If you’re interested in history and foreign affairs, Foreign Exchanges is the newsletter for you! Sign up for free today for regular updates on international news and US foreign policy, delivered straight to your email inbox, or subscribe and unlock the full FX experience:
When I think of the Spanish Empire, I think of the vast swathes of the Americas that were Spanish colonies until the independence movement of the early 19th century. But it survived beyond that period, albeit substantially reduced in size. A few other places (Cuba, the Philippines) lingered under Spanish control, but were gradually peeled away by events like the Spanish-American War. And Spain held a few territories in Africa well into the 20th century—none later than the area known as Western Sahara, Spain’s last colony, which gained a sort of quasi-independence in 1975.
I say “quasi-independence” because in many ways Western Sahara is still a colony today, just not a Spanish one. Even while it was part of the Spanish Empire, the region was claimed by both Morocco to the north and Mauritania to the east and south. Historically, Morocco probably has the better claim, in that several Moroccan dynasties over the centuries have ruled, at least nominally, parts of Western Sahara. Also, Morocco’s ruling Alaouite Dynasty has some some historical links to the Berber tribes in the area. But, you know, boundaries in the Sahara are not well-defined, either geographically or in human terms (all those straight lines are a bad sign, and the region’s nomadic Berber tribes never really bothered establishing strict borders), so who can really say?
Well, I suppose you could try asking the people who actually live there. It’s a novel idea, I realize, but bear with me. By the early 1970s the Sahrawi people, as they’re known, were already starting to resist Spanish rule, and in 1973 a militant group called the POLISARIO Front (short for Frente Popular de Liberación de Saguía el Hamra y Río de Oro—Saguía el Hamra and Río de Oro being the two territories of Western Sahara under Spanish rule) was formed to force Spain out. There were very few active POLISARIO fighters at any given time, but they had public support and they were able to control big chunks of mostly desert territory that Spain didn’t have a lot of interest in holding anyway. A couple of years into their resistance, Spain seems to have decided that hanging on to Western Sahara just wasn’t worth it, and they began to negotiate with POLISARIO about a withdrawal and handover of power.
Enter Morocco, which wanted Spain out of Western Sahara, but also wanted Western Sahara for itself. Morocco first took its case to the International Court of Justice in October 1975, but the ICJ gave them a lukewarm ruling that allowed as to how Morocco had “some ties” to Western Sahara, but so did Mauritania and anyway those ties weren’t strong enough to justify annexing the region to Morocco. Moroccan King Hassan II decided that this was a bunch of BS, and resolved to take matters into his own hands.
Hassan organized a “spontaneous” march involving some 350,000 Moroccans, accompanied of course by 20,000 Moroccan soldiers because Safety First, and sent them traipsing into Western Sahara carrying Moroccan flags and copies of the Quran. The name “Green March” comes from the fact that green is the traditional color of Islam, as it’s said that it was Muhammad’s favorite color. Spanish soldiers in Western Sahara, who outnumbered and outgunned the Moroccans, were nonetheless strictly forbidden from interrupting the march, and in fact started clearing minefields so that the marchers didn’t have to worry about getting blown up. Which was nice, I think.
Spain’s refusal to put up any fight can be traced to the fact that its long-time ruler, Francisco Franco, was dying, and his regent/successor, the future King Juan Carlos I, just plain didn’t want to have to deal with a colonial war in Africa in the year 19-by God-75. Spain immediately called for negotiations on what would become the Madrid Accords, signed on November 14, in which Spain negotiated the handover of Western Sahara to Morocco and Mauritania, the latter taking the southern third of the territory. In return, Spain received a substantial share of Western Sahara’s two natural resources: its long and very fishing-friendly coastline and its massive phosphate deposits (it may also have offshore oil and gas deposits, but nobody knew that at the time and even now it’s not clear that they can be profitably exploited).
The big problem with the Madrid Accords was that nobody bothered to invite POLISARIO to the talks, and they, along with some portion of the Sahrawi people, were clearly not keen on going from Spanish to Moroccan rule. Their opposition to the Madrid agreement was sudden and powerful, so much so that by 1979 the Mauritanians decided the region wasn’t worth the trouble and gave their territorial claim over to Morocco. POLISARIO’s resistance to Moroccan sovereignty, backed all of a sudden by Algeria (which was also angry that it hadn’t been invited to the talks and figured that an independent Western Sahara was preferable to one that belonged to Morocco), quickly turned into the Western Sahara War, a conflict that has technically been raging ever since, although it’s been in a ceasefire since 1991.
That ceasefire hinges on the promise of a United Nations-organized referendum on Western Sahara’s ultimate fate, yet here we are decades later and, well, I’m sure it will happen any day now (or not, since the current Moroccan king, Mohammed VI, refuses to allow one). In truth, the window for a referendum has probably closed, since the Moroccan government has spent the past few decades moving (illegally, under the Fourth Geneva Convention) settlers into Western Sahara. It’s believed that these settlers make up some two-thirds of the region’s population now, and their presence probably makes the logistics of conducting a “fair” plebiscite impossible, even on the very basic question of who should be allowed to vote in it. Morocco essentially pulled out of whatever remained of the peace process about a decade ago, and POLISARIO keeps threatening to restart the fighting unless some progress is made. This is a war that, not unlike the Korean War, never really ended.
Meanwhile, and despite some rumblings about restarting the peace process at the UN, Western Sahara exists in a kind of disputed limbo. It’s no longer a Spanish colony, but as a Moroccan possession it’s still considered “Africa’s last colony.” It’s divided by the “Moroccan Wall,” an almost 3000 km-long sand berm, built in 1982 and steadily expanded through 1987, running from southwestern Morocco down the eastern side of Western Sahara and then out to the Mediterranean coast. It separates POLISARIO-controlled areas from the rest of the region.
The UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) is theoretically still maintaining the peace process and working toward a referendum, but there’s not much it can do without Moroccan cooperation. The human rights situation is grim—both sides are accused of conscripting children, the Moroccan government routinely uses disproportionate force to deal with any protesters, POLISARIO runs “refugee camps” where Sahrawi (who aren’t always free to come and go) are put to forced labor and military service, and, perhaps worst of all, there are hundreds of Sahrawi who have been “disappeared” over the past couple of decades. Many Sahrawi might be willing to settle for some kind of autonomous status within Morocco, particularly if it means an end to POLISARIO and to whatever the Algerians are doing, but for now they remain encased in the colonial version of amber.