December 8, 2000

Twenty-five years ago 350,000 Moroccans marched into the Spanish Sahara and occupied it. This so-called Green March was the start of a long-running post-colonial dispute over the desert homeland of the Sahrawis that the United Nations hoped would end with the 1988 peace proposals for a cease fire and a referendum.

But the long-debated referendum on the Western Sahara has not taken place. After years of struggling to compile voting lists acceptable to both sides, UN special envoy James Baker has effectively conceded that a referendum is not the solution. He is pinning his hopes on fresh talks about limited autonomy that will not only satisfy Morocco and the Polisario Front but, more importantly, Algeria, to whose arid border territory many Polisario supporters fled.

American anthropologist Peggy Sue Bergeron is researching the impact of the refugee camp environment in southern Algeria on formerly nomadic tribes. She says that polyandry, serial monogamy, tribal conflict and a nomadic way of life made compiling voting lists complicated.

"Sons always take their father's tribe, so if a woman has several husbands, the brothers could all be affiliated to different tribes," she said. "The younger generation here in the southern provinces are much less concerned with tribalism than their parents and grandparents."

Claire Spencer, head of the Mediterranean security programme at the Centre for Defence Studies at King's College London, says the referendum will never take place although there may be some sort of plebiscite "to save face".

"The status quo suits both the Moroccans and the Algerians. The Algerians because there's been no de jure recognition of Morocco's sovereignty over the Western Sahara so they can challenge this whenever it suits. For Morocco, defending the wall (a 4,000km electronic wall built on former Mauritanian controlled territory) ties up large numbers of military who would otherwise have to be reintegrated elsewhere in the country.

"Over the years there have been high-level defections to Morocco. The Polisario seem to have lost their revolutionary zeal," Dr Spencer said.

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