The fact that there is a dispute in North Africa between the Saharawi people, represented by the POLISARIO (Spanish abbreviation of Frente Popular de Liberación de Saguía el Hamra y Río de Oro), and Morocco is no secret. However, we must be able to understand and contextualize the reality of the situation within this conflict: Morocco proposes in its thesis that Western Sahara (SADR) is historically part of Morocco and that after the departure of Spain, Rabat is the real holder of the legitimacy of this territory.
On the other hand, there is the POLISARIO Front whose objective is to achieve the independence of Western Sahara, occupied for the most part by Morocco. To establish itself as a sovereign state and exploit its natural resources. Today Western Sahara, in spite of everything, meets the requirements of the Montevideo Convention on what is a state:
- SADR owns territory (20% of disputed Western Sahara territory);
- Permanent sedentary population in towns or villages such as Bir Lehu, Tifariti etc… although also nomadic;
- Government, represented by its state structure by having a Saharawi National Council that through the powers established by the 1991 constitution holds the legislative power of the country, without the executive power embodied in the President of the Republic (Brahim Ghali at this time);
This structure has also given it the capacity to relate to other countries on equal terms.
These distinctly Western institutions are the repository of the traditional political legitimacy of the Saharawi people who, during the Spanish rule, enjoyed their own institutions (the Djema’a) an active political organization that served the Saharawi nomadic tribes as a form of government. A nomadic and tribal government needs institutions of this type: congregationist, for the management of internal affairs, tribal sovereignty, and trade agreements. Interestingly, the POLISARIO today, while recognizing the value of the Djema’a as the basis of its traditional structure, considers this model incompatible with a modern system of government.
However, this system remained under Spanish rule until General Franco decided to liberate the territory due to the inconsistency of the Spanish presence in a region where it was not politically, socially, or historically sustainable, so the territory had to be liberated. All this in the context of the effervescent seventies in Africa where the decolonization processes of the United Kingdom and France were accelerating and socialist pan-Arabism but also Africanism was consolidating as an important ideology in the area.
In the period 1974-75, during the end of the dictatorship, the PUNS (Saharawi National Union Party) was created. The objective of the PUNS was to absorb the attributions of the Saharawi Djema’a and to initiate a transition but the lack of support from Spain itself at a time when Franco was dying and Francoism was being supplanted by supporters of Morocco around Juan Carlos I caused the Saharawis of the PUNS, who came from the Spanish Djema’a, to defect en masse to the POLISARIO.
In 1974 an event that will definitely be decisive for the Saharawis, the census of the population of Western Sahara (Saguia al Hamra and Rio de Oro) is made, giving family books and ID cards to the inhabitants, differentiated from the Moroccans, this will be the basis of the census that binds the referendum of the Sahara to the recipients of these documents and their descendants, a referendum imposed by the UN.
In this regard we must understand that there are two versions of recognition in the Sahara: those who recognize Western Sahara as a state, unconditional recognition that once made cannot be revoked (art. 6 of the Convention on the Rights and Duties of States), at most it is possible to break or freeze relations but not to revoke the recognition of the state.
You can revoke the recognition of a government but not of a state unless the recognized state ceases to exist or the state that recognized SADR itself ceases to exist (as happened with South Yemen or Yugoslavia), all in accordance with international law. On the other hand, there are those who do not recognize the independence of Western Sahara but recognize the POLISARIO as the legitimate representative of the Saharawis but not their government (as is the case with some European countries). This is a form of deliberate ambiguity in order to please both parties and not to compromise diplomatic relations.
Interestingly, at the international level, the SADR is a full member of the African Union and is an observer member of the Andean Community, has embassies and representatives in different countries and therefore has the capacity to act on equal terms with certain states of the International Community, so it is not a mere capricious situation but the conflict is much deeper at all levels than it seems.
As we have said before, the dissolution of the Djema’a and the incapacity of the PUNS, which was already stillborn, served as a quarry for the POLISARIO (created in 1973) which carried out hostile actions against Spain while in Madrid they met, in the Madrid Agreements (null and void), However, in 1976 the POLISARIO proclaimed the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic and put an end to the Djema’a, denounced as a colonial organization by the Saharawis but establishing a continuity between the two organizations. With this the POLISARIO applied the principle of Utis Possidetis Iuris (prohibition of the modification of the borders inherited from the decolonization).
This implied that automatically, in law, the Sahara was a sovereign state whose boundaries were inherited from decolonization, so that there was no room for the Moroccan thesis of reunification but, on the contrary, there was talk of an annexation, so that this, again, reverberated in public international law: Morocco was invading a territory against the prohibition of annexation of territories by force and this gave the POLISARIO the ability to carry out military actions under the principle of self-defense.
During the war Mauritania will abandon the territory in 1979 after being defeated by the POLISARIO, the government of Nouakchott handed over its zone to the Saharawis who continued the war until 1991.
In this context, we must refer to history. Western Sahara is a huge and hostile area where the nomadic population mass has always been small, it has not been a particularly populated area but it has been a region where, in the Middle Ages, tribes coming from Libya settled in the region and interbred with the previous Berber settlers of the area acquiring an identity of their own between the Moroccan sultanates and Mauritania.
The Moroccan thesis underlines the fact that the Saharawis are Moroccans because there were relations of vassalage between the tribes and the sultan, whose dominions extended from the Strait of Gibraltar to the south, however these imperial periods ended with a retreat of borders to the limits of the current Morocco, as happened with the strip that the Almohades and Almoravids empires (that in some cases arrived from the Tagus to the Senegal river).
The reality is that the Moroccan influence in the Sahara is the existing one between two nations living nearby but the influence is not perceptible beyond the commercial exchanges between the Moroccan sultans and the Saharawi tribes. The Moroccan influence made some Saharawi tribes accept the Moroccan branch of the Maliki school, which considers Sultan Amir al-Muminin (leader of the believers) but this recognition is spiritual, not political.
The particularities of the Saharawi culture leave no doubt that there was no political and social link of domination between the nomadic Djema’a and the sultans, but rather relations of equality based on alliances, vassalage, peace treaties and trade between the two nations. The differentiation is such that even the language spoken by the Saharawis, Hassenía, is descended from classical Arabic and is closer to Libyan languages than to the Dariya spoken in Morocco. In fact, the geolectal space of the Saharawis shows that this people is closer to the Mauritanians and the nomadic tribes of southern Algeria-northern Mali than to Morocco.
In fact, as we spoke above: the UN referendum which made Spain census the population was a referendum which directly recognized the right of the Saharawis to opt for the principle of self-determination of peoples, a principle condensed in Resolutions 1514 and 1541, which is applied to the processes of African decolonization.
In support of this, a unanimous opinion of the International Court of Justice in The Hague in 1975 recognizes that despite the existence of vassalage with Moroccan and Mauritanian institutions in the past and the existence of undeniable relations at the historical level, the evidence does not provide for sovereignty rights over this territory or over the inhabitants by the Moroccan institutions, so there is nothing to prevent access to the right of self-determination for the Saharawis and, therefore, independence as a free and sovereign postcolonial state in Africa, therefore, the independence of SADR as a free and sovereign post-colonial state in Africa. Sovereignty that must be respected in accordance with UN Resolutions such as 2625, which condemns the use or threat of use of force to settle disputes.
In this case, therefore, we find that in the context of the war during the eighties, the UN establishes an unconditional ceasefire and the establishment of a referendum in which to vote, in fact the basis of the calls to the polls is the 1974 census of which we have already spoken. For this purpose, and on the basis of the UN resolutions 621 of 1988 that try to establish the above mentioned referendum and resolution 658 of 1991, which confirms the previous one, MINURSO is deployed, whose objective is to watch over the cease-fire of both parties and the holding of the consultation.
To this day, thirty years have passed, Morocco has been boycotting the holding of the referendum and marroccanizing the area according to the fait accompli of its domination over 80% of the territory, conditions its diplomatic relations with other countries to the recognition of the Sahara as part of Morocco, violates public international law and has established the military wall and the largest minefield in the world.
The big surprise that many do not expect is that in 1981 King Hassan II at the Summit of the Organization of African Union held in Nairobi (Kenya), recognized the right of the Saharawis to vote in a referendum in accordance with the principle of self-determination of peoples. This express recognition shows that Morocco recognized itself, before the African audience and expressly, as a colonizing power.
Today, in spite of having the legal and historical titles for the solution of this conflict through the holding of a vote accepted by the POLISARIO and Morocco (perhaps the only thing they have ever agreed on), the truth is that the conflict does not cease and that affects us all.