The earliest recorded inhabitants of the Western Sahara in historical times were agriculturalists called Bafour. The Bafour were later replaced or absorbed by Berber-speaking populations which eventually merged in turn with migrating Arab tribes, although the Arabic speaking majority in the Western Sahara clearly by the historical record descend from Berber tribes that adopted Arabic over time. There may also have been some Phoenician contacts in antiquity, but such contacts left few if any long-term traces.
The arrival of Islam in the 8th century played a major role in the development of relationships between the Saharan regions that later became the modern territories of Morocco, Western Sahara, Mauritania and Algeria, and neighboring regions. Trade developed further and the region became a passage of caravans especially between Marrakech and Tombouctou in Mali. In the Middle Ages, the Almohads and Almoravids movements and dynasties both originated from the Saharan regions and were able to control the area.
Towards the late Middle Ages, the Beni Hassan Arab bedouin tribes invaded the Maghreb, reaching the northern border-area of the Sahara in the 14th and 15th century. Over roughly five centuries, through a complex process of acculturation and mixing seen elsewhere in the Maghreb and North Africa, the indigenous Berber tribes adopted Hassaniya Arabic and a mixed Arab-Berber nomadic culture.
After an agreement among the European colonial powers at the Berlin Conference in 1884 on the division of spheres of influence in Africa, Spain seized control of the Western Sahara and established it as a Spanish protectorate after a series of wars against the local tribes reminiscent of similar European colonial adventures of the period, in the Maghreb, sub-Saharan Africa, and elsewhere. Spanish colonial rule began to unravel with the general wave of decolonization after World War II, which saw Europeans lose control of North African and sub-Saharan African possessions and protectorates. Spanish decolonization in particular began rather late, but internal political and social pressures for it in mainland Spain built up towards the end of Francisco Franco’s rule, in the context of the global trend towards complete decolonization. Spain began rapidly and even chaotically divesting itself of most of its remaining colonial possessions. After initially being violently opposed to decolonization, Spain began to give in and by 1974-75 issued promises of a referendum on independence. The nascent Polisario Front, a nationalist organization that had begun fighting the Spanish in 1973, had been demanding such a move.
At the same time, Morocco and Mauritania, which had historical claims of sovereignty over the territory based on competing traditional claims, argued that the territory was artificially separated from their territories by the European colonial powers. The third neighbour of Spanish Sahara, Algeria, viewed these demands with suspicion, influenced also by its long-running rivalry with Morocco. After arguing for a process of decolonization guided by the United Nations, the government of Houari Boumédiènne committed itself in 1975 to assisting the Polisario Front, which opposed both Moroccan and Mauritanian claims and demanded full independence.
The UN attempted to settle these disputes through a visiting mission in late 1975, as well as a verdict from the International Court of Justice (ICJ), which declared that Western Sahara possessed the right of self-determination. On November 6, 1975 the Green March into Western Sahara began when 350,000 unarmed Moroccans converged on the city of Tarfaya in southern Morocco and waited for a signal from King Hassan II of Morocco to cross into Western Sahara.
Demands for independence
In the waning days of General Franco’s rule, the Spanish government secretly signed a tripartite agreement with Morocco and Mauritania as it moved to abandon the Territory on 14 November 1975, mere days before Franco’s death. Although the accords foresaw a tripartite administration, Morocco and Mauritania each moved to annex the territory, with Morocco taking control of the northern two-thirds of Western Sahara as its Southern Provinces and Mauritania taking control of the southern third as Tiris al-Gharbiyya. Spain terminated its presence in Spanish Sahara within three months, even repatriating Spanish corpses from its cemeteries. The Moroccan and Mauritanian moves, however, met staunch opposition from the Polisario, which had by now gained backing from Algeria. In 1979, following Mauritania’s withdrawal due to pressure from Polisario, Morocco extended its control to the rest of the territory, and gradually contained the guerrillas through setting up the extensive sand-berm in the desert to exclude guerilla fighters. Hostilities ceased in a 1991 cease-fire, overseen by the peacekeeping mission MINURSO, under the terms of a UN Settlement Plan.
Stalling of the referendum and Settlement Plan
The referendum, originally scheduled for 1992, foresaw giving the local population the option between independence or affirming integration with Morocco, but it quickly stalled. In 1997, the Houston Agreement attempted to revive the proposal for a referendum, but likewise has hitherto not had success. As of 2007, however, negotiations over terms have not resulted in any substantive action. At the heart of the dispute lies the question of who qualifies to be registered to participate in the referendum, and, since about 2000, Morocco’s renewed refusal to accept independence as an option on the referendum ballot combined with Polisario’s insistence that independence be a clear option in the referendum.
Both sides blame each other for the stalling of the referendum. The Polisario has insisted on only allowing those found on the 1974 Spanish Census lists (see below) to vote, while Morocco has insisted that the census was flawed by evasion and sought the inclusion of members of Sahrawi tribes with recent historical presence in the Spanish Sahara.
Efforts by the UN special envoys to find a common ground for both parties did not succeed. By 1999 the UN had identified about 85,000 voters, with nearly half of them in the Moroccan-controlled parts of Western Sahara or Southern Morocco, and the others scattered between the Tindouf refugee camps, Mauritania and other places of exile. Polisario accepted this voter list, as it had done with the previous list presented by the UN (both of them originally based on the Spanish census of 1974), but Morocco refused and, as rejected voter candidates began a mass-appeals procedure, insisted that each application be scrutinized individually. This again brought the process to a halt.
According to a NATO delegation, MINURSO election observers stated in 1999, as the deadlock continued, that “if the number of voters does not rise significantly the odds were slightly on the RASD side”. By 2001, the process had effectively stalemated and the UN Secretary-General asked the parties for the first time to explore other, third-way solutions. Indeed, shortly after the Houston Agreement (1997), Morocco officially declared that it was “no longer necessary” to include an option of independence on the ballot, offering instead autonomy. Erik Jensen, who played an administrative role in MINURSO, wrote that neither side would agree to a voter registration in which they were destined to lose
As personal envoy of the Secretary-General, James Baker (who also had John R. Bolton in his delegation) visited all sides and produced the document known as the “Baker Plan”. This was discussed by the United Nations Security Council in 2000, and envisioned an autonomous Western Sahara Authority (WSA), which would be followed after five years by the referendum. Every person present in the territory would be allowed to vote, regardless of birthplace and with no regard to the Spanish census. It was rejected by both sides, although it was initially derived from a Moroccan proposal. According to Baker’s draft, tens of thousands of post-annexation immigrants from Morocco proper (viewed by Polisario as settlers, but by Morocco as legitimate inhabitants of the area) would be granted the vote in the Sahrawi independence referendum, and the ballot would be split three-ways by the inclusion of an unspecified “autonomy”, further undermining the independence camp. Also, Morocco was allowed to keep its army in the area and to retain the control over all security issues during both the autonomy years and the election. In 2002, the Moroccan king stated that the referendum idea was “out of date” since it “can not be implemented”; Polisario retorted that that was only because of the King’s refusal to allow it to take place.
In 2003, a new version of the plan was made official, with some additions spelling out the powers of the WSA, making it less reliant on Moroccan devolution. It also provided further detail on the referendum process in order to make it harder to stall or subvert. This second draft, commonly known as Baker II, was accepted by the Polisario as a “basis of negotiations” to the surprise of many. This appeared to abandon Polisario’s previous position of only negotiating based on the standards of voter identification from 1991 (i.e. the Spanish census). After that, the draft quickly garnered widespread international support, culminating in the UN Security Council’s unanimous endorsement of the plan in the summer of 2003.
Western Sahara today
Currently, the Baker II document appears to be a dead letter, with Baker having resigned his post at the UN in 2004. His resignation followed several months of failed attempts to get Morocco to enter into formal negotiations on the plan, but he met with rejection. The new king, Mohammed VI of Morocco, opposes any referendum on independence, and has said Morocco will never agree to one: “We shall not give up one inch of our beloved Sahara, not a grain of its sand”.
Instead, he proposes, through an appointed advisory body Royal Advisory Council for Saharan Affairs (CORCAS), a self-governing Western Sahara as an autonomous community within Morocco. His father, Hassan II of Morocco, initially supported the referendum idea in principle in 1982, and in signed contracts with Polisario and the United Nations in 1991 and 1997; thus engaging to a referendum. However, no major powers have expressed interest in forcing the issue, and Morocco has historically showed little real interest in an actual referendum.
The UN has put forth no replacement strategy after the breakdown of Baker II, and renewed fighting has been raised as a possibility. In 2005, former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan reported increased military activity on both sides of the front and breaches of several cease-fire provisions against strengthening military fortifications.
Morocco has repeatedly tried to get Algeria into bilateral negotiations, based on its view of Polisario as the cat’s paw of the Algerian military. It has received vocal support from France and occasionally (and currently) from the United States. These negotiations would define the exact limits of a Western Sahara autonomy under Moroccan rule, but only after Morocco’s “inalienable right” to the territory was recognized as a precondition to the talks. The Algerian government has consistently refused, claiming it has neither the will nor the right to negotiate on the behalf of the Polisario Front.
Demonstrations and riots by supporters of independence and/or a referendum broke out in the Moroccan-controlled parts of Western Sahara in May 2005, and in parts of southern Morocco (notably the town of Assa). They were met by police. Several international human rights organizations have expressed concern at what they termed abuse by Moroccan security forces, and a number of Sahrawi activists have been jailed. Pro-independence Sahrawi sources, including the Polisario, have given these demonstrations the name “Independence Intifada”, while most sources have tended to see the events as being of limited importance. International press and other media coverage has been sparse, and reporting is complicated by the Moroccan government’s policy of strictly controlling independent media coverage within the territory.
Demonstrations and protests are still occurring, after Morocco declared in February 2006 that it was contemplating a plan for devolving a limited variant of autonomy to the territory, but still explicitly refused any referendum on independence. As of January 2007, the plan has not been made public, even if the Moroccan government claims that it has been more or less completed.
The Polisario Front has intermittently threatened to resume fighting, referring to the Moroccan refusal of a referendum as a breach of the cease-fire terms, but most observers seem to consider armed conflict unlikely without the green light from Algeria, which houses the Sahrawis’ refugee camps and has been the main military sponsor of the movement.
In April 2007 the government of Morocco suggested that a self-governing entity, through the Royal Advisory Council for Saharan Affairs (CORCAS), should govern the territory with some degree of autonomy for Western Sahara. The project was presented to the United Nations Security Council in mid-April 2007. The stalemating of the Moroccan proposal options has led the UN in the recent “Report of the UN Secretary-General” to ask the parties to enter into direct and unconditional negotiations to reach a mutually accepted political solution.