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Western Sahara: Who Will Save Africa’s Last Colony from Morocco’s Occupation?

Lying at the edge of northwest Africa, Western Sahara continues to suffer from the imperialist forces of Morocco and its supporters. This fact is not without the continued suppression by fellow African forces that has stalled the country’s independence and growth. The return of Morocco to the African Union amplifies an occupation that has left hundreds of thousands displaced and forced to live as refugees.

First colonized by Spain in 1884, Western Sahara soon became the love child of three African countries- Algeria, Mauritania and Morocco. In 1958, Spain merged the colonised districts of Saguia el-Hamra and Río de Or to form Spanish Sahara, modern-day Western Sahara. While Mauritania and Morocco sought to colonize the Western Sahara claiming the country had been artificially separated from their territories by Spain, Algeria supported Western Saharan movement to achieve independence by backing the Polisario Front, founded in 1973, which pushed for the country’s independence. In 1979, Mauritania withdrew its claims on the country after a guerrilla warfare led by the Polisario Front.  In 1991 a cease-fire was agreed upon, on the condition of a referendum on self-determination.

Since its 1975 occupation, Morocco has continued to exert its imperialistic forces on the small country and even withdrew from the African Union in 1984 when the body recognized Western Sahara as a country.


According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, over 90,000 people have been displaced due to disputes over the territory. Some of these refugees reside in camps in the Western Sahara while others are camped in Algeria. The total population of Western Sahara is estimated at just over 500,000 with over 40 percent living in Laayoune, the country’s largest city.

Morocco demands the Western Sahara remain an autonomous self-governing part of its territory while the Polisario Front demands the region’s independence and self-determination through a referendum. The United Nations although first proclaimed its neutrality appears to later support Western Sahara’s demands. The 1991 settlement plan signed by the United Nations is yet to take any effect. In 2003, the United Nations created the Baker Plan, an initiative to grant self-determination to Western Sahara.

Political activists and students have protested the human right abuses from Morocco. One of the first major series of protests started in 1999 and ended in 2004 in what was known as the First Sahrawi Intifada. The Second Sahrawi intifada (Intifada of Independence) began in May 2005 after relatives protested the transfer of a Sahrawi prisoner. This led to widespread demonstrations. Over a hundred pro-Polisario Sahrawi protesters were reported arrested by Moroccan authorities by international human rights, and approximately thirty demonstrators and well-known Sahrawi human rights-activists have been imprisoned after summary trials.

More protests have resulted from the intifadas. Moroccan forces continue to arrest and detain protesters in a bid to quell the resistance. Some of these protests have led to the death of several protesters. Another notable protest recorded was Aminatou Haidar 32-day hunger strike in Spain.

In February 2011, another series of Western Saharan protests began after Moroccan youths looted Sahrawi homes in Dakhla without police action. These protests lasted until May 2011 when no further protests were reported.

Pro-Western Sahara demonstration in Madrid

Pro-Western Sahara demonstration in Madrid. Western Sahara / Flickr


When Morocco withdrew from the African Union, then Organization of African Unity, in 1984, it was because the pan African organization had formally recognized Western Sahara which Morocco claimed was a part of its territories. Morocco’s absence from the Union could easily be translated to African Union’s relentless support to Western Sahara’s cause.

In January 2017, Morocco was formally welcomed back as a member of the body without any resolution to the state of Western Sahara. The oversight by the continental body of Western Sahara during the readmission of Morocco means the country must begin to look elsewhere to garner support to escape the stranglehold of Morocco. However, African Union’s betrayal to the course of Western Sahara’s freedom would lead a huge blow in the face of the Sahrawi people. 39 countries out of 54 voted for Morocco’s readmission. With African Union looking to Morocco’s deep pockets to reduce its dependency on foreign donors, Western Sahara might eventually struggle to be heard in Africa’s political circles.


The Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) remains in a state of limbo. Polisario Front controls less than 30 percent of the self-acclaimed country. The SADR government, an exiled single-party parliamentary and presidential system, is presently based at the at the Tindouf refugee camps in Algeria. The Baker Plan remains ineffectual due to change of power in Morocco and the resignation of James Baker, the initiator of the plan. Morocco’s new king, Mohammad VI stated that no part of Western Sahara will be given away and the country may only be granted autonomy but never independence. He proposed an advisory body Royal Advisory Council for Saharan Affairs (CORCAS) to oversee the autonomous community.

Will Western Sahara eventually be free? Will Morocco win in its effort to absorb the territory into its borders? Only time, and maybe the efforts of fellow international organizations, will tell.


[Header image] –   Sunset in the desert, Western Sahara by jbdodane / Flickr

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