Western Sahara

Western Sahara is a territory of 266,000 km2 in north-west Africa, bordered by the Moroccan province of Tarfaya to the north, Algeria to the northeast, Mauritania to the east and south, while its west coast overlooks the Atlantic. A non-autonomous territory according to the UN, this former Spanish colony has still not found a definitive legal status since the Spanish’s departure in 1976. The territory is claimed by both Morocco and the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), proclaimed by the Polisario Front in 1976. This is a movement whose objective is the total independence of Western Sahara, a sustained claim by Algeria. Having become a global issue illustrating the rivalry between Morocco and Algeria, the Saharan dossier is still blocking the construction of the Arab Maghreb Union (UMA). The Polisario is based on an “overwhelming consensus among the Sahrawis living on the territory in favor of independence and in opposition to integration with any neighboring country”, as described in a UN report in 19754. The Morocco bases its claim on the Madrid agreements and on the basis of allegiance ties between the Sahrawi tribes and the sultans of Morocco. Since the 1991 ceasefire, Morocco controls and administers approximately 80% of the territory, while the Polisario Front controls 20% left by Morocco behind a long seat belt, the “Moroccan wall” that has become today the de facto border. The United Nations Mission for the Organization of a Referendum in Western Sahara patrols the entire territory.

Western Sahara’s history

Precolonial period

In 1048, Berber Sanhadjas from the west of the Sahara (present-day Mauritania) came together under the impulse of a Malikite preacher, Abdellah ben Yassin and a local chief and founded the Almoravid movement. They conquer and unify the tribes of Western Sahara between 1042 and 1052, then seize present-day Morocco (then broken up into small emirates following the fall of the Cherifian empire of the Idrissides) and a large part of the peninsula Iberian (Al-Andalus). The Almoravids have for capital and base Marrakech. When they fell to the Almohads (1147), the territory lost its organization. From 1514, with the advent of the Moroccan Saadian dynasty, the Moroccan ascendancy became effective over Western Sahara. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the Portuguese and the Spanish installed forts on the coast, but were driven out after a few decades.

Spanish Sahara

In 1884 Spain placed this territory under its protectorate; the takeover was confirmed by the Berlin conference of 1884-1885. It established trading posts and a military presence. The borders are not clearly defined, until the treaties between France and Spain, dating from the beginning of the 20th century (Paris Treaty of 1900, Madrid Convention of 1912 which followed the Treaty of Fez establishing a French protectorate) . Local tribes fight against colonial power with the help of the Moroccan sultan. This support ceases when the latter is submitted to a Franco-Spanish protectorate in 1912. The Spanish Sahara is created from the territories of Río de Oro and Seguia el-Hamra in 1924. It is administered jointly with the territory of Cap Juby (Tarfaya), separately from Moroccan territories under Spanish protectorate. Spain reorganized these territories in Spanish West Africa (1946-1958), then in Spanish Sahara. Between October 1957 and April 1958, Morocco following the independence of its northern part in 1956, tried to liberate Ifni, Tarfaya and the Western Sahara from the Spanish occupation, by supporting the National Liberation Army of southern Morocco , made up of Moroccan irregulars and Saharawi tribes. At the end of the Ifni war, Morocco recovers some territories (Cape Juby, also designated as the Tarfaya region, as well as most of the territory of Ifni, except Ifni itself). However, the joint Franco-Spanish operation, known in French as Operation “Swab”, defeats the Moroccan irregulars of the National Liberation Army in Western Sahara, forcing them to evacuate the cities of Edchera, Tafurdat and Es-Semara, which ‘they controlled.

In 1963, Morocco inscribed this territory on the list of non-autonomous territories of the United Nations. The latter then tried, in dispersed order to convince Spain to decolonize this territory as well as Cap Juby and the enclave of Ifni, and to negotiate for this with Morocco. Resolution 2072 of December 17, 1965, calling for decolonization, was thus voted despite the opposition of Spain and Portugal and the abstention of France, the United Kingdom, the United States and South Africa. South. To this lack of consensus of an important part of the great powers is added the open conflict between Algeria and Morocco, which culminates in the War of the Sands of 1963. In addition, Morocco and Mauritania, not recognized by that there (certain elements, starting with Allal El Fassi, representative of the right wing of the Istiqlal Party and minister between 1961 and 1963, hoping to form a Greater Morocco which would include the latter), also have opposing land claims on this territory. As a result, the three neighbors of Western Sahara fail to create a common front against Spain, which, with concessions (the decolonization of Ifni in 1969, in accordance with UN resolution 2072), thus perpetuates its domination until the death of Franco, in 1975. The settlement of the Algerian-Moroccan conflict and the recognition of Mauritania by Morocco in 1969 made it possible to unify the anti-Spanish front. At the same time, several local groups embark on armed resistance helped by the Moroccan national liberation army resulting from the popular Moroccan struggle against the Spanish-French occupation of Morocco.

Western Sahara War

In 1975, an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice confirmed the existence of historical links between the populations of Western Sahara and Morocco, as well as the whole of Mauritania: “The elements and information brought to the attention of the Court show the existence, at the time of Spanish colonization, of legal allegiance between the Sultan of Morocco and some of the tribes living on the territory of Western Sahara. They also show the existence of rights, including certain rights relating to land, which constituted legal links between the Mauritanian entity, as the Court understands it, and the territory of Western Sahara. ” However, the opinion concludes that they are not such as to prevent a referendum on self-determination, by rendering the concept of terra nullius inapplicable. In its opinion, the Court stated: “On the other hand, the Court concludes that the elements and information brought to its attention do not establish the existence of any link of territorial sovereignty between the territory of Western Sahara on the one hand, the Kingdom of Morocco or the whole of Mauritania “.

A few days after this notice, Hassan II, King of Morocco organized the green march (November 6, 1975) to mark the desire for Moroccan sovereignty over this territory. This led Spain to sign the Madrid agreements with Morocco and Mauritania on November 14, 1975, to formalize the division of the territory. Morocco obtains two northern thirds, and Mauritania the southern third; Algeria and the Sahrawis are not consulted. The withdrawal of Spanish troops, decided shortly before Franco’s death, took place between 1975 and 1976. On February 27, 1976, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) was proclaimed by the Polisario Front in Bir Lahlou, the day after the departure of the last Spanish soldier from the territory. At the same time, the armed struggle of the Polisario Front attacks with lightning incursions the Moroccan and Mauritanian forces which it considers as new occupation forces. The battle of Amgala in 1976 between Moroccan and Algerian forces on the territory of Western Sahara shows the active support of Algeria to the Polisario. Between the end of 1975 and 1976, tens of thousands of Sahrawis left Western Sahara, fleeing the war towards the Tindouf refugee camps in Algeria, supervised by the Polisario. After the putsch in Mauritania which overthrew Moktar Ould Daddah in July 1978, the Polisario Front declared a unilateral cease-fire with Nouakchott. The cease-fire was approved by the United Nations and on August 10, 1979 a peace treaty was signed in which Mauritania ceded its part of the Sahara to the Polisario Front. On August 14, 1979, Morocco announced the annexation of the former Mauritanian territory.

In the 1980s, Morocco erected a defense wall that divided the territory in two, the 20% east of the wall being now under the control of the Polisario Front6. An ambush war with the Polisario Front ended in 1991 following a cease-fire promoted by mediation by the United Nations; a referendum organized by the United Nations on the final status has been postponed several times.

Western Sahara’s politics

Moroccan claims

Western Sahara is considered by Morocco to be part of its southern provinces (the surface of Western Sahara being 266,000 km2 and that of the Southern provinces is 416,474 km2, Western Sahara represents approximately 64% of the southern provinces) . This power is claimed as historic and legal by Morocco over this part of the Sahara. Morocco rejects the conclusions of the advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice of 1975: according to him, the court made an error of interpretation by trying to use a Western legal framework. The ties of allegiance expressed, in pre-colonial periods, by Saharawi chiefs would constitute the Moroccan nation as well as the membership of Western Sahara in Morocco, and there would be no other historical source of sovereignty. For Rabat, the court cannot recognize the links which exist between the monarchy and the Sahrawis, and reject the sovereignty of Morocco. The question of Western Sahara is also a major factor of political stability in Morocco: according to the authorities, the attachment of the territory is the subject of a national consensus, and a government which would act against this consensus would immediately come up against strong hostility from the population. Paris and Washington are moreover very sensitive to this argument of stability. A Moroccan official declares: “It is not only the king who dictates his decision (on Western Sahara), it is also the expression of a very deep popular sentiment. No Moroccan politician can hesitate on the question. It is a real, unbreakable national consensus. No government would survive the questioning of this principle. Its a question of life or death “.

Far from considering the Polisario Front as an independent actor, Morocco considers that it is only the tool of Algeria (sometimes referring to it by the term “Algérisario”). Also according to Rabat, without the diplomatic, financial, military and logistical help from Algeria, there would be no Sahrawi question. In addition according to the monarchy, Algiers would use the Polisario to weaken its regional rival, to diversion on questions relating to its borders, to offer access to the Atlantic Ocean via a Saharawi State at its service and finally to exploit resources natural resources of Western Sahara. More recently, Moroccans have focused on a new risk. To see a new state evolve in an unstable context marked by religious jihadism. Morocco believes, moreover, that there are links between the jihadists of AQIM and the Sahrawi chiefs. After informal contacts, Morocco agreed to deal directly and officially with the Polisario in 2007 as one of the protagonists of the conflict. Despite this, nearly 8,000 Sahrawis previously installed in the Tindouf refugee camps have joined Morocco, either from the Canary Islands (Spain) or through Mauritania. Among them, Polisario executives. In 2006, Morocco decided to give what it considers as its territory internal autonomy, and entrusted to the Royal Advisory Council for Saharan Affairs (CORCAS) the study of possible statutes of autonomy in the region. However, the Polisario refuses any solution which does not include a referendum on self-determination. Morocco advocates broad autonomy within the framework of the sovereignty of the Alawite kingdom to resolve the conflict in Western Sahara. The autonomy proposal for Western Sahara is, according to Rabat, a “modernist, democratic and credible” approach, taking into account the political process that the Cherifian kingdom has experienced in recent years. This project is supported by several countries such as the United States, France and Spain. European justice having canceled an agricultural agreement with Morocco on the grounds that it also applies to Western Sahara, Morocco announced Thursday, February 25, 2016 the freezing of its contacts with the European institutions.

Moroccan administrative division

According to the Moroccan administrative division, three regions are partially or entirely part of the territory of Western Sahara: Guelmim-Es-Semara (partially) Laâyoune-Boujdour-Sakia el Hamra (most of the region) Dakhla-Oued Ed-Dahab (in full) This regional division is not internationally recognized, and the Moroccan regions also cover the territory beyond the Moroccan wall, which is under the effective control of the Polisario Front.

Polisario claims

For the Polisario Front, the conflict in Western Sahara is above all a question of peoples’ self-determination. He has always affirmed that his one and only request is the application of international law and in particular the right to self-determination of peoples. In addition, the UN has repeatedly stated that resolution 1514 (XV) applies to Western Sahara. According to Khalil Ahmed, human rights observer for the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic: “The referendum is a recognized means of resolving conflicts related to decolonization. If the Sahrawis decide to be Moroccan, we will respect their decision, but only a referendum of self-determination can solve the problem”.

This solution having also been accepted by Morocco, the Polisario sees no reason to change its position. He considers, moreover, that Morocco, realizing that this would harm its interests, has broken its word by not organizing a referendum. In addition, the invocation of so-called historic rights by Morocco would only be a cover for its ultra-nationalist ambitions. Moroccan claims should therefore be placed in a broader context, that of Greater Morocco claimed by the Istiqlal Party in the 1950s and taken up by Mohammed V and his successors. Still according to Khalil Ahmed: “This ideology transforms the Cherifian Kingdom into an expansionist state which has successively claimed rights over Mauritania, western Algeria, Ceuta and Melilla and even part of Mali in addition to Western Sahara. If all countries claimed territories they had at some point in history, it would be everyone’s war against everyone. It is a very particular vision of history. ” For the Polisario, Rabat uses its nationalist ideology mainly for internal political reasons, in order to create a union around the king while maintaining a feeling of encirclement and fear. By installing such an environment, the Moroccan regime would offer itself the possibility of acting in a repressive manner and would remove criticism by likening it to an attempt to break the nation. The Polisario’s criticism of the Moroccan position consists in highlighting its “contradictory and unstable” nature, by forcing it to accept one day what it refuses for the simple purpose of saving time. A Polisario member declares, moreover: “Morocco was one of the supporters of the referendum until it broke its word, then it blocked the attempts to define an electorate, to finally reject the very idea of ​​a referendum. ”

Algerian position

After the withdrawal from Spain and the annexation by Morocco and Mauritania, Algeria supports the principle of self-determination of the peoples and welcomes a majority of Sahrawi refugees. It is for the implementation of resolutions 1754 (2007), 1783 (2007), 1813 (2008), 1871 (2009), 1920 (2010), 1979 (2011), 2044 (2012) and 2099 (2013) the UN concerning the organization of a referendum of the Saharawi people under the auspices of the UN. Algeria supports Western Sahara in the name of the rights of peoples to self-determination and the inviolability of colonial borders. Its official position is “that it has no territorial claims on Western Sahara, that it is not involved in the conflict between the SADR and the kingdom of Morocco, and that its support for the Sahrawi separatists is of its principles of aid to all the peoples who are fighting for the decolonization of their country around the world ”. Algeria reaffirms, with each media attack, that it is not concerned by the conflict and that it is content to support the resolutions of the UN. However, Mohammed VI persisted in his declarations: “the latest Security Council resolution puts particular emphasis on the regional dimension of this dispute and underlines the responsibility of Algeria as a party concerned by this litigation”. And this despite the fact that the UN has never considered Algeria as a party to the conflict. On the Algerian side, we consider that the Moroccan communication strategy aims to make believe that the claims come from elsewhere than Western Sahara. According to Algiers, by involving Algeria, Morocco creates the illusion that the Saharawi people adhere to its project.

Western Sahara’s economy

The main sources of income are pastoralism, fishing and phosphate mining, which account for more than 60% of exports. The phosphate reserves of Western Sahara which are concentrated around Boukraa are significant, so according to the USGS, Morocco (including Western Sahara) holds the second largest proven reserves of phosphate in the world, with 5,700 billion tonnes ( China: 6,600), and the largest potential reserves, with 21,000 billion tonnes (China: 13,000). However, the Boukraa mine represents only 7% to 8% of Morocco’s overall production and, according to figures from the International Fertilizer Development Center, 1.6% of its reserves. The Spanish are also said to have discovered deposits of iron ore. Despite the minimal rainfall, which did not allow sustainable agricultural production outside some oases where subsistence farming was practiced, greenhouse cultivation experienced a great development in the region of Dakhla increasing to more than 450 ha at the end of 2009 with a production of more than 31,000 tonnes of early vegetables which allows above-ground production with a high yield per hectare and a particular taste quality, this area will reach 1,000 ha by 2020 and the increase in production of these crops which should increase to 76,000 tonnes in 2013 and 116,000 tonnes in 2020. Trade and economic activity are controlled by Morocco. Moroccan energy companies signed oil exploration contracts off the coast in 2001, which angered the Polisario Front. In addition, two multinational oil companies, Total and Kerr-McGee, have obtained exploration licenses. The UN considered that these exploration and exploitation activities should also take into account the interests and the will of the Saharawi people. Otherwise “they would contravene the principles of international law applicable to activities affecting the mineral resources of non-self-governing territories”.

Western Sahara’s language

The most widely spoken language in Western Sahara is the Hassani Arabic, a Mākilian dialect with an important Berber substratum, also spoken in Mauritania, in the south of Morocco, and southwest of Algeria and in the north of Mali. There is also a significant presence of Berber speakers in the northern parts of the territory, especially among the Tekna. The darija is also present through a large community originating from other regions of Morocco, established on the territory for the past four decades. Generally, the inhabitants who were schooled under the Spanish colonization, before 1976, have notions of Spanish, or speak this language fluently, because schooling was compulsory between 1949 and 1975. However, many nomadic children were not schooled.