Following the 1884 Berlin conference where the big powers carved up much of Africa and distributed the parts among themselves, the Spanish state claimed a protectorate over a large part of what is now known as the Western Sahara.
The French grabbed most of the rest of Morocco, together with a vast chunk of north West Africa. Later the Spanish extended and amalgamated areas to form the “Spanish Sahara”.
The people that lived in the Spanish Sahara were largely nomadic Arab-Berber tribes speaking the Hassaniya dialect. They resisted Spanish rule. In 1957-8 there was a uprising encouraged by the newly independent Moroccan state, in an effort to remove the Spanish and integrate the region into Morocco. The revolt was eventually ended by a joint Spanish-French offensive.
In 1963 the Moroccan government, under an increasingly authoritarian monarch, Hassan II, fought the “Sand War” with Algeria, attempting to seize a part of western Algeria. Morocco also claimed a large area of Mauritania.
The Spanish came under increasing pressure to give up their colony. The Portuguese revolution of 1974 led to the abandonment of Portugal’s African colonies and the overthrow of the Portuguese regime. And in 1974 Franco’s Spain declared it would conduct a census in Spanish Sahara leading to a referendum in 1975.
However the census failed to include many refugees living in neighbouring states following the fighting of the late 1950s and the referendum never took place.
Hassan II said he would not accept any referendum that offered the option of independence, and for a while war between Morocco and Spain looked possible. Morocco took its claim for sovereignty, based on its traditional rule over the region, to the International Court of Justice — delaying the referendum. While the court deliberated the UN sent a team to the area and concluded, “the majority of the population within Spanish Sahara is manifestly in favour of independence.”
The ICJ rejected Morocco’s claims (and also those of Mauritania) over the Spanish Sahara. But within hours of the IJC verdict Hassan II declared that 350,000 Moroccans would stage a “Green March” south into Spanish Sahara to demand sovereignty over the land.
Spain scuttled. As Spanish troops left Morocco took the northern two-thirds of the region and Mauritania the rest. Both the invading powers were fought by the Sahrawi nationalist movement, Polisario (from the Spanish abbreviation of Frente Popular de Liberación de Saguía el Hamra y Río de Oro).
Polisario originated among young Sahrawi students at universities in Morocco as a socialist-tinged nationalist organisation. It became an organised armed force in 1973, fighting against the Spanish. By the time of Spain’s withdrawal it had around 800 fighters and broad support among the local population.
As the Spanish occupation was replaced by Morocco and Mauritania, Polisario, based in the area around Tindouf in Western Algeria, began a guerrilla war. Thousands of refugees had fled to camps in Algeria. The numbers of Polisario fighters grew and, armed and funded by the Algerian regime, Polisario was able to attack targets inside Morocco and Mauritania, as well as occupying troops inside the Western Sahara.
Polisario declared the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic in 1976 and was strong enough to defeat the Mauritanian military (who were actively backed by the French). Following a coup in 1978 Mauritania withdrew its troops; later it recognised the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. But Morocco claimed all the territory Mauritania had withdrawn from, moving its troops into the area in 1979.
In order to keep control of the Western Sahara the Moroccan government have used an extraordinary degree of repression. To prevent Polisario attacks they built a 2700 km sand wall (or “berm”) and trench the entire length of the territory and extending into Morocco itself. The area encloses the economically productive areas and leaves a sliver of land to the east to Polisario.
The berm is protected by five million landmines and is manned by tens of thousands of Moroccan soldiers. About half the Sahrawi population now lives outside the territory, including over 100,000 in Polisario-run camps in Algeria. Inside the Western Sahara the Sahrawis have been severely repressed and subjected to a “Moroccanisation” programme that includes the settlement of Moroccans into the region.
According to the British website, Sandblast, “During the 1970s and 1980s, Morocco's repression in Western Sahara was extreme. Sahrawis were thrown out from helicopters, buried alive in mass graves, tortured and raped. Merely being suspected of listening to Sahrawi radio broadcast from the refugee camps or possessing a Sahrawi flag led to imprisonment, torture and even worse. There are still more than 500 ‘disappeared’ Sahrawis from this dark period.”
After September 1991 a ceasefire was agreed following the promise of a referendum. That referendum has never taken place. Polisario have repeatedly declared that they are willing to go back to war if they are denied a referendum. However they state they are against attacks on civilians and sent Morocco a statement of solidarity following the Islamist bombings in Casablanca in 2003.
Polisario’s programme is for a multi-party democracy and a free market. They define the Sahrawis as Arab, African and Muslim.
Hassan II’s “Green March” and aggressive land-grab policy helped to stabilise the regime. Prior to the colonisation of Western Sahara there had been a series of coup attempts.
After the death of Hassan II in 1999 there has been some opening of political space. The current monarch, Mohammed VI, has allowed some liberalisation of the law — for example on women. However those aiming to criticise Islam, the monarchy or Moroccan policy on Western Sahara are still repressed.
Unions and working-class activity are curtailed by laws which, for example, prevent sit ins, and effective strike activity. Police have raided union offices and attacked and beaten up strikers. The 2008 May Day demonstrations led to arrests and several marchers were jailed for “attacking sacred values”.
In February 2008 the French trade union confederation CGT accused Morocco of police repression and human rights abuses in Western Sahara after a delegation of European trade unionists visiting the Sahrawi capital Laayoune was arrested. Police detained trade unionists from France, Italy and Spain as well as three Moroccan trade unionists.
A Human Rights Watch report (December 2008) comments, “Morocco uses a combination of repressive laws, police violence, and unfair trials to punish Sahrawis who advocate peacefully in favour of independence or full self-determination for the disputed Western Sahara.
“In Western Sahara, Moroccan authorities consider all opposition to their rule of the disputed territory as illegal attacks on Morocco's ‘territorial integrity’, and use this as a basis to ban or disperse peaceful demonstrations and to deny legal recognition to human rights organisations. The problem goes well beyond repressive laws, however: police beat peaceful pro-independence demonstrators and sometimes torture persons in their custody.”
Sandblast adds: “The UN High commission for refugees estimates that 165,000 refugees live in four large camps in the inhospitable desert of south-west Algeria near Tindouf. Smaller Sahrawi communities exist in Mauritania, the Canary Islands, Spain and in the Tarfaya region of Southern Morocco.
In Western Sahara many “basic rights such as the freedom of association and movement are denied. Saharawi human rights organisations are not allowed to exist legally. Sahrawis are discriminated against in the workplace.”
HRW also criticise the regime in the Polisario camps. The focus has shifted away from the exiles and armed struggle, towards a civil rights fight in Western Sahara itself. In 1999 and again in 2005 there were Sahrawi riots and mass demonstrations in the occupied areas. During the protests many Sahrawis, including children, women and elderly have been imprisoned and tortured.
Moroccan labour law operates in the Western Sahara but, according to the US State Department, the unions are “inactive”. Union members in the Western Sahara are largely in Moroccan state organisations or state-owned industries. Moroccan workers are paid 85% more than their counterparts in Morocco as an inducement to relocate to the territory. Morocco also subsidises “fuel, power, water, housing and basic foodstuffs” in an effort to encourage Moroccan settlers to move south into Western Sahara.
The US State Department comments “In 1997 then UN secretary-general Kofi Annan appointed James Baker as his envoy to explore options for a peaceful settlement… [In] 2001 [Baker] presented a ‘framework agreement,’ which Morocco accepted but the Polisario and Algeria rejected. In 2003 Baker proposed a peace plan, which the UN Security Council endorsed. The plan proposed that a referendum consider integration with Morocco or independence and addressed other questions agreed to by the parties, such as self-government or autonomy. Morocco ultimately rejected the plan, while the Polisario accepted it.”
Importantly Baker has shifted the grounds for a referendum by suggesting only those who live in the region — including Moroccan settlers, but excluding those living in refugee camps — should vote. Morocco refuses to accept any referendum that includes the right to separate. It claims to be working on plans to given autonomy to the region.
Self-determination for the Sahrawis remains the only democratic solution.
Campaigning for the Sahrawi people
New report (Dec 08) on human rights violations: www.hrw.org/en/home.
The country’s only significant force outside the official political structure is the Sufi Islamist party, Justice and Benevolence.
The daughter of the leader of Justice and Benevolence has a trial pending for making an off-hand remark suggesting she might like to see a republic.
All opposition — official or otherwise — is kept in check with repression and rigging, leading to widespread cynicism with politics. There was a record-low turnout at the 2007 general elections.
A series of libel trials against journalists have led to huge fines designed to close dissident newspapers. Two leading journalists have fled the country.
In September, a young man, Yassine Bellasal, was sentenced to a year in jail for graffiti which replace the country’s official motto, “Allah, al-Watan, al-Malik” (God the nation, the king) with “God, the Nation, the Barca” — replacing the king (Mohammed VI above) with his favourite football club, Barcelona.
McDonald’s, the US burger chain, recently discovered the limits of Moroccan law. The company produced a map of Morocco showing the locations of their stores — but omitting the Western Sahara. The Moroccan press called for a boycott that McDonald’s only avoided by “swift self-abasement” (Economist, 10 January 2009).