Western Sahara: Africa’s last colony

A team from the Military Liaison Office of the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) loads cargo onto a plane in Oum Dreyga, Western Sahara, 15 June 2010./UN Photo:Martine Perret

Western Sahara or the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) is Africa’s last colony; a colony of an African country – Morocco. Western Sahara wasa Spanish colony until 1975 when the colonial power, without making the traditional decolonization arrangements, handed over the territory to Morocco and Mauritania.

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The Saharawis resisted Moroccan occupation and advocated for independence under the leadership of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Rio de Oro (Frente Polisario or Polisario Front), which had been formed in 1973.

Western Sahara was admitted as a member state of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) (now the African Union) in 1984. Morocco left the OAU in protest. It has not rejoined the Organization.

Talks between the disputing parties – Morocco and the Polisario Front – ended on Long Island (New York) yesterday, with the two sides agreeing to continue their discussions next month and again early next year.

The talks were held at the invitation of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s Personal Envoy for Western Sahara, Christopher Ross. The two-day discussions also included representatives of the neighbouring States of Algeria and Mauritania.

Despite the fact that ‘each party continues to reject the proposal of the other as a basis for future negotiations,’ the talks were said to be ‘broad and frank discussions’ of each other’s proposals.

The United Nations has been involved in efforts towards a settlement in the territory since 1976, when fighting broke out between Morocco and the Polisario Front.

In September 1991, the UN-brokered a ceasefire, ending the guerrilla war between Polisario and Moroccan forces. The UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) was established to oversee the ceasefire andorganize the referendum on self-determination.

A referendum was set for January 1992 but was postponed because of a dispute over who is eligible to vote. Among other issues, Polisario regards Moroccan ‘settlers’ as ineligible to vote.

Morocco has presented a plan for autonomy while the position of the Polisario Front is that the territory’s final status should be decided in a referendum on self-determination that includes independence as an option.

In its Resolution 1871 of 2009, the Security Council called on the parties to continue their dialogue under the auspices of the Secretary-General to achieve ‘a just, lasting and mutually acceptable political solution, which will provide for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara.’

The territory hasbeen on the United Nations list of non-self-governing territories since 1963 followingcenturies-old historical claimon the colony by Morocco. In 1966, the UN called on Spain directly for the first time to decolonize the territory.

In June 1975, Morocco’s King Hassan took the territorial dispute to the World Court in The Hague. The court ruled that the people of Western Sahara should be allowed to settle the sovereignty issue through self-determination under a referendum organized by Spain.

In November 1975, King Hassan launched the ‘Green March’ with 350,000 unarmed Moroccans crossing into the territory. In December that year, Morocco sent in forces to occupy the territory.

In 1979, Mauritania signed a peace deal with Polisario and renounced its claim to Western Sahara. Morocco annexed Mauritania’s share of the territory in1980.

In 2003, the UN proposed that Western Sahara becomes a semi-autonomous region of Morocco for a transition period of up to five years, to be followed by a referendum on whether the territory should become independent, semi-autonomous or integrated with Morocco. Polisario endorsed the plan but Morocco rejected it, saying it will never give up sovereignty.

A large portion of the SDAR’s population of about 250,000 lives as internally displaced persons in the territory as well as refugees in camps in the Tindouf region of Algeria, where Polisario maintains a government-in-exile.

Western Sahara possesses one of the world’s largest phosphate deposits and rich fishing grounds. In addition, it is thought that there are considerable reserves of oil and gas along the coast.

Western Sahara is the subject of Africa’s longest-running territorial dispute.

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