The Sahara’s Cold War – Western Sahara, Morocco, and why the Situation won’t change too soon

Article by Linus H.

On most maps showing world-wide data, there is a blank spot labeled “no data available” in northwestern Africa, south of Morocco and northwest of Mauritania. It’s a slab of land of 266,000km² and a population of only roughly half a million, mainly uninhabited desert, but nonetheless it is a key focus in Morocco’s domestic and international interests and ambitions. It comes at a heavy price – 21,000 lost lives and almost 50 years of ongoing conflict have led over 80,000 people being displaced.

This area of land is known to Morocco as its “southern provinces”, and to the rest of the world as Western Sahara.


Originally, the Western Sahara was occupied by the Berber tribes, but then claimed by Spain as a colony in 1884, and made into a province of Spain (“Spanish Sahara”) in 1934. 22 years later, in 1956, Morocco gained independence after being under French rule for nearly half a century, and proceeded to revive its age-old claim to Western Sahara one year later, in 1957. In the following years, the pressure on colonial powers to release their colonies as independent nations increased, and the UN called on Spain to decolonise Western Sahara in 1965. In 1973, the Polisario formed as a rebel movement for the independence of the region and its Saharawi people and in 1974, Franco’s spain promised a referendum on independence in Western Sahara, but Morocco requested the International Court of Justice to investigate first, which ultimately stopped the referendum from taking place. The International Court of Justice decided that the Saharawi people had a right to rule over themselves, and although recognising that both Morocco and Mauritania having historical ties to the region, ruled this as “irrelevant” in the cause of self determination of the region. A UN Visiting Mission was sent, which determined “overwhelming” support for independence among the population, and supported the International Court of Justice’s decision to establish an independent Western Sahara.

As Franco’s power lessened, on the 31st of October 1975, Moroccan troops started invading Western Sahara from the North, and on the 6th of November of the same year, 350,000 unarmed Moroccans began a peaceful march known as the “green march” into Western Sahara to emphasize Morocco’s claim to the region. In a tripartite agreement, Spain transferred sovereignty over the region to Morocco and Mauritania on the 14th of November. They quickly moved to annex the territories, resulting in Morocco controlling the northern two thirds as its “southern provinces”, and Mauritania controlling the remaining third of the Western Sahara in the south. The Polisario, which was recognized as the sole representative of the Saharawi people and by now had gained backing by Algeria thanks to its lasting rivalry with Morocco, fought for independence of the region with guerilla tactics (including bombing Mauritania’s capital), ultimately resulting in Mauritania letting go of its claims to the southern third of the region four years after it gained control in 1979, which was quickly annexed by the Moroccan forces. In the meantime, the Moroccan military had begun building so-called berms, fortified sand walls, at first only in the strategically important north west of the new “southern provinces”, where the phosphate mines are located. Throughout the years to come, Morocco would continue to expand these walls southwards, ultimately building what is known as the “Moroccan wall” between the Moroccan-controlled area in the west and the Polisario-controlled region in the east. 85% of Western Sahara is on the Moroccan side of these berms, so realistically speaking that is approximately the amount of Western Sahara that is under Moroccan control. The expansion of the berms understandably faced significant resistance from the Polisario, who were freshly equipped with assault rifles and armored vehicles from Algeria and continued to launch guerilla attacks against the Moroccan army and mining operations in the occupied regions.

After years of insurgency, the UN brokered a ceasefire between Morocco and the Polisario as part of the MINURSO peacekeeping mission in 1991 which has more or less lasted until today. The MINURSO’s main goal is to pave the way for and ultimately hold a referendum on independence of the Western Sahara and the Saharawi people. It has been considered one “one of the most ambitious UN peacekeeping operations ever attempted”. The referendum was originally scheduled for 1992, but hasn’t taken place to this day due to differences between the two parties – the Polisario wants the referendum that was promised by Spain in 1974, but never happened, to take place and include the people that were supposed to be eligible to vote in the Spanish referendum. Morocco is opposed to this idea, especially because since the “green march” they were able to settle around 160,000 moroccans in the Western Sahara, significantly shifting the demographics and the overall opinion in the population more towards their own benefit. Morocco also tried to register a 250,000 further Moroccans with “ties” to the Western Sahara to be allowed to take part in the referendum, which, for obvious reasons, the Polisario would not agree to.

Since then, not much has changed. There have been a couple peace plans drafted for the region, most prominently what became known as the “Baker plan”, but as of January 2017 the referendum is yet to take place.


Morocco’s relations to its regional neighbors are complicated. Harsh rivalry is ongoing between Morocco and Algeria, and although relations with Mauritania have improved over the past decades, they remain a bit shaky. The atmosphere between Spain, which has several exclaves in northern Morocco that are not recognized by the surrounding country and border disputes with Morocco, is still tense at times, although cooperation has increased in areas of mutual interest, such as counter-terrorism and measures against illegal immigration.

Significant progress towards independence for the Saharawis is unlikely to occur as long as Morocco remains steadfast about its claims over the region, as it is still a close ally to both the United States and France, who still has quite a bit of influence in the region due to it being under French colonial rule previously.
For now, the shaky peace deal that is in place in the Western Sahara will continue, although discontent among the Saharawis, many of whom live in exile in refugee camps in Algeria, is growing because the UN referendum promised 25 years ago is yet to take place. They are calling for a continuation of the armed fight for independence. As the New York Times puts it: “Not since 1991 have they been closer to war”.

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