Western Sahara: Disputed Land and Still a Grey-Zone to the International Community

A Saharawi girl living in refugee camps in the Algerian town of Tindouf poses for the camera. Picture: Gabriel Gómez, Flickr CC.

When looking at most maps, it is possible to spot a land just west of the Sahara desert, squeezed in between Mauritania, Algeria and Morocco. It says “Western Sahara” and lines are drawn to separate it from neighboring countries. Although, when looking north towards Morocco the line is often dashed, as if it is unclear what this line represents. With very little media coverage of this region, one might easily wonder what this mysterious land is and what its international status is. The search for answers reveals a complex story of colonialism, international politics, national interests and the desire for freedom of a people with no real national identity.

The story of Western Sahara, as we know it today, starts in 1884 when Spain colonized the territory under the name of Spanish Sahara. Borders throughout all of Africa were drawn at random by European leaders during the so-called Berlin conference of 1884-1885, as they split Africa and its resources like a cake between themselves. The borders of Spanish Sahara were drawn and have complicated the situation ever since. During the 20th century, the voice for decolonization grew louder throughout the world and more and more countries joined the choir demanding the liberation of colonized land. The increased awareness and demands for human rights put pressure on European countries to let go of their colonies and offer them the right of independence. Most African countries gained independence between 1945-1965, but there were exceptions, and one of them was Spanish Sahara. The refusal from Spain to leave the territory led to the creation of The Polisario Front in 1973, a politico-military organization led by the Saharawis, the indigenous nomadic people of the region, who claim they are the rightful owners of the land.

Not long after, Spain decided to withdraw from the region after pressure from the International Court of Justice who urged Spain to give the Saharawis the right to self-determination. Spain agreed on organizing a referendum in 1975 but it was interrupted when Morocco’s King Hassan II just one month later commanded the so-called “Green March” into Western Sahara. Backed up with history saying that this land once belonged to the “Greater Morocco”, over 300 000 Moroccans literally entered Western Sahara to claim the land as a region of Morocco. This made Spain back down in the question of a referendum and instead an agreement took place in Madrid between Spain, Morocco and Mauritania. The Madrid agreement led to the partition of the land, where Spain left two thirds of the country to Morocco and the remaining third in the south to Mauritania.

As Mauritania later left the area and even signed a peace deal with the Polisario, Morocco stayed and also took control of the territory Mauritania left behind. The agenda of the Polisario Front quickly changed; it was no longer working to get rid of an old European colonial power, instead it was now fighting Moroccan military forces occupying Western Sahara. With military aid from Algeria, the Polisario Front conducted a guerrilla war towards Moroccan forces, until 1991 when a ceasefire was agreed.

In Morocco the name “Western Sahara” does not exist. Instead it is often referred as “The Southern Provinces” and there is never a dashed line on the map of Morocco. In the top right corner of this building in the city of Casablanca there is a picture of current King Mohammed VI. Picture: Groundhopping Merseburg, Flickr CC.

European colonialism and partition of Africa has made it hard for several African nations to create a united national identity. Since borders were drawn randomly, they separate ethnic groups, languages and tribes, and as a result countries are often made up of several different groups and speaking several different languages. And, as a heritage from the country’s colonial past, the official language is often the language spoken by the former colonialists.

Morocco argues that their country was divided up between the French in the north and the Spanish in the south and that this division has led to today’s complex situation. However, Morocco withholds that the former colony of Spanish Sahara remains Moroccan soil. The Saharawi people on the other hand are nomads who also have been living in the regions of West Sahara, southern Morocco, Algeria and Mauritania long before any European power set its foot there. These people saw an opportunity rising for an independent Saharawi country, and a way of adjusting to modern times without giving up on their identity.

The situation is of course very problematic and it is very difficult to state who is right or wrong in the question concerning what country the region should belong to. What is not difficult to bring into light, though, is the malpractice in the way Moroccan authorities are handling the situation. With a 2 700 km long earthen wall, with military presence, tranches, bunkers and landmines, Morocco’s claim of the land is now an occupation that lacks greatly in legitimacy. Freedom of speech does not exist, police harassment towards Saharawi people is happening constantly and undercover agents are always on the lookout for “suspicious” activity.

The map of Morocco from CIA World Factbook. This is the most common way of showing the region in maps. It is named “Western Sahara” and there is a dashed line in the north towards Morocco. This is due to the status as a “Non-Self-Governing Territory” the U.N has given it. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Morocco does have historical claims to the region but so do the Saharawi people. The territory might be better off under the Moroccan flag, which already is an established state. Although, a solution could be to give the region a special status where an autonomous Saharawi government handles local politics, similar to Scotland’s relationship to the UK. One thing is clear, however: the international community cannot allow status quo to continue, and a solution desperately needs to be found. How this is to be done is another question. Perhaps it is up to the Moroccan people to put patriotism aside, and start to question the country’s leaders, as a way to put pressure on the United Nations. Or perhaps it is the international community’s responsibility to remember Western Sahara and it’s inhabitant’s hardship, and actively work towards a stable solution. Whatever path is taken, one day that dashed line on the map might be no more and we will be able to look at this piece of land knowing that people living there feel an affinity towards each other and enjoy the freedom to which every human is entitled.


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