Western Sahara: Africa’s Longest and Most Forgotten Territorial Conflict

Source: Pambazuka

Despite wide international recognition, Western Sahara still remains under occupation because of a complex web of geopolitical and strategic interests of neighboring countries and their Western allies.

The conflict of Western Sahara is one of Africa’s longest lasting territorial disputes. It has been going on for more than three decades. The territory is contested by Morocco and the Polisario Front, which on 27 February 1976 formally proclaimed a government-in-exile called the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic. The self-proclaimed republic has been a member of the African Union since 1984. It has been recognized by more than 80 nations. In the meantime, the issue has been on the UN agenda since 1966, yet the international community has failed to find a suitable solution between the two concerned parties. The reasons for this failure are the lack of interest from the international community and the West’s power struggles in the strategic region of North Africa.

In 2007, the Kingdom of Morocco proposed the Autonomy Plan in which ‘the people of Western Sahara will have local control over their affairs through legislative, executive and judicial institutions under the aegis of the Moroccan sovereignty.’ [1] The plan was rejected by the Polisario Front and academic Jacob Mundy wrote a paper explaining why. [2]

This paper presents a historical, political and legal account of the Western Sahara conflict and evaluates the geopolitical roles of the regional and outside powers in the conflict: Spain, Algeria, France, and the United States. See The Forgotten of Western Sahara.


In essence, the issue of Western Sahara seems to be a simple case of self -determination: the plight of a people to decide their political status over their own territory. However upon more thorough examination, we see that the conflict is in fact far more complex and unique. It has many different dimensions: historical, political, economic, social and emotional. In order to understand the complexity of the conflict, it is important to shed some light on the historical background of this ongoing dispute.

Western Sahara is located in the northern part of Africa along the Atlantic coast. It is bordered by Algeria to the east, Morocco to the north and Mauritania to the south. The land is mostly low lying, flat desert with some small mountains in the south and northeast. The ethnicity in Western Sahara is Arab, Berber and Black Africans most of whom are the followers of Islam. They are known as the Saharawi people. Western Sahara has an estimated population of 573, 000 inhabitants with a hundred thousand refugees living in Tindouf, Algeria. The territory has profitable natural resources including phosphates, iron ore, sand and extensive fishing along the Atlantic Coast. [3]The official languages are Arabic and Spanish.

Given its strategic location, Western Sahara has always been a disputed area whereupon several world powers have fought to gain control over it. Spain took control of the region in 1884 under the rule of Captain Emilio Bonelli Hernando. In 1900, a convention between France and Spain was signed determining the southern border of Spain’s Sahara. Two years later, Spain and France signed another convention that demarcated the borders of Western Sahara. Spain faced unsuccessful military resistance from the leaders of the Saharawis.

However, another structured Saharawi movement – the Harakat Tahrir Saguia El Hamra wa Uad Ed-Dahab– was formed by Mohammed Bassriri in 1969. [4] In 1970, Bassiri’s movement organized a large, peaceful demonstration at Zemla (El Aaiun), demanding the right of independence. It ended with the massacre of civilians and the arrest of hundreds of citizens. [5]

The failure of this movement led to the establishment of a more united and organized front that included all the Saharawi political and resistance groups. The movement was called Frente Popular para la Liberación de Saguia el-Hamra y de Rio de Oro known by its Spanish acronym as POLISARIO. The Front was led by Al-Wali Mustafa in 1973. The aim was to obliterate Spanish colonization from Western Sahara. In 1974, Spain proposed a local autonomy plan in which the native Saharawis would run their own political affairs but sovereignty would remain under Spanish control. The plan was rejected and the military struggle continued.

Two years later, King Hassan II ordered a march what is ironically known as The Green March which featured Moroccan flags, portraits of the king and copies of the Koran (Islam’s holy book). It was a march of more than 350,000 people under the leadership of Hassan II and his army [6]. In November14, 1975, the tripartite Madrid Agreement was signed by Spain, Morocco and Mauritania, which divided Western Sahara between the two African countries whilst securing the economic interests of Spain in the phosphate and fisheries. [7] The agreement also stressed the end of Spanish control over the territory but not the sovereignty; Spain would remain the legal administrative power over Western Sahara.

After the Madrid agreement, Morocco invaded the territory from the north and Mauritania from the south. As a result, thousands of Saharawi refugees escaped and settled in the southern Algerian desert near the city of Tindouf. They have been living there for more than three decades. In the meantime, the United Nations never accepted the Moroccan and Mauritanian occupation of Western Sahara and continues to classify the territory as a non-self-governing territory; that is an area that is yet to be decolonized. [ 8]


The involvement of the United Nations in the Western Sahara issue began on December 16, 1965, when the General Assembly adopted its first resolution on what then was called Spanish Sahara. The resolution requested Spain to take all necessary measures to decolonize the territory by organizing a referendum that would allow the right to self-determination for the Sahrawi people where they could choose between integration with Spain or independence. The Spanish government promised to organize a referendum, but never kept its promise.

In the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the United Nations states that everyone has the right to a national identity and that no one should be arbitrarily deprived of that right or denied the right to change nationality. [9] Self-determination is viewed as a right of people who have a territory to decide their own political status. For this reason, on December 13, 1974, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution (No. 3292) requesting the International Court of Justice to give an advisory opinion at an early date on the following questions: Was the Western Sahara (Saguia El-Hamra y Rio de Oro) at the time of colonization by Spain a territory belonging to no one (terra nullius)? If the answer to the first question is negative, then what were the legal ties between this territory and the Kingdom of Morocco and the Mauritanian entity? [10]

In response to the first question, the Court answered: ‘No’. Western Sahara was not a terra nullius. In fact, Western Sahara belonged to a people: ‘inhabited by peoples which, if nomadic, were socially and politically organized in tribes and under chiefs competent to represent them’ [11]. In other words, the ICJ had determined that the Western Sahara had belonged to the indigenous Western Saharans at the time of Spanish colonization. For the second question, the Court found no evidence of any legal ties of territorial sovereignty between Western Sahara and Morocco. Therefore, the ICJ had ruled that the native Saharawi population was the sovereign power in the Western Sahara, formerly known as Spanish Sahara. However, Morocco and Mauritania ignored the court’s ruling and invaded Western Sahara anyway. As a result, Polisario Front waged a nationalist war against the new invaders. In 1979, Mauritania abandoned all claims to its portion of the territory and signed a peace treaty with the Polisario Front in Algiers. [12] Nevertheless, war continued between the Polisario forces and the Moroccan royal army until the UN sponsored a ceasefire between the antagonists in 1991.

In the same year, the U.N. Security Council adopted its resolution 690 (April 29, 1991) which established the United Nations Mission for the Organization of a Referendum in the Western Sahara known as MINURSO. It called for a referendum to offer a choice between independence and integration into Morocco. [13]

However, for the next decade, Morocco and the Polisario differed over how to identify an electorate for the referendum, with each seeking to ensure a voter roll that would support its desired outcome. The Polisario maintained that only the 74,000 people counted in the 1974 Spanish census of the region should vote in the referendum, while Morocco argued that thousands more who had not been counted in 1974 or who had fled to Morocco previously should vote.

In 1997, the UN supervised talks in Houston (Houston Agreement) between Morocco and the Polisario movement chaired by James Baker, former US Secretary of State, in which the two parties agreed to resolve all the pending obstacles to the holding of a referendum. In January 2003, Baker presented a compromise that ‘does not require the consent of both parties at each and every stage of implementation.’ It would lead to a referendum in four to five years, in which voters would choose integration with Morocco, autonomy, or independence. [14] The Polisario agreed to the plan; Morocco refused to consider it. In June 2004, James Baker resigned after seven years as UN special envoy to Western Sahara. His successor, Peter Van Walsum vowed to achieve a resolution.

In 2007, the UN Security Council passed resolution 1783, requesting that the two parties, Morocco and the Polisario Front, to enter into good faith negations to solve the conflict. 15] The negotiations were to take place under the supervision of the personal envoy of the Secretary General to Western Sahara, the Dutch diplomat Peter van Walsum who was replaced by the American diplomat Christopher Ross in August 2008.

Since 2007, the parties have engaged in a series of negotiations under the auspices of the UN but there has been no breakthrough. Each side still holds its position as the only option for a lasting resolution. Despite the 21 years of neither war nor peace, the two conflicting parties still insist on resolving the problem within the framework of international law. The question that should be asked is why the international legality has failed to solve this issue? According the former UN personal envoy to Western Sahara, Peter Van Walsum, the international legality has failed in the Western Sahara because of two main reasons: first, the weakness of the international law itself: there is no mechanism to enforce its resolutions and even if there was it cannot be applied in the case of the Western Sahara because this conflict is included under the act of the Security Council’s Chapter VI (pacific settlement of disputes) which implies that the Security Council cannot use force to advance a solution on the disagreeing parties. Second, French and the American continued political support for Morocco in the Security Council has undermined a just and lasting solution. [16] Thus, Morocco continues to occupy the disputed territory illegally.


Despite the legality and the legitimacy of the Saharawi people’s right to self-determination, the question of Western Sahara has always been tied to geopolitics thus inhibiting a just and peaceful solution to the conflict. To gain a better understanding of the deadlock in this conflict, it is essential to analyze the positions and interests of all concerned parties: Polisario and the SADR; Morocco; Spain; Algeria; France; and the United States.


The Polisario Front’s position on this issue has been clear and consistent. The Movement wants the people of Western Sahara to exercise their right to self-determination with the assumption that it would lead to an independent nation in Western Sahara. The Polisario declared the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) in February 1976 and it controls 20 per cent of the territory. The self-proclaimed republic enjoys full membership of the African Union and has been recognized by over 80 nations. The primary motivation of the Polisario movement is the right of self-determination. They feel that their people have suffered under the Spanish and Moroccan invasions and thus they deserve to decide their political fate which would provide them with a better future. It is a claim that has been endorsed by the UN since 1966.


The position of Morocco in this is dispute is very clear and as steady as the Polisario’s. It wants Western Sahara to be an integral part of its territory. Moroccan claim of sovereignty over the territory is based on historical narratives. Its army controls 80 percent of the territory. [17] There are different interests at play behind the Moroccan position. First, the conflict is very important for the stability of the Moroccan Monarchy. The monarchy uses it to gain legitimacy and popular support. Zartman notes that ‘the political usefulness of the issue as a common bond and creed of the political system since 1974 is great to the point where it imposes constraints on the policy latitude of the incumbent or any other government’. [18] Second, the regional aspiration of Morocco also contributes to its interest in this conflict. Rabat strives to be the dominant player in the North African region. Besides, the political interests, Western Sahara represent economic interests for Morocco as well. The region has large amounts of phosphates and other natural resources that form a contribution to the Moroccan economy. [19]


From a legal perspective, Spain is still the colonial administrative power of Western Sahara. In 1975 Spain handed over the territory to Morocco and Mauritania on condition that the views of the Saharawis would be taken into account. That is to say that Spain did not sign away the sovereignty over what was its fifty-third province. As a result, the International Court of Justice ruled in favour of the Saharawi people’s right to self-determination. Yet, Western Sahara still remains non-decolonized territory. According to Arts and Pinto, in the 1970s, Spain’s main goal was to avoid an armed conflict with the Polisario fighters. As a result it handed the territory to Morocco and Mauritania. Spain also was engaged in starting a new political system after the death of its leader, Generalissimo Franco. Today, however, Spain faces the dilemma of balancing international legal obligations and upholding geopolitical interests. [20] Zoubir and Darbouche asserted that Spain has tried to maintain balanced relations with Algeria, Morocco and the Saharawis. Yet, its stand has been also based on strategic interests in the region. The current Spanish government has connected Spain’s security to Morocco’s; it feels that cooperation with Morocco in different areas such as illegal immigration and terrorism is crucial to Spain. Meanwhile, Spain is well aware of the strategic importance of its other southern neighbor, Algeria. Algeria is a key oil and natural gas producing country. It is an economic and political partner of Spain in the region. Thus, the Spanish ‘positive neutrality over the Western Sahara is part of wider Spanish attempt to reassert itself as a player in the Maghreb.’ [21]


Algeria has been the long-standing and main supporter of the Polisario movement. It provides the independence movement with vital political, military and logistical support. Algeria’s stand with Sahrawi people’s right to self-determination can be explained in two ways: one is the support for a legal and political principle which is the right of self-determination, and second is the struggle for supremacy in the region through the geopolitical approach. As Yahia Zoubir and Hakim Darbouche pointed out, Algeria’s main interests in the conflict derive from fears of its neighbour’s irredentism. Indeed, Morocco made claims over parts of the Algerian territory and even sought to seize southern regions by force in the fall of 1963. In addition to clear geostrategic interests, Algeria’s historical struggle for independence shaped its early diplomatic priorities around the percepts of self-determination and decolonization. [22] In addition, Algeria was and still struggles for regional supremacy over Morocco.  According to Shelley, by the 1970s the Algerian president Boumedienne’s vision of his country was as the Japan of Africa. He wanted to position Algeria as the economic and political leader in the Maghreb region. Therefore, Algeria must maintain its support for an independent Western Sahara.


France has been the main supporter of the Moroccan position on Western Sahara. It has been consistent in its support more than any other outside power in this enduring conflict. In fact, France had threatened several times to use its veto power at the Security Council of the UN if it ever decided to enforce a solution undesirable to Morocco. According to experts on this conflict, the French position is derived from geopolitical and geostrategic interests. For France too, preservation and protection of the Moroccan regime was and is important in terms of maintaining French economic, political, military and cultural influence in North, West and Central Africa. [23] Given the fact that Algeria is the major supporter of the Polisario Front, France has also favoured Morocco because of its enormously complex relations with Algeria due to its past colonial status in Algeria. Zoubir and Darbouche asserted that Algeria’s nationalism is often at odds with France’s policy: only Algeria had demanded that France repent of its colonial past. [24] Furthermore, France stands with Morocco because of its competition with major powers such as US and Spain over its sphere of influence in the North African region. As Zoubir and Darbouche clearly state, through its strong political and economic presence in Morocco, France hopes not only to curtail growing US influence in the region, but also to prevent the establishment of an independent Saharawi state, whose population speaks Spanish, and would therefore be more receptive to Iberian influence, both culturally and economically. [25]

Consequently, considering the fact that Western Sahara was the only Spanish colony in the region, France would not permit an independent state that might preclude its influence in a region which France identifies as its sphere of influence. Besides these factors, there are economic and commercial reasons that drive the French position on Western Sahara issue. France is Morocco’s main trading partner and the principal investor in that country. [26] Hence, it is inevitable that France continues to maintain a consistent stand regarding this conflict.


According to experts on this matter, the U.S’s role in this conflict started when the war broke out in 1975. The Ford, Carter, and Reagan administrations had provided financial and military support for Morocco’s invasion and occupation of Western Sahara from 1975 to 1991. The Bush and Clinton administrations maintained a silent position on the UN referendum process from 1992 to 1996. However, the highest level of U.S. leadership was presented in the former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker as the United Nations special envoy to Western Sahara from 1997 to 2004. Even so, James Baker resigned after seven years without any major progress. Since 2003, the U.S government’s view towards the conflict has been to leave it to the parties to reach a mutual solution while maintaining undeclared support for the Moroccan Autonomy Plan: local self-rule for the Sahrawi people under the Moroccan sovereignty.[27]

Although, the US supports the right of self-determination in principle, its position has been favourable to Morocco as the French for geopolitical interests. The US has consistently provided decisive political and military support to Morocco, without however overtly supporting Morocco’s irredentist claim or recognizing its sovereignty over Western Sahara.[28] There are different factors that have contributed to the US position on this conflict. Karin Arts and Pedro Pinto acknowledge that during the Cold War Morocco was portrayed as the best ally for the American and western interests in the region. Despite the fact that the Soviets never supported the Saharawi nationalist movement, USA was worried about the potential emergence of a pro-Soviet state in Western Sahara. [29] In fact, Morocco and its supporters still point that the founders of the Polisario movement were Leninist, Guevarist, and Maoist sympathizers. [30] Furthermore, in August 2004, Baker confirmed this point by saying that the US’s support to Morocco is reasonable because ‘in the days of the Cold War the Polisario Front was aligned with Cuba and Libya and some other enemies of the United States, and Morocco was very close to the United States.’ [31] Furthermore, Morocco is a major ally of the US in terms of security matters. Zoubir and Darbouche pointed out tha,t since the events of the September 11 and the global war on terro,r many US officials favored Morocco for security issues. In addition, they asserted that Morocco also enjoys the support of strong lobbies which endorse the Moroccan position in the US Congress. [32]


In conclusion, the Western Sahara conflict is one of the most neglected and forgotten territorial conflicts in today’s world. According to the UN, Western Sahara remains Africa’s last colony. However, in regards to geopolitics, the status quo of neither war nor peace seems to be the least damaging outcome. The conflict has been in deadlock for years and a mutual and an acceptable solution to all the antagonist parties is far from attainable. What the future holds for this ongoing dispute remains unclear. Only time will tell.

Aluat Hamudi, a male Sahrawi student from the refugee camps, studying a Master’s degree in Conflict Analysis and Transformation at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, USA.


1. Karin Arts and Pedro Pinto Leite. International Law and the Question of Western Shara. Rainho and Neves, Lda (Santa Maria da Feira), 2007
2. Tobby Shelly. Endgame in the Western Sahara: What Future For Africa’s Last Colony. Zed Books: 2004
3. Hakim Darbouche, Yahia Zoubir. Conflicting International Policies and the Western Sahara Stalemate ;International Spectator, 43:1, 91-105
4. Maghreb Arab Press. 08 October 2012. Sahara Issue.http://www.map.ma/eng/sections/sahara/morocco_s_autonomy_p3614/view>.
5. United Nations Regional Information Center for Western Europe. 8 October 2012. Universal Declaration of Human Rights.http://www.unric.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=105&Itemid=146>.
6. Wikipedia. 8 October 2012. United Nations list of Non-Self-Governing Territories.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_Nations_list_of_Non-Self-Governing_Territories>.
7. Encyclopedia Britannica. 8 October 2012. Green March. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/245024/Green-March>
8. El Pais. 8 October 2012. Sahara’s Long and Troubled Conflict.http://www.elpais.com/iphone/index.php?module=iphone&page=elp_iph_visornotcias&idNoticia=20080828elpepuint_5.Tes&seccion=
9. MINURSO Mandate. 8 October 2012. MINURSO United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara.http://www.un.org/en/peacekeeping/missions/minurso/mandate.shtml>
10. Jerome Larosch, “Caught in the Middle: UN Involvement in the Western Sahara Conflict”, The Hague, Netherlands Institute of International Relations. Clingendael Diplomacy Papers. No.11, 2007
11. The International Court of Justice: Western Sahara Advisory Opinion . 26April 201. http://www.icjcij.org/docket/index.php?sum=323&code=sa&p1=3&p2=4&case=61&k=69&p3=5>
12. William Zartman, “The Timing of Peace Initiatives: Hurting Stalemates and Ripe Moments”, the Global Review of Ethnopolitics Vol. 1, no. 1, September 2001, 8-18
13. Macharia Munene, “History of Western Sahara and Spanish
14. Colonisation”, United States International University, Nairobi
15. Wikipedia. 8 October 2012. Madrid Accords. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Madrid_Accords>


[1] http://www.map.ma/eng/sections/sahara/morocco_s_autonomy_p3614/view

[2] http://arso.org/mundy2008_canaries_conference.pdf

[3] Conflict resolution in Western Sahara, p. 2

[4] History of Western Sahara and Spanish colonization, p. 92

[5] History of Western Sahara and Spanish colonisation, p. 92

[6] http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/245024/Green-March

[7] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Madrid_Accords

[8] http://www.un.org/en/decolonization/nonselfgovterritories.shtml

[9] http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/index.shtml

[10] ICJ, Western Sahara Advisory Opinion, 1975, 12-68 and http://www.icj-cij.org/docket/index.php?sum=323&code=sa&p1=3&p2=4&case=61&k=69&p3=5

[11] ICJ, Western Sahara Advisory Opinion, 1975, 12-68

[12] History of Western Sahara and Spanish colonization, p. 92

[13] http://www.un.org/en/peacekeeping/missions/minurso/mandate.shtml

[14] Conflict resolution in Western Sahara, p.93

[15] http://www.un.org/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=S/RES/1783%282007%29


[17] Larosch, 2007

[18] Zartman, Ripe of Resolution, p.39.

[19]Larosch, 2007

[20] Conflicting International Policies and the Western Sahara Stalemate, p. 101

[21] End Game in the Western Sahara: What Future for Africa’s Last Colony, p. 22

[22] Conflicting International Policies and the Western Sahara Stalemate, p. 94

[23]End Game in the Western Sahara: What Future for Africa’s Last Colony, p.199

[24] Conflicting International Policies and the Western Sahara Stalemate, p.98

[25] Conflicting International Policies and the Western Sahara Stalemate, p.99

[26] Conflicting International Policies and the Western Sahara Stalemate, p.99

[27] http://www.counterpunch.com/mundy04272007.html

[28] Conflicting International Policies and the Western Sahara Stalemate, p.100

[29] End Game in the Western Sahara: What Future for Africa’s Last Colony, p. 9

[30] International Law and the Question of Western Sahara, p.290

[31] Conflicting International Policies and the Western Sahara Stalemate, p. 100

[32] International Law and the Question of Western Sahara, p.291