Spain ruled the western Saharan region known as Río de Oro as part of its colonial empire. The region was sparsely populated by mostly Sunni Muslim nomadic peoples of mixed Berber and Arab ancestry who were Arabic speaking. The region contained some of the world’s richest phosphate mines but was otherwise desperately poor. In the early 1970s the Polisario Front (Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia al Hamra and Río de Oro) initiated an armed nationalist struggle for independence from Spain.
After the death of Francisco Franco, a committed imperialist, the new Spanish government granted the territory independence in 1975. Although the United Nations declared that the Sahrawi should have self-determination, Morocco and Mauritania both immediately claimed the territory. King Hassan II of Morocco launched the “Green March” of over 300,000 unarmed Moroccans to march into the territory and incorporate it into Morocco.
Because of its rivalry with Morocco as well as its desire for access to a port on the Atlantic Ocean, Algeria supported the Polisario, supplying it with arms and assistance. The Polisario proclaimed the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) in 1976. Recognized by some 70 nations, SADR became a full-fledged member of the African Union.
The war between the Polisario, Morocco, and Mauritania lasted from 1975 to 1984. The Polisario was able to defeat Mauritania, which withdrew its claims in 1979, but it was largely defeated by Morocco, which obtained arms from the United States. Moroccan troops moved into the northern sector of the territory and occupied the huge phosphate mines at Bu Craa. The war and Moroccan occupation resulted in the displacement of over 200,000 Sahrawi, who continue to live in refugee camps in surrounding regions to the present day.
By the early 1980s Morocco controlled the majority of the territory, and SADR administered the remainder as liberated territory. To protect its holdings, Morocco built a 380-mile earth wall studded with electronic sensors and antipersonnel radar provided by the United States. The wall effectively enclosed the Moroccanheld sections of Western Sahara.
The United Nations called for a referendum, for the people to vote for independence or for union with Morocco. The Polisario supported the referendum, but Morocco moved in settlers, who probably now outnumber the indigenous Sahrawis, to the territory it held. Morocco argued that the settlers, presumably all in favor of union, should be allowed to vote in the proposed referendum. Not surprisingly, SADR and its supporters strongly rejected Morocco’s claim.
Both the United Nations and the United States attempted to mediate but failed to break the impasse. It appeared that Morocco would refuse any referendum until it could guarantee a victory in the election. An estimated 160,000 Moroccan soldiers continued to occupy the territory, which had a population of some 267,000 Sahrawi people. In 1983 King Hassan II negotiated an agreement with Algeria, which then halted its support for the Polisario, although many Sahrawis remained refugees in Algeria and other neighboring countries.
After Hassan’s death in 1999 his son King Muhammad VI announced his desire for a resolution to the problem, but he also opposed holding a referendum on independence. In 2005 riots by supporters of the referendum in Moroccan-held territory broke out; Moroccan forces quickly quelled the riots and repressed SADR supporters. Hence one of the longest liberation struggles in the contemporary era continued to be unresolved.
- Hodges, Tony. The Western Sahara: The Roots of a Desert War. Westport, CT: Lawrence Hill, 1983;
- Shelley, Toby. Endgame in the Western Sahara: What Future for Africa’s Last Colony. London: Zed Books, 2004.
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