In the past century, much of the African continent has experienced profound political, economic and territorial changes as a result of colonialism. In particular, the disputed nation of Western Sahara, or the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), has faced persistent challenges in creating an internationally recognized nation state in the aftermath of colonization. Sometimes referred to as “the last colony in Africa,” Western Sahara is occupied by its neighbor Morocco, meaning its Sahrawi inhabitants are denied independent statehood by their occupiers. Morocco’s refusal to abandon its claims is the most significant obstacle to Sahrawi nationalism, although other factors such as its geographical layout, and other nation’s historical claims have contributed to the ongoing struggle.

The reality that most African communities previously existed without the need to adopt contemporary ideas of statehood and without the constraints of rigid borders made nation-building in the modern era quite difficult. Faced with the possibility of unifying under one nation with various ethnic, linguistic, and religious groups, newly independent African countries had to mesh together people of all different factions in a matter of decades. Borders which had been drawn by colonial powers often didn’t take into account the pre-existing communities or the past territorial claims of many Africans. In modern society, we take for granted the independence and individual integrity of the world’s countries but for many states today especially in the “developing” world, nation-building has been and continues to be a struggle.

All these possible obstacles that a budding African state could face were stacked against the rather small, disputed territory of Western Sahara. In the last century, the territory has been claimed by Spain, Mauritania, Morocco, and Algeria making it especially difficult for its people to establish themselves as an independent nation. Most importantly, Sahrawi people are ethnically and linguistically very diverse, sharing ancestry and cultural practices from Berbers, Arabs, and black Africans. The spread of Islam through North Africa in the 8th century greatly contributed to modern identity of the Sahrawi and even today aspects of Islamic culture and legal practices are present in Sahrawi communities.

The Sahrawi remained distinct from other surrounding tribes and civilizations because of their independent nomadic lifestyle and organized their communities along gender and tribal lines. Their existence as a primarily nomadic people meant that state building was less of an immediate concern but as the threat of colonialism increased, the Sahrawi people felt the pressure to present a solid front. As a result of the Berlin Conference, the Spanish declared the territory of Western Sahara as a protectorate in 1884 and finalized its standing as a province of Spain in 1958, while the French became involved in the northern part of the region at the turn of the century because of their presence in neighboring Morocco. Under initial Spanish control, there was limited resistance by the Saharawi people seeing as their nomadic organization and desert geography minimized the feeling of Spanish rule.

 However, this nomadic lifestyle was eventually disrupted and the Sahrawi people were given no choice but to move into urban centers or leave the colony entirely to live in Mauritania or Morocco. Moreover, when Morocco was granted independence from France in 1956, the Sahrawi way of life was challenged further; in particular, in the northern Spanish colony of Ifni, there was increasing pressure from the Moroccan government to integrate into their new state with limited resistance from the Spanish authorities. The claim of the Moroccan government to Western Sahara was based on religious, socioeconomic, and historical reasons such as the shared Islamic faith, historic ruling dynasties, and long-standing trade patterns. In recent times, most academics and international organizations would dispute these claims but the confusion created by colonial borders have played to Morocco’s advantage in maintaining their hold on Western Sahara.

In the midst of all this fighting between external parties, the indigenous Sahrawi developed their own idea of what they hoped their territory would become. Members of the Saharawi diaspora in Morocco were the ones to formulate a fully realized and cohesive movement for political change; in 1973, Saharawi university students in Rabat formed the Frente Polisario or el Frente Popular de Liberación de Saguía el Hamra y Río de Oro. Initially, the movement was a small band of freedom fighters utilizing guerrilla warfare against the Spanish administration but it quickly grew into a mass movement as more Saharawis banded together for independence. However, the growing Frente Polisario would face more immediate threats to their sovereignty from their northern neighbor Morocco who still had not given up their claim to the desert territory. 

In 1975, the International Justice Court (ICJ) issued a statement rejecting both Morocco and Mauritania’s claim to the territory and supporting the Western Sahara’s right to self-determination. However, a day after this declaration by the ICJ, in a blatant violation of international law, the Moroccan government staged the civilian march known as the Green March across the Spanish Sahara’s border to demand that Spain hand over the region. The Spanish government, wanting to finally end the decolonization process in Western Sahara, decided to engage in secret negotiations with Morocco and Mauritania. In November of 1975, these three countries reached the decision in the Madrid Accords to split the territory between Morocco and Mauritania, all the while the actual Saharawi inhabitants and the Frente Polisario had no say in the matter. 

With the partition of Western Sahara between Morocco and Mauritania, Sahrawi nationalism under the Frente Polisario was challenged constantly by the new governments and had to adapt in response. Mauritania withdrew their territorial claim a few years later, however Morocco refused to change their position and continued their oppressive occupation of Western Sahara. Thousands of Sahrawis were forced to flee to Algeria where many died or experienced hardships in their new existence as refugees, with no homes let alone a greater nation. However, in the face of the oppression of Sahrawi nationalism, the Frente Polisario cemented themselves as the legitimate representation of the Saharawi people of Western Sahara through issuing their constitution for the proposed Sahrawi Democratic Arab Republic (SADR) on February 27, 1976. While it does not dispute the nomadic nature of pre-colonial Sahrawi society, the constitution highlights the rich history of the Sahrawi as a sub-Saharan people connected to others throughout the Maghreb but still with their own realities and desires. After decades of being passed around by different occupying powers, this constitution showed that the Saharawi people through the Frente Polisario were prepared to fight to have their nation acknowledged and supported. Unfortunately, fighting between Moroccan forces and the Frente Polisario continued until 1991 when a cease-fire agreement was reached with the help of the UN. Morocco agreed to hold a referendum but to this day has yet to follow through on this promise. 

After considering Western Sahara’s history as a colonized and occupied territory, the prospect of peace and recognition seems long overdue. The colonial history of Africa is often seen as distant and completely resolved but the Sahrawi people still feel the consequences of Western conquest to this day. While today Western Sahara is free of traditional colonialism, Morocco continues to assert themselves as an occupying power essentially keeping the Sahrawi in a state of limited political choice and without indigenous expression of their own. Similarly, the rest of the world is contributing to a negative system of neocolonialism in Western Sahara by not paying more attention to the Frente Polisario’s calls for political freedom and independence. Feeble attempts by the UN to facilitate negotiations have not been successful and it is highly unlikely that the SADR or Morocco would back down on their own accord. Therefore it is necessary for the international community to voice its opposition of Moroccan occupation and provide incentives so that both parties can reach a breakthrough at the negotiating table. 


VICE documentary: “The Sahara’s Forgotten War”


Petition to encourage the United Nations Security Council to pay more attention to Western Sahara. Sign here

Read More:

ReliefWeb report to the United Nations Secretary General regarding the situation in Western Sahara. Read here.

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Esme Graziani

Esmé currently lives in San Francisco but recently graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and Middle East Studies. She is passionate about political...

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