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Western Sahara: A Land of Disputed Sovereignty and Struggle for Self-Determination

 Western Sahara: A Land of Disputed Sovereignty and Struggle for Self-Determination


Western Sahara, a vast territory located in North Africa, has long been a region of disputed sovereignty and geopolitical complexity. Annexed by Morocco in 1975, the territory's status has been a subject of contention between Morocco and the Polisario Front, a Sahrawi liberation movement seeking self-determination for the Sahrawi people. This essay delves into the historical background, the competing claims over Western Sahara, the struggle for self-determination, and the ongoing efforts to find a resolution to this complex and protracted issue.

I. Historical Background and Colonial Legacy

  • The history of Western Sahara is intertwined with the era of European colonialism in Africa. In the late 19th century, various European powers sought to expand their influence and control over the continent. Spain, in particular, established a colonial presence in the region and claimed control over what was then known as Spanish Sahara.
  • For decades, Spain maintained its colonial administration in the territory, exploiting its resources and maintaining control over its people. However, the Sahrawi people, the indigenous inhabitants of Western Sahara, sought to resist foreign domination and preserve their identity and way of life.

II. The Emergence of the Polisario Front

  • As the anti-colonial movement gained momentum across Africa, the Sahrawi people also began seeking independence and self-determination. In 1973, the Polisario Front was founded as a Sahrawi nationalist movement aiming to liberate Western Sahara from Spanish colonial rule.
  • The Polisario Front's armed struggle against the Spanish forces eventually forced Spain to negotiate its withdrawal from the territory. In 1975, as Spain prepared to leave, Morocco and Mauritania both made territorial claims over Western Sahara, based on historical ties and tribal affiliations.

III. The Moroccan Annexation and Conflict

  • In the wake of Spain's withdrawal, Morocco and Mauritania seized control over Western Sahara, leading to a full-scale armed conflict with the Polisario Front. In response, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) was declared by the Polisario Front as the legitimate representative of the Sahrawi people and the sovereign authority over Western Sahara.
  • Mauritania soon relinquished its claim, but Morocco continued its efforts to assert control over the territory, constructing a sand berm to divide the areas it controlled from those held by the Polisario Front. The berm, heavily fortified by Morocco, became known as the "Moroccan Wall" or the "Berm of Shame."
  • The conflict between Morocco and the Polisario Front escalated into a full-fledged war, with numerous human rights abuses reported on both sides. Tens of thousands of Sahrawi refugees fled to neighboring Algeria, where refugee camps were established to provide shelter and humanitarian aid.

IV. United Nations Involvement and the Peace Process

  • The international community, through the United Nations, sought to find a resolution to the conflict. In 1991, the United Nations brokered a ceasefire agreement between Morocco and the Polisario Front, establishing the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO). The mission's main objective was to organize a referendum in which the Sahrawi people could choose between independence, integration with Morocco, or integration with Mauritania.
  • However, the referendum never took place due to disagreements over who qualified as eligible voters. Morocco argued that only those living in the territory before Spain's colonization in 1884 could participate, effectively excluding many Sahrawi refugees living in Algeria. The stalemate persisted, and the referendum was indefinitely postponed.

V. The Struggle for Self-Determination

  • The Polisario Front continued to push for the right to self-determination for the Sahrawi people, advocating for a referendum that includes all eligible voters, regardless of their current location. The Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, declared by the Polisario Front in 1976, has been recognized by numerous countries and organizations as the legitimate representative of the Sahrawi people.
  • In response to Morocco's territorial claims, the SADR government operates in exile from the refugee camps in Algeria, where the movement's leadership is based. The SADR has been a member of the African Union (AU) since 1984, and its presence in the organization adds complexity to the diplomatic landscape surrounding the Western Sahara issue.

VI. International Recognition and Geopolitical Considerations

  • The issue of Western Sahara is not only a matter of territorial dispute but also involves geopolitical considerations. Morocco has managed to gain support from several countries, including some within the African Union, for its claim over Western Sahara. It argues that the region has historical ties to the Moroccan kingdom and that granting independence would threaten the country's unity and stability.
  • On the other hand, the Polisario Front's cause has garnered international sympathy, particularly from countries and organizations that advocate for self-determination and decolonization. Many countries, including some within the African Union, have recognized the SADR as the legitimate representative of the Sahrawi people and support their right to self-determination.
  • The involvement of other international actors, such as Algeria and Spain, further complicates the situation. Algeria has been a longstanding supporter of the Polisario Front and provides aid and diplomatic backing to the Sahrawi cause. Spain, as the former colonial power, also holds a degree of responsibility for the situation in Western Sahara.

VII. The Humanitarian Impact

  • The prolonged conflict and unresolved status of Western Sahara have had significant humanitarian consequences, particularly for the Sahrawi refugees living in camps in Algeria. These camps, which have existed for several decades, face challenges in providing adequate living conditions, education, and healthcare for their residents.
  • The lack of a political resolution and the prolonged refugee situation have created uncertainty and despair for many Sahrawi people, leading to calls for a comprehensive and lasting solution to the issue.

VIII. Prospects for a Resolution

  • Efforts to find a resolution to the Western Sahara conflict continue, with the United Nations playing a crucial role in facilitating negotiations between Morocco and the Polisario Front. The UN-led political process aims to find a mutually acceptable solution that addresses the aspirations of the Sahrawi people while taking into account Morocco's concerns.
  • Recent developments, including the appointment of a new Personal Envoy of the UN Secretary-General for Western Sahara, indicate a renewed push to revitalize the negotiation process. However, the competing interests and historical grievances of the parties involved make finding a mutually agreeable solution challenging.


Western Sahara remains a land of disputed sovereignty and a protracted struggle for self-determination. The conflict between Morocco and the Polisario Front has spanned decades, leaving deep scars on the Sahrawi people and the region's political landscape. The international community's engagement, particularly through the United Nations, is essential in finding a lasting resolution to the issue.

Ultimately, any sustainable resolution must address the legitimate aspirations of the Sahrawi people for self-determination while also considering Morocco's interests and concerns. As the situation continues to evolve, it is crucial for all parties involved to engage in constructive dialogue and seek a peaceful and just resolution to the Western Sahara conflict. Only through sincere efforts and a willingness to find common ground can a path toward lasting peace and stability be forged for the people of Western Sahara.

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