Within the annals of African conflicts, not many have lasted as long or been as intense as the Western Sahara War of Morocco and the self-governing Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. With a general span of fifty years, and more intense fighting of nearly 16 years, it still gives African peacekeepers a conundrum of mythical proportions.
The conflict began from an insurgency by the Polisario Front against Spanish colonialist forces from 1973 to 1975 and the subsequent Western Sahara War against Morocco between 1975 and 1991. Today the conflict is dominated by unarmed civil campaigns of the Polisario Front and their self-proclaimed SADR state to achieve fully recognized independence for Western Sahara.
Militant and Independant
The Polisario Front was formally constituted on 10 May 1973 in the Mauritanian city of Zouirate, with the express intention of militarily forcing an end to Spanish colonization. Its first Secretary-General was El-Ouali Mustapha Sayed.
On 20 May he led the Khanga raid, Polisario’s first armed action, in which a Spanish post manned by a team of Tropas Nomadas (Sahrawi-staffed auxiliary forces) was overrun and rifles seized. Polisario then gradually gained control over large swaths of desert countryside, and its power grew from early 1975 when the Tropas Nomadas began deserting to the Polisario, bringing weapons and training with them.
At this point, Polisario’s manpower included perhaps 800 men, but they were backed by a larger network of supporters. A UN visiting mission headed by Simeon Aké that was conducted in June 1975 concluded that Sahrawi support for independence (as opposed to Spanish rule or integration with a neighboring country) amounted to an “overwhelming consensus” and that the Polisario Front was by far the most powerful political force in the country.
In late 1975, the Moroccan government organized the Green March of some 350,000 Moroccan citizens, escorted by around 20,000 troops, who entered Western Sahara, trying to establish a Moroccan presence.
After Moroccan pressure through the Green March of 6 November, Spain entered negotiations that led to the signing of the Madrid Accords by which it ceded unilaterally the administrative control of the territory to Mauritania and Morocco on November 14, 1975.
But the United Nations did not recognize the accord, considering Spain as the administrative power of the territory. In the fall of 1975, as a result of the Moroccan advance, tens of thousands of Sahrawis fled Morocco-controlled cities into the desert, building up improvised refugee camps in Amgala, Tifariti, and Umm Dreiga.
On December 11, 1975, the first Moroccan troops arrived to El Aaiún, and fighting erupted with the POLISARIO. On December 20, Mauritanian troops succeeded taking over Tichla and La Güera, after two weeks of siege. On January 27, the first battle of Amgala erupted between Morocco and Algeria with the Polisario.
In January 1976, the Royal Moroccan Air Force also bombed the refugee camps in the northern part of the territory. The following month, Moroccan jets attacked the Umm Dreiga refugee camps with napalm and white phosphorus bombs, killing thousands of civilians.
On February 26, 1976 Spain officially announced its full withdrawal from the area.
While at first met with just minor resistance by the POLISARIO, Morocco later engaged in a long period of guerrilla warfare with the Sahrawi nationalists. During the late 1970s, the Polisario Front, desiring to establish an independent state in the territory, attempted to fight both Mauritania and Morocco.
In 1979, Mauritania withdrew from the conflict after signing a peace treaty with the POLISARIO. The war continued in low intensity throughout the 1980s, though Morocco made several attempts to take the upper hand in 1989–1991.
A cease-fire agreement was finally reached between the Polisario Front and Morocco in September 1991. Some sources put the final death toll between 10,000 and 20,000 people.
Reasons to Fight?
The disputed Sahara area is about 266,000 square kilometers on the Atlantic coast between Morocco, Mauritania, and Algeria. A “defensive wall” penetrates the region, between the areas controlled by Morocco and the buffer zones controlled by the Polisario Front.
This area is characterized by abundant fishing in the ocean, while natural resources such as phosphates are available.
But most importantly, the area is inhabited by people who were marginalized and pushed around for too long, giving the Polisario Front a way to sink its claws into vulnerable people and recruit them into their fold.
A Cease-fire and its Aftermath
A cease-fire between the Polisario and Morocco, monitored by MINURSO (UN) had come into effect on 6 September 1991, with the promise of a referendum on independence the following year.
The referendum, however, was stalled over disagreements on voter rights, and numerous endeavors at restarting the process (most importantly the launching of the 2003 Baker plan) seemed to have failed.
The continued cease-fire has held without major disruptions, 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 raising the risks of renewed war.
With no end in sight, the Sahrawi Refugees can only cling to a small and unrealistic hope, that maybe the two sides will think of the people’s lives and livelihoods before letting another conflict erupt and displace even more people.