In the far west of the continent of Africa, on the Atlantic coast of the Sahara, lies an hotbed of conflict and unease. A legacy of the colonial days, this territory has been fought over for six decades.
Ever since Spain gave up control of the territory, then known as “Spanish Sahara” in 1975, the territory has been in dispute. For now, the de facto reality of the area is that it has been annexed by both Morocco and Mauritania.
Morocco considers Western Sahara as its territory due to its historical connections. The International Court of Justice recognized this history, but specified that it isn’t sufficient for Morocco to claim ownership of the territory.
The United Nations, with the force of international law in support, does not recognize the annexation: all such land grabs are expressly illegal. But there is no consensus on who does govern this vast territory, either. Ever since the Spaniards left, it has been an open question.
Morocco continues to insist on its right to defend its territorial integrity and to claim sovereignty over Western Sahara. But what is the truth of these people, and this territory?
A Spanish Colony, and an African One
The Western Sahara was first colonized by Spain in 1884, one of the last territories claimed by the Spanish Empire. Ownership by Spain was recognized at the Berlin conference, where the powers of Europe divided Africa between themselves.
A series of Spanish outposts were formed along this new territory in the years that followed, as Spain took over the area and established trade routes back to Europe. However nobody had checked with the locals whether they were amenable to this, and, as it turned out, they were not.
The people of this territory continued to resist colonization with a series of uprisings which lasted for decades. There is good reason to view this territory as never completely controlled by Spain, and certainly generations of nomadic Moorish leaders resisted the unwelcome colonizer.
The situation only became more complex in 1956, when neighboring Morocco gained her own independence in 1956. Morocco, you see, felt the territory of Western Sahara was hers as well.
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There is an argument that Morocco was acting in good faith here, as after all the boundaries of these territories had never been rigidly defined before. But for most observers it seemed that these territorial claims had crossed the line and become effectively a land grab.
And in 1976, the year after Spain left Morocco and Mauritania decided to become colonizers themselves and divided up the territory amongst themselves. In international law today, neither has sovereignty over Western Sahara.
An alternative was presented. In 1976, the Polisario Front, an UN-recognized representation of the Sahrawi people native to the area, announced that the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) had been established and would be henceforth considered its own independent country.
In truth the Polisario Front had resisted Morocco’s attempts to annex the territory before Spain had even left. But the removal of the European power emboldened Morocco, the annexation was claimed, and here we are. The refusal of many countries to recognize the SADR only exacerbates the problem.
Political Gridlock and an Illegal Occupation
In 1979, Mauritania signed a peace treaty with the Polisario Front and withdrew from all of the lands they occupied in Western Sahara. Morocco then promptly laid claim to the Mauritanian part of the territory, as well.
And Morocco was not averse to using might to back up her claims. To ensure that there wouldn’t be any attacks, Morocco’s armed forces built a mined border and patrolled the 2700 km (1,670 mile) area. It is today considered one of the largest military infrastructures in the world.
By the time a cease-fire was called, Morocco already occupied around two-thirds of Western Sahara, along with the coastal area on the Atlantic Ocean. The United Nations made a promise that a referendum will be provided on the territory and options for independence, integration and autonomy. The referendum was supposed to be conducted or organized by MINURSO, but it didn’t take place.
The planned referendum has been delayed over time due to the dispute between Polisario Front and Morocco on who is more eligible to vote on the status of the territory.
This has all lead to immense dissatisfaction among the people of Western Sahara, as the political gridlock and measures weren’t helpful at all. Therefore, the Polisario Front again decided to return to an active resistance of the annexation with what is known as the Guerguerat incident, an attack on Moroccan positions in the Western Sahara, in 2020.
The Polisario Front is quite aware that this is not going to be enough however, given Morocco’s enormous military advantage, and aims to pressure the political system to change its course. It is about bringing international attention back to the dispute between Morocco and Western Sahara and getting a solution for this forgotten cause.
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Morocco is constantly attempting to impede the whole referendum situation and is also in the meantime exploiting the natural resources of the territory. The part of Western Sahara occupied by the Moroccans has some of the largest phosphate reserves in the world.
The state affairs became more complicated when, perhaps unhelpfully, former US President Donald Trump showed his unilateral recognition of Morocco’s claim. It was a complete violation of international law and all of the UN resolutions that stated the rights of Western Sahara toward self-determination. Current President Joe Biden still has to reverse the statements made by the former President, but for now this has muddied the waters considerably.
Morocco has denied the independence calls of the people of Western Sahara, but agreed to give them autonomy back in 2007. But, the Polisario Front wasn’t convinced of the plan and doubted the autonomy Morocco intended to provide. Arguing that they didn’t need Morocco’s permission, they continued to demand full independence.
Meanwhile, the politics of the region continued to drift in several opposing directions. The African Union, with SADR as a founding member, backed the rights of Sahrawis for self-determination.
This was in part prompted by Donald Trump’s ill-advised move, and the African Union responed by confirming the right of Western Sahara to self-determination. They also urged decolonization of the territory and requested Morocco to respect the colonial borders.
Some urged the UN Security Council to take over the responsibilities and use necessary measures to solve the Western Sahara and Morocco conflict. Others think that Western Sahara should be declared a non-self-governing territory, and Morocco wants to establish rights over it.
And the clock is ticking. If the UN doesn’t get involved, soon Morocco will completely occupy Western Sahara, and the right to self-determination will be lost for Sahrawis.
Western Sahara is the last territory of Africa that has not been decolonialized, and it should be a matter of importance for the United Nations. Without the right step, the North African region will experience more turmoil and destabilization.
By Bipin Dimri