Kenitra – In case you don’t know the place, the so-called Western Sahara is a territory on the west coast of Africa. With a population of more than 500,000 and a land area almost the size of Great Britain, it is a sparely populated territory. Most of it is hot, dry, and inhabitable desert.
However, the coastline cities of Laayoune and Dakhla have seen in the last three decades significant economic and socio-cultural development. Just few weeks ago, the King Mohammed VI has launched a major Sahara structural project on the occasion of the 40th Anniversary of the Green March aiming to improve the quality of life in the southern provinces. The new infrastructures will include a modern bus station, a theatre, a multidisciplinary sport center, and a college.
Officially, the Moroccan sovereignty over the territory is disputed by the Polisario, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra, and Río de Oro. This Algeria-backed rebel liberation movement has been fighting since the 19760s for alleged independence.
Most of the territory, including the coastline is under Morocco’s sovereignty, whereas the lands beyond the approximately 2,700 km sand wall built in 1979 are Polisario-controlled area. Technically, this area is a free zone.
The long-running territorial dispute over Western Sahara dates back to the end of the 19th century, the time of European colonization of Africa. In order to regulate European settlements in the continent and avoid any possible conflict between the various European forces, the Berlin Conference was held in Germany in 1884 to determine the borders of Africa. By 1914, most of the continent was under the colonial rule of the United Kingdom and France while the rest went to Portugal, Belgium, Italy, and Spain.
By the end of World War II, the Allies created the United Nations to maintain international peace, and promote human rights and decolonization. This marked the direct involvement of UN in the many territorial conflicts around the world, including the dispute over Western Sahara, a territory newly independent Morocco officially claimed in1957. Algeria didn’t did not welcome the move, and strongly rejected and resisted. By 1973, the time Polisario front was created, four different parties claimed the region: Morocco; (the historic owner of the land), Spain; (the former colonial ruler), Mauritania, and the Polisario Front.
Under pressure from Morocco and UN Special Committee on Decolonization, Spain agreed to hold a referendum by which the Sahrawi people could decide to be independent or be a part of either Morocco or Mauritania. Both countries agreed. This marked a new episode in the history of this conflict. The referendum was initially supposed to be held in 1967. When Morocco accepted that a referendum be held to determine the fate of the territory, it did so on the premise that that popular consultation would tilt in its favor. But Spain had no intention to relinquish the Western Sahara and started using dilatory measures in order to buy time and prevent Morocco from recovering its sovereignty over the territory.
In response to the call made by Morocco to the General Assembly of the United Nations for a legal hearing on its historical and pre-colonial sovereignty over the Western Sahara, the International Court of Justice in the Hague, Netherlands, complied with the request and issued an advisory opinion on October 16,1975. The Court decided that “Western Sahara, at the time of colonization by Spain, was not a territory belonging to no one”, and that “there were legal ties between this territory and the Kingdom of Morocco.”
In further detail, the documents and materials presented to the judges of the International Court by Moroccan authorities proved “the existence of legal ties of allegiance between the Sultans of Morocco and some of the tribes living in the territory of Western Sahara.”
However, the Court’s conclusion was not relevant to the legitimacy of these ties. The judges decided that the facts presented by Morocco don’t affect ” the principle of self-determination through the free and genuine expression of the will of the peoples of the Territory.” The explanation given was built upon the claim that the nature of those ties were not articulable and decisive enough to establish legal territorial sovereignty. Morocco found this to be purely academic and devoid of precise, clear and practical determination.
During Spanish control of the region beginning in 1884, most parts of Western Sahara were populated by nomadic tribes traversing the Sahara Desert from the southern coastline of Morocco to as far as the boarders of Egypt, including the lands of present-day Mauritania, Algeria, Mali, Niger, Senegal, Sudan, and Chad. Historically, most of these tribes were structurally founded on the religious bonds and the word of Islam and also on the allegiance to the Sultans of Morocco. They were part of what was called Bled Makhzen, meaning their submission to the ruling of the various Caids and Sheiksrepresenting the Sultan in the region.
On November 5, 1975, just a few hours after the release of the International Court of Justice Advisory Opinion and the publication of UN visiting mission’s biased report, King Hassan II addressed the Moroccan people via a televised speech and called for the organization of the Green March. Six days later, more than 300,000 Moroccans escorted with approximately 20,000 Moroccan soldiers marched through the territory to display their support of King Hassan II’s plan to defend Moroccan historical territorial rights. Spanish forces present in the area decided not to resist or even interfere. Whereas, the Polisario, disappointed by the Spain’s dispassionate reaction, decided to militarily resist Morocco’s decision and declared the war. What happened next was absolutely in the favor of Morocco’s interest.
On November 14, 1975, Morocco, Spain and Mauritania singed the Madrid Accords, a temporary tripartite agreement handing the administrative control of the northern two-thirds of the territory to Morocco and the southern third to Mauritania. Though the treaty did not transfer sovereignty, it strengthened Morocco’s position amid growing frustration and chaos in the region. Of course, Algeria was extremely unhappy about the direction this conflict was taking. This probably explains why the very next day, February 26, 1976-the day the Spanish troops moved out of the region-the Polisario Front proclaimed the so-called Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. Following Mauritania’s abandonment of all its rights to the territory in 1979 and Morocco’s move further into the south, Polisario, an Algeria-made-and-financed guerilla, had no choice but to voice its anger and carry on what would become later a 16 year-long war on Morocco.
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