Western Sahara Explained

What if I told you that there has been a 50 year long, ongoing independence struggle that is located nowhere near Israel or Palestine? That this conflict has featured several international actors and has created an entire refugee crisis? You’ve probably never heard of this conflict, at least if you live in the United States. But in order to find it, look no further than Western Sahara, which you’ve probably never even considered aside from being the odd gray area on any data map.

    Not unlike many other conflicts, the Western Sahara conflict was born out of decolonization. In 1960, the United Nations passed UN resolution 1514 which sought to bring an end to the colonial period. This resolution was largely successful, and over the next 15 years, nearly all African colonies were removed from European control. However, there was one notable exception: Spanish Sahara, an extremely sparsely populated strip of land sandwiched between Morocco and Mauritania. This strip of land is also known as Western Sahara. In 1973, the Polisario front was formed - an armed group with the intention of liberating Western Sahara from Spanish control. By 1975, Spain had effectively lost control of the region, and facing international pressure from the United Nations, abandoned any attempt to retain Western Sahara.

    But the story was just getting started. Both Morocco and Mauritania claimed Western Sahara, and with Spanish forces departing the region, the time was optimal for both nations to make their respective moves. In November of 1975, King Hassan II sent 250,000 Moroccan civilians (escorted by 20,000 troops) marching into Western Sahara, with little reaction from either Spain or the Polisario. Thus, a few days later, the Madrid accords were signed between Spain, Mauritania, and Morocco, which decolonized Western Sahara and granted the northern ⅔ of the territory to Morocco and the remaining ⅓ to Mauritania. The Madrid Accords were met with outrage from the Polisario, as well as Algeria, who had backed the Polisario in order to gain an ally on the Atlantic coast.

    The fallout from the Madrid Accords led to war in 1975, as Polisario forces fought against both Morocco and Mauritania. Mauritania, being too weak and poor to hold onto its territory, abandoned its claim in 1979. However, Morocco far outclassed the Polisario in terms of firepower, and after 16 years of guerilla warfare, had most of Western Sahara under their control by 1991. Additionally, many of the Sahrawi people fled into Algeria, and the Polisario base of operations is actually located within an Algerian refugee camp. In 1991, a ceasefire was agreed to, in which it was proposed that the UN would hold a referendum in Western Sahara on whether the Saharawi people wanted independence or integration with Morocco. However, this referendum has not been held, due to disagreements on voter eligibility and other concerns.

    Ultimately, it is unlikely that a solution will be found in the near-term to the Western Sahara problem. The fact is that Western Sahara is of no concern to the rest of the world - it has no natural resources and a tiny population. Instead, it is likely that Western Sahara will remain like it is today - largely under Moroccan control.


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