advanced its ideological agenda at the expense of the government’s political unity.

With this latest proposal, the Podemos Party seeks to stress that it has not changed its position with respect to the Sahara issue. It places itself as a key player ahead of the upcoming general elections, where it will try to shape the political landscape as a potential ally of the People’s Party. Pedro Sanchez, Head of the Government, has been criticized for endorsing Morocco’s Autonomy Plan, which he has praised as a realistic means to resolve the artificial conflict over the Western Sahara.

Second, the Podemos party is sending a message to Algeria that if a change of government happened, the movement, as a member of a potential new coalition, would resume the strategic partnership between Algiers and Madrid based on common goals and the shared enmity against Morocco.

Third, it seems that the People’s Party is using the Podemos Party to undermine the coalition in power. This would pave the way for early general elections. The People’s Party is convinced that it has a chance to win the next general election and form a new conservative government, concentrating more on Spanish domestic issues than on foreign policy matters.

Regardless of what happens next in Spain’s political configuration, one thing remains sure as to whether the proposal to grant nationality to Saharawi born before 1976 will be fully adopted or amended: the arguments that Algeria and Polisario have long invoked regarding the status of the region of the Sahara would ultimately fall flat.

Henceforth, the argument Algeria puts forward that Spain bears a legal responsibility for being the administering power of the territory will sound like a charade. This will be as futile as Algeria’s allegations about Morocco’s human rights abuses and “illegal exploitation” of natural resources in the disputed territory.

Should the bill become law, it will open the door to similar cases not only in Spain but also in other countries, including Algeria and Mauritania.

Indeed, when the Spanish parliament voted on Podemos’s bill, some observers rushed to conclude that this vote would be a setback for the process of political normalization between Spain and Morocco. They pushed their analysis as far as pretending that Spain would be back in charge and would resume its role as the main administering power of the Sahara region. They even mocked Morocco’s media outlets that mention the trilateral agreement between Spain, Morocco, and Mauritania as being still in force.

In any case, these arguments need to be challenged.

Argument One: On several occasions over the last few months, the Spanish government has stressed that its responsibility for Western Sahara ended with the signing of the Madrid Agreement in 1975. The agreement is registered with the United Nations and has been in force since then, regardless of what occurred later, as a result of Mauritania’s withdrawal from Teris al Gharbiya (Oued Eddahab) in 1979.

Argument Two: Granting nationality doesn’t mean changing the status of Moroccan Sahrawis living in different parts of Morocco, including in Sakiet al-Hamra and Oued Eddahab. They are Moroccan citizens by virtue of their allegiance to the King. As a result of this pact of mutual rights and duties, they enjoy their political, economic, social, and cultural rights. Allegiance, as an institutional expression of nationality and citizenship, comes first and allows the population to claim their right to Moroccanness, which they already enjoy.

It is worth mentioning that Moroccan Sahrawis represent Morocco in regional and international forums. Suffice it to cite the example of Enaam Mayara, a Sahrawi representative and speaker of the Moroccan House of Councillors, who was elected chairman of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Mediterranean for the period of 2023–2024 during the 17th session held in Rabat on March 1 and 2, 2023.

Argument Three: Granting Spanish nationality wouldn’t be different from the rights that autonomous regions in Spain, such as Catalonia and the Basque Country, enjoy, even though people there seek full independence but have so far failed as Spain’s constitution maintains that they are and will remain Spanish citizens.

Algeria pretends that the 1975 Madrid Agreement is null and void. It keeps repeating that the regional conflict over the Sahara fits with the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples as defined by Resolution 1514 (XV) adopted by the UN General Assembly’s on December 14, 1960. Algeria also pretends to ignore Resolution 1541 adopted on December 15, 1960, expressing the principles which should guide the behavior of UN members in determining whether or not an obligation exists to transmit the information called under Article 73 of the United Nations Charter.

It goes without saying that if one were to take Algeria’s claim into consideration, one would apply it to the agreement on borders Algeria signed with Morocco in 1972, as well as to all agreements it signed in 1983 with Mali, Mauritania, Niger, and Tunisia.

Algerian decision-makers’ fixation on challenging Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara explains why they felt outraged and shocked when Bahija Simou, Chief of the Royal Documents Directorate, stated on February 21, 2023, that Morocco has archives of documents confirming the country’s roots and long-standing history in its Sahara regions, including Eastern Sahara.

Algerian decision-makers are so worried that if neighboring countries happened to question the principles of the “intangibility of borders inherited from colonization,” Algeria would see its territory shrink beyond recognition. Yet the Algerian dilemma goes further, because pointing to the real origins of modern day Algeria would raise many unresolved issues pertaining to nationality and citizenship in Algeria.

A Snowball or a Quicksand?

On the Spanish side, the situation of the Moroccan population living in Ceuta and Melilla would be raised in some way, too. It is worth reminding everyone that Morocco has never given up on recovering its sovereignty over the two cities as well as over their neighboring islands.

Morocco privileges negotiation and peaceful means to settle the issue with Spain. Sooner or later, the status of people living there will be raised. All depends on the evolution of the political situation, mainly in Catalonia and the Basque Country.

The outcome of the bill granting Spanish nationality to Sahrawis, including those living in the southern provinces of Morocco, is a non-starter issue. Morocco is very flexible with respect to dual citizenship, provided that people live abroad. When they live in or visit Morocco, they are dealt with as Moroccans.

If approved, the bill on granting nationality to Sahrawis who had lived in Western Sahara before 1976 will have no impact on the process of implementing the Autonomy Plan that Morocco proposed in 2007. Indeed, those who would be taken into account would be those who had been registered in the census for the referendum issued by the United Nations.

The process of identification couldn’t be brought to terms because Algeria and Polisario refused to accept almost all the lists of candidates Morocco presented. That is why the UNSC ruled out the option of a referendum to resolve the Sahara dispute. The question would be what sort of certificate of registration in the census Spain would accept, given that the identification process hadn’t been completed.

Furthermore, it is worth recalling that the Moroccan delegation to the UN-led regional roundtable talks on a peace deal regarding Western Sahara included representatives of Saquiet al Hamra and Oued Eddahab. Indeed, Hamdi Ould Errachid, president of the Laayoune Region; Ynja Khattar, president of Dakhla region; and Fatima Adli, a civil society activist and member of the Municipal Council of Es-Smara, all participated in the Geneva roundtable talks, the last of which took place in 2019. Polisario’s claim of being the sole representative of the Sahrawis was thus solemnly disqualified.

The Podemos Party’s bill raises concerns about the certificate issued in the refugees’ camp in Tindouf. Indeed, Polisario’s representation in Spain would be requested to certify the document. Here again, Spain gives legal status to a dissident movement that has no effective presence in the disputed territory. The bill’s drafters pretend to ignore that Algeria has always prevented the UNHCR from conducting an independent census to determine the exact number of refugees in the camps.

Besides, Spain doesn’t recognize the separatist movement as a state under international law. In sum, if the process is fulfilled as proposed, this means that certificates of registration would be given to people who might not be authentic Sahrawis. As independent observers are aware, the Tindouf camps are controlled by Algeria’s military security, and none of them has ever been allowed in.

Moreover, the certificate of family register issued by the Spanish administration is a matter of serious concern. It is understood that people who were included in the 1974 census for the purpose of the referendum that Spain couldn’t organize would be requested to produce this document.

Morocco, for its part, has put forward an argument that sounded quite legitimate. Indeed, it argues that the people who would be authorized to return to its southern provinces, pending the implementation of the Autonomy Plan, would be those who had been included in the Spanish census. This is regardless of the fact that it didn’t include people from the Sahara living outside the territory while the census was conducted.

Overall, if the bill granting nationality to people from Western Sahara territory born before February 26, 1976, was adopted, it would seriously bring about a hecatomb in the region.

Among the first countries targeted would be Algeria, with the Harki (who served in the French Army during the Algerian war for independence from 1954 to 1962), the Algerian headache in the Kabylie region, and the Tuareg people living in Algeria who have been seeking independence. This will certainly participate in igniting the Touaregs’ enthusiasm in Mali, Niger, Libya, and Mauritania.

It would tease the descendants of the Pieds-Noirs, who had chosen to be either Algerian or French, and now, some reports say, they (or their descendants) would consider changing their minds. The whole issue of “la rente mémorielle’’ (which amounts to a sort of instrumentalization of history for political benefits) is also linked to the critical aspect of double allegiance.

The Spanish precedent would probably raise the pending issues in other European countries. This, for example, applies to Dutch descendants or native people who had chosen to be Dutch on the eve of the decolonization process and had been denied Dutch nationality in the aftermath of Indonesia’s independence, and even now in the Aceh Province and the Netherlands Antilles.

It would also bring up the issue of minorities and cases of people who were victims of colonial atrocities in many former colonies in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. These people and their descendants would be tempted to claim reparation.

The Spanish government would probably be sued by people who were victims of acts of terrorism that elements of Polisario perpetrated in the late 1970s and early 1980s. This would include those who have or will be granted Spanish nationality, and the families of their victims have not lost hope of getting fair reparations for their pain and suffering.

Finally, if the bill granting nationality to Sahrawis who registered before February 26, 1976, was adopted (as it is or amended), it would clear up the confusion. This would mean the time for resolving the artificial conflict over the Sahara has come at last.

The case of the refugees in Tindouf camps will be sorted out. A hundred authentic Sahrawis would be allowed to have a compass for their future. The others, either Algerians, Malians, Chadians, Nigerians, or Sudanese, would have to choose where to settle down. Algeria is already afraid that they will choose Tindouf as their forever homeland.

Source : moroccoworldnews

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