Highlights of the Sahrawi Issue: A centuries old conflict

A few days ago, the Secretary-General of the league of Arab states, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, announced the settlement of the unprecedented diplomatic dispute between Morocco and Tunisia, which was ignited by the reception of Tunisian President Kais Said, the leader of the Polisario Front Ibrahim Ghali in the Republic of Tunisia,  after an invitation addressed to him to attend the Tokyo International Symposium on African Development "TICAD 8". In this article, inkyfada highlights significant milestones from the history of the issue of the Sahara.
Written by | 16 September 2022 | reading-duration 10 minutes

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The origins of the Sahara issue, which is mainly disputed between Morocco and the Algerian-backed Polisario, dates back to the seventies of the last century, in which Mauritania was a pole along with Morocco, at some point. This vast region is located on the Atlantic coast of West Africa, bordered by Morocco to the North, Mauritania to the East and South, while its northeastern borders touch Algeria. With an area of about 266 square kilometers, this ample space is inhabited by a population of up to one million people.

The Sahara was under Spanish control between 1884 and the end of 1975, when it was no longer a Spanish colony, and during that period, in 1973, the Polisario Front was founded, the "Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Río de Oro", with the aim of liberating the region and establishing the independent state of Western Sahara, the same front that has been in conflict with Morocco starting from then until 1991 in what was known as the Sahara War.

In 1974, Spain announced its intention to hold a referendum on the right of self-determination for the inhabitants of the Sahara region, and set the date for the following year. In late 1974, the kingdom of Morocco and Mauritania appealed to the United Nations to submit the case to the International Court of justice to provide an advisory opinion on the Saharan territories. The following year, the International Court of Justice declared that there are historical relations between Western Sahara on the one hand and Morocco and Mauritania on the other, but there are no links indicating sovereignty between the territory and both countries at the time of Spanish colonization. Simultaneously, the UN General Assembly demanded the organization of a referendum on self-determination in the territory under its supervision.

During the same period of 1975, the late King Hassan II of Morocco called on the Moroccan people to go out on a peaceful march towards the Sahara, the number of which was then set at 350 thousand volunteers, to take control of the Sahara and allegedly put pressure on the Spaniards to get out of it. The number of volunteers was chosen for its symbolism indicating the number of births in Morocco annually.

Thousands of Moroccan people responded to the King's call at that time and the march, which was later considered the largest march in Africa, came out. It ended with Morocco imposing its control over the region.

Before leaving the Sahara, Spain signed the Madrid agreement with Morocco and Mauritania in 1975, according to which the territory was divided between the two. The Polisario and Algeria, which support the position of the former demanding the establishment of an independent Sahrawi Republic, rejected the agreement.

After the green March, which the Moroccan side considered a victory for King Hassan II and Morocco's annexation of the Sahara as a result, the Polisario Front announced in February 1976 the establishment of the "Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic". The Sahara War broke out after this declaration, in which the two main parties to the conflict, the Polisario Front, were supported by Algeria on the one hand and Morocco and Mauritania on the other.

Mauritania withdrew from the conflict over the Sahara region following the military coup that took place in 1978 and led to the overthrow of its Moktar Ould Daddah, signed a peace agreement with the Polisario and abandoned the area it controlled and then adhered to a position of neutrality on the issue.

The armed conflict between the Polisario and Morocco lasted for more than a decade and a half until it stopped in 1991 after the parties reached an agreement under the supervision of the United Nations, whose proposals for a ceasefire were approved by the parties with the adoption of a plan for the settlement of the conflict.

The ceasefire agreement between Morocco and the Polisario entered into force in 1991 under the supervision of a UN mission, and while Morocco agreed to organize a referendum in the territory of the Sahara for self-determination and the United Nations made the necessary arrangements for that then - that is, the period of entry into force of the ceasefire-but the referendum did not take place in the end and the file remained pending on who is entitled to participate in the referendum.

None of the UN solutions presented to solve the conflict over the Sahara received consensus or approval from the parties concerned, while Morocco agreed to broad autonomy under Moroccan administration, the Polisario did not agree to this, and the referendum is sure to lead to one of the two options. either joining Morocco, which the Polisario rejects or the formation of an independent state of Western Sahara, which Morocco rejects.

The negotiations between the Polisario and Morocco resumed in 2007 in New York and with no progress achieved since that round, until they were suspended in 2012 to return and resume in 2017. Geneva hosted another round of negotiations in 2019, in the presence of the foreign ministers of Morocco, Algeria and Mauritania and a representative of the "Polisario", under the supervision of the UN envoy, but no final solution to the Sahara file was reached.

Tensions between Morocco and Algeria have been spreading for decades following the latter's support for the Polisario, its recognition of the Sahrawi Arab Republic established by the Polisario, and its support for obtaining recognition from other countries and international and regional organizations, which led to the severing of relations between the two countries and occasional accusations. In its official position, Algeria says that its support for the Sahara stems from its belief in the right to self-determination and its position in support of all liberation movements in the world, but the location of the Sahara also reflects political interests and the imposition of forces at the regional level. According to estimates by the Algerian government and according to the UNHCR website, about 165,000 Sahrawi refugees live in camps near the Tindouf border.

Morocco currently administers 80% of the territory of the Sahara and calls it the southern provinces, while the remaining part is under the control of the Polisario. Morocco does not tolerate any position that it considers to undermine its sovereignty over the Sahara or to oppose its position on this issue.

Not to mention the recent diplomatic crisis between Morocco and Tunisia, during which they expressed their displeasure, resulting in the withdrawal of their ambassador from Tunisia for consultations, to which Tunisia responded with the same act, in addition to canceling their participation in the North African Karate Championship held in Tunisia and other decisions.

Other countries faced similar crises, such as Saudi Arabia in 2019, following a report broadcast by Al-Arabiya channel that contradicts the Moroccan position in its handling of the Sahara issue. The same thing happened when Morocco demanded that the United Nations withdraw dozens of its civil servants following what it called a slip by the UN secretary-general in 2016 when he used the word "occupation" in describing Morocco's annexation of the Sahara, prompting Ban Ki-moon to apologize later for the misunderstanding that occurred as a result of his statements. As for the African Union, Morocco withdrew from it for 32 years, since 1984 when it accepted Sahara's membership, before rejoining it in 2017.

The United Nations considers the Sahara a non-self-governing territory.