The Saharawi people who live in the Western Sahara are largely descended from Arab tribes who moved into the area in the fifteenth century, and established themselves definitively with victory over the indigenous Sanhaja Berbers in the 1644–74 Char Bouba war. They speak an Arabic dialect called Hassania, which is much the same as that spoken in Mauritania, and somewhat different from the dialect spoken in most of Morocco. Their food and music are also more like those of Mauritania than of Morocco. However, Hassania-speaking Saharawis are not confined to the Western Sahara, and many live in southern Morocco too.

Spanish colonial rule

Spain held part of the Saharan coast in the early sixteenth century, but the Saadians drove them out in 1524, establishing Moroccan control over the coastline. In 1884, while European powers, such as Britain, France and Portugal, were carving up the rest of Africa, Spain got in on the act and declared the coast between Boujdour and the Nouadibhou peninsula to be a Spanish “protectorate”, gradually extending its boundaries inland and northward by agreement with other European powers. The Spanish didn’t actually have much control over the area in practice, but built ports at La Gouera and Villa Cisneros (Dakhla), with occasional forays into the interior to “pacify” the Saharawi tribes. Full colonial rule was only introduced after the Spanish Civil War, when the territory was split into two colonies: Rio de Oro, with its capital at Villa Cisneros, and Seguiat el Hamra, with a new, purpose-built capital at Laayoune.

Following Moroccan independence and the 1958 return of the Tarfaya strip, Spain merged its two colonies to form the Spanish Sahara, which was considered a province of Spain itself, much like Ifni, Ceuta and Melilla. But it was only in the 1960s, after the discovery of phosphates at Boukra, that Spain actually started to develop the territory.

By that time colonialism was out of fashion. Britain and France had pulled out of most of Africa, and only the Fascist-ruled Iberian states of Spain and Portugal still held onto their African colonies, with international pressure mounting on them to quit. In 1966 for example, the UN passed a resolution calling on Spain to organize a referendum on independence in the Sahara. Meanwhile, as education became more widespread, the Spaniards were confronted with the same problem that they and the French had faced in Morocco thirty years earlier – the rise of nationalism. The Movement for the Liberation of the Sahara was formed in 1967, and in 1970 organized a protest in Laayoune against Spanish rule. This was brutally put down, and the Movement was banned, but Spanish repression only succeeded in radicalizing opposition. In 1973, a group of militants formed the Frente para la Liberación de Seguiat el Hamra y Rio de Oro (Polisario), and began a guerrilla campaign for independence.

The Green March, and war

Under pressure from Polisario, and with its dictator General Franco on his last legs, Spain began to consider pulling out of the Sahara, but Morocco’s King Hassan II now claimed sovereignty over the territory on the basis that it had been under Moroccan rule before Spanish colonization. The case went to the International Court of Justice in the Hague, which ruled that, though some Saharawi tribes had indeed paid allegiance to the Moroccan sultan, the territory had not been substantially Moroccan before colonization, and its people were entitled to self-determination. In accordance with this ruling, Spain reluctantly agreed to hold a referendum on independence. Under pressure at home over domestic issues, however (see Elections and coup attempts), Hassan saw advantages in waving the nationalist flag as a distraction, and the next month led a “Green March” (Massira el Khadra) of 350,000 Moroccan civilians (subsequently replaced by soldiers) across the border to claim the territory. At the same time a secret agreement was hatched in Madrid to divide the territory between Morocco and Mauritania as soon as Spanish troops had withdrawn.

The Madrid signatories had, however, underestimated the Saharawis’ determination to fight for their independence. In February 1976, when Spanish forces left, Polisario proclaimed the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), and fought back against Moroccan and Mauritanian occupation, backed by Algeria, and sometimes Libya, who saw the Sahara as a stick with which to beat their regional rival. Thousands of refugees fled into Algeria, where they settled into increasingly unhygienic Polisario-run refugee camps rather than submit to Moroccan or Mauritanian rule. Algeria ceded the territory around the camps to the SADR; 200,000 people still live in them today.

Polisario’s early military successes were impressive, and Mauritania in particular did not have the resources to beat them. In 1978, the war’s destabilization of the Mauritanian economy brought down the government. The new regime made peace with Polisario and pulled out of the Sahara (apart from La Gouera and the western side of the Nouadibhou peninsula, which Mauritania still occupies). The Moroccans moved in to replace them, but by the early 1980s they had been pushed into a small area around Laayoune and Dakhla, and the phosphate mines lay idle. Polisario guerillas even managed to infiltrate into Morocco itself. But the Moroccans fought back and, beginning in 1981, built a series of heavily defended desert walls (berm) that excluded Polisario forces from successively larger areas. The sixth wall, built in 1987, established Moroccan control over two-thirds of the territory, including all its economically important parts and the whole of the coastline. Polisario, now confined to areas behind the berm, particularly the region around Bir Lahlou and Tifariti, increasingly turned to diplomacy to gather support, with some success. In 1985, the OAU (now the African Union) admitted the SADR to full membership; Morocco left the organization in protest.

Ceasefire and future prospects

In 1988 a UN plan for a referendum, to choose between incorporation or independence, was accepted in principle by both sides, and 1991 saw a ceasefire, with the deployment of a UN peacekeeping force called MINURSO, but the years since have seen the UN aims frustrated, with arguments over the voting list leading to repeated postponement of the referendum; Morocco in particular has brought in large numbers of supporters to vote its way should the promised referendum ever be held. In theory, it will still take place, but observers are sceptical. Having invested so much in the territory – not only in military terms, as subsidies, tax concessions and infrastructure building have all been a heavy drain on the Moroccan economy – it seems inconceivable that Morocco will relinquish its claims. In 2002, Morocco’s King Mohammed VI stated that he would never give up any part of the territory, but the king has tried to be conciliatory, granting a royal pardon to hundreds of Saharawi political prisoners, and inviting refugees to come home. In 2007 he proposed a new settlement based on limited autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty, which Polisario inevitably rejected. In 2010, Saharawi residents set up a protest camp at Gdim Izik near Laayoune, at first to protest against discrimination, but with calls for independence soon added; Moroccan police dispersed the camp by force, killing a number of people and sparking riots across the territory. Protests continued into 2011, and in Dakhla, Moroccan settlers and Saharawis came to blows. Meanwhile Morocco has started building little villages along the coast to establish “facts on the ground”, and, as an important strategic ally of the West, is unlikely to face much international pressure on the issue. Truth is, prospects for independence are bleak, and limited autonomy is probably the best the Saharawis can hope for.

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