Western Sahara: Africa’s Last Colony

Go to Google, search for a map of the world, and take a look at north-western Africa. Wedged between Morocco and Mauritania on the Atlantic coastline, you’re likely to see a country labelled Western Sahara. This is peculiar, because if you travelled to that area and asked the locals where they are from, they are unlikely to reply with the name given to the territory on most western map editions. No, those hailing from Western Sahara are either citizens of Morocco, or the Sahrawi Democratic Arab Republic, depending on their political inclinations. This anomaly stems from a territorial dispute dating back to the 1970s, when Spain’s belated decolonisation of Africa led to conflict over who reigned sovereign in this part of the Sahara. Morocco claimed the territory by proxy as their ‘Southern Provinces’, while the native Sahrawis have resisted in a fight for self-determination. The struggle has defined north-west African politics for the past forty years, and yet is seldom documented in western media. The ambiguity with which the region is labelled on most world maps is symptomatic of the ambivalence in the west’s diplomatic approach, which has been defined by inconsistency with regards to the sovereign rights of peoples and criticism of human rights abuses.

North Africa

Western Sahara as it appears on most world maps, easily mistaken for an independent country.

Dispute over the Western Sahara region, which has a population of 500,000 and is larger than the UK, is largely a hangover of European colonialism in Africa. When Africa was arbitrarily divided between the European powers during the ‘Scramble for Africa’, Spain was granted sovereignty over a patch of desert set west of French Morocco. Spanish Sahara was home to the historic Sahrawi people, who through the brutality of Spain’s colonial administration became acutely aware of the importance of sovereignty and self-determination. When Spain’s languid grip on its colonial possession became known to the world, Spanish Sahara’s neighbours began to eye possession of the territory. Claimed by both Mauritania and Morocco, the world anticipated a division between the two nations. The rights of indigenous Sahrawis were not taken to account, as was often the case during the hurried decolonisation of Africa (see Biafra, Somaliland, and to an extent South Sudan). Provoked by the 1975 Madrid Accords, which sought to grant two thirds of Western Sahara to Morocco and the remainder to Mauritania, the Polisario Front was founded.

The Polisario Front demanded a right to Sahrawi self-determination, and declared the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic in former Spanish Sahara in 1976, sparking the Western Sahara War. Months earlier, 350,000 Moroccan citizens, escorted by 20,000 Moroccan troops, had entered Western Sahara as part of the Green March, announcing to the world the Moroccan intention to annex the territory. Quickly overran by the vastly more powerful Moroccan military, the Sahrawi campaign descended into guerrilla resistance. Morocco would eventually envelop 80% of Western Sahara, leaving Polisario with a sliver of inland desert, bordered by a heavily defended sand berm. That Mauritania sued for peace in 1979 is testament to the effectiveness of the guerrilla campaign, and has removed one of the SADR’s two main obstacles to achieving statehood. Sahrawi rebels have based themselves in exile in Tindouf, Algeria, and garnered a respectable amount of support from that country. A massive Moroccan offensive in the late 1980s led to a 1991 ceasefire, from which point the history of the region has been defined by failed western initiatives.

The ceasefire of 1991 led to international calls for a referendum in the territory regarding sovereignty. These calls stalled due to disputes over voter eligibility; Morocco was keen to avoid any voting demographic they felt would favour Sahrawi independence, while Sahrawis resisted any referendum which enfranchised large numbers of ethnic Moroccans. External designs on a peaceful solution culminated in the Baker Plans of 2001 and 2003, which called for a five-year period of Sahrawi autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty prior to an eventual independence referendum. The Baker Plans, named for UN Envoy to Western Sahara James Baker, failed due to Moroccan resistance despite unexpected co-operation from the Polisario Front. Post-Baker, a tightening of Moroccan relations with the EU and the United States has led to an incoherence and apathy in the west’s approach to Western Sahara.

In 2005, the EU signed a fisheries agreement with Morocco, permitting EU vessels to fish off Moroccan shores. This includes Western Sahara, a policy which some have claimed violates international law. In 2006 Morocco and the United States signed a Free Trade Agreement, and the kingdom forms a large export market for American and French arms. This web of economic alliances has left Western Sahara an inconvenient truth, as the Moroccan occupation undermines the hallmarks of liberalism, human rights, and self-determination which underpin the west’s worldview, particularly that of the EU. The EU is a prisoner of its Moroccan partnership, and as such has no concrete position on WS. Members of the bloc such as The Netherlands or Sweden may from time to time label WS an occupied territory (the latter such case hindered the opening of an IKEA store in Morocco), but the EU cannot decisively act owing to its dependence on Morocco for migration regulation and counter-terrorism. Moreover, Spain relies on a placid Morocco in order to maintain its African territories at Ceuta and Melilla. Perhaps most importantly however is the fact that with regards to North Africa, Morocco is a remarkably stable country, and one which is open to western trade and co-operation. A unanimous call for Sahrawi sovereignty is likely to lead to the loss of a major western ally in a turbulent region.

Morocco remains steadfast in its rejection of Sahrawi independence. In March 2016, following a Ban Ki-Moon visit to Sahrawi refugee camps in Algeria, the UN peacekeeping mission MINURSO (Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara, present since the 1991 ceasefire) was expelled in protest. Polisario have hinted at a return to conflict as their hopes of a diplomatic resolution wane. The position of the SADR seems fleeting though, as a Moroccan economic scheme has seen millions of dollars of investment pumped into Western Sahara, with the construction of roads and airports, implementation of agricultural and electrical programmes, and the encouragement of tourism legitimising the kingdom’s position in an international sense. This has been supported by an influx of Moroccan workers, who now vastly outnumber the native Sahrawis. As the EU and US renege on their ideological convictions for economic and political convenience, it seems inevitable that soon when one goes to Google and looks at a world map, that space which read Western Sahara will read Morocco.


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