(Western Sahara)

  • Conventional name: Western Sahara/ autoproclaimed « Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic, SADR »
  • Capital: El Aaiun
  • Surface area: 266.000 Km²
  • Population (est. 2012): 522’928
  • Population Density: 1.9 inhabitants/m²
  • Ethnic background: Arabs and Berbers.
  • Religions: 100% Muslims.
  • Language: Hassaniya Arabic and Moroccan Arabic.
  • Member i.a. of: the Polisario has a seat in the OAU since 1984.
  • Head of State (President): Mohamed ABDELAZIZ (Autoproclaimed Arab Democratic Saharawi Republic).
  • Parliament: National Assembly. 101 members elected by local and regional conferences. No other parties than the Popular Front for the Liberation of Seguia el Harma and Rio de Oro (POLISARIO, in its Spanish Acronym) are allowed.
  • «Independency»: 1976 (Spanish colonial power pull out, Morocco and Mauritania occupied the cities and the POLISARIO self-proclaimed the SADR; Mauritania later on abandoned its claim on the territory and withdrew its remaining troops from it).

Some features:

The region is located on the coast of Western Africa between Morocco and Mauritania, and claimed by Morocco since the end of Spanish colonisation in 1976.

The population of the Western Sahara was mainly nomadic until the late 1960s and only began to settle when phosphate mining started. The only real census was carried out by Spain in 1974. According to this census, which left out some of the nomads, there were then 73.497 Saharawis and 21.522 Europeans and nationals of other countries in this area. The present population is estimated to be around 250.000. Another 160.000 Saharawis live in refugee camps in southern Algeria since more than 25 years ago.

The main resources of the Western Sahara are fisheries and phosphates. The waters of the sea bordering the Sahara are among the richest of the world and could, according to experts, bear an annual catch of 2 million tonnes. Moroccan investment in harbour infrastructure has opened the way to exploitation of these natural riches which could be an important source of food supply in the future. The exploitation of phosphates, the main mining resource of the region, began in 1972. The reserves are estimated at 10 billion tonnes (with 2 billion of first rate quality). Iron ore is also available, as in Mauritania.

Western Saharan offshore oil and gas resources are suspected to be substantial. Morocco signed contracts to explore for oil off the coast of Western Sahara in 2001. In February 2002, the UN ruled Morocco had no right to award contracts that would allow oil to be pumped in Western Sahara, as the sovereignty over the territory is still in question.

The Question of the Western Sahara:

After independence (1956), Morocco claimed a right to administer a large area of the western Sahara (including the whole Spanish Sahara, and parts of Mauritania and Algeria). The Moroccan government claim was based on the extent of Moroccan rule in medieval times.

350.000 Moroccans from the whole country were secretly gathered at the frontier of the Western Sahara in November 1975. On the 6th of November, the so-called “Green March” entered into the contested territory. On the 14th of November, Spain signed an agreement with Morocco and Mauritania for the withdrawal of its troops. On the 20th of November (the day that Franco, Spanish dictator, died) Spain issued the “Law of the Decolonisation of Sahara”, officialising the three parties agreement of the 14th November.

In August 1979, following the threat against Nouakchott, Mauritania’s capital, the country renounced to its share of the territory. This was immediately annexed by Morocco, incorporating the so-called new province of Oued ed-Dahab.

The Polisario Front (Popular Front for the Liberation of the Saguia el Hamra and Rio de Oro) formally proclaimed a government in exile of the “Saharawi Democratic Republic” (SADR) on the 27 February 1976.

Although 75 states have recognised the « Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic » (SADR). European position, officially neutral, is much criticised by the Polisario. In spite of Europe’s cautious attitude, the Saharan question could not be eluded during the negotiations for the renewal of the fishing agreement between the European Community and Morocco (1987). So as to reach an agreement but not formally recognise Moroccan territorial claims, European experts drafted a text whose first paragraph mentions “waters incumbent to the sovereignty or jurisdiction” of Morocco.

Until the cease-fire, 1991, Morocco spent between 1.5 and 2 million dollars per day on its military presence in the Sahara. Part of this budget was spent to build and enormous «wall of sand» which protects about 85% of the territory controlled by Morocco. This situation on the ground has brought the Moroccan authorities to search for a political solution to this problem. Thus the idea of a referendum – which was rejected for many years arguing that « it would be useless to ask Moroccans whether or not they were Moroccans » – was finally accepted.

In 1985, the UN and the Organisation of African Unit, initiated a mission of good offices leading to « the settlement proposals », which were accepted on 30 August 1988 by Morocco and the Frente Polisario. In April 1991, the Security Council resolution 690 established the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO). The Plan provided for a transitional period during which the Special Representative of the Secretary-General would have sole and exclusive responsibility over all matters relating to a referendum in which the people of Western Sahara would choose between independence and integration with Morocco. According to the settlement plan, the referendum should have taken place in January 1992.

A sensitive issue is the number of potential voters. The Spanish census of 1974 has served a s a working basis, upon which all parties do agree: all those who are on the list and their descendants would be allowed to vote. However, the Polisario wanted to include those living in exile in Tindouf and whose parents do not figure in the list. On the other hand, Morocco wanted to add 200.000 people who were allegedly forced out by the Spanish coloniser and found refugee in Morocco.

When the identification process resumed, around 86.000 people were considered eligible to vote. However, the parties continued to differ in regards of the appeals process, the repatriation of refugees and other crucial aspects of the plan.

A new Framework Plan was presented by UN Special Envoy, James Baker in June 2001. The new proposal replaced the long-standing plan for a self-rule referendum for the people of Western Sahara by giving the region substantial autonomy within Morocco. The Plan was welcomed by Moroccan authorities and rejected by Frente Polisario and Algeria. Meanwhile UN Secretary General requested diverse renewals of MINURSO mandate for his Special Envoy to pursue the consultations.

In a report released in February 2002, UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, expressing his disappointment over the lack of progress of negotiations, outlined four options to be considered by the UN. These options ranged from the settlement without the approval of both Morocco and the Frente Polisario, the revision of the plan, the division of the territory and the termination of UN Mission.

A peace plan for self-determination for the people of Western Sahara was presented by UN Secretary General Personal Envoy, James Baker, to the parties in February 2003. According to the UN Secretary General, this plan, is a “fair and balanced” consensus, which combines elements of the draft framework agreement and agreed elements of the settlements plan. The proposal envisages a period of transition during which there would be a division of responsibilities between the parties before the holding of a referendum for self-determination within four to five years. The new plan introduces three main innovations:

  • A third ballot choice that would provide for self-government or autonomy has been added to the two exclusive choices foreseen by previous plans –independence/integration in Morocco-;
  • The inclusion in the electorate of all those who have resided continuously in Western Sahara since 30 December 1999. Previously, only those who were included in the Identification Commission’ voters list were considered eligible to vote);
  • This peace plan does not require the consent of both parties at each very step of the implementation, like previous peace plan required.

Both parties expressed their opposition to different parts of the plan. However, on the 10th of July, the Frente Polisario announced it accepted the plan. (See Peace Plan for self determination of the people of Western Sahara, January 2003.doc, included as ANNEX II in Report of the Secretary-General on the situation concerning Western Sahara, 23rd May 2003).

Alvaro de Soto (Peru) was appointed Special Representative for the Western Sahara and chief of the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO)  on the 7th of August 2003.