Facts about the Sahara conflict that you should know

Today’s anniversary coincides with the tension that the relations between Moroccan and Algeria have been witnessing in recent days, especially since Algeria’s President’s statement last week in Abouja when he called on the United Nations to establish a human rights monitoring mechanism in the Sahara, adding  that this mechanism has become “needed more than ever”.

The statement, which provoked the ire of Rabat and prompted it to recall its Ambassador in Algiers for consultations, is viewed by commentators as the ultimate attempt by Algerian authorities to abort all attempts by the international community to reach a lasting and political solution to the Sahara conflict where neither Morocco nor the Polisario comes out as losers.

This year’s anniversary comes also against the background of the unprecedented speech delivered by King Mohammed VI on the occasion of the opening of the two houses of parliament last October, when he blamed Morocco’s officials for their inefficiency in defending the Sahara, as well elected MP’s for lack of action in this regard.

“Members of parliament and local and regional elected members, mainly in our southern provinces, should shoulder their responsibilities as representatives of the region’s inhabitants and counter the country’s enemies,” the king noted.

“Most actors do not mobilize unless there is an imminent menace that threatens the integrity of our territory. It is like they don’t make a move until given the signal to do so. Instead of playing defense we have to force our adversaries to play it by taking charge and insight”, said the king to the bicameral parliament” he added.

The king’s speech comes several months after Morocco witnessed one of its major setbacks when the United States proposed last April a draft resolution to the security Council calling for the establishment of human a human rights monitoring mechanism in the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara, known as MINURSO.

Hence one notices that Moroccan officials are realizing that it is about time to move from a perspective of excessive confidence and passivity to a proactive approach.

Here, one must recall some historical facts regarding the Sahara dispute to allow Moroccan and international public alike to know all the details surrounding it since Morocco’s independence to the present day, in addition to the arguments that support Morocco’s stance regarding its territorial integrity and its legitimate right to maintain its sovereignty over this disputed territory it. It is not enough to say that the Sahara is Moroccan or that Polisario is the legitimate representative of the Saharawis or has the right to establish an independent state over this disputed area.  When doing so, one should rather show all that evidence strengthens their position and how deep is their knowledge about the underlying causes of the conflict.

Before I start, I should point out a fact that most of those who defend the Polisario miss systematically: the history of the Sahara does not start in 1975 nor does it start in 1884. It dates back well beyond this dates, well before even the creation of other modern states such as Algeria and Mauritania.

Preconceived ideas about the Sahara issue

Through my discussion with some of the petitioners who come to speak every year to the United Nations Special Decolonization Committee (Fourth Committee) in defense of the Polisario, I realized how lacking these people’s knowledge about the Sahara issue is. The first argument that these people put forth is that Moroccans are “occupying” the Sahara and that Morocco has sought to “annex” the territory. The same phrase also always appears in all the news stories on the Sahara issue. We always read in these news reports that “Western Sahara was annexed by Morocco in 1975”.

Yet when you ask these people to go more in depth into the history of the territory, they seem uninformed about the broader historical context of the Sahara. They often give inconsistent or inaccurate answers. This shows that these advocates for the right of people to “self-determination” are defending a “cause” whose historical background they ignore.

According to the dictionary, “annexation means the formal act of acquiring something (especially territory) by conquest or occupation”. If we stick to this definition, the statements made by Polisario advocates imply that Morocco has tried to take over and occupy the Sahara. But can we conceive of a country annexing a territory that was part of it for centuries?

These proponents of the Polisario seem mostly unaware of the historical ties that existed between the Saharawi population and Moroccan Sultans. They also seem to be unaware of the recent history of the Sahara, especially concerning the status of the territory during the early years of the decolonization process at the United Nations, when this disputed territory was regarded by the UN’s Fourth Committee as part of the territories that Spain had to return to Morocco.

Does this definition of annexation apply to the case of the Sahara? Did Morocco annex the Sahara? Had there been a country called the Sahara before 1975 or before 1884, a year when Spain started taking control of the Sahara? Had a movement called the Polisario been waging a liberation war against Spain since 1884? Was the Polisario the first entity to call on Spain to end its presence in the Sahara and negotiate with Madrid the terms of its withdrawal?

Since Spain took over the Sahara in 1884, Morocco had always fought for the reintegration of the territory to Moroccan sovereignty. Although Spain began its occupation of the Sahara in 1884, because of the resistance it encountered, no Spanish leader visited the territory until Franco paid an official visit to the territory in 1950. Throughout this period, Moroccans never gave up their desire to expel the Spaniards from the Sahara.

Morocco as the only interested party in the question of the Sahara

After the independence of Morocco in 1956 and until 1975, Rabat laid claim to its sovereignty over the Sahara. Throughout this period, it brought forward the issue at the Decolonization Committee of the United Nations General Assembly.

At the height of the decolonization period, in 1957 Morocco first raised at the Trusteeship Council of the United Nations- which was set-up to promote the self-determination of colonized peoples after World War II- the question of Spain’s occupation of Morocco’s southern provinces, including Sidi Ifni and the Sahara.

On December 14, 1960, the United Nations General Assembly adopted Resolution 1514 on the non-self-governing territories, which called on Spain to take the steps necessary to end its presence in the south of Morocco.

In 1961, Morocco took advantage of the admission of Mauritania as a full-fledged member of the United Nations, to further raise the question of the occupation of the southern territory by Spain.

During this period when the General Assembly was urging Spain to abide by the provisions of Resolutions 1514 and 1541 and end its presence in southern Morocco, in no moment was the solution envisaged by the UN body to dissociate the question of the Sahara from the question of Sidi Ifni or to hold a referendum of self-determination to determine the fate of the territory.

Accordingly, up until June 1966, all the resolutions related to the territorial dispute between Morocco and Spain included Sidi Ifni and the Sahara in the same package.

In that year, however, an uncalculated step by Moroccan diplomacy would cause the United Nations to conceive of a solution for the Sahara issue only from the perspective of holding a referendum for self-determination. It was a mistake for which Morocco would pay dearly in the decades to come.

The blunder to dissociate the Sahara from Sidi Ifni

While Morocco was struggling to recover its sovereignty over the Sahara and Sidi Ifni, it was also laying claim to the enclaves of Sebta and Melillia, in northern Morocco, which to this day are still under Spanish sovereignty.

In the face of the dilatory posture of Spanish authorities and their reluctance to address these issues at the same time, coupled by Morocco’s relative weakness having only recently achieved independence, the authorities of the later decided to acquiesce to Spanish demands to dissociate the two southern territories, namely Sidi Ifni and the Sahara.

As a result, and since the territory of Sidi Ifni had no strategic importance in the eyes of Spanish leaders, Morocco and Spain reached an agreement on 4 January 1969, known as the Fez Agreement. In accordance with this agreement, Spain returned Sidi Ifni to Morocco’s sovereignty.

Beginning in June 1966, the Fourth Committee of the United Nations General Assembly adopted a series of resolutions that urged Spain to take the necessary steps in order to hold a referendum of self-determination in the Sahara. In principle, this popular consultation was supposed to take place by the end of 1967. The first resolution adopted, in this regard, was resolution 2229 (XX) of 20 December 1966, followed, by resolutions 2354 (XXII) of 10 December 1967, 2428 (XXIII) of 18 December 1968, 2621 (XXV) of 14 October 1970 and resolution 2711 (XXV) of 14 December 1970.

In spite of these resolutions, Spanish leaders did not show any interest in being responsive to the calls addressed to them by the General assembly. Rather, Spain sought to keep the territory under its sovereignty or, in case it could not achieve this objective, to create a satellite entity under its influence.

One of the first measures Madrid adopted to reach that goal was the creation of an assembly (Djemaa), supposedly representative of the population living in the territory. The members of this assembly were chosen depending on the degree of their allegiance to Spain. Immediately after the creation of this “representative” body, some of its members rushed to express their attachment to the presence of Spain in the Sahara. As American Scholar Paul Rockower put it “the creation of the Djemaa was an attempt by Spain to silence its critics and give the appearance that the Sahara was progressing towards self-rule.”

Morocco’s short-lived alliance with Algeria and Mauritania

Following this “foot-dragging” shown by Spain, Morocco attempted to iron-out its territorial differences with Mauritania and Algeria with the view to develop a common front with the two countries that could put more pressure on Spain to organize a referendum of self-determination in the Sahara.

The first step made towards the normalization of relations between Morocco and its two North African neighbors was the holding of a tripartite meeting on the margins of the summit of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (now known as Organization of Islamic Cooperation) in Rabat in September 1969.

In exchange of the recognition by Morocco of the independence of Mauritania and of giving up on its territorial claims over Tindouf in Algeria, the two states pledged to lend their support to Morocco in its endeavors aimed at pushing Spain to decolonize the Sahara and abide by the relevant United Nations resolutions.

This tripartite meeting was followed by two Maghrebian summits, the first of which was held in Nouakchott in October 1970 and the second one being held in Algiers in April 1972. In these two summits, the leaders of the three countries pledged to unite and intensify their efforts to put an end to Spain’s presence in the Sahara and thwart its maneuvers geared towards preventing its return to Morocco’s sovereignty.

Yet to Morocco’s dismay the alliance was short-lived. It couldn’t hold up against the aggressive diplomatic campaign carried out by Spain in order to prevent Morocco from gaining the support of its immediate neighbors. The alliance could also not stand the double game policy followed by Algeria, whose leaders had no interest in seeing Morocco recover its sovereignty over the Sahara.  These leaders were intent on making Rabat pay for its “irredentism” over Tindouf and other parts of Western Algeria, (considered as part of Morocco’s historic frontiers), as well as for the “Sand War”, that had pitted Morocco against Algeria in 1963.

Since the independence of Morocco in 1956 and the independence of Algeria in 1962, there existed fundamental differences between the two countries over their frontiers inherited from European colonialism. As Algeria came out of French colonialism with a vast territory- a sizable part of which was taken from Morocco starting in 1844 when France defeated the Kingdom at the Battle of Isly it adhered to the principle of the inviolability of frontiers inherited from colonialism. Morocco, for its part, as it was separated from a vast part of its historical territory, considered this principle as detrimental to its territorial integrity and its claims over many parts that it believed should return to Moroccan sovereignty, among which was the Sahara.

The reason behind Algeria’s later alliance with Spain and its support to the Polisario was not only to retaliate against Morocco for the “Sand War” or to impose itself as regional power in the Maghreb, but also to prevent setting a precedent with the Sahara, a possibility that entailed the risk of seeing Rabat turning to and reviving its “irredentism” against Algeria proper.  In this regard, it should be noted that up until July 1975, Algeria recognized the Moroccanity of the Sahara.

According to a letter sent by in 1975 Algeria’s current Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who was then his country’s minister of foreign affairs, “Algeria reiterates that it has no designs on the Sahara” but ” takes note with full satisfaction of the agreement between the two countries”.

“Both countries are convinced of the need to improve the coordination of their action in order to put an end as soon as possible, to the Spanish occupation” of the Sahara, said Bouteflika in the same letter, according to a video released by the Doha-based channel Al-Jazeera.

Spain’s maneuvering to delay the settlement of the Sahara

In fact, taking advantage of the strained relations between Morocco and its two North African neighbors, Spain rushed to thwart Morocco’s efforts to present a common front with Algeria and Mauritania.

Immediately after the Algiers tripartite summit, Spain’s Foreign Minister, Lopez Bravo, paid back-to-back visits to Mauritania and Algeria with the unstated goal of convincing both countries’ leaders of withdrawing their support to Morocco.

His visits were crowned by the signature of two economic agreements with the two countries. In accordance with an agreement with Mauritania, Spain pledged to provide economic aid to the latter and establish joint fishing ventures. With Algeria, Madrid signed an energy accord in virtue of which Spain would buy $500 million worth of Algeria’s natural gas.

Algeria’s stakes in the Sahara stemmed from the fact that it viewed the creation of a satellite State in the Sahara as enabling it unfettered access to the Atlantic for the exportation of iron located in the deposits of Garet-J’bilet near Tindouf. Algerian leaders did not want to depend on the good will of Morocco, despite the latter’s proposal to allow Algeria to have unimpeded access to the Atlantic.

Spain, for its part, was still intent on keeping the Sahara under its influence because of the natural resources of the territory, especially after the discovery of phosphates in the beginning of the 1960’s, as well as for the richness of its fishing grounds. Hence an alliance was formed between Algeria and Spain to thwart Morocco’s endeavors to push for a settlement to the Sahara issue in line with its historical rights over the territory and its strategic interests.

Spain’s strategy to cling to its presence in the Sahara became clearer in 1974 after Rabat learned of Madrid’s intention to grant autonomy to this territory and organize a pseudo-referendum, in total disregard of all relevant United Nations resolutions that were calling on it to decolonize the Sahara and allow its people to express their self-determination.

Furthermore, the Spanish government proceeded to create a fictitious nationalism in the Sahara, whose representatives stated that they did not represent Morocco, or any other country.

At the behest of Madrid, many delegations from the Sahara went to New York to attend the deliberations of the United Nations Special Decolonization Committee, in which they stated their attachment to Spain’s presence. These were the first steps taken by Spain towards creating an artificial movement, which would allow it to preserve its interests in the territory. This was also the first step towards the creation of the Polisario in 1973, which would count on the generous financial and political support of Algeria and Libya and eventually widespread sympathy from  Spanish public opinion.

Hassan II decides to adopt a new strategy

In face of these Spanish attempts to cling to one of its last colonies, Morocco decided that the time had come to adopt a new and more aggressive strategy to put Madrid under pressure. Morocco’s late King, Hassan II, decided to engage in arm wrestling with Spain. After securing the support of Morocco’s main Western allies, France and the United States, in the event of the breakout of a diplomatic crisis with Spain, Hassan II decided to launch the Green March.

Throughout this chronology, the international community had never heard of the Polisario until 1973. It was not until that year that the Polisario started claiming to be the representative of the Sahrawi people and demanding their independence.

After the withdrawal of Spain from the territory and subsequent signature of the Madrid Accord of November 14, 1975, Morocco and the Polisario waged a war over the sovereignty over the Sahara. Confrontations between the two sides lasted until 1991 when the United Nations brokered a ceasefire that took effect in September that year.

Samir Bennis
A member of the United Nations community, Samir Bennis is a political analyst. He received a Ph.D. in international relations from the University of Provence in France. He also holds a Master’s degree in political science from the University of Toulouse I, ...