LOS ANGELES, California — The conflict in Western Sahara with Morocco was frozen for 30 years until COVID-19 shook up the world and fighting erupted once again. The strain on refugee camps mixed with the history of the conflict caused Morocco to double down on their efforts to claim Western Sahara as their own “Spanish Morocco.”
The ongoing question of can the colonized colonize has been reignited when peaceful protestors surrounded Moroccan bulldozers to keep them from building a road through Western Sahara to Mauritania. The Borgen Project sat down for an interview with an International Relations professor from the University of Southern California, Dr. Douglas Becker, to talk about the conflict in Western Sahara.
From Spanish Sahara to Spanish Morocco
Western Sahara is home to important minerals key in agriculture and has a rich coastline ripe for fishing, Dr. Becker explained. These resources are the reason for the colonization of Western Sahara and its exploitation by two separate countries.
Spain colonized Western Sahara in 1884 and soon it became the “Spanish Sahara.” Western Sahara or Spanish Sahara was a colony until Fransisco Franco’s rule ended in 1975. This was in part to the U.N. calling for decolonization but Spain was “rapidly moving to democracy” and pro-European, Dr. Becker said. Part of the Spanish campaign to join the EU required decolonization.
Morocco, on the other hand, was a French protectorate meaning that the country’s leader, the Sultan, was still the head of the state but France took over the majority of the agricultural land, resources and taxation. It gained independence at the end of 1955 but remained aligned and friendly with the French.
Although it seemed that there was no connection between Morocco and Western Sahara due to the two being colonized by different countries “the Moroccans had always asserted that Western Sahara was actually Spanish Morocco,” according to Dr. Becker.
Morocco and Mauritania
Dr. Becker further explains that during the decolonization of Western Sahara, Morocco used this claim to work alongside the Mauritanians to divide up the country with the Northern half going to Morocco Southern half going to Mauritania. Spain allowed this to happen, in part, because they wanted better relations with France to help with their campaign to get into the EU.
However, by 1976, Mauritania declared it did not want to involve in Western Sahara. Morocco quickly took the area that Mauritanians controlled to keep Western Sahara from gaining any independence. Thus, Western Sahara never received full independence and instead became a colony of Morocco.
The Initial Conflict and Freeze
Quickly after Morocco laid claim to the territory in 1976, the initial conflict in Western Sahara started and would last 15 years. The Saharans declared themselves as Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) and started their militia army, Polisario, to advocate and fight for their independence, according to Dr. Becker.
The initial conflict started to slow down by the end of the 1980s mostly because Polisario was running out of resources from the Soviet Union before its collapse. The conflict officially stopped in 1991 along with the end of the cold war. However, concerns about the Soviet connection to Western Sahara and Polisario and a potential communist government in Northern Africa.
The sides negotiated the ceasefire in 1991, in part, due to Polisario’s lack of resources. However, both the U.S. and France wanted to negotiate a ceasefire due to “concerns about human rights” and what that would mean for the conflict in Western Sahara in the future, according to Dr. Becker.
Morocco constructed a 2,700 km long, heavily militarized and patrolled, separation between itself and Western Sahara called the Berm. This served as an artificial border between the two states but gave Morocco two-thirds of Western Sahara along the Atlantic Ocean, which has left Western Sahara with very little access to the coast and fishing.
There weren’t many instances of violence during the ceasefire, in part, because of the militarized berm, so it was relatively peaceful. Morocco was getting access to phosphates and the coastline while Polisario didn’t have the resources to continue fighting.
The Conflict Continues
“This was not a conflict that any of us would have thought would have broken out,” Dr. Becker said. After 29 years of a freeze, the ceasefire ended and conflict in Western Sahara started again in November 2020. Morocco started construction of a road near Guerguerat that would cut Western Sahara off completely from coastal access, Dr. Becker explained. The lack of access to the coast would further exacerbate the already devastating drought and food crisis.
Morocco had only constructed five kilometers of the road before peaceful Sahrawi protestors arrived. Quickly, armed Moroccan forces came down to disrupt the forces, which the Polisario front declared as a violation of the ceasefire.
The original clearout of the protestors was relatively peaceful but it opened up the opportunity for both sides to restart the conflict. Other attacks started to occur and Moroccan forces targeted key opponents as well as arresting any other protestors, reportedly including a 12-year-old.
Repercussions of the Conflict
The conflict in Western Sahara has created serious and dangerous implications without much international knowledge and recognition. Food insecurity, economic issues and human rights abuses have gotten worse since the continuation of the conflict.
According to Dr. Becker, Western Sahara already faces a devastating food crisis with the increasing desertification of the Saharan desert and the lack of access to the coastline cuts off access to important food sources. Additionally, Western Sahara is one of the poorest countries in the world, it cannot afford to import food to feed the population.
Lawyers, activists and politicians have been denied from entering Western Sahara and helping Sahrawis. As Dr. Becker said, “The structural violence of poverty and the human rights violations of simply living under occupation, certainly were quite significant.”
Sahrawi refugees have been seeking asylum in Algeria since the beginning of the conflict in Western Sahara but refugee camps are overrun and lack access. They rely heavily on humanitarian assistance due to the conditions of living in the Saharan desert. However, it isn’t known the exact number of refugees because there is “insufficient information” about humanitarian efforts in these camps.
Solutions and Opportunities to Help
According to Dr. Becker, there are opportunities for change in the conflict in Western Sahara. Morocco has rejoined the African Union (AU) despite the fact that the AU recognizes the SADR and Polisario as the legitimate government of Western Sahara. This provides the opportunity for the AU to put pressure on Morocco to pull back from the conflict in Western Sahara.
Additionally, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has called for an expansion of the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) mandate which would include monitoring human rights in Western Sahara and in Sahrawi refugee camps in Algeria.
“First and foremost, we need to pay attention to Western Sahara. I am extremely concerned that if we continue to simply ignore it … it’s not an issue that’s going to go away,” Dr. Becker said. Solutions and opportunities require knowledge. The more people that know about the conflict, the more pressure they can put on their governments to hold Morocco accountable for their actions.
The Fight for Decolonization
Sanctions and consequences from Western countries won’t have much of an effect on Morocco directly but they can have an impact on the U.N. The U.N. General Assembly already partially recognized Polisario as the legitimate government of Western Sahara but without the support from the Security Council it cannot get the full recognition. After the full recognition, the U.N. and the Trusteeship Council can call for a referendum in which Sahrawis can vote for their independence from Morocco, Dr. Becker explained.
The conflict in Western Sahara that reignited in 2020 has been devastating to the push for Sahrawi independence from Morocco and has created a dire intervention to protect human rights.
– Kathryn Kendrick