Throughout the late nineteenth century, European powers divided up Africa and its resources in what is now known as the ‘Scramble For Africa’. The effects were devastating. Natural resources were depleted, cultural boundaries ignored and the economy was left in ruin. Today, all African states are considered sovereign and face the long struggle to reinstate their position in the international system of states. All except one. Unlike most African states, which, upon withdrawal of their colonial powers were offered a referendum on independence, Western Sahara was immediately laid claim to by its neighbouring countries of Morocco and Mauritania.
This was met with resistance from the Saharawi people, who had developed a strong national identity in the 1960s giving birth to the Polisario Front, the sole representative of the Saharawi. The Front had successfully rid itself of Spanish rule through guerrilla warfare, and now faced the task of doing the same to its neighbouring powers. But why, considering that under UN law “freely expressed self-determination is an unalienable right”, did the international powers not step in and demand a referendum on independence, akin to those that all other African states had been granted?
The answer is because other, more dominant powers had an interest in this land.
Western Sahara is situated on the northeast coastline of Africa, bordering Morocco, Algeria and Mauritania. Despite being mostly comprised of desert land and lacking sufficient rainfall for most agricultural activities, the country does have fish rich waters, large amounts of phosphate, and also - potentially - a large amount of oil. Spain, rather than granting independence to the Saharawi cut a deal with Morocco and Mauritania. The ‘Madrid Agreement’ divided the territory up between them. In doing this, Spain both avoided a messy colonial war with its neighbour and secured access to fishing grounds and phosphate mines in return for this favour.
Morocco and Mauritania would also inevitably gain from their ownership of this land. Prior to Spain’s claim over the land in 1884, the Spanish Sahara had once before in fact formed an integral part of both Morocco and Mauritania. Both states therefore demanded a solution that respected their historical claims over Western Sahara.
Mauritania soon proved unable to maintain control over the territory. Internal unrest led to a structural weakness that the Polisario quickly tried to exploit. Moreover, a large share of the Mauritanian population is of Saharawi origin, and sympathetic with the Polisario. By 1979 Mauritania had completely withdrawn from the country, only for Morocco to extend its control to the rest of the territory. The war between Morocco and the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), the state created by the Polisario has worn on, prompting many Saharawi to flee to the Tindouf Province in Algeria, where nowadays more than 150,000 people live in refugee camps.
Western commentators on the conflict have been criticised for ignoring the historical and cultural ties that Morocco has with Western Sahara, and for blindly labelling the land as ‘stolen’. Indeed it is true that Morocco has done more for the country than simply extracting resources. Infrastructure has been built and the economy has been developed: two necessities for a country that has been lacking a significant place in international relations since the withdrawal of their colonial power. Also, pro-SADR independence commentators tend to ignore the ways in which Polisario are not model rulers. There have been many claims about human rights abuses by the Front, and it is clear that if the country were to be granted independence the government would need the support of the UN in ensuring that a stable and effective government was in place.
Nevertheless, in a postcolonial world, sovereignty over a country should be in the hands of its people. In fact, when Morocco first laid claim to the land it asked for an opinion from the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on the legality of its demands. Simultaneously, the UN sent a visiting mission to examine the wishes of the population. On October 15,, 1975, the visiting mission published its findings saying that an ‘overwhelming’ number of people preferred independence over any form of integration or foreign rule. On October 16th the ICJ delivered its verdict. The court found with a clear majority that Morocco’s historical ties to Spanish Sahara did not grant it any rights to the territory, and that the Saharawi people had a right to self-determination.
So why did no one interfere, when on October 31st, 1975, Morocco went ahead and attacked Polisario positions in Western Sahara?
Firstly, many Western states, especially Spain and France, backed the Moroccan government. Both countries see Morocco as a key ally in the Middle East, and did not want to jeopardize their relationship by supporting a referendum on independence, even though it is backed by international law. The UN has been attempting to find a solution to the question of sovereignty and self-determination since 2000. But it is the UN’s members’ unwillingness to adhere to international law, and call for a referendum on independence that has led to a dead-end. The Polisario has expressed willingness to talk about power sharing after a referendum has been held in which independence is an option. This would adhere to international law. However, Morocco has rejected the independence option and will only enter negotiations allowing Western Sahara autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty. The Security Council has refused to send a strong signal to Morocco that a referendum on independence is inevitable, and has instead chosen to back the option of a ‘mutually acceptable political situation’, whatever this may mean.
The position of Western Sahara is clearly stronger than that of Morocco. Western Sahara has a territory, resources, a population with a strong national identity, leadership in SADR and the Polisario and is backed by Algeria, the African Union, international solidarity networks, and international law. Morocco, on the other hand, has historical claims to the land, which has been ruled out as reason for an occupation by the ICJ, and backing from a few western countries seemingly only interested in power politics.
The UN, rather than tiptoeing around the illegitimate demands of Morocco, should use their muscles to push for a referendum on independence in Western Sahara, and spend their time and energy on improving the lives of the thousands of displaced Saharawi living in the Tindouf province. Assistance should also be given to the Polisario to ensure that they are ready for the task of successfully running a new state.