The Enduring Struggle for Saharawi Liberation

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In December 2020, the United States recognized the settler colonial sovereignty of Morocco over Western Sahara. In exchange, the Moroccan monarchy normalized its relationship with another settler colonial state, Israel. Saharawi writer Sidahmed Jouly provides us with a synthesis of the last 45 years of struggle for the liberation of the country.

The conflict in Western Sahara is one of the oldest running conflicts in Africa, which has resulted in the longest refugee crisis in the continent. Western Sahara used to be known as “the Spanish Sahara,” as it was colonized by Spain from 1884 to 1975. Unlike many European countries, Spain left this former colony without decolonizing it. Neither did the Spanish State enable the Saharawi people of their right to self-determination, as the United Nations (U.N.) has constantly had asked for since the territory was listed as a non-self-governing territory since 1963, pending the decolonization process. Instead, in a move that goes against international law and legality, Spain decided to divide the territory between Morocco and Mauritania who both claimed state sovereignty over our country. These claims were refuted by the International Court of Justice(ICJ), whose advisory opinion on Western Sahara in 1975 called for the viability and implementation of U.N. resolutions that underscore the right of the Saharawi people in self-determination and independence.

Jouly Funambulist 1
Girl carrying the SADR (Western Sahara) flag during the 41th anniversary of proclamation of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic in 2017. / Courtesy of Saharawi Voice.

After its illegal partition, the Saharawi territory became a battlefield for the indigenous Polisario Front — recognized by the U.N. as the political representative of Western Sahara — which is forced to push back new invaders. In 1979, Mauritania relinquished its occupied southern lands to sign a peace treaty with the Polisario in Algiers, recognizing Western Sahara as an independent country. However, the territory that Mauritania had withdrawn from was subsequently invaded and annexed by Morocco, further escalating military confrontations.

Since then, about two thirds of the territory has been occupied by Morocco and the rest is under Polisario control, which is considered by Saharawis as liberated territories.

After 16 years of war, the UN brokered a ceasefire in 1991 and the two parties, namely Morocco and the Polisario Front, signed a peace agreement for which a referendum of self-determination was the ultimate goal. For these purposes, the U.N. set up a peace mission under the acronym of MINURSO (U.N. Mission for Referendum in Western Sahara). This mission has been tasked to monitor the ceasefire and, as its name suggests, to organize a free and democratic referendum through which the people of Western Sahara would decide on their future. Under James Baker’s tenure as the U.N. secretary general’s special representative to Western Sahara, the list of eligible voters was finalized and the voters were ready to cast their votes in the referendum ballot boxes. Fearing an overwhelming vote in favor of independence, Morocco began setting up a series of obstacles, in order to abort all attempts to hold the promised referendum.