This article is part of the series:
Western Sahara War · History of Morocco · Spanish Sahara · Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic · Spanish Morocco · Colonial wars in Morocco · Moroccan Army of Liberation · Ifni War · ICJ Advisory Opinion · UN in Spanish Sahara · Madrid Accords · Green March · Berm (Western Sahara) · Human rights in Western Sahara
The history of Western Sahara can be traced back to the times of Carthaginian explorer Hanno the Navigator on the 5th century BC. Though little historical records are left from that period, Western Sahara's modern history has its roots linked to some nomadic groups living under Berber tribal rule such as the Sanhaja group and the introduction of Islam and the Arabic language beginning from the 8th century AD.
From the 11th to the 19th centuries, Western Sahara was the link between Sub-Sahara and North Africa regions. During the 11th century, the Sanhaja confederation allied with the Lamtuna tribe to found the Almohads dynasty. The conquests of Almohads extended over most parts of present-day Morocco, Tlemcen and the Iberian peninsula to the north and Mauritania, Senegal and Mali to the south reaching the Ghana Empire. By the 16th century, the Arab Saadi dynasty conquered the Songhai Empire based around the Niger River. Trans-Saharan trade also flourished as Western Sahara becomes a strategic passage for caravans between Timbuktu in Mali and Marrakech. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the slave trade became common.
On November 6, 1975 Morocco organized the Green March, a mass demonstration of 350,000 unarmed citizens who travelled from all parts of Morocco to the region which became known later as the Southern Provinces. As a result, Spain withdrew in November 18 and signed the Madrid Accords with Morocco and Mauritania, who divided the region.
Western Sahara has remained a disputed territory between Morocco and the nationalist Polisario Front since 1975. Morocco claims sovereignty based on historical ties with the region while the Polisario Front seeks independence. This dispute is pending resolution through 2007 Manhasset negotiations.
Western Sahara area has never formed a state in the modern sense of the word. Phoenician/Carthaginian colonies established or reinforced by Hanno the Navigator in the 5th century BC have vanished with virtually no trace. The desertification of the Sahara during the "transitional arid phase" ca. 300 BC - 300 AD" made contact with some parts with the outside world very difficult before the introduction of the camel into these areas, from the third century of the Christian era on. The camel was primarily used as a beast of burden. People walked beside them. Also camel's meat, milk and skin were important. The horse, not the camel was the animal that was used in warfare in the period 1000-1500 AD ("the period of horse warriors and conquest states").
Before Islam arrived in the 8th century AD a Berber population inhabited the western part of the Sahara, with the population consisting of nomads (mainly of the Sanhaja tribal confederation) in the plains and sedentary populations in river valleys, in oases and in towns like Awdaghust Tichitt, Oualata, Taghaza, Timbuktu, Awlil, Azuki and Tamdult. The Islamic faith quickly expanded, brought by Arab immigrants, who initially only blended superficially with the population, mostly confining themselves to the cities of present-day Morocco and Spain.
The Berbers increasingly used the traditional trade routes of the Sahara. Caravans transported salt, gold and slaves between North Africa and West Africa, and the control of trade routes became a major ingredient in the constant power struggle between various tribes. On more than one occasion, the Berber tribes of the Western Sahara would unite behind religious leaders to sweep the ruling leaders from power, sometimes founding dynasties of their own. This was the case with the Almoravids of Morocco and Al-Andalus, and was also the case with the jihad of Nasir al-Din in the 17th century and the later Qadiriyyah movement of the Kunta in the 18th century.
The movement of the Almoravids (1061-1147) in the western part of the Sahara was the expression and the beginning of a complete change of society. An important role in this process was played by the zawiyas. As centres of Islamic education under the supervision of an Islamic scholar, the 'saih', they became centres of new communities. In many tribal groups we see a split when a part of their members distanced themselves from the traditional leading group and formed a zawiya, following the Islamic example. These newly-formed communities separated themselves from traditional, military society. Until then matrilinear ancestry had been important. They stressed the importance of patrilinear ancestry in which they tried to show their descent from the Islamic prophet Muhammad (the Shurfa), his tribe (the Quraysh) or his companions (Ansar). They put spiritual ideals higher than the ideals of battle. They preferred religious influence over military pressure, equal membership over dependency. They were in favour of giving alms and lending cattle to people in need and were vehemently opposed to plunder and extortion. They declared cattle-raids and random taxing to be unlawful. Although they were opposed to non-religious warfare, they were strong enough to defend themselves against military attacks. These zawiya tribes became the tribes of the teachers, specialists of religion, law and education.
In the time of the Almoravids professional warriors had fought as 'mujahideen' in their holy war. Just like the people who had united in zawyas, the mujahideen began to form tribes based on their specific occupation. This development was accelerated by the arrival of Maqil Arab tribes. In the 13th and 14th century, these tribes migrated westwards along the northern border of the Sahara to settle in the Fezzan (Libya), Ifriqiya (Tunisia), Tlemcen (Algeria), Jebel Saghro (Morocco), and Saguia el-Hamra, (Western Sahara). When the Maqil Arabs arrived in the western part of the Sahara the muyahidin were most prone to Arabization. While the zawiya tribes retained many of their Berber characteristics, the warrior tribes tried to 'Arabize' as much as possible. They constructed genealogies of the ancestors of their tribes, connecting them to members of the Maqil and Arabizing their ethnonyms. Thus the Nyarzig, for instance, became the Ouled Rizg. However, this right to call yourself 'Arab' was only restricted to some tribes. These tribes, the Banu Hassan or simply Hassan, were to function as a warrior class in the next centuries.
The Arabized Berber tribes controlled key oasis settlements of the Sahara and played an important role in the trans-Saharan slave trade. They already used to impose heavy taxation on any traffic through their lands, while also furnishing protection, supplies, and camels. When trans-Saharan trade intensified, they developed departure and arrival centers with slave depots and intermediary secure caravan stops. In these centers, they oversaw the traffic from sub-Saharan regions to Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. Timbuktu (Mali) was a central crossroad to all four routes. Ouadane, Idjil (near Atar), Azougui, Araouane, Taoudenni and later Tindouf were important stopping-places. At the same time the number of slaves kept in Western Sahara itself increased drastically.
The Maqil tribes, who entered the domains of the Sanhaja Berber tribe, sometimes intermarried with the Berber population. The Arabo-Berber people of the region is now known as Saharawi. An exonym sometimes used to describe the Banu Hassan tribes of present-day of the region was Moors. The Arabic dialect, Hassaniya became the dominant mother-tongue of the Western Sahara and Mauritania. Berber vocabulary and cultural traits remain common, despite the fact that many Saharawi people today claim Arab ancestry.
After the fall of the Almoravid empire in 1147 the new Moroccan empires (Almohads, Merinids and Wattasids) retained sovereignty over the western part of the Sahara but the effectiveness of it depended largely on the sultan that ruled. It was only with the coming to power of the Saadi Dynasty that the sovereignty of Morocco over the western part of the Sahara became complete again: The Portuguese colonisers were expelled from Cape Bojador and from Cap Blanc and the borders of Morocco were moved up to the Senegal River in the south-west and to the Niger River in the south-east (see: Battle of Tondibi in 1591). The following (and current) Moroccan dynasty, the Alaouite Dynasty which came to power in 1659, appears to have continued to exercise some degree of sovereignty over the modern western Sahara, although the slow collapse of central authority through the 19th century, which ended in European colonial rule, no doubt attenuated that.
In the second half of the 19th century several European powers tried to get a foothold in Africa. France occupied Tunisia and Great Britain Ottoman Egypt. Italy took possession of parts of Eritrea, while Germany declared Togo, Cameroon and South West Africa to be under its protection. At the invitation of Germany 14 countries attended the Berlin Conference in 1884-1885 to come to an agreement amongst them about the division of the territories. At the time of the conference, 80% of Africa was still under traditional African control. What resulted of the conference was a new map with geometric, often arbitrary, boundaries. Western Sahara came under Spanish rule, despite attempts by the Moroccon sultan Hassan I to repel the European incursions on the territory in 1886. The oases of Tuat in the south-east went to the immense territory of the French Sahara.
In 1912, Morocco itself became a protectorate of Spain and France. When Morocco gained its indepence in the 1950s, the country also restated its claims over the still Spanish Western Sahara. In 1958, the Moroccan King Mohammed V in an address at El Ghizlan called for a renewal of the "everlasting allegiance" that Saharan tribes had pledged to Moulay Hassan I and promised that Morocco would mobilise itself to see the Western Sahara brought under Moroccan rule.
The modern ethnic group is thus an Arabized Berber people inhabiting the westernmost Sahara desert, in the area of modern Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria and most notably the Western Sahara, with some tribes traditionally migrating into northern Mali and Niger. As with most Saharan peoples, the tribes reflect a highly mixed heritage, combining Arab, Berber, and other influences, including black African ethnic and cultural characteristics.
In pre-colonial times, the tribal areas of the Sahara desert was generally considered bled es-Siba or "the land of dissidence" by the authorities of the established Islamic states of North Africa, such as the Sultan of Morocco and the Deys of Algeria. The Islamic governments of the pre-colonial sub-Saharan empires of Mali and Songhai appear to have had a similar relationship with these territories, which were at once the home of undisciplined raiding tribes and the main trade route for the Saharan caravan trade. Central governments had little control over the region, although the Hassaniya tribes would occasionally extended "beya" or allegiance to prestigious neighbouring rulers, to gain their political backing or, in some cases, as a religious ceremony.
Best reference on Sahrawui population ethnography in the Spanish colonial era is the work of Spanish anthropologist Julio Caro Baroja, who in 1952-53 spent several months among native tribes all along the then Spanish Sahara.
In 1884, Spain claimed a protectorate over the coast from Cape Bojador to Cap Blanc. Later, the Spanish extended their area of control. In 1958 Spain joined the previously separate districts of Saguia el-Hamra (in the north) and Río de Oro (in the south) to form the province of Spanish Sahara.
Raids and rebellions by the Sahrawi population kept the Spanish forces out of much of the territory for a long time. Ma al-Aynayn started an uprising against the French in the 1910s, at a time when France had expanded its influence and control in North-West Africa. French forces finally beat him when he tried to conquer Marrakesh, but his sons and followers figured prominently in several rebellions which followed. Not until the second destruction of Smara in 1934, by joint Spanish and French forces, did the territory finally become subdued. Another uprising in 1956–1958, initiated by the Moroccan-backed Army of Liberation, led to heavy fighting, but eventually the Spanish forces regained control - again with French aid. However, unrest simmered, and in 1967 the Harakat Tahrir arose to challenge Spanish rule peacefully. After the events of the Zemla Intifada in 1970, when Spanish police destroyed the organization and "disappeared" its founder, Muhammad Bassiri, anti-Spanish feeling or Sahrawi nationalism again took a militant turn.
From 1973 the colonizers gradually lost control over the countryside to the armed guerrillas of the Polisario Front, a nationalist organization. Successive Spanish attempts to form loyal Sahrawi political institutions (such as the Djema'a -many members of the Yemaa are today in Polisario Movement- and the PUNS party) to support its rule, and draw activists away from the radical nationalists, failed. As the health of the Spanish leader Francisco Franco deteriorated, the Madrid government slipped into disarray, and sought a way out of the Sahara conflict. The fall in 1974 of the Portuguese Estado Novo-government after unpopular wars in its own African provinces seems to have hastened the decision to pull out.
In late 1975, Spain held meetings with Polisario leader El-Ouali, to negotiate the terms for a handover of power. But at the same time, Morocco and Mauritania began to put pressure on the Franco government: both countries argued that Spanish Sahara formed an historical part of their own territories. The United Nations became involved after Morocco asked for an opinion on the legality of its demands from the International Court of Justice (ICJ), and the UN also sent a visiting mission to examine the wishes of the population. The visiting mission returned its report on October 15, announcing "an overwhelming consensus" in favor of independence (as opposed to integration with Morocco or with Mauritania, or continued rule by Spain). The mission, headed by Simeon Aké, also declared that the Polisario Front seemed the main Sahrawi organization of the territory - the only rival arrangements to what the mission described as Polisario's "mass demonstrations" came from the PUNS, which by this time also advocated independence. Polisario then made further diplomatic gains by ensuring the backing of the main Sahrawi tribes and of a number of formerly pro-Spanish Djema'a elders at the Ain Ben Tili conference of October 12.
On October 16, the ICJ delivered its verdict. To the dismay of both the Rabat and Nouakchott governments, the court found with a clear majority, that the historical ties of these countries to Spanish Sahara did not grant them the right to the territory. Furthermore, the Court declared that the concept of terra nullius (un-owned land) did not apply to the territory. The Court declared that the Sahrawi population, as the true owners of the land, held a right of self-determination. In other words, any proposed solution to the situation (independence, integration etc), had to receive the explicit acceptance of the population to gain any legal standing. Neither Morocco nor Mauritania accepted this, and on October 31, 1975, Morocco sent its army into Western Sahara to attack Polisario positions. The public diplomacy between Spain and Morocco continued, however, with Morocco demanding bilateral negotiations over the fate of the territory.
On November 6, 1975 Morocco launched the Green March into Western Sahara. About 350,000 unarmed Moroccans converged on the city of Tarfaya in southern Morocco and waited for a signal from King Hassan II of Morocco to cross into Western Sahara. As a result, Spain acceded to Moroccan demands, and entered bilateral negotiations. This led to the Madrid Agreement, a treaty that divided the territory between Morocco and Mauritania, in return for phosphate and fishing concessions to Spain. Spain and Morocco did not consult the Sahrawi population, and the Polisario violently opposed the treaty. The developments chance in the region until the 90's were strongly influenced by the power struggle of the Cold war. Algeria, Libya and Mali were allied to the Eastern bloc. Morocco was the only African country in the region that was allied to the West.
Algeria gave help to the Movimiento de Liberación del Sahara, that in in final 1960's and early 1970s formed a section of new split youngs. The majority of Saharaui People supported its patriotic actions and indentified with this movement, which later was called Polisario, and gradually had more misunderstandings with the Autonomous and Central Government of the Metropoli for the signs of a vacilante, or feeble foreign policy, made up by Generals that had the "última palabra" or "last word", feeling a possible betrayal of the Motherland.
On November 14, 1975, Spain, Morocco and Mauritania signed the Madrid Accords, hence setting up a timetable for the retrieval of Spanish forces and ending Spanish occupation of Western Sahara. These accords were signed by the three parties in accordance with all international standards. In these accords, Morocco was set to annex back 2/3 of the northern part of Western Sahara, whereas the lower third would be given to Mauritania. Polisario, establish their own Saharaui Democratic Republic, and combined guerrilla, with his conventional popular Independentist patriotic National Army (APLS).
On February 26 1976 Spain's formal mandate over the territory ended when it handed administrative power on to Morocco in a ceremony in Laayoune. The day after, the Polisario proclaimed in Bir Lehlou the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) as a government in exile. Mauritania in its turn renamed the southern parts of Río de Oro as Tiris al-Gharbiyya, but proved unable to maintain control over the territory. Polisario made the weak Mauritanian army its main target, and after a bold raid on the Mauritanian capital Nouakchott (where a gunshot killed El-Ouali, the first president of the SADR), Mauritania succumbed to internal unrest. The presence of a large number of Sahrawi nationalists among the country's dominant Moorish population made the Mauritanian government's position yet more fragile, and thousands of Mauritanian Sahrawis defected to Polisario. In 1978 the army seized control of the Mauritanian government and Polisario declared a cease-fire, on the assumption that Mauritania would withdraw unconditionally. This eventually occurred in 1979, as Mauritania's new rulers agreed to surrender all claims and to recognize the SADR. Following Mauritania's withdrawal, however, Morocco extended its control to the rest of the territory, and the war continued.
Through the 1980s, the war stalemated through the construction of a desert sand berm referred by Polisario as the Moroccan Wall. Sporadic fighting continued, and Morocco faced heavy burdens due to the economic costs of its massive troop deployments along the Wall. To some extent aid sent by Saudi Arabia and by the USA relieved the situation in Morocco, but matters gradually became unsustainable for all parties involved.
In 1991 Morocco and the Polisario Front agreed on a UN-backed cease-fire in the Settlement Plan. This plan, its further detail fleshed out in the 1997 Houston Agreement, hinged upon Morocco's agreement to a referendum on independence or unification with Morocco voted by the Sahrawi population. The plan intended this referendum to constitute their exercise of self-determination, thereby completing the territory's yet unfinished process of decolonization. The UN dispatched a peace-keeping mission, the MINURSO, to oversee the cease-fire and make arrangements for the vote. Initially scheduled for 1992, the referendum has not taken place, due to the conflict over who has the right to vote. A second United Nations attempt to solve the conflict, James Baker's 2003 peace plan, though accepted by the Polisario, met rejection out-of-hand from Morocco, which had by then reneged on its promise to hold a referendum, declaring it "unnecessary".
The prolonged cease-fire has held without major disturbances, but Polisario has repeatedly threatened to resume fighting if no break-through occurs. Morocco's withdrawal from both the terms of the original Settlement Plan and the Baker Plan negotiations in 2003 left the peace-keeping mission without a political agenda: this further increased the risks of renewed war. Meanwhile, the gradual liberalization of political life in Morocco during the 1990s belatedly reached Western Sahara around 2000. This spurred political protest, as former "disappeared" and other human rights-campaigners began holding illegal demonstrations against Moroccan rule. The subsequent crackdowns and arrests drew media attention to the Moroccan occupation, and Sahrawi nationalists seized on the opportunity: in May 2005, a wave of demonstrations subsequently dubbed by the Independence Intifada by Polisario supporters, broke out. These demonstrations, which continued into the following year, were the most intense in years, and engendered a new wave of interest in the conflict - as well as new fears of instability. Polisario demanded international intervention, but declared that it could not stand idly by if the "escalation of repression" continues.
In 2007 Morocco requested U.N. action against a congress to be held by the Polisario Front in Tifariti from December 14 to December 16. Morocco claims Tifariti is part of a buffer zone and the holding the congress there violates a ceasefire between the two parties. In addition, the Polisario Front has been reported as planning a vote on a proposal for making preparations for war. If passed it would be the first time in 16 years preparations for war have been part of the Polisario's strategy.
Algeria sees itself as "important actor" in the conflict, although in its official position the country claims to be a simple defender of the rights of nations to self-determination. The efforts invested by Algeria in the Western Sahara conflict, especially at level of its international relations, are comparable to the ones of an involved party such as Morocco.
Morocco's position is that Algeria is part of the conflict and uses the Sahara issue for geopolitical interests that date from the Cold War, claiming that this country in its official communication to the United Nations "presents itself sometimes as 'a concerned party,' other times as an 'important actor,' or as a 'party' in the settlement of the dispute". The United Nations has only ever considered Morocco and the Polisario Front parties to the conflict.
The refugee camps are located in Algeria and the country has armed, trained, and financed the Polisario for more than thirty years. It has allowed more than two thousand Moroccan prisoners of war to be detained on its soil in the Polisario's camps, most of them for twenty years, but there are no longer Moroccan POW's in the conflict.
Although the United Nations officially considers Morocco and the Polisario Front as the main parties to the conflict, former UN Secretary-General Mr. Kofi Annan views Algeria as a stakeholder in the Western Sahara conflict and has invited Algeria, "to engage as a party in these discussions and to negotiate, under the auspices of my Kofi Annan's Personal Envoy". In an interview with the Public Broadcasting Service, in August 2004, James Baker, former personal envoy of the United Nations Secretary to Western Sahara, identified Morocco and Algeria as being both the "two chief protagonists" of the conflict. Some third parties have called for both Morocco and Algeria to negotiate directly to find a solution for the conflict.
Even though Algeria has no official claim to Western Sahara, some experts see that the Sahara conflict represents a domestic political issue for the country . Stressing the role played by Algerian officers in allegedly interrogating and torturing the Moroccan POWs, France Libertés states in its report on The Conditions of Detentions of the Moroccan POWs Detained in Tindouf (Algeria) that "the involvement of Algeria in the conflict is well known". In March 2003 Khaled Nezzar, an Algerian retired general, referred to the conflict as being an issue only between Morocco and Algeria.
According to France Libertés there were direct battles between the armies of these two countries in January and February 1976, in Amgala and Morocco claims to have captured "dozens of Algerian officers and non-commissioned officers and soldiers" during these confrontations, but has released them to Algerian authorities..
Pro Moroccan government sites
Pro Polisario sites