New Internationalist

Western Sahara

December 2004

The Government of Western Sahara operates not from its own capital city, L’ayoun, but from a small patch of desert over the border in Algeria. Here there is another L’ayoun, just as there is another Smara, Aoserd and Dakhla – the Saharawis, who have lived in refugee exile for the last three decades, named their own ‘temporary’ settlements after the major cities of their homeland. The real L’ayoun the refugees dream of is a city under guard. It remains a dusty, modest place with no notable architectural features, despite significant investment by the occupying Moroccans over the past 30 years.

This was once the capital of Spanish Sahara. Spain took notional control of the territory in 1884 but did not manage to overcome the fierce resistance of its Saharawi inhabitants, nomadic by tradition, until 1936.

In 1966, with decolonization in full swing, the UN General Assembly called for a referendum on self-determination. Spain reluctantly organized a census in preparation but in November 1975 King Hassan II of Morocco staged an invasion. Tens of thousands of Saharawis fled eastward into the desert from the invading troops, suffering napalm attacks from Moroccan planes. They eventually took refuge near the Algerian town of Tindouf. As General Franco lay on his deathbed, Spain signed a secret agreement handing the territory to Morocco and Mauritania. Resistance to the carve-up was led by Polisario (the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el Hamra and Rio de Oro), which concentrated on attacking the weaker Mauritania, eventually forcing it to withdraw. Moroccan troops pushed south to control the whole of the country and the outnumbered Polisario had to revert to guerrilla warfare. By the late 1980s Morocco had built a 1,500-kilometre fortified wall, protected by guns and minefields, enclosing the whole of the Occupied Territory.

A UN peace plan brought a ceasefire in 1991 and the arrival of the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO). From the start, however, Morocco pursued delaying tactics, knowing that a free and fair vote would result in independence. The appointment as a special UN representative of former US Secretary of State James Baker in 1997 breathed new life into the peace process and for a while the referendum looked more likely. But at every turn Morocco has obstructed a vote.

The most recent Baker Plan in 2003 asked Polisario to accept the unthinkable: that the electoral roll for the referendum should include not only Saharawis but the 200,000 or so Moroccan settlers who have been enticed to the territory by subsidies and relocation deals. Desperate to move things on, and encouraged by its Algerian allies, Polisario agreed to the deal, only to find that Morocco rejected it outright. At least in the 1990s the Moroccans paid lipservice to international law and the principle of self-determination; now they overtly scorn it, buoyed by the knowledge that France will always back them to the hilt and the US is unlikely to alienate one of its few close Muslim allies. Baker duly resigned his post in frustration in June 2004.

At this point, prospects for the Saharawis looked bleak. But in September South Africa announced that it was formally recognizing Western Sahara (officially the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic). Thabo Mbeki’s letter to the UN explaining the decision made it clear he believed Morocco was no longer to be trusted on this issue. An outraged Morocco promptly withdrew its ambassador from Pretoria. The hope is that South Africa’s move could produce a wave of new support for Western Sahara and pull the ground from under the Moroccan King’s feet. Now is the time to increase the pressure and support for the only colony in Africa which has not been accorded the right to self-determination.

Chris Brazier
Western Sahara Fact File
Leader President Muhammad Abdelaziz
Economy In this desert nation, there are three main resources: phosphates, fish and oil. Morocco has been mining the phosphate reserves at Boucraa ever since the occupation in 1975. It has also signed away fishing rights to foreign trawlers – these are among the richest fishing grounds in the world. Oil exploration is now being conducted in earnest both on and offshore, with rival transnationals seeking rights from Morocco (Kerr-McGee) and Western Sahara (Fusion and Premier).
Monetary unit
Main exports
People Population in Western Sahara is a highly political issue, given that Morocco and the Saharawis have been arguing for years about who should be allowed to vote in a referendum on self-determination. A reasonable estimate of the number of Saharawis in the re
Health No data available for the Occupied Territory. In the refugee settlements the health system is well organized but nutrition is increasingly a problem: the Saharawis are dependent on food aid, supplies of which have been falling short in recent years. Rations are extremely basic at the best of times, generally lacking in fruit and vegetables.
Culture Saharawis are a traditionally nomadic people who had formed a distinct language and culture by the 18th century. Their common language, Hassania, is one of the purest dialects of Arabic now spoken. Their form of Sunni Islam is one of the mildest and most tolerant of all.
Sources For more information about and solidarity with Western Sahara go to
Western Sahara ratings in detail
Income distribution
(Refugees) The meagre resources available to the refugee community are meticulously shared. Leaders live in the same basic accommodation as everyone else. Food aid is only supplied for those living in the camps but has to stretch further so that Saharawi soldiers in the liberated zones can eat.
(Refugees) Education has been the top priority for the Saharawis. There is a legacy of illiteracy, particularly among older women, but among the generations raised in the camps 100% literacy has been achieved.
Life expectancy
(Refugees) 50 years (Morocco 68, Spain 79)
Position of women
(Refugees) Polisario has few female leaders but women basically run the camps. Women are generally expected to cover their hair but there is no veiling. Young women are increasingly strong, assertive and educated.
(Occupied Territory) Saharawis under occupation have no right of free expression and are subject to arbitrary arrest: the fate of hundreds who ‘disappeared’ from the 1970s to the 1990s remains unknown.
Sexual minorities
(Occupied Territory) Homosexuality is illegal in the Occupied Territory, as for all people under Moroccan rule. Polisario is committed to legalization if it forms a government after independence.
NI Assessment (Politics)
Polisario remains primarily a liberation movement rather than a government, though it runs the most efficient refugee camps in the world. It committed itself to multiparty democracy and a market economy more than a decade ago. Its leaders have pursued peace and a just cause against all odds for three decades – and Western Sahara is a founder member of the African Union, with Morocco frozen out. But the ‘war on terror’ has ruled out a return to military resistance and Polisario has few other cards to play.

Front cover of New Internationalist magazine, issue 374 This column was published in the December 2004 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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Country ratings (details)
Income distribution5
Life expectancy2
Position of women3
Sexual minorities1
NI Assessment (Politics)5

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This article was originally published in issue 374

New Internationalist Magazine issue 374
Issue 374

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