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Is « Western Sahara » Moroccan?

It seems more adequate to look for a substantial answer to this question than an opportunistic justification of a groundless position.

Before one embarks on the milestones that have marked the history of “Western Sahara”, an insight into terminology is salutary:

The toponymical label “Western Sahara” is quite revealing that it is a geographical location rather than a political entity. In Arabic, the word “Sahara” denotes “Desert”; when the modifier “Western” is added on, the whole expression signifies a portion of the Grand African Sahara that extends from the Red Sea to the Atlantic Ocean.

The African Sahara can be divided into an eastern part, shared by Egypt and Sudan; a central part, shared by Libya, Chad, Niger, Algeria and Mali; and a western part, subject of the present, bordering on the north of the Mauritanian Sahara. Besides, certain African countries are commonly called “Sub-Saharan”, to indicate their location in the far southern part of the African Sahara.

On the strength of the above, the appellation “Western Sahara” is wrapped in a layer of ambiguity, given that “Central Sahara”, for example, is a common property of many countries rather than a country on its own. Can “Western Sahara”, then, be seen as an independent State, or as an indivisible part of Morocco? To dissipate ambiguity, it is imperative to delve into the pre-colonial history.

For many years, political observers, the media and individuals interested in the “Western Sahara” issue have adopted a simplistic approach relegating it to a mere question of UN resolutions. As a matter of fact, the issue dates back to 1884 when Spain established its first commercial outpost where they called “Villa Cisneros”, today’s Dakhla; that is 61 years before the advent of the United Nations itself. Such a simplistic approach ignores even the UN resolution which mentions the settlement plan adopted on 19 December 1991; and wore still, it makes a clean sweep of a basic fact, namely that the “Western Sahara” issue has been tackled again and again by the very same Organization since 1958, as well as by the OAU, the Arab League and the Non-Aligned Movement.

Such a simplistic trend reduces the age-old history of an entire region to a mere reference of the issue to the international bodies in 1991, or, at best to 1973, when the so-called “polisario” movement was created. However, one should bear in mind the following facts:

1. Morocco was the only party to refer the issue of “Western Sahara” – formerly colonized by Spain – to the aforementioned international organizations. The initiative was taken in the late 1950’s;

2. Morocco, and Morocco alone, pleaded the cause at a time when the bulk of African countries were struggling to cast off the yoke of colonization;

3. When the Royal Family was exiled in 1953, the heads of the Sahrawi tribes cancelled the festivities of Eiduladha; and headed for Rabat with a view to swearing allegiance, Beia, to H.M. the King Mohammed V upon his return from exile;

4. The Moroccan liberation army, in its efforts to retrieve the Sahara, was the unique movement to confront Spain and France who launched a joint military campaign dubbed “Opération Ecouvillon” in February 1958, which consequently led to the expulsion of tens of thousands of native Sahrawis from the Sahara towards the independent part of Morocco, formerly colonized by France (see the international press of February 1958 supported by photos). The very same native Sahrawis are denied the right to participate in the referendum on the pretext that they were not taken census of in 1974;

5. In 1958, when Morocco retrieved a part of the Sahara from Spain, namely the province of Tarfaya, no one opposed the recuperation process;

6. The recuperation of a part of the Sahara did not dampen Morocco’s enthusiasm to claim the rest of the Spanish-occupied Sahara, known nowadays as “Western Sahara”;

7. Morocco, as one of the founding countries of the OAU and co-author of its draft Charter in 1961 at the Casablanca Summit, explained its reserves as to the article relative to the respect of borders inherited from the colonial era. Without such reserves, Morocco would not have been able to uncontroversially retrieve Sidi Ifni, which was part and parcel of the “Western Sahara” dossier, on 29 July 1969, nor could it claim the enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla. The article notwithstanding, the OAU had always upheld the Moroccanity of the said enclaves.

To better grasp why Morocco had attained independence gradually and uncontroversially – except for its Western Sahara –, one should travel back in time. This step will undoubtedly answer the questions of the most curious of researchers!

Indeed, Morocco is the only Arab and African country which had preserved its independence since 788. The protectorate (1912 – 1956) was a mere interlude in its long history. In common with the Arab-Islamic State of the Marchrek (Arab Orient), which extended from the Gulf to Algeria, the control of which was taken over successively by various dynasties to which the Ottomans put an end, Morocco (Al Maghrib Al Aqsa), which the Ottomans could not invade, lived in peace and stability under its own dynasties. Some of these, namely the Almoravids and the Almohads arrived from the borders of the very “Western Sahara”.

The legitimacy of Morocco’s sovereignty over the entirety of its territory draws on Beia, that is, the allegiance tribes nationwide express to the Sultans and Kings of Morocco. Such a bond was confirmed by the International Court of Justice’s Advisory Opinion, dated 16 October 1975. In the same vein, it is worth mentioning that, in 1906, a delegation headed by Prince Moulay Idriss, cousin of the Sultan Moulay Abdelaziz, had arrived in the Sahara to grant the tribal chiefs their credentials as representatives of the Sultan in the region.

In 1974, Morocco requested that the UN refer the dispute with Spain, the former colonizer, over “Western Sahara” to the International Court of Justice. Shortly afterwards, Algeria, which claimed that it is not concerned, designated its present Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Bedjaoui, as lawyer, to fog the Morocco-Spanish dispute through incorporating separatist ideas into the literature of the ICJ. Algeria was acting for the “polisario” which was only one year old, and could not therefore convey its own ideas.

The gestation of the “polisario”, since 1972, cannot be decontextualized from Algeria’s support to the Generals who attempted coups d’état against H.M. King Hassan II, notably

General Oufkir, head of the Moroccan party to the Mixed Committee on the delimitation of broders between the two countries.

In connivance with Algeria, General Oufkir blocked the works of the said Committee and convinced H.M. Hassan II to announce, at the Rabat African Summit, in July 1972, the acceptance of the borders’ status quo. Less than two months later, Morocco foiled the Algerian-backed coup d’état.

Frustrated by the failure of the coup d’état, Algeria seized the opportunity of the emergence, at the Mohammed V University in Rabat, of a group of young native Sahrawis, whose forefathers had been expelled from their homeland during the “Opération Ecouvillon” to feed their ambitions of creating an independent State in the Sahara. Given the conjuncture of the Cold War, Algeria managed to muster the support of all the liberation movements it hosted and of more than 70 countries of the Soviet bloc in favour of the separatist idea.

At the time, a combination of factors favoured Algeria’s dragooning young progressive students into the army, exploiting their poor political awareness and their deep-rooted resentment vis-à-vis the expulsion of their ancestors from the Sahara.

Let us consider, by way of example, some of these circumstances:

 Morocco had just experienced two abortive military coups d’état;

 The fallout of the May 1968 events in France contaminated the Moroccan university; as a result, extremist movements started to burgeon;

 In the 1970’s, the social situation left a lot to be desired. Consequently, students participated in the manifestations orchestrated by trade unions and progressive parties which had ramifications in Algeria;

 As the Moroccan-Algerian borders were open, it was much easier for the Soviets to target the Moroccan regime;

 Libya, which openly praised the 9 July 1971 abortive coup d’état, committed colossal portions of oil revenue to the destabilization of Morocco;

 The newly independent Mauritania was reluctant to confide in Morocco as the latter hardly recognized its independence in 1969. Nouakchott did not want to have direct borders with Morocco;

 The Spanish Generals who governed the Sahara cherished the same dream as Ian Smith’s in Rhodesia. They traded off proclaiming a Republic of their own for creating a puppet State in the Sahara and staying thereat within the framework of a “common defence agreement” against Morocco;

 In connivance with the Spanish Generals, Algeria armed the “polisario” with the same weapons belonging to some native Sahrawis who used to be members of the Spanish legion. Those natives received orders from their Spanish masters to the effect of training the first armed elements of the separatists who had never attacked the Spanish occupier. Rather, they pointed their guns at the Green March!

Faced with this set of unfavorable factors, Morocco got down to consolidating the internal front with the ultimate goal of defusing the sordid plot woven by neighbouring States, which pretended to be progressive, and by the Spanish militaries who presented a serious threat to the national unity and stability of the country. As a counterbalance, Morocco took a full array of measures, notably:

 The organization of the Green March shortly after the announcement of the ICJ’s Advisory Opinion on 16 October 1975;

 The implementation of the Security Council’s decision to negotiate, with Spain, the recuperation of the Sahara, in respect of the principle of the use of peaceful means in the settlement of disputes;

 The organization of an information campaign through which members of the Government and opposition parties explained to the International Community the ins and outs of Algeria’s manoeuvres meant to abort Morocco’s efforts to retrieve the Sahara. The involvement of the Algerian army in the attacks launched against Morocco from the Algerian territory was also laid bare by the campaign in question. Few months after the withdrawal of Spain, 3000 Algerian troops were besieged in Amgala by the Moroccan forces;

 The launching of the democratic process and participation of the political parties in the Government and in the opposition at the Parliament;

 The staunch defence of territorial integrity, both at the bilateral and multilateral levels with a view to foiling the Algerian plots.

The voices singing the “praises” of the separatist position did not rest much on the soundness of the thesis of “polisario”, but rather on a number of other factors combined. In the Cold War era, the pro-Soviet countries used to vote en bloc, and adopt the same position on almost all issues. Today, that the Cold War is over, however, one should underscore a significant fact: more than 33 States have withdrawn their recognition of the so-called “Sahrawi Republic”; and only 45 out of more than 190 UN member States recognize this non-existent entity.

Ironically enough, the tug-of-war between Algeria and Morocco is still going on. Since 1997, the “developments of the Western Sahara issue” have been on the Security Council’s agenda as a regular point. It is unfortunate that some observers content themselves with the UN’s resolutions and pay less heed, if ever, to the grounds on which each party to the dispute or party concerned builds its positions vis-à-vis the implementation of those resolutions.

The 1988 UN plan, fully fledged in 1994 as “Settlement Plan”, constituted a basis of the solution. It was elaborated in such a way as to meet the requirements of implementation phases detailed in the three reports of the UN Secretary General (S21360, S22464, S23299) and concerns mainly the following points:

1. The implementation of the ceasefire;

2. The establishment of the body of voters through the census which enfranchises all native Sahrawis;

3. The liberation of all political prisoners and POWs (In this regard, it is worth mentioning that “polisario” describes the Sahrawis living in the Tindouf camps as “refugees”; nothing could be further from the truth: according to accounts of Sahrawis who fled the camps and returned to Morocco, the people are sequestrated, deprived of their basic human rights and subjected to systematic torture. Worse still, the aids offered by many NGOs and countries never reach the population detained against their will);

4. The return of all native Sahrawis, of their own free will, to their places of origin in Western Sahara;

5. The establishment of an administration (MINURSO) invested with the supervision of the referendum;

6. The referendum campaign;

7. The organization of the referendum and the publication of its results.

To fully grasp the problems which thwart the implementation of the said plan, one should not dismiss the spirit that prevailed during its elaboration, from the first to the last articles: “to reach a just, transparent, lasting and mutually acceptable settlement to the conflict”. It took six years (1988 – 1994) to reach the final version of the “Settlement Plan” in which each single word has its full significance.

Morocco has always been for the organization of a referendum in which all native Sahrawis would participate; that is, the sedentary population taken census of in 1974 by Spain, the nomadic tribes as well as any Sahrawi who had left the territory at the time of Spanish occupation towards other provinces of Morocco. It is on this very point that Algeria dwells in order to block the referendum. Surely, the referendum is the most democratic means of expression; thus, the most significant right of people to self-determination. Any exclusion of individuals, either intentionally or out of ignorance, is a structural defect that will jeopardize the referendum’s credibility and nulls its results.

Given the desert nature of the Sahara, the inhabitants have an age-old tradition of nomadism. The majority of the people, who depend on livestock, travel across the region according to precipitations and pastures. The main political bond that unites them with the central authority is Beia; that is, allegiance to the Kings of Morocco (see the International Court of Justice’s Advisory Opinion, dated 16 October 1975).

The territory had been the target of a series of Spanish operations (notably in 1884, 1934 and 1950). Following the grand scale French-backed operation “Ecouvillon”, in 1958, Spain divided the territory into two portions: the province of Tarfaya, ceded back to Morocco in 1958; and the rest of Western Sahara, which Spain would cede back under the pressure of the Moroccan liberation army.

At the time, France had just started the exploitation of the rich iron mines in north Mauritania, bordering on the Western Sahara. Paris pressurized Madrid into maintaining its presence in the region and ensured an air cover for Spain to halt the advancement of the Moroccan liberation army. Faced with the joint Spanish troops and France air forces, the liberation army was inclined to retreat back to the independent part of Morocco.

As a result of such colonial campaigns, the native population lived in instability and was partly expelled towards the freshly independent northern provinces of Morocco. Logically, the native Sahrawis could not flee to Algeria or Mauritania, as the two countries were still under the French occupation.

The newspapers and historians who recorded the chronicles of the time still bear witness to the pain caused to the people. Following is one of the most recent and eloquent testimonies:

A// The report of the UN Mission to the region, May 1975, “Report of the Special Committee in charge of studying the situation relative to the Implementation of the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples / Vol. III, General Assembly, Official Documents: 30th Session/ Supplement N°23 (A/10023/Rev. 1)” points out to the following:

a. The nomadic and tribal character of the Sahrawi population;

b. The declaration, by Morocco, that 35000 native Sahrawis live on its southern territory in 1975 (A simple demographic calculation would reveal that, 32 years afterwards, the native population might have gone beyond 85000. Such a thesis is

corroborated by the fact that an indefinite number of native Sahrawis live in the northern provinces of Morocco);

c. The declaration, by Algeria, that only some 7000 to 12000 Sahrawis live on its soil;

d. The declaration, by Mauritania, that its lands comprise between 4000 and 5000 Sahrawis;

e. The declaration, by “polisario”, that the 1974 census did not include all native Sahrawis, or else they would have been in the region of 750000.

B// In August 1981, at the OAU Nairobi Summit, Algeria submitted a Memorandum that stipulated the following (p. 78-79):

“Paragraph 141- The deficiencies of the Spanish Census of 1974:

“The Algerian Government is convinced that the census carried out in 1974 by the Spanish authorities was both incomplete and biased. It was aimed merely at a part of the Sahrawi people and, therefore, exclusive of all those who used to live away from the centres of the colonial administration, in the interior of the territory, as well as those who were outside the territory.

“Paragraph 142- Estimations of the neighbouring countries and “polisario” in 1975 as to the number of native Sahrawis:

“This the main point that raised the controversy between Algeria and Morocco over the results of the census.

“Algeria had declared to the UN Mission that 7000 Sahrawi refugees were living in the only zone the Mission visited.

“Morocco had put forward that 30000 to 35000 refugees and exiled were living in the southern parts of the country, while an indefinite number of native Sahrawis were living in other Moroccan provinces.

“Mauritania had not put forward any number as it did not officially differentiate between Mauritanians and Sahrawis, the number of which, according to Mauritania would not go beyond 4000 to 5000 individuals.

“The polisario declared to the UN Mission that the number of Sahrawi refugees and exiled was 50000 (in 1975). The polisario’s estimates were that if all the native Sahrawis who entertain historical links with the territory are given the possibility to adhere to a Sahrawi State, their number might rise up to 750000 individuals.

“Pargraph 143- The Complexity of the Present Situation:

“What precedes gives us insight into the complexity of the census issue in Western Sahara. The Committee of the Implementation of the Referendum will particularly note the differences between the various estimations put forth by the different parties. The Spanish census concerned only a part of the native Sahrawis because, as it was carried out in anticipation of a referendum called for by the UN General Assembly, it had been inclusive of only the urban population. Besides, Spain’s Representative to the UN had declared, in December 1973, at the General Assembly, that, according to his government, only native Sahrawis who had been born in the territory and living thereat should participate in the consultations relative to its future.

“Paragraph 144-

Algeria’s Representative had then drawn attention to the fact that such an approach is unacceptable since it does not take account of the native Sahrawis who had been inclined to leave the territory and seek refuge outside, notably in Algeria, Morocco and Mauritania”.

What preceded sheds light on the gross contradiction of “polisario” and Algeria’s positions with regard to the people who should be eligible to participate in the referendum.

At the time when Spain was still colonizing the Sahara, Algeria and the “polisario” held the belief that the number of Sahrawis not taken census of exceeded 700000. Today, the UN seeks to carry out a general and scientific census that would take account of all Sahrawis regardless of where they live. However, Algeria and the “polisario” reject categorically such an approach, claiming that the number of native Sahrawis is in the region of 73000, ignoring the fact that the 1973 had been truncated.

Notwithstanding, Morocco has always been loyal to its initial principle relative to the definition of the body of voters: the citizens eligible for the referendum are those whom it had declared to the UN Mission of May 1975. Algeria and the “polisario” had, directly and indirectly, corroborated Morocco’s view both before the said UN Mission and the OAU’s Implementation Committee.

Morocco firmly believes that only Algeria has the answer to Western Sahara issue, given the fact that it is the author of the problem as a whole. In 1973, Algeria traded the movement of the liberation of the Canary Islands it hosted on its territory, and which had nothing real except the name of its leader “Cubillo”, for the creation of “polisario”. The pact was made between Algeria and Spanish colonial officers.

Besides, the 1970’s witnessed Algeria’s - which was an active State in the Soviet fold - activism to host, support, logistically, financially and diplomatically movements, groups and even individuals rising up against any regime that did not adhere to the Soviet ideology. At the cold war era, Algeria acted as proxy for the Soviet Union in Africa, just like Cuba did in America and Vietnam in Asia. Unfortunately, Morocco was a prime target of such an aberrant trend in the region.

The conjunction of a bulk of circumstances led to the conclusion of the aforementioned Spanish-Algerian pact, namely the 1973 petrol boom and the position Algeria held in the Soviet fold, gained due the role it played in the Non-Aligned Movement, as well as the reasons mentioned earlier and which fueled enmity towards Morocco. The pact aimed at:

1. Diverting Morocco’s attention away from the demarcation of borders with Algeria, dating back to the French occupation era (this question implies the historical responsibility of France which joined a portion of Morocco to Algeria, having felt the imminence of its departure from Morocco, namely the region of Tindouf, rich in iron, petrol and natural gas. The French believed they could keep a footing in Algeria, as a colony. As a result, the two neighbours warred about that portion of land in 1963);

2. The creation of a subservient micro-State on the south-east of Morocco, which would endow Algeria with an outlet on the Atlantic Ocean, and allow it to expand its oil and gas pipelines as well as minerals through the Algerian Sahara, sparing Algeria five

times the distance if those products are conveyed towards the northern ports for export to Africa and America;

3. Undermining the relations of Morocco, seen as a rival, with the rest of Africa, through checking its economic development and sapping its African dimension. The Algerian phobia about a “hegemonic Morocco” is groundless, except in the imagination of the Algeria nomenklatura, particularly in the aftermath of the 1963 war.

Such is the historical and strategic background of the Western Sahara issue. Should one fail to assimilate the slightest detail, one would not grasp fully the obstacles that thwart the progress of all attempts to settle the conflict which has endured through three decades.

In 1981, H.M. Hassan II voiced, before the OAU, Morocco’s willingness to organize a referendum that would confirm the Moroccanity of Western Sahara. The Committee of Implementation set up by the African organization decreed that all Sahrawis, including those not taken census of by Spain should be eligible (see the said resolution in the OAU Archives). To nip the idea of referendum in the bud, Algeria, with the connivance of Secretary General Edem Kodjo, rushed into announcing the incorporation of “SADR” into the OAU, in gross violation to the Charter of the African organization.

Being aware of the fact that the question could not progress properly at the African organization, Morocco referred the issue to the UN, where Algeria voiced, again, its opposition to the participation of all native Sahrawis, blocking thus the process of identification.

The Representatives of the UN Secretary General succeeded one another. When Mr. James Baker suggested in his first plan the idea of internal autonomy, Algeria, perplexed, proposed the division of the Sahara between Morocco and “polisario”. The aberrant Algerian position was largely decried by the International Community, dubbing it “ridiculous”.

Shortly afterwards, President Bouteflika flew to Houston where he had three-day-talks with Mr. James Baker. Thereafter, the latter put forth a second plan in which he made a backtrack, marking thus a return to the notorious deadlock. Mr. James Baker’s failure led to his resignation. As a matter of fact, the UN Secretary General and his new Representative, backed by the Security Council, arrived at the conclusion that the issue reached a deadlock, and, consequently, called upon the parties to seek a definitive, mutually acceptable and negotiated political solution.

Responding to such a call, H.M. King Mohammed VI made a historical step aiming, inter alia, at minimizing Algeria’s loss in supporting a losing cause. His Majesty proposed to grant the Sahara provinces a large internal autonomy within the framework of the Kingdom’s sovereignty, national unity and territorial integrity. Such a courageous initiative has in sight the preservation of the good relations between the two countries and the future of the region as a whole.

Morocco and Algeria are two brotherly neighbours with much in common. Their peoples share religion, culture, geography and, more particularly, the future within the framework of the Arab Maghreb. They hope for economic and social development and explore the best avenues to face the current challenges posed by globalization. They are equally united by their African, Arab and Islamic roots; their belonging to the Euro-Mediterranean space as well as

by the aspiration of their peoples towards a better future in which the coming generations take on the beacon of peace, democracy, prosperity and ward off constraints whatsoever.

In June 2000, H.M. King Mohammed VI gave an interview to the American magazine Time in which he answered a question about the Western Sahara issue. H.M the King asserted unequivocally that the problem is with Algeria and not its puppet “polisario”. He underscored that “as long as we do not discuss the problem frankly and logically with Algeria, we will not reach any solution”. Once more, Algeria expressed its strong opposition.

Any time Morocco calls to the participation of all native Sahrawis in the referendum about autonomy, Algeria, through “polisario”, comes up with excuses meant to reject the proposal and mislead the International Community.

It is high time for the International Community to understand that “polisario” is Algeria’s puppet, pure and simple. This truth is sustained by the fact that “plisario” lives on the Algerian territory; the Algerian embassies sponsor and organize its activities abroad; and all “polisario” activists are holders of Algerian diplomatic passports and not “political refugees” passports! Luckily, the various international politics circles are gaining some awareness of such facts, which explains the successive withdrawals of recognition of the imaginary entity “SADR” by a significant number of countries.

Normally, the Security Council member States and the whole International Community should not continue to pay the price for the hostile policy adopted by Algeria vis-à-vis Morocco. It is true that Algeria is not officially a party to the conflict in question; however, it can be the key to settling the issue or dragging it on!

Morocco has been historically known for its political and territorial stability. It had existed as an independent State for more than twelve centuries. In the 20th century, however, Morocco was one of the rare countries to be subjected to a thoughtless division. It had been colonized step by step, and gained independence in a like manner:

The French zone (central Morocco: 18 November 1955, return from exile of H.M. King Mohammed V; 2 March 1956 the French protectorate ended);

 Spanish zone (north of Morocco : April 1956);

 International zone of Tangier (north of Morocco : October 1956);

 Zone of Tarfaya (northern part of Western Sahara : 1958);

 Zone of Sidi Ifni (enclave colonized by Spain inside the former French zone in Morocco : July 1969);

 Western Sahara (the remaining southern part of the former Spanish Western Sahara, subject of the present study and of which the province of Tarfaya used to form a part; it was ceded back on 28 February 1976 following negotiations);

/// The two Moroccan cities of Sebta (Ceuta) and Melillia (Melilla) as well as the adjacent islands are still under the yoke of Spanish occupation.

/// The definitive delimitation of Moroccan-Algerian borders is the deepest issue yet to be tackled.

Despite Morocco’s willingness to settle the borders issue with Algeria, within the framework of its State commitments and a true Arab Maghreb Union, the Algerian position reveals its ill-will to divert Morocco’s attention away from this question. The dilatory choice of Algeria to

settle the border issue through depriving Morocco of its Sahara is a short-lived manoeuvre that will certainly have dire consequences on the region as a whole.

Regardless of Algeria’s obstinacy and its persistence to shut eyes to the truth, the answer to the question posed in the title is crystal-clear: “Western Sahara has always been, is and will ever be Moroccan”.


By : Mohamed MAEL-AININ

Ex-Ambassador of Morocco to Australia and New Zealand