Thinking Aloud: Western Sahara

June 28, 2014 by Darius 

In the last several weeks, since the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights visited refugee camps there last month, a number of international groups have been focusing attention on a region/conflict that rarely makes the news: Western Sahara.  Western Sahara is the region that comprises the northwest edge of the Sahara Desert – hence the name.  On maps, it’s often that jagged bit along the Atlantic in the same color as Morocco but with a diagonal line through it.  (See map below.)

Western Sahara

Why is Western Sahara in the news?  The short answer is its complicated and unfinished history.

After the (shameful) 1884 Berlin Conference that carved Africa up among the various European powers, Western Sahara ended up a colony of Spain.  It was then, as it is now, a thinly populated territory of Berbers and Arabs.  In the 1950s, when other parts of North Africa were seeking independence from European colonial powers, the issue of Western Sahara was never addressed because no one wanted to deal with Spanish dictator Francisco Franco.  In fact, not dealing with Franco was one of the few things Europe, the US, and the Soviet Union could all agree on in the 1950s, albeit for different reasons. In 1974, though, as Franco’s health declined, Spain withdrew from the territory, ceding administration of the region to neighboring Morocco and Mauritania.

But there was an indigenous group in Western Sahara, too, that sought national independence: the Polisario Front.  In 1975, the International Court of Justice ruled that neither Morocco nor Mauritania had legitimate claims to the territory.  Nevertheless, Morocco soon took over most of the territory, including the coast, through a combination of military and non-military means: 350,000 Moroccan citizens literally just walked into the area – along with 20,000 Moroccan soldiers.  The Polisario Front controlled a region in the interior.

Over the next few years, the Polisario Front fought guerilla wars with both Morocco and Mauritania to try to establish a Sahrawi state.  (Sahrawi is the name for the indigenous people, a blend of Berbers and, Arabs, with a sprinkling of Tuareg and sub-Saharan African peoples.)  By 1976, though, 150,000 Sahrawis, an estimated one-third or more of the population, had been forced into refugee camps in Algeria.  For the most part, they are still there.  They are fed almost entirely by foreign aid.

Today, Western Sahara rarely makes the news except for occasional reports about the Polisario Front colluding with Islamic extremists from Mali and elsewhere.  In reality, though, the Polisario Front is not Islamist and has even created an anti-terrorism unit.  Morocco vigorously lobbies against any Sahrawi state or even any claims that Western Sahara is not Moroccan.  Morocco controls all the resources of Western Sahara – Western Sahara is the world’s largest source of phosphate.

Recently, several human rights organizations have taken a greater interest in Western Sahara.  Given Morocco’s greater geopolitical standing in the world, though, the Sahrawi issue is unlikely to go anywhere any time soon.

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