Western Sahara

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The following discussion paper, drafted by Richard Knight, was presented to the board of the American Committee on Africa on December 8, 1977.  The footnotes to this paper were added to this on-line version posted in March 2001. – Richard Knight


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Discussion Paper on Polisario and the Western Sahara Struggle


          In Western Sahara a struggle for national liberation is going on.


          Western Sahara (formerly known as Spanish Sahara) was a colony of Spain until partitioned between Morocco and Mauritania.  POLSARIO, which led the armed struggle against Spain, now continues that struggle against the Moroccan and Mauritanian armies.  Spain and other western countries retain economic interests in Western Sahara and U.S. military aid to Morocco has drastically increased since partition.


          Located in northwestern Africa, Western Sahara is about 266,000 square kilometers (110,000 square miles) and has 1,062 kilometers of shoreline along the Atlantic.  In the north it is bordered by Morocco and Algeria and in the south by Mauritania.


          The question of the size of the population is somewhat a matter of dispute.  Traditionally the majority of the Saharan population were nomads who traveled widely and often crossed international frontiers.  However, since1968 a series of droughts forced a large portion of the popu1ation into towns.  According to a 1974 census taken by Spain, the total population was 95,019, of whom 73,497 were indigenous Saharans and 20,126 were Europeans and 1,396 were Africans from other countries.  Of this total 41,207 lived in the three cities of El Aaiun (28,499), Semara (7,295) and Villa Cisneros (5,413).  However, since 1975 as a result of the political and military situation, thousands of Saharans have fled the cities, mainly to the POLISARIO contro1ed areas and to POLISARIO-run refugee camps in Algeria. (Algeria is a close ally of POLSARIO.)


           The main known resource of Western Sahara is phosphate.  Rich phosphate deposits have been discovered in the Bu Craa region just 97 kilometers from the coast.  While these deposits are just beginning to be exploited, it has been estimated that when fully developed they could provide a per capita revenue close or equal to that of some developed European countries.


           In 1969 the Spanish, in association with a French financial group, formed a company called Fosfatos de Bu Craa to mine the phosphate.  Highly automated extraction equipment was purchased from the United States.  Total investment is some $200 million and production was scheduled to reach 10 million metric tons by l980, although this may not happen due to the war.


           Saharan phosphate is mineral rich and is of great importance for use as fertilizer.  This could be of especial importance if a progressive government controlled the phosphate and sold it directly to third world countries who currently have to pay very high prices for fertilizer.  Thus this could be an important step in improving the diets of the people of the third world.


          Oil is another important possible resource.  Oil has been discovered in Morocco and much of the same basin is in Western Sahara.  In July 1977, research and exploitation accords were signed by the Moroccan government and Phillips Petroleum (U.S.) and British Petroleum (U.K.).  An agreement has also been signed with Getty (U.S.) and AGIP.


          Other possible exploitable resources are iron and uranium, both of which have been found in Western Sahara.  Since all these resources are virtually untouched so far, they represent considerable economic interests for the western industrial countries. And Morocco will be their chief instrument in obtaining these resources.


          As the fighting has become more intense, the United States aid to Morocco has increased.  Morocco regularly bombs POLISARIO controlled areas, sometimes using U.S. made napalm.  In February 1976 the U.S. announced the sale of 24 F5E fighter planes to Morocco. U.S. military aid to Morocco in 1976 was $30 million, up from $14 million in 1975.  Morocco has also obtained military aircraft from France.


          Further, the U.S. has strategic interests in the area.  There is a U.S. naval base at Kenitra and a communications station at Sidi Yahya in Morocco.


  Mauritania has done less well by the deal.  While King Hassan of Morocco has succeeded in creating a large degree of unity around his regime as a result of the whole affair, the same has not been true for Moktar Ould Daddah of Mauritania.  Further, all the mineral rich areas are in the north in the Moroccan area.


  In fact, it has caused considerable drain on Mauritania.  The Mauritanian army has increased from 3,000 to 15,000 and 60% of the budget for 1977 has been allocated for the military.  Further, it has driven the country’s debt from $354 million in 1976 to $632 million.  (Even at $354 million the debts equaled 77% of its Gross National Product.  The average debt/GNP ratio for 75 non-oil producing developing nations in 1975 was 13%.)


          Why the Mauritanian government went along with the partition is not clear, but the contradictions of the situation may well prove more than Moktar Ould Daddah’s regime can stand.[i]




          Western Sahara was occupied by Spain in 1884 as a result of the Berlin Conference that divided Africa among the European powers.  As in the rest of Africa, colonization was met with resistance, including armed resistance.  From 1952-1958 Western Sahara served as a base for liberation forces fighting against French colonialism in Morocco.  During this time, a large portion of “Spanish Sahara” was liberated, but the newly independent Moroccan government joined the French and Spanish in 1958 in a military operation that crushed the liberation forces.


          Organized opposition to continued Spanish rule again began to take form in the late l960s.  In June 1970, large demonstrations were held in El Aaiun protesting the changing of the legal status of “Spanish Sahara” into a “region” of Spain.  Forty people were killed, hundreds wounded and over 1,000 imprisoned.


          On May 10, 1973 the Frente pro la Liberacion de Segiut El Hamra y de Rio de Oro[ii] (POLISARIO) was formed.  The name incorporates the two geographical zones of Western Sahara, Seguit El-Hamra and Rio de Oro.  Ten days later POLISARIO launched its first armed attack on a Spanish garrison.  By early 1975, a large area of the territory had been liberated from the Spanish, who kept solid control of only the larger towns and the phosphate mines.


          In May 1975, the United Nations sent a visiting mission to Western Sahara.  The results of the mission can be said to be nothing short of dramatic.  Everywhere the mission went, they were met by demonstrations demanding independence, the withdrawal of the Spanish military and administration, the return of refugees and an end to foreign economic domination.  Most of the demonstrations were led by POLISARIO, although the Partido de Union Nacional Saharaui (PUNS) also held some demonstrations demanding independence in the south.


          What was so dramatic about this was that it was totally unexpected in the international community.  Spain had gone out of its way to set up the “Jemaa” (tribal assembly) consisting of carefully selected chiefs to represent the people.


          The United Nations Mission concluded in part:


“Within the territory, the mission noted that the population, or at least almost all those persons encountered by the mission, were categorically for independence and against the territorial claims of Morocco and Mauritania.  The populations expressed the wish that the United Nations, Organization of African Unity, and the League of Arab States should help it to attain and preserve its independence... The Frente POLISARIO, although considered a clandestine movement before the missions s arrival, appeared as a dominant political force in the Territory.  The mission witnessed mass demonstrations in support of the movement in all parts of the Territory.”


          On October 16, 1975 the International Court of Justice announced an advisory opinion on Western Sahara.  In 1974, the General Assembly had asked the ICJ to give its opinion on the following two questions:


“1. Was Western Sahara (Rio de Oro and Sakiet El Hamra[iii]) at the time of colonization by Spain a territory belonging to no one (terra nullius)? 


If the answer to the first question is in the negative


   2. What were the legal ties between this territory and the kingdom of Morocco and the Mauritania entity?”


          The importance of these questions lies in the fact that both Morocco and Mauritania base their claims to the territory of Western Sahara on historical ties that existed at the time of colonization.  No one contested the fact that at the time of colonization Western Sahara was not terra nullius, but despite extensive presentations by both Morocco and Mauritania the court ruled “...that the materials and information presented to it do not establish any tie of territorial sovereignty between the territory of Western Sahara and the Kingdom of Morocco or the Mauritanian entity.  Thus the court has not found legal ties of such a nature as might affect the application of 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.”


          Hours after the decision was made public King Hassan of Morocco announced the Green March by Moroccans into Western Sahara.  Clearly the move had long been in the planning stage as a vast transportation system had secretly been assembled and soon peasants were on their way to the border.


          The announcement of the Green March set off a flurry of activity.  On October 26-30, there were public demonstrations in El Aaiun and a curfew was proclaimed.  Spanish authorities made plans for the fast evacuation of Spanish residents.  On October 28, the Moroccan Minister of Foreign Affairs and the president of the Moroccan Phosphate Bureau, the Mauritanian Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Mauritanian Minister of Economic Planning arrived in Madrid.  The next day an Algerian minister arrived with a message from his government.


         Saying “Spain will maintain its commitment in the Sahara”, Acting Head of State Prince Juan Carlos made a short visit to El Aaiun.  Spain itself was in turmoil as Franco lay dying.


          On November 6, Moroccan Green Marchers crossed the border and went about 15 kilometers inside Western Sahara.  The next day the Security Council condemned the move.  On November 9, King Hassan ordered the end of the Green March, saying that it had obtained its objectives.  Five days later a tripartite agreement between Spain, Morocco and Mauritania was signed in Madrid.  The agreement partitioned Western Sahara between Morocco and Mauritania.  Under the agreement Spain kept a 35% interest in the phosphate mines with the rest going to Morocco.  Moroccan exports of phosphates account for about 35% of the world’s total and it will be considerably higher when Saharan phosphate is added.


          Following the partition of Western Sahara, Spanish troops left but fighting has intensified.  POLISARIO declared the tripartite agreement null and void and on January 24, 1976 the OAU Liberation Committee approved a report recognizing POLISARIO as “the only legitimate liberation movement of the so-called Spanish Sahara struggling for independence of the territory.”


          One result of the tripartite agreement and the continuing war is the fact that there are now large numbers of refugees.  An estimated 75-100,000 Saharan people have fled to POLISARIO controlled refugee camps in Algeria.


          On February 27, 1976 POLISARIO proclaimed the Democratic Saharan Arab Republic.  Since that time POLISARIO has made great strides militarily, despite the fact that it is fighting the armies of both Morocco and Mauritania.  According to POLISARIO, the armies of their enemies have little will to fight and their morale is low.  However, POLISARIO still has a long road ahead.



Suggested Position for ACOA:


1.       Support POLISARIO as the only legitimate representative of the Saharan people.


2.       Support U.S. recognition of the Democratic Saharan Arab Republic.


3.       An end to all U.S. military assistance to Morocco and Mauritania.


4.      End U.S. involvement in exploitation of Sahara natural resources until such time as the Saharan people control those resources.




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[i]   Mokhtar Ould Daddah was overthrown in a bloodless coup in on July 10, 1978.  He detained for a year and a half and then went into exile in France.


[ii]   The name here is how it appeared in the original text.  The correct name in Spanish is Frente Popular para la Liberacion de Saguia el-Hamra y Rio de Oro (Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Rio de Oro).  I have also left unchanged in this paragraph the spelling of the region as Seguit El Hamra, although it is usually spelled Saguia el-Hamra.  I do not remember where the spelling I used came from but an old atlas in my possession spells it Saguiet el Hamra.  The International Court of Justice used the spelling Sakiet El Hamra.  For more on the spelling of names see Footnote 1 on the main Western Sahara page.


[iii]   This is how the name appears in the original International Count of Justice opinion.