Culture · International Affairs · Society

The last African colony

Western Sahara, still technically a Spanish colony, is humanitarian crisis that has been largely ignored. It has struggle for almost 40 years for independence and represents one of the greatest tragedy of post-colonial Africa. Today the territory of Western Sahara is ruled over illegally by Morocco. Half the population are segregated under the Moroccan rule, and the rest are refugees in tents in neighbouring Algeria.

The problem began when Span’s dictatorship came to an end in 1975 due to a guerilla insurgency by the Spanish Sahara’s indigenous people, the Sahrawi. Spain decided to end colonial rule and agreed to organize a referendum, following the International Court Justice’s recognition of the Sahrawi’s right to self-determination. However, that did not lead to a process of creating a new state with the consent of the indigenous population, as Morocco initiated the so-called “Green March” of over 300, 000 Moroccans into the territory, Spain backed down and negotiated a settlement with Morocco and Mauritania, known as the Madrid Agreement.

In 1978, one month after a coup, Mauritania invaded from the south, hoping to claim the territory, which Spain pulled out Morocco from, for themselves. As a consequence, there was a clash between the Polosario Front (the indigenous movement for independence, backed up by Morocco’s rival Algeria), and the Mauritanian and Moroccan armies. At the end, Morocco occupied areas allocated to Mauritania and Algeria has allowed refugees to live in its Tindouf camps set up in the border.

A guerilla war against Moroccan forces was led by the Polosario until a ceasefire, monitored by the United Nations, was finally agreed between them in 1991. The peace plan provided for a transition period that had to lead to a referendum in 1992, which to this day still has not taken.

The unsuccessful diplomatic attempts to achieve independence for Western Sahara has led to the remaining Saharawi population being outnumbered by Moroccan settlers, encouraged to enter with state-subsidized property and employment, under the army’s protection. The fact that the territory is phosphate-rich, has fishing resources and believed to have off-shore oil deposits makes it a valuable territory for those who control it. The country is now the last United-Nation-designed “non-self-governing territory” in Africa and is currently home to 100, 000 and 140, 000 Moroccan military personnel, as the total population being 500, 000.

Western states have very much contributed to the current status quo in Western Sahara. The UN Mission for the Referendum (MINURSCO) is the only UN peacekeeping mission which does not monitor human rights abuses due to US and French lobbying in the UN. Little is also known about the lives of the Sahrawi people in the territory as a result of restricted media access: the few journalist that are allowed to enter, are controlled by the state.

According to Al Jazeera, many Sahrawis also in fact blame the international community. “The Moroccans make the claim on our land because they can, because they are strong and because they are supported by France, the United States, and Britain,” said one woman interviewed by the channel earlier this year. “But they know the claim is false. The Mauritanians once claimed Western Sahara for themselves. Where are they now? How much longer will the world permit this injustice?”

Western states surely have interest in keeping the status quo as companies such as French oil giant, Total and the EU itself have contracts with Morocco over resources found in Western Sahara. For Total that entails oil exploration rights in the region and for EU a new fishing agreement with an annual grant of 30 million euros going to the Moroccan state. In return, Morocco allocates licenses to European vessels and fishing quotas per species. In addition, any money from the foreign deals would not benefit the local people, but go straight to the Moroccan government and any employment would also be only in favor of Moroccan workers. Apart from the obvious profit, deals such as those aim at adding legitimacy to the status quo. As such, Moroccan authority is extremely active in convincing that the economic exploitation benefits the “people of the territory”. They multiply the announcements for their new investment programs, relying regularly on the French press, and extensively on the Moroccan.

As not a single country recognizes Moroccan occupation in Western Sahara and the region is still regarded by the UN as a non-self-governing territory, Sahrawi people’s plight remains far from the media spotlight and any perspective to be resolved. Unless the international community actually takes an interest in solving the issue, Western Sahara will continue to represent one of the biggest failure in terms of diplomacy and humanity in current political affairs.

By: Kristina Petrova


  • Al Jazeera English, Inside Disputed Western Sahara, January 10 2013, Accessed: 21/04/2015  (
  • BBC News, Western Sahara profile, January 7 2014, Accessed: 19/04/2015 (
  • Le Monde Diplomatique, Si Riche Sahara Occidental, March 2014, Accessed: 19/04/2015 (
  • Meredith, Martin, The State of Africa: A History of the Continent since Independence (London, 2011) pp. 93-115
  • The Economist, Western Sahara: A Sahrawi Spring? Not Lileky, August 31 2012, Accessed: 20/04/2015 (
  • The New York Times, Fighting is Long Over, but Western Sahara Still Lacks Peace, February 22 2015, Accessed: 20/04/2015 (

About the Author:

Kristina Petrova is a conflict-prevention and international-development enthusiast. She is Bulgarian by nationality and pursued her BA degree in History & International Relations at University of Essex, England with an exchange year in Paris, France. She expresses her interest through participating at various Model UN conferences, summer school programs and research assistant positions with a particular attention to state-building processes as well as political and economic development in the Middle East region. Following from her interest, Kristina is about to start the MA Peace and Conflict Studies at Uppsala University, Sweden.

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