History of Western Sahara

Written by
Ben Dwork
Edited by afrorama
Last updated:
May 24, 2023

Sandwiched between Morocco and Mauritania lies Western Sahara, a sparsely populated area consisting mainly of desert flatlands. With a population of only 500,000, Western Sahara is considered a “disputed territory,” with 20%  controlled by the self-proclaimed Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) and the remaining majority – approximately 80% – considered “occupied” and administered by neighbouring Morocco.

From desert outpost to disputed territory

Like many areas of North Africa, the Western Sahara’s history is one of nomadic peoples and influences from other cultures. In the 5th century BC, Carthaginian explorer Henno the Navigator documented the area, and by the end of the 8th century AD, Islam and Arabic were introduced to the people living there. While the region’s remoteness, its harsh environment, and difficult living conditions kept it from being heavily developed, it has served as a vital link between Sub-Sahara and Northern Africa since the 11th century, with trade routes connecting the regions.

Its fortunes would change with the scramble for Africa in the 19th Century. The area was conquered and occupied by Spain from 1884 to 1976, and while it gained independence in 1956, Spain continued to occupy it for an additional two decades. It was during the latter period of this time that a Sahrawi nationalist liberation movement emerged – the Polisario Front.

In 1975, a visiting UN mission concluded that there was an “overwhelming consensus” of Sahrawi support for independence and that the Polisario Front was the de facto political force in the country. With the writing on the wall and decolonisation and independence movements taking place across the African continent, Spain ceded its claims to Morocco and Mauritania. The Madrid Accords of 1975, as they were known, would only inflame tensions and conflict with the Polisario Front.

Source: Aljazeera

The Polisario Font united against Morocco and Mauritania, eventually relinquishing its claim to the land in 1979. The following year, the UN Resolution No. 35/19 (Question of Western Sahara (A/35/596) reaffirmed “that a solution to the question of Western Sahara lies in the exercise by the people of that territory of their inalienable rights, including their right to self-determination and independence” and urged Morocco to enter into negotiations. Only a decade later in 1990 would the two sides sign a ceasefire agreement.

MINURSO or Mission des Nations Unies pour l'Organisation d'un Référendum au Sahara Occidental (United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara) was established the following year in 1991 through UNSC Resolution 690 as part of the Settlement Plan over the contested territory of Western Sahara. However, in spite of these attempts at mediation, a solution has remained elusive, and the disputes over territory linger to this day.

Looking forward

Unfortunately, the 30-year ceasefire was broken in 2020 when the Polisario Front attempted to open a road in a buffer zone near Mauritania. A peaceful resolution to the status of “disputed territory” would bring additional stability to the region, and if recognised as a sovereign state, Western Sahara would be able to more proactively control its destiny by allowing its government to focus on domestic affairs, participating in multilateral organisations like the UN, and developing natural resources and other industries. But barring a major move by either side, the status quo looks set to persist for the years to come.