From one colonization to another: The story of the Saharawies fights for self-determination

A historical overview

The indigenous people of Western Sahara, the Saharawi, have been fighting for rights and self-determination for over 4 decades. Since 1975 the country has been illegally occupied by the Moroccan kingdom.
14. september 2016
Western Sahara

North African country neighboring Morocco to the north, Algeria to the east and Mauritania to the south.

Spanish Sahara under Spanish administration until 1976

Area: 266.000 km² (roughly the size of Britain)

Population: 513.000  

90.000 - 165,000 Saharawi are living in refugee camps in Tindouf, Algeria.

Capital: Laayoune

Language: Hassaniya (Arabic dialect) many speak Spanish as a second language.

Western Sahara are on the United Nations list of Non-Self-Governing Territories


Western Sahara – the last colony of Africa – has been occupied for more than a hundred years, first by Spain and now by Morocco. In 1991 the UN promised to organize a self-determination referendum for the Saharawi people; a promise as yet to be fulfilled. With large parts of the Saharawi living in refugee camps for more than four generations, and the country being run by a rights abusing occupational power - the illegal occupation of Western Sahara continues to this day.

From a Spanish to a Moroccan colony

Western Sahara was until 1975 a colony under Spanish administration called Spanish Sahara. Almost 15 years prior to the Moroccan invasion, the United Nations declared Spanish Sahara a non-self-determining territory and suggested decolonization. Morocco and Mauritania both believed that they had pre-colonial ties to the territory. They argued that Western Sahara used to be a part of their kingdoms, and thus made a joint appeal to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for a non-binding advisory opinion, hoping to prove legal ties to claiming parts of Western Sahara as theirs. Quite the opposite came about with ICJ concluding that Mauritania and Morocco held no legal ties justifying control over Western Sahara.

"Thus the Court has not found legal ties of such a nature as might affect the application of General Assembly resolution 1514 (XV) in the decolonization of Western Sahara and, in particular, of the principle of self-determination through the free and genuine expression of the will of the peoples of the Territory”.

International Court of Justice on the question of Moroccan and Mauritanian legal ties to Western Sahara, 1975. 

However, in 1975, one day after Spain withdrew its claims over the territory the Moroccan king initiated the Green March, mobilizing 350,000 Moroccans crossing the border to Western Sahara. This was the beginning of the annexation. While Spain did nothing, the Saharawi fought back, represented by the liberation front Polisario. Spain signed its possessions to Morocco and Mauritania under the Madrid Accords in 1976 and withdrew from the territory, abandoning its obligation to oversee a referendum for Saharawi self-determination. Mauritania invaded the south, Morocco the north, especially in the latter case the fights were often bloody. Moroccan forces reportedly bombed Saharawi civilians and even used napalm, displacing large amount of Saharawi, who fled to refugee camps in the neighboring Algeria. Polisario was largely outnumbered, however they were successful in fighting back the Mauritanian forces, though soon after, Morocco claimed the newly liberated areas. Later Mauritania rejected their claims to Western Sahara and even admitted that the annexation was wrong. Since the invasion, Morocco has been the de facto administrating power of a majority of the territory of Western Sahara.

The desert state

Through Polisario, the Saharawi fought a bloody guerrilla war for 16 years, backed by Algeria. Algeria who believes in the Saharawi right to self-determination has long had serious disputes with Morocco, but the question of Western Sahara heightened the tensions. During the war around half of the Saharawi had fled to refugee camps in the Algerian desert, close to the north eastern borders of Western Sahara. Here in the middle of desert, these huge camps became the birthplace of the Saharawi Arabic Democratic Republic (SADR). Polisario only managed to hold control of the most eastern part of Western Sahara – arid sand land almost uninhabited – in turn they declared the SADR as an exile government and state in the refugee camps. SADR is recognized by more than 80 states across the world, the UN recognizes Polisario as a legitimate representative of the Saharawi people and SADR are part of the African Union – an admission that caused Morocco to leave the African Union in protest.     


In 1980 Morocco split the entire territory by building a 2250 km sand wall separating the area controlled by Polisario, with the Moroccan occupied territories. The wall is heavily guarded by millions of mines and Moroccan military – ensuring that Saharawi refugees cannot return to their homelands. Ever since, for more than four generations, a majority of the Saharawi have lived in the refugee camps.

Talks of peace

In 1991, after 16 years of war, came the first major breakthrough, when Polisario and Morocco agreed to a ceasefire as formulated by the United Nations and the African Union. UN created the MINURSO mission with the aim of securing a ceasefire and enabling the Saharawi to exercise their right to self-determination through a free and fair referendum. However, peacemaking efforts soon ended in a stalemate. Great disparities on who to be enrolled as a legitimate voter in the referendum stalled the process indefinitely. Strife on whether to include Saharawi refugees on the one side and including Moroccan settlers in Western Sahara on the other, staled progress in the voting process. However, Polisario agreed to give civilian Moroccans residing in Western Sahara the right to vote, Morocco took this with little effect. Morocco has only displayed interest in allowing a referendum on full integration or expanded autonomy under Moroccan administration. 25 years later and there is no sight of the referendum.


Western Sahara today

A majority of the Saharawi still live in the refugee camps and even though they are run by Polisario as a state in exile, the camps are still dependent on food programs. The Saharawi living in the occupied territory face harsh human rights abuses as documented over and over by Amnesty and Freedom House, amongst other. Political opposition to the Moroccan occupation are not allowed and freedom of assembly is non existing. Saharawi activist risk facing a biased trial system, arbitrary arrest, torture and even disappearances. Western Sahara are rich on fisheries, phosphate and possibly oil, these natural resources make the Moroccan occupation feasible and are exploited continuously. The international community provides little help to the Saharawi cause. France and USA are important allies of Morocco and has the power to block the UN security council. The MINURSO are the only UN mission of its kind, who does not have a mandate to monitor human rights. The European Union has even signed trade agreements with Morocco that include goods illegally exploited in Western Sahara.


In the past year tensions has been escalated some. In march 2016 UN secretary general Ban-Ki Moon visited the Refugee camps in Tindouf, calling Morocco’s presence an occupation. Morocco reacted strongly, removing dozens of civilian staffers and closing a military office connected to MINURSO. Tuesday the 31 May, 2016, the leader and co-founder of Polisario, Mohamed Abdelaziz, died after a long illness and were replaced by Brahim Ghali. On the 16th of august 2016 Morocco broke the cease fire by letting military pass into the most southern part of the buffer zone between the liberated and the occupied areas. However, retaliation measures by Polisario has yet to occur.


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