History is a pretty complicated topic – and people interested in learning about the history of a particular region or era should seek out multiple sources, while bearing in the mind that every source has its own agenda.
The following is a brief overview of the history of Western Sahara, to help orient people to the region – and is not meant to be an in-depth analysis. This overview has been vetted by Saharawi people, to acknowledge our own bias. Reminder: there is no such thing as an unbiased history.
With that said… actually, before we get into history, let’s start with geography and get a little perspective. You might be thinking, where in the world is Western Sahara? Let’s have a look, shall we:
Western Sahara might look small to some, but that’s only because Africa is HUGE! The next map is intended to add perspective. Note the size of the United States of America compared to Africa:
Western Sahara has a population of around 600,000 people, with many living in Laâyoune (or El Aaiún). A further 170,000 Saharawis live in refugee camps in Algeria.
Now that we have some spatial perspective, let’s get back to that age old question of history.
Like most everywhere on the planet, Western Sahara has been populated by indigenous peoples since forever. Evidence of trade between Western Sahara and Europe dates back to 400 B.C.E. There is also evidence of contact with the Phoenicians and Romans during this time. By the Middle Ages, the area was occupied by Berber Tribes, followed by Bedouins. In the 1800s, the region was colonized by Spain – as was most of Africa by various European powers.
In 1934, the Spanish controlled region was dubbed, Spanish Sahara:
The trend to decolonize Africa was supported by a 1965 United Nations (UN) resolution, which called for the protection of the self-determination rights of indigenous peoples everywhere.
In 1973, Polisario Front, the indigenous Saharawi independence movement, was founded.
In 1974, Spain prepared to withdraw from Western Sahara and put a referendum to the Saharawi people for self-determination. Morocco and Mauritania delayed the referendum by filing territorial claims at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the Hague.
In 1975, the ICJ ruled in favor of Saharawi right to self-determination. Defying the ICJ and the UN, Morocco’s King Hassan invaded Western Sahara with 350,000 Moroccan settlers.
In 1976, Polisario declared Western Sahara, the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), and SADR became a full member of the African Union.
From 1975-1991, the Polisario fought a guerrilla war against Moroccan Occupation Forces. Thousands of Saharawi people fled to Algeria, where 170,000 continue to live in refugee camps.
In 1991, the UN brokered a ceasefire that included promise of referendum for self-determination and established the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO).
That referendum never took place, and Morocco has continued its brutal occupation of Western Sahara with documented human rights abuses.
In 2020, as Donald Trump was leaving the office of President of the United States of America, the U.S. became the ‘then’ only nation in the world to recognize Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara via a Trump tweet.
On November 13, 2020, Moroccan Occupation Forces occupied Guerguerat, a Western Saharan town in the demilitarized buffer zone, and the Polisario declared the thirty-year ceasefire over.
Despite many obstacles, the Saharawi people have maintained a commitment to non-violent resistance as they strive to gain their right to self-determination.
Why does Western Sahara matter? Well to Saharawi people – it is their history and their homeland and is uniquely suitable for their way of life. And their right to self-determination is deeply rooted in international law:
One of the purposes of the United Nations is to develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples.
(Charter of the United Nations, art. 1.1)
All peoples have the right to self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development. All peoples may, for their own ends, freely dispose of their natural wealth and resources and in no case should a people be deprived of its own means of subsistence.
(International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, art. 1; International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, art. 1)
All peoples shall have the unquestionable and inalienable right to self-determination, freely determine their political status, and pursue their economic and social development according to the policy they have freely chosen. All peoples shall freely dispose of their wealth and natural resources and in no case shall a people be deprived of this right. All peoples shall have the right to their economic, social and cultural development with due regard to their freedom and identity and in the equal enjoyment of the common heritage of mankind.
(African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, arts. 20, 21 and 22)
Indigenous peoples have the right to self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.
(United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, art. 3)
Western Sahara also happens to boast phosphate reserves, rich fishing coastal waters, and open lands which are perfect for harvesting wind energy. There is also speculation about a wealth of untapped oil deposits that are awaiting exploitation just offshore. Perhaps that sheds light on Morocco’s interest in maintaining control over Western Sahara – *LIGHT BULB MOMENT ANYONE?*