This is an article I wrote for the Student Center for African Research and Resolutions, a student think tank in Washington, D.C. Check them out at scarrdc.org for more student-produced news regarding African affairs. This article can also be accessed in SCARR's blog section.
While the world squabbles over the dispute between Israel and Palestine in the Gaza Strip, another land dispute simmers in the West of Africa. To the southwest of the Kingdom of Morocco lies Western Sahara, an unimaginatively named sunburnt chunk of land that has been in recognition purgatory for almost three decades.
Western Sahara was a Spanish colony which was first taken over in the late 19th century, and then became a province of Spain in 1934. Between 1963 and 1975, Spain gradually released the region, and then eventually handed the territory over to Morocco and Mauritania. This move was denounced in 1975, however, by the International Court of Justice, which had hopes of organizing a referendum on the region’s independence. However, King Hassan II of Morocco stepped in, organizing a “Green March” of Moroccans to venture to the territory. Spain backed down, and a new treaty gave Morocco control of the northern two-thirds of the territory, and the southern third to Mauritania.
This agreement did not sit well with those inside Western Sahara. The Polisario Front and the Sahrawi Liberation Movement, backed by Algeria, were pitted against Mauritania and Morocco, and a war broke out. France and Spain both supported Morocco and Mauritania in this war. Mauritania eventually withdrew in 1978, letting Morocco take about two-thirds of the region as its Southern provinces. A sliver of land in the east and south is still administered by Polisario, but they severely lag behind the parts of Western Sahara administered by Morocco in terms of phosphate resources and in human capital.
In the early 1990s, the United Nations attempted to have a referendum for independence occur, but the referendum stalled and never occurred. Both Morocco and Polisario blame each other for the stalling of the referendum. Today, the region in unstable and lacks direction. The international community seems uninterested in the conflict as it seems to have simmered down.
Divisions are still present today. African countries tend to side with Western Sahara, while Arab countries tend to favor Morocco’s position. Algeria is the exception, consistent in its support for Polisario and Western Sahara. Prospects do not look very positive for a future referendum, because of Morocco’s control over the few cities and most of the resources. To borrow a metaphor used by Robert Young Pelton regarding Israel and Palestine, “Western Sahara resembles a game of musical chairs, with the Moroccans playing the music, sitting in most of the chairs, and kicking Saharawis off whenever they find an empty chair.”