The sovereignty of the Western Sahara remains the subject of a dispute
between the Government of Morocco and the Polisario Front (Popular Front
for the Liberation of the Saguia el Hamra and Rio de Oro), an organization
seeking independence for the region. The Moroccan Government sent troops
and settlers into the northern two-thirds of the Western Sahara after Spain
withdrew from the area in 1975, and extended its administration over the
southern province of Oued Ed-Dahab after Mauritania renounced its claim
in 1979. The Moroccan Government has undertaken a sizable economic development
program in the Western Sahara as part of its long-term efforts to strengthen
Moroccan claims to the territory, although incomes and standards of living
are substantially below Moroccan levels. The population of the territory
is an estimated 400,000.
The Western Sahara has never been a nation in the modern sense of the
word. Phoenician colonies established or reinforced by Hanno the Navigator
have vanished with virtually no trace, and the increasing desertification
of the Sahara, before the camel was introduced in north Africa at the beginning
of the 1st millennium AD, made sporadic contact with the outside world
almost impossible. The camel revolution made this region one of the main
routes of transport of the world. Salt and gold were transported between
North Africa and West Africa.
Islam arrived in the 8th century and was an immediate success. Al-Murabitun,
also known as the Almoravides, were a group of strict Koranic interpreters
from this region who ended up controlling all of North Africa.
In 1884, Spain claimed a protectorate over the coast from Cape Bojador
to Cap Blanc. The area was later extended. 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.
In 1975, the International Court of Justice issued an advisory opinion
on the status of the Western Sahara. The Court held that while some of
the region's tribes had historical ties to Morocco, the ties were insufficient
to establish "any tie of territorial sovereignty" between the Western Sahara
and the Kingdom of Morocco. The Court added that it had not found "legal
ties" that might affect the applicable U.N. General Assembly resolution
regarding the decolonization of the territory, and, in particular, the
principle of self-determination for its people. Most Sahrawis (as the majority
of persons living in the territory are called) live in the area controlled
by Morocco, but there is a sizable refugee population near the border with
Morocco in Algeria, and, to a lesser extent, in Mauritania. The majority
of the Sahrawi population lives within the area delineated by a Moroccan-constructed
berm, which encloses most of the territory.
On November 6, 1975 the so-called Green March into Western Sahara began
when 300,000 unarmed Moroccans converged on the southern city of Tarfaya
and waited for a signal from King Hassan II of Morocco to cross into Western
Sahara. As a result, Spain abandoned Western Sahara on November 14, 1975,
repatriating even the Spanish corpses from its cemeteries. Morocco later
virtually annexed the northern two-thirds of Western Sahara (formerly Spanish
Sahara) in 1976, and the rest of the territory in 1979, following Mauritania's
On February 27, 1976, the Polisario Front formally proclaimed the Sahrawi
Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), and set up a government in exile. A guerrilla
war between the Polisario and Morocco ended in a 1991 cease-fire; though
the Polisario Front still holds 408 Moroccans as the oldest POWs in the
world. Several POW's that have been released have been turned away by the
Moroccan government and denied their citizenship.
The 1991 peace accords included an agreement on the carrying out of
a referendum among the indigenous population. The referendum was planned
to give the population the option between independence or inclusion to
Morocco. The referendum has, however, to this date not been carried out
due to the conflict over who is entitled to vote.
Since 1977 the Saharan provinces of Laayoune, Smara, and Boujdour have
participated in local elections that are organized and controlled by the
Moroccan Government. The southern province of Oued Ed-Dahab has participated
in Moroccan-controlled elections since 1983. Sahrawis whose political views
are aligned with the Moroccan Government fill all the seats allotted to
the Western Sahara in the Moroccan Parliament.
The civilian population living in the Western Sahara under Moroccan
administration is subject to Moroccan law. U.N. observers and foreign human
rights groups maintain that Sahrawis have difficulty obtaining Moroccan
passports, that the Government monitors the political views of Sahrawis
more closely than those of Moroccan citizens, and that the police and paramilitary
authorities react especially harshly against those suspected of supporting
independence and the Polisario. The Moroccan Government limits access to
the territory, and international human rights organizations and impartial
journalists sometimes have experienced difficulty in securing admission.
Western Sahara depends on pastoral nomadism, fishing, and phosphate
mining as the principal sources of income for the population. The territory
lacks sufficient rainfall for sustainable agricultural production, and
most of the food for the urban population must be imported. All trade and
other economic activities are controlled by the Moroccan Government. Moroccan
energy interests in 2001 signed contracts to explore for oil off the coast
of Western Sahara, which has angered the Polisario. Incomes and standards
of living in Western Sahara are substantially below the Moroccan level.
* This article is based on public domain text from http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2001/nea/8281.htm.