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In the Western Sahara conflict pitting it against Morocco, is the Polisario Front coming out of a lull and beginning to escalate its war?
More than a year after the Moroccan military intervention in Guerguerat, which led Polisario to end the ceasefire it had observed with the kingdom, and some two weeks after three Algerian nationals were killed in Bir Lahlou by ‘Moroccan bombardment’, as the country’s president, Abdelmadjid Tebboune, claims, the separatist movement appears to be growing increasingly radical.
On 6 November, Morocco’s King Mohammed VI delivered an address to the nation to mark the 46th anniversary of the Green March and reaffirmed that there was no room for negotiation on the Western Sahara issue.
That same day, Polisario leader Brahim Ghali was not far from the now-infamous town of Bir Lahlou, where he led a handover ceremony for Mohamed Wali Akeik, the Sahrawi army’s new chief of staff.
‘All targets are fair game’
As Ghali vowed to “increase hostilities”, The Economist reported that Akeik “want[s] to pursue other tactics, such as attacking deeper in Moroccan-occupied territory”.
According to Akeik, such attacks are “much more than a possibility” and are neither “empty threats” nor “bluster”. He told the British weekly that “companies and consulates, airlines and other sectors are all potential targets”.
A few days later, on 13 November – the anniversary of the clashes in Guerguerat – Taleb Ammi Deh, commander of the 7th military region of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, or SADR, and member of Polisario’s National Secretariat, warned that fighting would take place outside Morocco’s defence wall and that “all air, sea, and land targets” were “fair game (…) since the territory is at war”.
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He proceeded to call on all foreign companies operating in Western Sahara – representing a total of 70 firms, 14 of which Spanish – to leave the region or face retaliation.
Algiers seems to have set the tone for Polisario’s fresh threats. On 5 November, during the television programme Crisis on the channel Al Hayat TV, Mokhtar Mediouni, a retired senior military intelligence officer, urged Polisario forces to carry out attacks in Rabat, Casablanca and Marrakesh.
What’s more, the Algerian army has provided the separatists with military equipment, including Russian-made all-terrain vehicles. Are these latest developments mere posturing or do they signal a genuine escalation in tensions between Morocco on one side, and Polisario and Algeria on the other?
A return to old ways
“Is something new going on here? No, none of the above represents a break with the past,” says Bachir Dkhil, one of the founders of Polisario at the time of Spain’s occupation of the territory in the early 1970s.
He has since left the organisation. “Under pressure from Algiers, Brahim Ghali is now putting all his stock in the Polisario’s most radical wing. Things are going back to how they were in the first years of the conflict. The SADR is in the midst of a deep political and institutional crisis. Polisario’s leadership is made up of 100 people, 20 of whom have been playing musical chairs for years.”
As Dkhil points out, army chief of staff Akeik has held a variety of roles, such as security chief, minister of ‘occupied territories’ and prime minister (in 2018). He has also “played a leading part in the first operations to cripple the economic activity and management of [H4] Spain’s phosphate mines in 1974 in the Western Sahara city of Laayoune”. “Basically, Polisario is returning to its ideological roots,” he says.
Polisario leaders are reduced to creating pointless jobs within the National Secretariat in order to please one tribe or another or to ease tensions, but things aren’t working. It’s a total failure.
In short, Polisario is no longer rousing members to action, whether at home or abroad. The situation has become so dire that the so-called ‘war’ the organisation says it has been waging against Morocco for a year now has yet to be recognised as such by the UN.
Worse still, Polisario continues to suffer major losses. The Royal Moroccan Armed Forces, or FAR, is reported to have killed the commander of the 5th military region in a drone attack launched near the defence wall, in the town of Gleibat El Foula on 14 November. In another blow, Spanish authorities extradited Faysal Bahloul to Morocco on 16 November. The Sahrawi separatist stands accused of ‘incitement to murder’.
Meanwhile, in the SADR refugee camps, unity seems a distant memory: tribal conflict and clan rivalries are raging, and young members are more preoccupied with their future than with a Cold War -era political struggle.
Sahrawi youth either dream of attending university abroad or leaving the camps to join jihadist groups in the Sahel. “Polisario leaders are reduced to creating pointless jobs within the National Secretariat in order to please one tribe or another or to ease tensions, but things aren’t working. It’s a total failure,” Dkhil tells The Africa Report.
This extremely frustrating impasse has seemingly driven the Polisario to stir trouble ahead of two important diplomatic meetings, one with the UN envoy to Western Sahara, Staffan de Mistura, and another with Israel’s defence minister, Benny Gantz, in Morocco on 24 and 25 November, at a time when Algerian-Moroccan relations have reached a low point.
How far could the conflict escalate?
The dynamics of the situation are clear: Algiers is pressing Polisario to step up its military operations against Morocco and giving it carte blanche to do so, while Sahrawi leaders want the Algerian government to deepen its involvement in the conflict.
Perhaps their goal is to arouse more attention from the UN and get the multilateral body to change course, such as by reducing concessions to Morocco and organising a referendum on Western Sahara self-determination.
Nevertheless, Dkhil says: “It isn’t in Algeria’s interest to become embroiled in an open, direct and full-frontal military conflict with Morocco. As for Polisario, they don’t have the resources to fight Moroccan forces, which is why I don’t they will attack targets outside the defence wall.”
In the near term, the conflict could be fought on several fronts, but in a less overt way and across a wider geographic area. Energy warfare is already being instrumentalised, as Algeria stopped supplying natural gas to Morocco on 1 November.
The conflict is also playing out on the diplomatic stage. “It’s plain to see that Algiers is trying to get Mauritania, which it views as a weak state, to join its camp. We’ve already witnessed Algeria attempt to get Mauritania mixed up in the Bir Lahlou incident in early November. The Algerian government will do everything in its power to draw Nouakchott into the conflict and gain its support,” Dkhil tells us.
Algiers is redoubling its efforts because it perceives the Mauritanian president, Mohamed Ould Cheikh el-Ghazouani, as being cosy with Morocco, which wasn’t the case of his predecessor, Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz.
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