There is no greater sorrow on earth than the loss of one's native land.
Euripides, 431 BC
In the westernmost shores of the great Saharan desert lies a small, arid region. This area is bordered by mainland Morocco to the north, Mauritania to the south and east, and the Atlantic Ocean to the west. The terrain is stony and flat, lacking any noticeable features. Indeed, the highest point is only 463m (1,519ft) compared to the towering, 5,895m (19,340ft) Mount Kilimanjaro: the summit of all Africa. The land is mostly a desert and supports from little to no agriculture. The temperature varies but stays above 37°C (100°F) all the year1.
The most widely-used name2 for this place is Western Sahara, formerly known as Spanish Sahara. Other names include: Greater Morocco, Greater Mauritania and the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic.
People and Language
The Saharawis3 are the natives of this land who are followers of Islam. The language that is most prevalent is Arabic. It is spoken in either of two dialects: the Moroccan or the Hassaniya, with the latter being the more popular. The Maqil, an invading force of the 13th Century, introduced it to the native community.
The area has an infant mortality rate of 18%, an average life expectancy of only 40 years, and a literacy rate that is as low as 15%; coupled with a population growth rate of 2.8%, these demographics paint a very gloomy picture. The majority of the region's population is illiterate and under 20 years of age4. Since 1884, there has been nothing but violence and turmoil. It is one of the few countries today that has not succeeded in achieving a deserved independence from imperialistic powers.
The Berlin Conference, Spain and France
In 1884, the major European powers met in the Berlin Conference to discuss the colonisation and the fragmentation of Africa. Since the Spanish already commanded a presence in Morocco, the region of Western Sahara was promised to them. In December of that year, the Spanish government announced its intention to invade and taking possession of the hinterlands of Africa. At this point, the Spanish had already taken over the coastal city of Villa Cisneros. However, the Spanish invasion was not fully successful because of resistance from the Saharawi people. After taking over Algeria, the French moved their eyes towards neighbouring Morocco. On 27 November, 1912, the Spanish and the French made an agreement that demarcated the borders of Western Sahara. In return, the French helped the Spanish put down the Saharawi resistance. By the end of 1934, Spain had 'pacified' and had taken full possession of Western Sahara5.
Spanish Reign and the Polisario
The natives, as expected, bitterly resisted the Spanish control. Many demonstrations were held. There were a multitude of militant groups that were bent on achieving independence. On 10 May, 1973 the first official meeting was held for the Polisario Front. An acronym for Frente Popular de Liberación de Saguia-El-Hamra y Ri de Oro, Polisario was initially formed to get rid of the Spanish. In later years, it not only fought them but also other imperialistic countries. Saguia-El-Hamra is the northern part of Western Sahara, whereas Rio De Oro is the southern portion. Since each region was administered from a different seat, one of the aims that was adopted by Polisario was to liberate and unite them6. Because of both the cost of war and orders from United Nations (UN) and the Organisation for African Unity (OAU), Spain eventually left the region.
First Signs of Active Moroccan Intervention
In 1974, both the UN and the OAU demanded that the Spain permit a referendum on Saharan self-determination. After a long toil, Spain finally agreed to hold a referendum with the support of the United Nations in early 1975 - although this never happened. The main stumbling-block turned out to be King Hassan II of Morocco. Hassan declared that any referendum that would not favour Morocco could not be supported. He even went as far as threatening the process with military support.
History of Moroccan Claim
The Moroccan claim on Western Sahara was not new, nor indeed was it exclusive to it. The Moroccans7 claimed a large amount of territory that was once controlled by powerful dynasties in ancient Morocco. According to the average Moroccan mind, this range of area was referred to as 'Greater Morocco'. The latter actually involved not only Western Sahara, but also all of Mauritania, north-west Mali and much of west Algeria. These territories were ruled by the far-reaching Almoravid dynasty from the 11th and 12th Centuries. The Almoravids were a Berber dynasty that began in southern Mauritania. After the Moroccan independence from France in 1956, the Istiqlal party - the leading revolutionary organisation in Morocco - rekindled and popularised the idea of Greater Morocco. Its concept had to be changed because most of the area was now part of the newly-created independent states of Algeria, Mali and Mauritania, who were internationally recognised. Indeed, Morocco strongly opposed the formation of a sovereign Mauritania. It bitterly opposed the entry of Mauritania into the United Nations on grounds that the country was a non-existent creation of French colonialism. Mali's independence, however, was barely noticed by the Moroccan government. Eventually, the Moroccans gave up the idea of enforcing their claims on these regions8.
Moroccan Evidence for Claims
Moroccans also asserted that their historical claims on Western Sahara were recognised by major foreign nations during the period of African colonisation. In the Spanish-Moroccan Treaty of November 20, 1861, the Spanish clearly acknowledged the Moroccan control of the Saharawi coasts up to the point of Boujdour, marking this territory as Saguia-El-Hamra: the northern portions of Western Sahara. In the Franco-German agreement of 1911, Germany agreed not to interfere with French actions in Morocco. In this agreement Morocco is defined to extend as far as the Spanish colony of Rio de Oro. This again places Saguia-El-Hamra under Moroccan control. Great Britain, Italy, Austria-Hungary9, Russia, Sweden, the Netherlands, Belgium and Portugal all formally accepted the terms of this agreement. Nevertheless, historical ties today are not usually considered as a basis of ownership. The people of this region themselves wanted to become independent. The Moroccan claim parallels that of Benito Mussolini. He claimed that the territories that had made up the Holy Roman Empire should be under Italian control today.
Early Algerian and Moroccan Relations
The Moroccan claim to western Algeria, particularly the Tindouf region, is however still a very heated issue in Moroccan politics. This claim has now been fuelled by the presence of the Saharawi refugees in south-western parts of Algeria. It is also the location of a self-proclaimed Saharawi government for Western Sahara. France, during most of its occupation of Algeria, saw little reason to create an exact border with Morocco since they controlled both territories and, in any case, the areas surrounding the border were largely unpopulated. After the French took over Morocco in 1912, they administered the region surrounding the city of Tindouf from Agadir in western Morocco. In 1952, when it was becoming apparent that Morocco would soon achieve independence, the French returned the administration of this region to Algeria. Moroccans wanted the area back, but the Algerians at this point were in a revolutionary war. The Algerians had promised Morocco that all its border disputes would be settled after they became independent. The Moroccans then gladly supported the Algerian troops by providing aid. However, after independence, Algeria declared that the boundary that was set by the French was final and non-negotiable. The French set the Tindouf region under Algerian administration. This produced further resentment between the countries of Algeria and Morocco, and it would eventually help the Saharawi cause10.
Phosphate Mines in Western Sahara
Many outsiders believe that the phosphates found in the Saharawi regions are the main reason that Morocco is campaigning for conquest of Western Sahara. This is, however, most likely to be untrue. The phosphates may fuel the idea of Greater Morocco, but it is not the main cause of Moroccan policies. There was a considerable time-lag between Morocco's assertion of its claims in Western Sahara and the finding of phosphates in the territory.
Morocco Steps In
The Moroccans claim that, historically, the region belonged to them and that the view of the people was irrelevant. Western Sahara was but a part of the territory that Morocco wanted to control because of its 'historical claims'. Earlier, it had claimed the region of Tarfaya and Ifni. There was never any question of a referendum or self-determination there, so Morocco did not expect such issues to arise in Western Sahara. Soon after the Spanish departed from the region in 1976, Morocco moved into Western Sahara, mainly into Saguia El-Hamra and the northern parts of Rio De Oro11.
Another stumbling block in the peace process was Mauritania, which wasn't so adamant about stopping the Saharawis from gaining independence. Mauritania, in fact, has simultaneously maintained many conflicting polices about the region. In relation to its neighbours, Mauritania had a weak national power. From the 1950s onwards, it shifted on its Western Saharan policy many times. Unlike the Moroccans, the Mauritanians lacked a strong national unity over the issue of Western Sahara. Mauritania has an area that is three times as big as New Mexico, of which three-quarters is a desert. It is a country that is large, underpopulated (only two million), and poor. Before the French colonised the area, there was no Mauritanian state, and therefore no centralised government.
The Mauritanians were actually apprised of the Moroccan concept of Greater Morocco. During the 1950s, as the people of the country were uniting to obtain independence, they were aware that the Moroccans included all of Mauritania in their 'historical' claims. These assertions received much support from both inside Mauritania and internationally among the various Arab countries. Indeed, Hurma Ould Babana, the founder of the Mauritanian political movement, urged the members of his party to support union with Morocco. He argued that Mauritania's semi-Arab-Berber populations would be protected from those of a black ethnicity within the country. Largely to counter the threat of Greater Morocco, the idea of Greater Mauritania emerged in the 1950s. In July 1957, the future President of the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, Mokhtar Ould Daddah, declared that he and his country would regard the Saharawis as 'brethren'. The Moroccans claimed the territory of Western Sahara based upon the political allegiances that the tribal leaders paid to the Almoravid, the 11th-Century Mauritanian dynasty. The Mauritanians' assertion to the land was based upon shared ethnicity between the Saharawis and the Mauritanians12.
Certain members of the international community had not accepted the Mauritanian independence that occurred in 1960. Most of the Arab states, the Soviet Union and some African countries initially supported Morocco's claims upon Mauritania. However, most of Africa and virtually all Western countries - especially France - backed the new Mauritanian state. But by 1969, because of the shifting mentality about 'Greater Morocco', Morocco at last officially recognised the Mauritanians' freedom. This acceptance decreased the push for Greater Mauritania. Nevertheless, the Mauritanian government was still concerned about Moroccan imperialist plans. In order to protect itself from these, it wished for a buffer area between itself and Morocco. The Mauritanians saw Western Sahara as a perfect shield that could protect them. This Saharan preference led to the frequent ambiguities in Mauritanian-Saharan policies. At certain times, Mauritania supported an independent Saharawi nation as a cushion between itself and Morocco. Alternatively, the country, also being wary of Saharan power, supported a Mauritanian-run Western Sahara as their protection. The Ould Daddah government then came up with a compromise policy with Spain and Morocco. This declared that Mauritania was prepared to divide the Western Saharan region with Morocco13.
The Mauritanian government was afraid that it would be left out of a Spanish-Moroccan or Moroccan-Algerian arrangement to liberate Western Sahara. As the Moroccan campaign to take over the region gained momentum, Ould Daddah faced the prospect of an irreversible, powerful Morocco against Mauritania's long, weak and pathetically defended north-western front. Rather than oppose the Moroccans, the Mauritanian leader decided to join them. Spain held a secret meeting with Morocco and Mauritania. It was noticed, however, that Western Sahara itself was not invited. Spain declared that, after leaving, it would split the region into two. The northern regions were left to Morocco and all that remained in the south to Mauritania. By this agreement Morocco and Mauritania permitted Spain to keep a minor interest in the phosphate mining operations. The Moroccan military then moved from the north, while their Mauritanian counterparts did likewise from the south. The annexation of Western Sahara was then legalised by an agreement signed in Rabat, which basically assigned two-thirds of the region to Morocco and the rest to Mauritania. The policy to agree with Morocco to partition with Western Sahara led Mauritania into a disastrous war that ended with the overthrow of Ould Daddah in a military coup, three weeks after the solstice in 197814.
From 1975 until the overthrow, the Mauritanian government's position was almost the same as that of Morocco. Their view was that Mauritania had a right to the southern portion of the Saharan region, known as Tiris al-Gharbiyya, because of internationally recognized negotiations that were unalterable. In order to support this, the Mauritanians cited the example of the 1976 vote that apparently portrayed the Saharan people as supporting the idea of joining with Mauritania and Morocco. Indeed, the Saharawi participation in the 1976 national elections led to eight native deputies from Tiris al-Gharbiyya becoming part of the Mauritanian national assembly. Nevertheless, a year after the coup, the Mauritanians declared a ceasefire with Western Sahara and withdrew its forces from the region15.
The Initial Algerian Perspectives
Algeria, situated north-east of Mauritania, was another power that showed interest in Western Sahara. The Algerians did not care whether Western Sahara was independent or under the control of Algeria, as long as Morocco was not controlling it. Algeria had taken a neutral socialistic stance during the Cold War. At the same time, Morocco had taken the pro-US capitalistic view. This had increased the enmity between the two regions. Algeria wanted either an ally or itself along the Atlantic coast. It also was looking forward to cutting off Morocco from the rest of Africa16. Algeria spent most of its resources in supporting the Saharawis' move towards the independence. Indeed, it even provided a safe haven near the city of Tindouf.
Polisario and their So-Called Independence
On 27 February, 1976 (the day after the Spanish officially withdrew), after receiving months of financial and material support from Algeria, Libya and Cuba, the Polisario Front finally declared the region independent. It was given the name Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic or SADR. However, these circumstances only lasted for six weeks.
Morocco and Mauritania invaded the 'independent' country on 14 March. The Polisario began focusing on liberating the region from these new forces after the departure of Spain. At first, it tried to hold certain Saharawi towns that were supposed to be proven as key points. The Polisario Front, however, was greatly outnumbered and overwhelmed by the Moroccan control of airways that led to sporadic bombardment. At this point, Polisario, with 60,000 Saharawis, sought refuge in southern Algeria, near the city of Tindouf. This caused further difficulties with Algerian and Moroccan relations. Polisario was not well-suited to conventional warfare, so the group switched to guerrilla tactics. They performed hit-and-runs and used a variety of methods to confuse their enemies.
Their First Target
First, Polisario focused on the weaker of the two invading countries: Mauritania. It arranged for a column of guerillas to cross the 1500km of desert dividing the region to shell Nouakchott, the Mauritanian capital within the mainland territory. Seeing the dramatic escalation in the cost of maintaining the war, Mauritania finally relinquished its claims in the southern portions of the former SADR and signed a peace treaty with Polisario at Algiers, the capital of Algeria, in late August, 197917.
A Bigger Enemy: Morocco and its Support
This, however, did not prove to be that great a victory because soon after Mauritania's withdrawal, Morocco came in their wake and took over the land that Mauritania had left. This left Polisario with only one enemy who was much more powerful and tactical. Morocco also had the backing of the United States and most other western countries because of its support of their programmes and ideals during the Cold War. Morocco supplied phosphates to the United States and they in turn tried to keep Morocco happy. Since Morocco was a former French colony, it also got support from France. But even with the aid of these two powerful allies, Morocco began feeling the strain of financing the war. This was largely because it now had to defend both the borders of Western Sahara and mainland Morocco.
A Solution: The Wall
In order to offset the intensity of the rebel fighters, Morocco started building a wall that was supposed to be 3,300km long. This would run from the Morocco-Algerian border, south along the Saharawi boundary with Mauritania and westward towards the coast just north of the Mauritanian border. The sand wall was eventually completed in April, 1987. It was very hi-tech: studded with mines and electronic sensors and defended every so often with a sentry post. The wall greatly reduced the cost to Morocco and aided their cause. It not only threw the Polisario outside of the country but also protected Moroccan interests from Mauritania and Algeria. It also put the city of Bou Craa, the major phosphate mine, within Moroccan controlled territory. As Morocco started improving their condition militarily, political relations elsewhere had begun to complicate the picture18.
The OAU: Organisation for African Unity
The OAU had been monitoring the Western Saharan situation and in 1975 had started a discussion that would dominate its main fora for the next decade or so. In 1979, the OAU summit in Liberia called for a Moroccan-Polisario ceasefire and a general and free referendum in the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic. The OAU established a sub-committee to oversee the issue which would work towards resolving the situation in co-operation with the United Nations. By 1980, a majority of OAU members had recognised the SADR, Polisario's exiled state, as a government for an independent Western Sahara. Tensions within the organisation reached breaking point when some Southern African states proposed the SADR become an official member of the OAU. At the raising of this subject, 19 pro-Western members of the organisation - including Morocco - walked out and boycotted the upcoming summit of 1982. Kaddhafi19, the Libyan leader, signed a treaty with Morocco that would create a 'union' between Morocco and Libya. This required Libya to withdraw support from Polisario, which left Algeria as the sole African material supporter for the group. However, in the following year, the SADR won a seat in the Organisation for African Unity. Morocco resigned from the OAU in protest against the appointment. The OAU then adopted a resolution that became a basis for a UN Peace Plan that called for 'self-determination' for the Saharawi people20.
Waning of the Military Might
In 1986, the Israeli Prime Minister, Shimon Peres, made a visit to Morocco. This enraged Kaddhafi who then severed his ties with the country and resumed his support for the Polisario Front. With this additional backing, fighting recommenced in early 1987 and continued into the spring. Morocco had then completed the final section of its defensive wall. With this new measure against it, the Polisario's military activities began to wane. However, the SADR won scores of small political victories against Morocco within the international community. In April, 1987 the Polisario government was invited to address a session of the Palestine National Council, held in Algeria. Again, Morocco walked out of the meeting in protest.
Improvements in Morocco-Algerian Relations
King Fahd of Saudi Arabia then began a bout of personal diplomacy to improve Moroccan-Algerian relations. These progressed with the first face-to-face meeting of King Hassan and the Algerian President Benjadid in many years. Further advancements were made in the relationship between the two countries because of the circumstances that surrounded the Maghreb nations at the time. Morocco was facing a military success; Algeria was facing economic troubles and agriculture was being threatened by the worst plague of locusts in 30 years. In mid-1988, Morocco and Algeria resumed diplomatic ties.
Change in Algerian Perspectives
At this point, Algeria began pressuring Polisario to quickly reach a peaceful settlement to the conflict. It seemed that the new Algerian government was hoping that the referendum would legitimise Moroccan control of the region at the expense of Polisario. Morocco and Polisario finally began talking. Morocco then repeated its support for the referendum on Western Sahara self-determination, as long as its demands were met21.
The UN: United Nations and Moroccan Tactics
After Morocco's resignation from the OAU, the United Nations became more active with the issue of Western Sahara. It passed a total of six resolutions in 1973, of which the last two affirmed the right of the Saharawis to independence. In July, 1985, the Secretary General, Perez de Cuellar, paid a visit to Morocco. Moroccans refused to talk to Polisario face-to-face. In October, King Hassan declared a unilateral ceasefire, and his willingness for the UN to set up and supervise any referenda that would define Western Sahara's future. Polisario then put in a proposal to the UN administration for direct UN control over the territory with the support of the UN African Security Force, after the outcome of the UN-supervised referendum. King Hassan stated that this could only take place after an electoral register was compiled. Polisario demanded the removal of the Moroccan forces and the 100,000 Moroccan settlers (who had come during the 'Green March'22), before any referendum would take place23. Morocco declared that the settlers should be allowed to vote since they were citizens of the region. It also stated that the Saharawi refugees that were located in Tindouf should not vote since they did not live in the country. In other words, Morocco agreed to the referendum so long as the results were favourable to it24.
Marrack Goulding was one of the officials at the UN who was assigned to the Western Saharan case. In his memoirs, he alleges in great detail how the entire UN team that got involved in the region would eventually be bought by the Moroccan government. James Baker was a delegate who served as a mediator on the issue. However, Mr Baker was a former US Foreign Minister and was therefore favourable to Morocco from the start. Perez de Cuellar, the original leader of the Western Saharan Task Force, was another who is alleged to have been bribed25.
The territory has long been in conflict. After throwing off the Spanish, the Saharawis had then to face Mauritania and Morocco. Then, when they finally won their battle against Mauritania, the Moroccans became stronger. Today, they are not allowed within their own country and are refugees in other states. The possibility of resurgence of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic seems bleak. Morocco will not allow the referendum to begin until it is certain that it will win. (It controls the territory until the elections, in any case.) A military victory looks highly improbable due to the hi-tech wall that has been erected. It is a great sadness that the natives of Western Sahara have had to endure this conflict for so long.
The following is a summary of events26.
|1000 BC||The Berbers of the Moroccan mountains begin to migrate into the Western Sahara.|
|1110 AD||Spain27 is united under the Almoravids' Rule.|
|End of 15th/16th Century||The Spaniards send their first raiders to the coast of Western Sahara.|
|1884||The major imperialistic European Empires gather at the Berlin Conference to divide Africa. The Spanish name Western Sahara.|
|November, 1884||The Spanish army attacks and occupies Villa Cisneros (now known as Dajhla).|
|December, 1884||By royal decree, the Spanish government announces that it has every intention to take possession of Western Sahara.|
|27 November, 1912||The Spanish and the French gather together to demarcate the borders between Morocco and the Western Sahara.|
|1923 - 1934||The Saharawis bloodily resist the Spanish and French armies.|
|1934||Final 'pacification' of the interior of Western Sahara.|
|14 December, 1960||The United Nations declares a resolution granting independence to colonialised countries. Western Sahara is declared a 'Spanish province'.|
|June, 1966||Both Morocco and Mauritania support the right of Western Saharan people to self-determination and independence at a UN meeting.|
|October - November, 1966||The OAU Council adopts its first resolution on Western Sahara, calling for independence.|
|10 May, 1973||Foundation of the Polisario Front, an independence movement from Western Sahara.|
|16 July, 1974||King Hassan launches a major diplomatic campaign to lobby for support for a Moroccan claim.|
|20 August, 1974||Hassan will not accept a referendum that allows Western Sahara to be free. He threatens to go to war.|
|12 - 19 May, 1975||A visiting UN mission tours the region and talks to the locals. They report that the inhabitants want freedom and reject the claims of Morocco.|
|31 October, 1975||The Moroccan army crosses the Sahara border, clashing with Polisario as it tries to occupy northern cities.|
|6 November, 1975||King Hassan initiates the 'Green March' and orders 350,000 volunteers to cross into the territory.|
|November - February, 1975||Saharawi refugees begin leaving cities. They eventually arrive in Tindouf, Algeria.|
|11 - 20 December, 1975||Moroccans and Mauritanians occupy key cities.|
|26 February, 1976||Spain officially terminates its control in Western Sahara.|
|27 February, 1976||The Polisario Front declares independence and renames the country: Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR)|
|14 April, 1976||Morocco and Mauritania partition Western Sahara.|
|8 June - 12 July, 1976||Polisario focuses attacks on Mauritania.|
|12 July, 1978||Polisario declares a ceasefire in Mauritanian territory.|
|5 August, 1979||Mauritania renounces its claims on Western Sahara.|
|14 August, 1979||Morocco annexes the south after the Mauritanians leave.|
|1981||Morocco begins building the hi-tech wall.|
|1982||OAU admits the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic as a fully-fledged member.|
|1988||Morocco and Polisario accept UN peace plan28.|
|1991||The ceasefire begins, monitored by the United Nations.|
|1991 - 92||Second 'Green March': Morocco sends thousands of settlers to the territory in an attempt to block the referendum process by forcing the UN to accept them as voters.|
|1994||Start of processing voters for identification, later stopped by Morocco.|
|1996||UN suspends registration of voters, blaming both sides for problems.|
|1999||The first voting registers are published, with more than 86,000 voters listed29.|
|2001||Referendum is delayed for the twelfth time.|
- Damis, John. Conflict in Northwest Africa: The Western Sahara Dispute. Stanford: Hoover Press, 1983.
- Durch, William J. The Evolution of UN Peacekeeping. New York: Henry L. Stimson Center, 1992.
- Goulding, Marrack. Peacemonger. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2002.
- Mercer, John. Spanish Sahara. Chatham, GB: W & J Mackay Ltd, 1976.
- Ngube, Alfred. Western Sahara Online: The Country, The People and The History. 28 February, 2004.
- Price, David Lynn. 63: The Washington Papers. The Western Sahara. California: Sage Publications, 1979.
- United States. Ninety-Sixth Congress. House of Representatives. Subcommittees on Africa and on International Organisations of the Committee on Foreign Affairs. U.S. Policy and The Conflict in the Western Sahara (First Session). Washington: GPO, 1979.
- United States. Ninety-Sixth Congress. House of Representatives. Subcommittees on Africa of the Committee on Foreign Affairs. Current Situation in the Western Sahara – 1980 (Second Session). Washington: GPO, 1981.
- 'Western Sahara'. CIA World Factbook – 2003. 18 December, 2003.
- Terry, Prof. Janice. Algeria after Independence and Western Sahara. Class lecture. History 342. Eastern Michigan University, Ypsilanti, Mi. 6 April, 2004.
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