Western Sahara War

views updated May 14 2018


Conflict over control of Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony in northwest Africa.

Contention over the control of Western Sahara began on the eve of Spain's withdrawal in February 1976. The main protagonists were Morocco, which claimed the territory as an integral part of its historical patrimony, and the Algerian-backed POLISARIO independence movement. Algeria's patronage of POLISARIO was rooted in its larger geopolitical and ideological clash with Morocco. The dispute poisoned their bilateral relations and for a time held out the specter of AlgerianMoroccan fighting. Mauritania, the weakest of the states bordering Western Sahara, initially occupied part of the territory as well but was forced to disengage and then maintain a vulnerable neutrality.

Internationally, both the United States and France had strong strategic, political, and economic interests in North Africa. The conflict did not become an arena for Cold War competition because the Soviet Union adopted a low, pragmatic profile. The Organization of African Unity (OAU) was actively involved in attempting to mediate the dispute between 1976 and 1981 but then became an additional arena for it, resulting in temporary organizational paralysis. Beginning in the late 1980s, successive UN secretaries-general energetically promoted a diplomatic solution, albeit without success, as of 2003.

Outbreak of War

The parameters of the conflict took shape in the fall of 1975. The International Court of Justice issued an advisory ruling regarding the legal status of the territory that was ambiguous, but tilted away from Morocco's position. In response, Morocco's King Hassan II seized the initiative by dispatching hundreds of thousands of unarmed Moroccans in a great spectacle of nationalist and religious fervor across the MoroccanSpanish Sahara frontier. This "Green March" catalyzed the transfer of Spanish control of the territory to Morocco and Mauritania, enshrined in the tripartite Madrid Accords of 14 November 1975. Spain's formal termination of control came on 26 February 1976. Moroccan troops immediately completed their takeover of the northern two-thirds of Western Sahara, and Mauritania took the southern third.

Meanwhile, fighting had already begun between Moroccan forces and POLISARIO units. On one occasion, Algerian forces assisting POLISARIO clashed with Moroccan troops. Concurrently, there was a large-scale civilian exodus (3565% of the population) to camps in the Tindouf region of Algeria.

Militarily, POLISARIO's small units could not hope to block Morocco's advance. POLISARIO thus redirected its military efforts to focus on Mauritania, the weaker of its adversaries. Between 1976 and 1979, POLISARIO attacks helped to destabilize the regime of President Mokhtar Ould Daddah, who was overthrown in July 1978. After renewed pressure, the new Mauritanian military junta agreed in August 1979 to cede their portion of Western Sahara, Tiris al-Gharbia, to POLISARIO. However, the Moroccan army immediately preempted POLISARIO and took control itself.

The next few years witnessed fierce fighting. Morocco was on the defensive against highly motivated and tactically superior POLISARIO mobile units, which conducted a war of attrition against Moroccan forces within Western Sahara and southern Morocco. POLISARIO's goal was to render the economic and political cost too great for Morocco to bear. Morocco responded by tripling the size of its armed forces to approximately 150,000, stationing more than half of them in Western Sahara, and conducting large-scale sweeps of its own. It also threatened to invoke, but never implemented, the right of hot pursuit against POLISARIO sanctuaries situated in both Algeria and Mauritania.

In the fall of 1980 Morocco began constructing a system of defensive sand walls (berms) studded with fortified positions, observation points, and early warning equipment. By 1987 the sixth wall was completed, the network ran over 2,000 miles in length, and POLISARIO had been effectively closed off from 80 percent of the territory. No longer could its Land Rovers traverse the trackless territory from Algeria to the Atlantic; POLISARIO was increasingly limited to sporadic raids along the wall. Concurrently, Morocco poured hundreds of millions of dollars into the region, building schools, hospitals, and telecommunications facilities, staffed by tens of thousands of Moroccan civilians. Morocco's consolidation of its presence was made possible by generous military and civilian aid from France, the United States, and Saudi Arabia.

Whereas POLISARIO's military fortunes declined by the mid-1980s, politically it achieved a number of successes: diplomatic recognition from more than seventy countries for its government in exile, the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), and full membership in the OAU. On the other hand, Algeria gradually reduced its aid to POLISARIO and retired to a mere supporting role for the UN secretary-general's renewed diplomatic efforts. The overall result by the late 1980s was a stalemated conflict, with neither side able to impose its will. By the beginning of 1990 POLISARIO was almost completely dependent on the UN-sponsored process. As of 2003 more than ten countries had withdrawn their earlier diplomatic recognition of SADR.

During the first years of the conflict POLISARIO had believed that time was on its side, and therefore refused to countenance any solution that fell short of full independence. King Hassan II, for his part, had staked his throne on the issue, making it the glue by which he consolidated and reinforced his political authority at home. Strategically, he never wavered in his goal to incorporate Western Sahara into his kingdom. Tactically, he showed great

flexibility and skill. For example, in 1981, operating from a position of relative weakness, he demonstratively accepted the principle of a referendum among the Sahrawi population during an OAU summit at Nairobi and thus bought much-needed time. By 1990, while still negotiating the details of the proposed UN-sponsored referendum, Morocco was operating from a position of strength, as regional and international constellations had shifted in its favor.

UN Efforts at Diplomacy

In April 1991 the UN Security Council authorized the establishment of a combined military and civilian force, the United Nations Mission for t he Referendum in the Western Sahara (MINURSO), to organize and implement a referendum process between September 1991 and January 1992. Eligible Sahrawis were to choose between independence for the territory, necessitating immediate Moroccan withdrawal, and union with Morocco, necessitating the disbanding of POLISARIO. The 6 September 1991 cease-fire called for in the UN plan came into effect, but the timetable for full deployment of MINURSO and implementation of the referendum was repeatedly delayed. This was due to continuing disagreement over the question of voter eligibility. The Spanish census of 1974 served as the basis for the voter registration listnumbering around 74,000prepared by UN officials. Morocco, however, insisted on major changes to include up to 150,000 persons who it said belonged to Western Saharan tribes but had migrated north during previous decades for economic or political reasons. POLISARIO wanted small-scale modifications to include more of its supporters.

The efforts of the UN secretary-general's personal representative, former U.S. secretary of state James Baker, generated renewed diplomatic momentum. In 1997 Baker hosted four separate rounds of talks between Moroccan and POLISARIO representatives, the last in Houston, Texas in September. A number of outstanding issues pertinent to the organization of the referendum were resolved, and the laborious process of identifying eligible voters was reinvigorated. However, by the beginning of 2000, hopes for holding the long-delayed referendum faded. The provisional list of eligible voters was approximately 90,000 only, while 140,000 other applicants, nearly all from the Moroccan side, had been rejected. Morocco, fearing electoral defeat, was determined to block the referendum and therefore insisted on appealing the rejections, a lengthy process that would take years. The UN Security Council, led by France and the United States, was unwilling to force Morocco to accept a UN diktat. Consequently, Baker floated variations of an old-new "third way" proposal that would bypass the referendum and create an autonomous Saharan entity federated to Morocco in all or part of the territory, or, alternatively, postpone the issue of sovereignty for anywhere between five and thirty years. The protagonists continued to meet periodically under Baker's good offices and even engaged in occasional confidence-building measures such as the release of prisoners of war. But as of 2003 a solution remained out of reach. SADR's political successes internationally had not paved the way to independence, marking a major departure from prevailing patterns of decolonization in developing nations. Morocco still desired de jure legitimation of its incorporation of Western Sahara, but its de facto rule there seemed to be accepted as unalterable by a large portion of the international community. The unresolved question continued to be the single most divisive issue between Morocco and Algeria.

see also baker, james a.; daddah, mokhtar ould; green march; organization of african unity (oau); western sahara.


Damis, John. Conflict in Northwest Africa: The Western Sahara Dispute. Palo Alto, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 1983.

Damis, John. "Morocco and the Western Sahara." Current History 89 (April 1990): 165168, 184186.

Hodges, Tony. Western Sahara: The Roots of a Desert War. Westport, CT: Lawrence Hill, 1983.

Maddy-Weitzman, Bruce. "Conflict and Conflict Management in the Western Sahara: Is the Endgame Near?" Middle East Journal 45 (Autumn 1991): 596.

Maddy-Weitzman, Bruce. "Conflict Resolution in the New World Order: The UN and the Western Sahara." Asian and African Studies 26, no. 2 (July 1992).

Maddy-Weitzman, Bruce. "Inter-Arab Relations," and "Morocco." Annual chapters in Middle East Contemporary Survey (19772002).

Pazzanita, Anthony G., and Hodges, Tony. Historical Dictionary of Western Sahara. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1982.

Zoubir, Yahia H., and Volman, Daniel, eds. International Dimensions of the Western Sahara Conflict. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 1993.

bruce maddy-weitzman

Western Sahara

views updated Jun 11 2018


Former Spanish colony in northwest Africa; once called Spanish Sahara.

This area of some 102,700 square miles (266,000 sq km) is bordered by Morocco, Algeria, Mauritania, and the Atlantic Ocean. It has been the subject of a dispute involving the POLISARIO (Frente Popular para la Liberación de Saguia el-Hamra y de Río de Oro; Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Río de Oro) independence movement, Morocco, Algeria, Mauritania, and Libya. In 2003 Western Sahara remained the last colonial territory on the African continent whose political status had not been definitively determined and legitimized by the international community. To rectify this, the United Nations has been attempting since 1986, when the Western Sahara War was still raging, to negotiate and implement a referendum among the inhabitants.

Geography and Population

The Western Sahara territory is part of the Sahara desert and consists of hammada (mostly barren rocky plateaus), coarse gravel, and sandy plains. It is extremely arid, receiving an average of less than 2 inches (5.1 cm) of rainfall annually, but rich in natural resources such as phosphates, minerals, and coastal fishing grounds. It is sparsely populatedSpain's 1974 census counted 73,497 persons, which was probably an underestimate; a U.S. Central Intelligence Agency publication placed the 1991 population at 196,737, including, presumably, the tens of thousands of Moroccans who have settled there since 1976. The annual growth rate was put at 2.6 percent. The capital is Laayoune (El-Aiun or alAyun).

The indigenous Sahrawi population is a mixture of Berber tribes (whose presence in the region dates from at least the first century b.c.e.) and thirteenth-century Arab migrants from southern Arabia. Until the twentieth century, social organization was tribal, along the lines of confederations, factions, and subfactions. Linguistically, the Hasaniyya dialect of Arabic, brought by the Arabian tribes, gradually supplanted Berber dialects. Economically and socially, the tribes were entirely nomadic. Calling themselves the "sons of the clouds," the Sahrawis roamed constantly in search of grazing land and water for their herds, traded with neighboring sedentary groups, engaged in livestock raiding from one another, and participated in the trans-Saharan caravan trade. Since the nineteenth century, the Reguibat have been the largest tribal grouping.

The nomadic way of life did not fit comfortably with European-introduced notions of fixed territorial delimitations. When coupled with twentieth-century eventsprolonged droughts, fighting against French and Spanish colonialism, gradual sedentarization, economic change, and, finally, the outbreak of war following Spain's departureprobably as many Sahrawis came to live in neighboring countries (whose boundaries were themselves of twentieth-century origin) as within Western Sahara.

Political History

The political status of the area was rarely defined, since it belonged to what is known in Moroccan history as bilad al-siba, the lands of dissidence, as opposed to bilad al-makhzan, the areas of central, sultanic authority. (Ironically, the Almoravid Empire, the first dynasty to unite Morocco during the eleventh century, originated in Western Sahara and Mauritania.) Political linkages and affiliations with Moroccan sultans in the north varied, depending on the relative strength of the sultan and the various tribes, the relations between individual tribes and the government in the north, and relations among the tribes themselves.

Spain proclaimed a protectorate over part of the region in 1884. The Moroccan nationalist movement, which first emerged in the 1930s, claimed the area as part of its natural patrimony (along with Mauritania and parts of Algeria and Mali as well). The area's status was changed by Spain in 1958 from colony to overseas province. From the late 1950s, the newly emerging state of Mauritania also claimed it, partly to deflect Morocco's threat against Mauritania itself. POLISARIO's emergence in 1973 linked for the first time the notions of decolonization and independence for the territory, setting the stage for conflict. Spain agreed to relinquish the area in 1975, and it was divided between the two neighboring claimants, Mauritania and Morocco. Mauritania gave up its claim in 1979. Morocco has occupied the bulk of the territory since then.

In 1976, the POLISARIO established the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) and organized a government-in-exile. During the following years, with Algeria's support, dozens of states, mainly developing and nonaligned countries, recognized the republic. After war broke out between Morocco and the POLISARIO, between 50,000
and 150,000 Sahrawi refugees fled to the Algerian Tindouf region, and as of 2003 remained there under the administration of the POLISARIO.

From the mid-1970s on, in his effort to fully integrate the Saharan provinces into Morocco, King Hassan II launched investment projects aimed at promoting the economic development of the territory and attracted settlement with special incentives. Civilian and military expenditures related to Western Sahara represented a considerable burden for Morocco's state budget, particularly from the late 1970s to the mid-1980s.

Morocco's claim over the Saharan territory helped King Hassan II build a national consensus in a period of internal instability. At the regional level, however, it has severely affected Moroccan relations with neighboring Algeria, which was a staunch supporter of the Sahrawis' right to self-determination. Consequently, the process of regional integration, which had been inaugurated with great fanfare in 1989 with the creation of the Arab Maghreb Union (UMA), remained stalled as of 2003.

Toward a Negotiated Settlement

It was not until 1991 that the parties officially accepted a UN-sponsored ceasefire, allowing it to set up MINURSO (United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara). Besides monitoring the ceasefire, the objective of this UN mission was to prepare a list of people eligible to vote in the referendum on self-determination, which it would oversee, that would put an end to the conflict. According to the original settlement plan, the referendum should have taken place in 1992. Morocco and the POLISARIO, however, disagreed over voter eligibility criteria.

The situation remained deadlocked until 1997, when UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, in an attempt to break the stalemate, appointed former U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker as his personal envoy to try to settle the differences between the parties in conflict. After four rounds of negotiations, Baker managed to get an agreement between Morocco and the POLISARIO to resume the voter identification process, as well as a code of conduct to govern the parties during the referendum campaign.

However, the voter identification process still encountered serious difficulties, forcing continued postponement of the referendum and a continued presence for MINURSO in the disputed territories. When in early 2000 the UN mission finally made public the official list of voters, Morocco expressed its disagreement because a low percentage of its proposed candidates was accepted. The ensuing appeals process again delayed the referendum. The UN secretary-general subsequently concluded that the settlement plan was not a viable solution and suggested exploring other ways of ending the dispute.

Overall, the incompatibility of Morocco's discourse on territorial integrity and the POLISARIO's defense of the Sahrawi right to self-determination, coupled with geopolitical developments, had, as of 2003, left the dispute unresolved. Baker's latest UN-sponsored plan was to establish a transitional autonomous regime over a period of five years, at the end of which a referendum on self-determination would be scheduled. Participation was to include at least some of the Moroccans who had settled in the area. After considerable Algerian prodding, POLISARIO accepted the plan. Morocco, however, rejected the idea, fearing that its claim to sovereignty would be undermined.

see also baker, james a.; polisario; western sahara war.


Damis, John. Conflict in Northwest Africa: The Western Sahara Dispute. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 1983.

Hodges, Tony. Historical Dictionary of Western Sahara. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1982.

Hodges, Tony. Western Sahara: The Roots of a Desert War. Westport, CT: L. Hill, 1983.

Zoubir, Yahia H., and Volman, Daniel. International Dimensions of the Western Sahara Conflict. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1993.

bruce maddy-weitzman
updated by ana torres-garcia

Western Sahara

views updated May 21 2018

Western Sahara

Basic Data
Official Country Name:Western Sahara
Language(s):Hassaniya Arabic, Moroccan Arabic
Literacy Rate:NA

Weastern Sahara is either a country unto itself or a part of a kingdom, depending on whom is asked. The entire land has been under the direct control of the Kingdom of Morocco since 1979; it was known as Spanish Sahara until 1975 when Morocco took over the northern twothirds of the former colony and Mauritania took the southern one-third. Mauritania withdrew in 1979, leaving Morocco in complete control. Morocco hopes it will be a permanent part of its country in the twenty-first century and often refers to the location as Moroccan Sahara.

Many of the indigenous people, the Saharawi, revolted years ago and began a long, armed conflict. The fight has been lead by the Polisario Front (Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el Hamra and Rio de Oro), which takes much of its name from major geographical boundaries of the territory it claims for itself. Tindouf, in western Algeria, has served as the headquarters of the Polisario. Many international organizations, such as the World Food Programme (WFP) and The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), have been trying to oversee the basic needs of the thousands of Polisario in exile, including trying to keep a basic educational system in place within refugee camps. The United Nations, through special envoys from the secretary-general, has also been encouraging Morocco to further its efforts to help the indigent population with their fundamental human rights. A referendum for the inhabitants to choose their government has been shelved often but may happen within the early 2000s. It has been delayed, though, on basic issues such as what characterizes an eligible voter. Eventually this vote for self-determination should define Western Sahara.

The territory's estimated population, as of 2000, was 244,943 people. The primary languages include Hassaniya Arabic and Moroccan Arabic. With only about one-fifth of the land being used consistently for pasture or crops, many of its people are nomadic. Morocco has stretched its educational system throughout the mainly desert land. The formal educational system follows the Moroccan model in which, in public schools, the education is free from the primary to the university level.

Morocco has begun to adapt its curriculum for greater use of the Koran, the Islamic holy book. Arabic is the first instructed language, but French is taught beginning in the third grade. Preschool is two years long, with six years of primary school and three years of preparatory schoolwhich is considered basic educationand three years of high school. High school graduates are given a Baccalaureat degree, which allows for entrance to or the right to take an entrance exam for a Moroccan university. There are no major universities within Western Sahara.


The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The World Fact-book 2000. Directorate of Intelligence, 1 January 2000. Available from http://www.cia.gov/.

Michael W. Young

Western Sahara

views updated May 11 2018

Western Sahara (formerly Spanish Sahara) Desert territory on the Atlantic coast of nw Africa, bordering n with Morocco, ne with Algeria, and e and s with Mauritania; the capital is El Aaiún. The territory comprises two districts: Saguia el Hamra in the n, and Río de Oro in the s. The population consists of Arabs, Berbers, and pastoral nomads, most of whom are Sunni Muslims. Livestock-rearing dominates agriculture. The first European discovery was in 1434, but the area remained unexploited until the 19th century, and even then Spain controlled only the coastal area. In 1957, a nationalist movement temporarily overthrew the Spanish. In 1958 the Spanish regained control of the region, and merged Saguia el Hamra and Río de Oro to form the province of Spanish Sahara. In 1963, large phosphate deposits were discovered. In 1973, the Polisario Front began a guerrilla war, which eventually forced a Spanish withdrawal in 1976. Within a month, Morocco and Mauritania partitioned the country. Polisario (backed by Algeria) continued to fight for independence, unilaterally renaming the country the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic. In 1979, Mauritania withdrew and Morocco assumed full control. In 1982, the Saharawi Republic became a member of the Organization of African Unity (OAU). By 1988 it controlled most of the desert up to the Moroccan defensive line. Fragile cease-fires were agreed in 1988 and 1991. A promised referendum failed to materialize and c.200,000 Saharawis continue to live in refugee camps, mostly in Algeria. Talks between Moroccan and Western Saharan government delegations took place in 1997. Area: 266,769sq km (102,680sq mi). Pop. (2000) 228,000. See Morocco map

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Western Sahara