Western Sahara: a much-disputed territory

Translated by Marine El Hajji

Western Sahara, a region rich in resources, is a territory on the northwest coast of the African continent. It was a Spanish protectorate until 1975. Since then, Western Sahara, declared a non-autonomous territory by the United Nations (UN), lies at the heart of many tensions.

Both Morocco and Mauritania are claiming sovereignty over Western Sahara. The Polisario Front, for its part, is fighting for the independence of Western Sahara and its population. It is an armed pro-independence movement, also known as Frelisario, constituted in 1973 to fight against the Spanish colonization and then to aim at achieving Western Sahara’s independence against the Moroccan and Mauritanian claims.

The Africa Cup of Nations (CAN) or Total Africa Cup of Nations took place from January 28th to February 7th, 2020. It was orchestrated by Morocco which decided to organize the event in Laâyoune, a city in the territory of Western Sahara. This initiative rekindled tensions in the region. Since the ceasefire established in 1991 between the belligerents, still no agreement has been reached and the situation seems frozen.

A Moroccan claim of sovereignty on the territory

Western Sahara was a Spanish protectorate from 1884 to 1975. Tensions surrounding the claims arose when the territory started to be decolonized. Indeed, in 1975, Spain withdrew from Western Sahara and considered holding a referendum for self-determination. Morocco objected to this since, like Mauritania, they claimed sovereignty over this territory. The Madrid Accords were signed on November 4th, 1975, dividing the former protectorate territory between Morocco and Mauritania after the withdrawal of Spain. In the same year, the International Court of Justice issued a verdict acknowledging the Saharan people’s right of self-determination, like the UN in 1965.

Even now, Morocco acts as if they hold actual sovereignty over this territory. This was particularly clear when, for instance, they organized the CAN in Laâyoune at the beginning of the year in 2020. During this sporting event, the South-African government forfeited to continue to respect the provisions of the African Union, which recognizes the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) proclaimed by the Polisario Front on February 27th, 1976, on the territory of Western Sahara whose capital is Laâyoune.

It was also clear on November 6th, 1975, during the Green March organized by Hassan II, the king of Morocco. During this peaceful march, 350,000 Moroccan left Morocco to settle in Western Sahara. The goal was to get the territory back, as Hassan II deemed it a part of his southern provinces. Not only putting forward historical and business arguments, the Moroccan King also invoked the need to preserve the stability of the area by exercising his sovereignty over Western Sahara.

More recently, in April 2020, the Moroccan government approved two bills extending its maritime boundaries over the territorial water of the Western Sahara – thus claiming its sovereignty over the region. These bills were rejected by the Polisario Front. Indeed, Western Sahara is endowed with a number of natural resources, in particular especially rich fishing waters on its coast, oil, phosphate and manganese reserves, iron ore mines, as well as agricultural resources.

Finally, during the war that ran from 1975 to 1991, Morocco did not hesitate to build a defense wall in Western Sahara territory. In 1980 sand walls, with a length of 155,343 miles (250,000 kilometers), were thus built and guarded by Moroccan soldiers to stop the Polisario Front’s raids.

The Moroccan claim of sovereignty over Western Sahara is not just martial, but also economical. As a matter of fact, in 2018, 53 % of Morocco’s financing regarding this area were meant for Western Sahara. It reflects a desire to integrate this territory on an economical level, just like any other of Morocco’s southern Provinces.

A silted-up conflict

Western Sahara has been on the United Nations list of Non-Self-Governing Territories since 1963. The Moroccan annexation of Western Sahara was not recognized by the international community. Nonetheless, official maps of Morocco do not hesitate to illustrate Morocco with the annexed part of Western Sahara. It is for instance the case for the maps in the French textbooks distributed in Morocco.

Moreover, global companies and new geopolitical actors also have an impact on the acknowledgment or not of Western Sahara. Indeed, the oil company Total was given a license to drill for oil in the territory of Western Sahara by Morocco, without the consent of the Saharan population. The company only stopped drilling in 2015. These actions make the resolution of this conflict all the more complicated.

The negotiations going on between the belligerents seem to have reached a standstill, despite the ceasefire established in 1991 by the UN, as well as the creation of the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO). This was the result of the 1971-1991 war between Morocco and Mauritania, and the Front Polisario. The latter had, and still has, the support of Algeria, the rival state to Morocco since both their independence. Algeria serves as a rear base for the Front and hosts the Saharan refugee civilian communities.

During the negotiations, Morocco demanded that the autonomy of Western Sahara be extended, but only as a part of its kingdom and under its sovereignty. On the other hand, the Polisario Front asked for a referendum on self-determination for the Saharan people, as planned by the UN in 1991. Several peace plans were set up in Geneva between the Polisario Front, Morocco, Algeria and Mauritania. It was a panel discussion whose objective was to restart the negotiations that had been interrupted since 2012. But no agreement was reached.

The SADR is still not recognized by the international States and institutions, except for the African Union (AU). Western Sahara integrated the AU in 1982, which triggered Morocco’s withdrawal in 1984 – but they reintegrated the Union in 2017. This could pave the way to new negotiations and allow for an agreement to be reached.

In conclusion, since 1991, the negotiations are still going on on the matter of Western Sahara, but it seems that no compromise has been concluded between the parties. The independence of Western Sahara seems but wishful thinking for the Saharan people. Many of them fled the territory to take refuge in Algeria, and some of them ended up staying there for their entire lives.


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