Western Sahara is a country in northwest Africa, stretching from north to south along 1,000 km of dry land on the Atlantic coast, bordering Morocco, Algeria, and Mauritania. Since 1975 its status has been the subject of a conflict between the Polisario Front, which demands decolonisation and independence for the country, and the Kingdom of Morocco, which claims it as its own territory, occupies 80 percent of it, exploits its natural resources, and colonises towns and cities with populations transferred from Morocco.
A former Spanish colony, it is the only territory in the African mainland where the decolonitzation and self-determination process is still pending.
The roots of the Western Sahara conflict
In late 19th century, the current territory of Western Sahara came under Spanish possession. The Spanish and French authorities agreed on the delimitation of Western Sahara with respect to Morocco to the north and Algeria and Mauritania to the east and south between 1900 and 1912. In 1958 Spain granted it provincial status. In 1964 the United Nations’ Decolonisation Committee called on Spain to leave the territory and organise a popular consultation on the political future of Western Sahara.
During the 1960s, the first anti-colonial Sahrawi movements against the Spanish colonisation took place, including the revolt of Muhammad Bassiri and the founding of the Liberation Movement (MLS), an organisation that operated between 1966 and 1970.
In 1973 the Frente Popular de Liberación de Saguia el Hamra y Río de Oro (Polisario Front, Socialist-oriented) was founded with the aim of putting an end to Spanish colonisation, and establishing an independent state in Western Sahara. The Polisario Front launched a guerrilla war for independence from Spain. Morocco started to exert pressure to occupy and annex the territory, which it claimed as its own on historical grounds.
The Spanish authorities, eager to leave the territory, transferred administrative authority over Western Sahara —but not their sovereignty— to both Morocco and Mauritania in the so-called Madrid Agreements, 14 November 1975.
The Polisario Front did not accept the Madrid Agreements and, 27 February 1976, proclaimed the independence of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. In November 1975, Moroccan forces had started the occupation of Western Sahara. Tens of thousands of Sahrawis fled Moroccan troops and took refuge in the Tindouf camps in western Algeria.
The armed conflict between Morocco and the Polisario Front lasted until 1991, when the two belligerents signed a ceasefire that has held to date.
Moroccan-occupied territory accounts for approximately 80% of Western Sahara, which includes most of the coastline and phosphate deposits —which together with fisheries is the main economic resource in the territory. The Polisario Front controls the remaining 20%, mainly desert territories along the entire border with Mauritania and Algeria. Tens of thousands of Sahrawi refugees live in Algerian camps in Tindouf —Algerian authorities puts the figure at 165,000; UNHCR at 90,000.
After the ceasefire, the UN deployed its Sahara mission (MINURSO), which has among its objectives to monitor the ceasefire and to organize a referendum on self-determination, agreed by both parties. The referendum, initially planned for 1992 and then re-scheduled (Baker Plan) for 1998, has never been held because belligerents did not agree on who should have the right to vote. The Polisario Front says those registered in the last Spanish census of 1974 and their descendants should be eligible to vote; Morocco wants a much broader census that includes at least tens of thousands of Moroccan-born people that have settled in Western Sahara since the beginning of the Moroccan occupation, and their descendants.
The Moroccan government withdrew from the idea of a referendum allowing Western Sahara independence, and since 2006 has been pushing forward the idea of an autonomy plan, a concept that was proposed to the Polisario Front in the 2007-2008 Manhasset negotiations. The Polisario Front rejected any referendum that did not include an independence option.
Under Moroccan occupation, tens of thousands of Sahrawis have carried out several waves of protests on issues such as the lack of civil rights, repression, imprisonment and tortures of Sahrawi activists, lack of economic opportunities, and the status of the territory. The most significant ones took place in 1999-2000, 2005 and 2010-2011 (Gdeim Izik). All of them were repressed by the Moroccan forces.
In November 2020, the Moroccan army carried out an armed action aimed at controlling the 5 km-long stretch of road that runs between the southern end of the Moroccan-held area in Western Sahara and the Mauritanian border. The Polisario Front declared that the ceasefire of 1991 had been broken, and that it was resuming war against Morocco.
The language spoken by the Saharan people is Hassaniya Arabic, a variety of Maghrebi Arabic with influences from Amazigh —formerly spoken in that territory—, Wolof, and Spanish. Besides Western Sahara, Hassaniya is also spoken in Mauritania, the extreme south of Morocco, southwest Algeria and northern Mali and Senegal.
Hassaniya differs from Darija, the Arabic variety spoken mainly in Morocco.
The modern national identity of the Sahrawi people emerged in the 20th century, mainly from the experience of the Spanish colonisation of the territory.
At least since the 17th century (Char Bouba's war) a slow process of creation of a distinct society in Western Sahara and Mauritania has occurred, with its roots both in Amazigh —especially of the Sanhaja— and Arab cultures —especially of the Beni Hassan tribe, which managed to impose the language currently spoken by the Saharawis, Hassaniya Arabic.
The establishment of the Spanish colony of Sahara delimited the current territory of Western Sahara, disrupted the previous social hierarchical order —subordinating the indigenous populations to colonisers—, and provided a specific geographical framework for the colonised people to develop a modern national movement.
In the 1960s, the first great display of Sahrawi nationalism can be found in the mobilisations led by Muhammad Bassiri —the most prominent being the Zemla Uprising. In the 1970s, the formation of the Sahrawi nation crystallised through the creation of the Polisario Front, the declaration of independence, and the Moroccan invasion. Since then, the experience of exile —especially in the refugee camps in Tindouf— and Moroccan occupation have reinforced the Sahrawi people’s sense of belonging to a different nation.
Politics and government
The Western Sahara territory is divided into two parts, depending on who is in control. 80 percent of the territory, including virtually the whole coast, is under the control of the Kingdom of Morocco, which divides it into three regions: Guelmin-Oued Noun, Laâyoune-Sakia el Hamra, and Dakhla-Oued ed-Dahab. None has autonomy. The occupation of this 80 percent of the territory violates United Nations resolutions and goes against the decolonisation process that Western Sahara should follow.
The remaining 20 percent is controlled by the Polisario Front. It corresponds to the whole of the interior of the country, along the Algerian and Mauritanian borders, with a strip in the extreme south (between 3 and 5 kilometres wide) which in theory gives Polisario access to the sea, south of the town of Guerguerat. In practice, the strip has for the most part remained without the presence of either side.
The Polisario is headed by a Secretary-General, elected every four years by the General People’s Congress, made up of delegates from the refugee camps, the Saharawi army, and various organisations affiliated with the Polisario: the National Union of Saharawi Women (UNMS), the Youth Union (UJSARIO), and the Workers’ General Union (UGTSARIO).
The Polisario Front controls the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), its Secretary-General (currently Brahim Ghali) being also the SADR president. The SADR was proclaimed on 27 February 1976 and claims sovereignty over the whole of Western Sahara. The SADR’s legislative chamber is the Saharawi National Council (SNC), which is elected every four years, usually a few months after the General People’s Congress is held. All the deputies of the SNC are people previously elected to positions in one of the structures of the Polisario Front. The SADR Ministry of Defence commands the Saharawi People’s Liberation Army, the Saharawi armed forces.
The Polisario Front is the only organisation recognised by the United Nations General Assembly, since 1980, as the legitimate representative of the Saharawi people.
The SADR is currently recognised by some 40 states. Another 45 states have withdrawn, frozen, or suspended recognition. The SADR has been a full member of the African Union since 1982.
(Last updated November 2020.)