Morocco and Western Sahara: What’s the Debate?
By: Lindsey Penn/Arab America Contributing Writer
If you’re looking at a map of North Africa, many will state the entire territory that borders Algeria, Mauritania, and the Atlantic coast as Morocco. However, there are maps that will divide that same territory into Morocco in the north and Western Sahara in the south. So, what is the difference? Why are there two different maps? And what is the controversy?
Morocco and Western Sahara
Morocco has a population of 36 million people, with many being Arabs or Amazigh, or a combination of the two. The official languages are Arabic, French and Tamazight, only recently added to the list. Spanish is another common language in Morocco. Many of the people are Muslim, more specifically, Sunni Muslim. France and Spain have both colonized parts of Morocco. In 1957, Morocco gained independence from France. Morocco’s capital is Rabat, located in northern Morocco on the Atlantic coast.
Western Sahara has a population of about 650,000 people. The people in Western Sahara are called Sahrawis. Many of them are Arabs or Amazigh, and speak Arabic, Tamazight, Spanish, and French. The majority of people are Muslim. Spain colonized Western Sahara until the mid-20th century. The biggest city is Laayoune, which is in the north.
Here is a timeline of the events that lead to the debate:
1884: Western Sahara, historically populated by Berbers, is colonized by Spain.
1934: Western Sahara becomes a Spanish province.
1956: Morocco gains independence.
1957: Morocco claims that Western Sahara is part of their territory. This is a claim Morocco has made for centuries. The claim is based on shared ancestry, culture, and political ties.
1965: The United Nations demands that Western Sahara is decolonized.
1973: The indigenous Sahrawi independence movement, called the Polisario Front, is established.
1975: The International Court of Justice determines that Western Sahara has the right to self-determination. King Hassan of Morocco organizes “The Green March”, where 350,000 Moroccans march into Western Sahara. Spain leaves Western Sahara. The Polisario Front fights a guerilla war against Moroccan military, while Morocco annexes two-thirds of Western Sahara. Mauritania claims the other third.
1975-76: During the guerrilla war, the Polisario Front establishes a government-in-exile in Algeria and declare the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). Many Sahrawis flee to Algeria and live in refugee camps.
1979: Mauritania withdraws from Western Sahara. Morocco annexes what was Mauritanian territory.
1984: The Organization of African Unity (OAU) admits SADR as a member. Consequently, Morocco leaves the OAU.
1991-2000: The UN brokers a ceasefire between Western Sahara and Morocco, ending the war. Since then, the UN has tried to hold discussions to come to an agreement, but they have failed. Morocco agreed to hold a referendum on independence, but has not done it yet.
2007: Morocco submits its Autonomy Plan to the UN Secretary-General. Under this plan, Western Sahara would become an autonomous region in the Kingdom of Morocco.
2016: Mohamed Abdelaziz Ezzedine, the first president of the SADR and a long-time leader, dies.
2017: Morocco re-enters the African Union (formerly the OAU).
2020: Morocco’s government passes two laws that formally annex the waters around Western Sahara.
Morocco has claimed ties to Western Sahara for centuries, based on ancestry and culture. As the demographics for Morocco and Western Sahara show, they do have a lot in common, such as language and religion. This could possibly also include history. Beyond that, though, Western Sahara poses as an economic benefit because of its resources, specifically the phosphates and fishing industry. Western Sahara can also help Morocco’s economy grow to compete with Algeria. Morocco’s monarchy has also used Western Sahara to unite the nation, meaning that if they lose Western Sahara, the monarchy loses legitimacy.
Throughout the years, Morocco has come under fire for jailing people who voice support for Sahrawi independence. The government fined some people, but others convicted others in unfair trials. People have accused Morocco of torturing people in jail and the government has not investigated these claims.
Currently, Morocco’s focus is more on gaining diplomatic support for annexing Western Sahara. For that reason, Morocco re-joined the African Union (AU), and convinced 28 of the countries in the union to support it. They are also creating economic agreements with other countries in order to encourage them to support Morocco’s annexation. This includes, but is not limited to, Morocco normalizing relations with Israel to gain the United States’ support.
Western Sahara’s View
On the other hand, the Sahrawis want independence. The International Court of Justice found that the ties between Western Sahara and Morocco (political, cultural, etc.) did not mean that Western Sahara should fall under Moroccan government, and that the people still have the right to self-determination. In this case, self-determination would mean a referendum of the Sahrawi people asking if they want to be a sovereign state or be under the govern of Morocco. As an independent state, Sahrawis would be able to grow their own economy, follow their own cultural traditions, and more.
Meanwhile, the Polisario Front is not devoid of problems, either. They have jailed, convicted (with unfair trials), and abused those who have criticized them. Some of those people are Sahrawis.
Currently, the SADR has the support of Nigeria and South Africa, two of the political powerhouses in the AU. Algeria and many international human rights organizations support SADR as well. However, the SADR is not internationally recognized as a state.
The reality is the situation is complicated. Seemingly, Morocco’s Autonomy Plan is the solution, but poses many problems to Sahrawis, who just want independence. Neither side is really willing to compromise, leaving the case in a stalemate.
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