Western Saharans

Alternative names: Saharawis, Beiden
Location: former Spanish Western Sahara, in exile in southern Algeria
Population: 150,000 (est.) including 100,000 (est.) in Algeria
% of population: virtually 100% are Bidan Moors
Religion: Muslim
Language: Arabic (Hassaniya dialect)

The Western Saharans, or more traditionally Saharawis, are a branch of the Bidan or Moorish people, who are nomads of mixed Berber, Arab and black African descent. They inhabit the harsh desert region stretching from southern Morocco to the valleys of the Niger and Senegal and traditionally lived a nomadic life, trading animals, wool, skins and salt for foodstuffs and other essentials. Saharawis divide their society into tribes and castes, and tribes are organized by assemblies of respected family heads under the authority of a sheikh. Since 1975 they have been fighting a bitter war against occupying Moroccan and (until 1978) Mauritanian forces.

Colonial history

The first European contact with Western Sahara was made by Portuguese traders in the fifteenth century, and a lucrative trade in slaves and gold was begun. In the late nineteenth century Spain laid claim to the territories and in 1934 the French succeeded in gaining the border regions of north-western Sahara while the Spanish continued to govern Spanish Sahara as an appendage of the protectorate in northern Morocco.

Until the late 1950s almost all Saharawis were still nomadic. Their lives began to change radically however when the territory’s rich mineral resources became known to the western world. Western Sahara has large oil reserves, both onshore and offshore; it also has rich iron ore and phosphate deposits, and one of the best fishing zones in the world, unexploited by the Saharawis themselves. The economic changes of the 1960s and early 1970s brought about a rapid modernization of Saharawi society: the majority of the population became sedentarized and the urban population trebled in seven years.

Inspired by the example of Moroccan radicals, who had brought about Moroccan independence in 1956, Saharawis rebelled against the French and Spanish in the region. However it was not until 1971-72 that the anti-colonial movement was effectively organized, largely by Saharawis living in Morocco and Mauritania, and on 10 May 1973 the Polisario Front was formed. Polisario rapidly grew to become a mass movement and in 1975 thousands of pro-Polisario demonstrators took to the streets to greet a UN mission of enquiry, which found there to be “an overwhelming consensus among (West) Saharans . . in favour of independence”.

In 1966 the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution calling for a referendum in Western Sahara over the issue of self-determination. This proposal was repeatedly adopted in subsequent resolutions and in 1974 the Spanish authorities agreed to the holding of a referendum and assisted in the establishment of a moderate Saharawi political party to counter Polisario’s influence in the region.

The Moroccan claim

Since 1956 Morocco had laid claim to a vast portion of the Algerian Sahara, the whole of western Sahara and Mauritania, and the north-west tip of Mali. The Mauritanian government, however, viewed any loss of western Saharan territory to Morocco as a grave threat to their security in view of the 1,570-kilometre border between the two countries, almost half of which was within 50 kilometres of the strategic iron-ore railway upon which Mauritania depended for some 85% of export earnings.

In response to the UN resolution on a referendum, King Hassan II of Morocco determined to thwart what was clearly a prelude to independence. Hoping to force Spain to cede the territory to Morocco he launched a patriotic crusade to recover the “Moroccan Sahara”, and aroused enormous enthusiasm among the Moroccan people. He massed 20,000 troops near the Western Saharan border and forced a postponement of the referendum pending a decision on the dispute by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) at The Hague. The referendum was never held and in 1975 the ICJ found that neither Mauritania nor Morocco had ties of sovereignty with Western Sahara.

Within hours of the publication of the ICJ’s findings King Hassan launched his Green March, named after the holy colour of Islam. 350,000 Moroccan volunteers marched across the Western Saharan border to assert Morocco’s territorial claim. This manoeuvre was something of a gesture as Morocco and Mauritania had already reached an agreement with Spain, according to which Spain would cede Western Sahara to both countries in return for fishing and other interests. On April 14, 1976 Western Sahara was formally partitioned, with two-thirds of the territory going to Morocco, including the phosphate deposits and the two principal towns.

The division of Western Sahara between neighbouring countries had been carried out without consideration of the strength of Saharawi determination to resist annexation. Polisario had consistently rejected any settlement which did not grant the territory, within its pre-1975 borders, full independence. Refugees began to leave the disputed areas and within six months 50,000 were living in camps on Algerian territory. These camps were soon populated almost entirely by women and children as men left to enlist in Polisario’s Saharawi People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). An independent Western Saharan state, the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) was proclaimed by Polisario on February 27, 1976.

The war

Mauritania proved to be a weak opponent and had only a small army. Polisario forces determined to knock Mauritania out of the war and so destroy the Mauritania-Morocco alliance. They were highly successful in this aim, partly because it was virtually impossible for Mauritanian troops to police the one million square kilometres of territory in which the guerrillas operated and partly because the war was in any case unpopular with most Mauritanians, many of whom were Moors related to the Saharawis, and others of whom were black African minorities to whom the conflict was a purely inter-Arab affair. In order to prevent defeat at the hands of the SPLA, Mauritania signed a defence pact with both France and Morocco. Moroccan troops were sent into the country and French military personnel also arrived. French air strikes failed to stop the SPLA’s offensive however, and in July 1978 there was a military coup, and peace agreement was signed, according to which Mauritania abandoned all claims to Western Saharan territory.

On August 14, 1978 Morocco seized Dakhla and named Tiris el-Gharbia a Moroccan province. Polisario, backed by Algeria, continued its offensive and was soon assaulting towns in southern Morocco. In March 1980 Hassan began the building of a “Great Wall of the Sahara” which within two years had stretched some 400 kilometres in length, from the Algerian border in the north-east to the Atlantic coast. He later extended it to form a continuous defence line over 640 kilometres long in 1984. The wall was constructed of sandbanks, minefields, and barbed wire, with intermittent artillery placements and observation posts, underground quarters, electronic ground sensors and radar equipment to detect guerrilla vehicles. It effectively prevented the guerrillas from executing the lightning raids for which they had become known, forcing them to withdraw further into the desert and skirt around the wall. Despite the presence of the wall, in 1984 Morocco controlled less than one quarter of West Sahara’s land area, although this area included the phosphate mines at Bou-Kraa.

The war continued on much the same lines until mid-1988 with Morocco continuing to expand its wall defences so that by 1988 it was 1,600 kilometres long and covered an area of perhaps two-thirds of the territory. Morocco maintained a presence of between 100,000 and 200,000 troops in the area and received military backing from France and the USA. Polisario troops, although only a fraction of the numbers of the Moroccan army and relying on arms from Algeria and those captured from the Moroccans, continued to operate a guerrilla war behind the wall, making surprise attacks and capturing Moroccan soldiers — captives were estimated to number between 2,000 and 3,000. Exhaustion began to set in on both sides and it appeared that only a diplomatic settlement rather than a military victory could bring peace to the region.

The international dimension

The situation in Western Sahara placed the Western Powers in a dilemma. The French Socialist Party maintained relations with Polisario while the Mitterrand government supplied arms to Morocco; the Spanish government has tried to preserve good relations with both Morocco and Algeria as has the USSR, which supplies arms to Polisario via Algeria rather than openly antagonize Morocco, with which it has a growing economic relationship. The USA, while officially remaining neutral in the conflict, has allied itself to Morocco for strategic reasons despite the importance of US-Algerian business interests.

Third-World countries have generally favoured Polisario which sought diplomatic recognition for the SADR. By 1989 over 70 countries, mainly in Africa, Asia and Latin America, had given SADR diplomatic status. The OAU, which had continued to call for a referendum, agreed to give a seat to the Polisario Front at its 20th Conference in November 1984; Morocco withdrew in protest. But Morocco began to become increasingly diplomatically isolated, and in October 1985 at a meeting of the UN General Assembly the Moroccan government made an offer of a ceasefire and referendum under UN auspices, while continuing to refuse any recognition to Polisario. This was rejected by Polisario and the war continued. But Polisario was also facing pressure from its chief ally Algeria and the former colonizer Spain, and hopes for a diplomatic settlement grew. This was facilitated by the harsh austerity measures the Moroccan government has been forced to adopt, which have led to civilian unrest and internal instability.

The UN became more actively involved in the search for peace and the UN Secretary General made several visits to the area in an effort to get talks under way. This resulted in the acceptance of UN proposals for a referendum, by both Morocco and Polisario in August 1988, but no date was set for a ceasefire and the precise details of the plan were not made public. Fierce fighting, resulting in 250 deaths, took place only three weeks after the agreement of the plan. But it was not until January 1989 that King Hassan agreed to meet Polisario leaders directly for the first time, although he maintained that this was for discussions not for negotiations, conditions agreed to by Polisario. There has been little progress since then and some fighting has occurred but both sides seem war weary and there is strong diplomatic pressure on both sides to reach an agreement.

Prospects for the future

There are many problems to be faced both in relation to the plan itself and on the ground. The referendum will be carried out within Moroccan-held West Sahara and in the Polisario base at Tindouf in southern Algeria. Only 74,600 Saharawis whose births were recorded by the Spanish colonial authorities will be allowed to vote. This excludes those who were born outside the area (not unusual given the nomadic nature of Saharawi society) and those whose births were not recorded. There are fears by Polisario that Morocco will attempt to inflate the numbers to include the Moroccans resident behind the wall; there are now at least 100,000 Moroccan settlers and a probable 150,000 troops. The policing of a ceasefire and withdrawal of troops before a referendum takes place has still to be determined; one proposal was for the deployment of a UN force of 2,000 to oversee the process. Morocco is confident that the area will vote to stay within Morocco but has said that it will recognize an independent Western Saharan state if the majority vote for it, but many observers, and also Polisario, are sceptical as the Moroccan regime has placed a great deal of its prestige and a large amount of resources into its West Sahara campaign.

Adversity has made the Western Saharans a determined and resourceful people. In their 24 tent camps in Algeria they have developed new skills, have established income-generating projects and have given priority to education. A number of campaigns have ensured almost universal literacy and young Western Saharans have been sent to schools in Algeria, Cuba and (at one stage) Libya. Despite their small numbers and inhospitable environment Western Saharans are well equipped to run an independent nation.

(See also Mauritania)