History of Western Sahara

History of Western Sahara


The capital of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic or Western Sahara, is Laayoune. The name El Aaiún is the phonetic adaptation to Spanish of the Arabic name al-‘Ayyūn (العيون), which means the fountains or springs, which gave the area its name before the founding of the city by the Spanish.


According to ehuacom, the ancestors of the current Sahrawis were tribes from Yemen in the 15th century, which crossed the north of the African continent and temporarily settled in the Western Sahara region. The following centuries were rewarded with disagreements and contradictions between the tribes who came from other places, since a fundamental characteristic in their residents has always been a strong attachment to their roots and independence ideas. This situation managed to stabilize in the 18th century when Saguia el Hamra it became known as the “Land of the Saints”, a place for learning and apprehending mystical knowledge, which managed to attract people who sought to appropriate valuable information

The region was only inhabited by nomadic tribes because of the scarce and irregular rainfall; in addition, they lived with herds that grazed where possible. They also grew their food in somewhat more fertile land and close to small water reserves. The religion they practiced was Islam and their traditions, customs and laws were based on the Koran. The populations close to the Sahrawi tribes were different in relation to them from the cultural and ethnic point of view. They were in constant movement through the desert and their routes were governed by stations, wells and water sources, so they did not have borders or limits in their travels.

In the 16th century, Ahmad al Mansor, the Sultan of Morocco, after an economic motivation ordered the sending of an expedition to conquer Timbuktu. This sultan eagerly desired resources from the area, such as: salt, gold and silver. The expedition was made up of numerous caravans that followed the same path and influenced the region in a unique way, however the descendants of this union quickly adapted to the characteristics of the local population. Timbuktu spent almost a century paying tributes to Morocco, but then this ended. Throughout the years there were contacts between the two regions of a cultural and religious nature, among others, but they were not significant in terms of territorial sovereignty between Morocco and Western Sahara.

Africa at that time had many tribal societies, within them, the Saharawi. However, it had specific characteristics in terms of governance, since the Assembly of Forty was the one that represented the people, in which there was a representative of each of the Sahrawi tribes. Each of which was divided into sub-tribes that possessed surprising autonomy. The tribal society was very well structured as a unit and they had “kafirs”, that is, official representatives for the tribes in Algeria, Moroccoand Mauritania.

Relations with Spain during the 19th century were marked only by issues related to fishing in the Canary Islands, as the Spanish wanted to protect the archipelago. To ensure its domination in 1884, Spain proclaimed a protectorate from Cabo Blanco to Cabo Bojador and in 1885, at the Berlin Conference, which established the division of Africa among European forces, it ratified this proclamation.

Resistance to Spain

In northwestern Africa, France was the dominant power and had claims to further extend its dominions. In 1886 a series of negotiations began to determine the exact limit of the territories belonging to the French and the Spanish. The agreements and exchange of criteria were extended for a period of 4 years, that is, in 1900 the first Franco-Spanish secret treaty was signed, to continue with other later secret agreements in 1904 and 1912.

The resistance of the Saharawi people was intense from the first moment, even against the French invasion. The French intended to bring Malainin from Mauritania to Western Sahara, where he would lead a coalition of tribes from Mauritania, Wadi Dahab, and Saguia el Hamra. Malainin was a leader of recognized prestige and in 1905 he asked the Sultan of Morocco to support the resistance of the tribe in the Jihad (holy war) against the invaders.

The monarch accepted French imperialism, but his help was limited to the loan of some weapons. Faced with weak Moroccan opposition to the invaders, Malainin, renewed the exploits of the Almoravids, and opposed the Moroccan king.

The city of Marrakech was conquered, however, the warriors were stopped on their march to Fez in 1910 by the French army, which had already established itself in Morocco. By possessing control of Morocco, France intensified its military offensive in Mauritania. Numerous raids were made within Saguia el Hamra and France subsequently took revenge on Sheikh Malainin and his son, Al Hiba.

The struggles continued until 1936 and Wadi Dahab and Saguia el Hamra, which had resisted all attempts at pacification for 40 years, are threatened by France that they would occupy these territories. This threat led to Franco-Spanish military cooperation to destroy the resistance movement in northern Mauritania and throughout the “Spanish Sahara” and Spain took possession of its colony in 1936.

Cooperation between France, Spain and Morocco culminated in 1958, with the military action known as Operation Ecouvillon. The Sahrawi fighters, who had supported the Moroccans, Mauritanians and the Algerians, asked Morocco for help in their liberation struggle against France. The Sahrawis had the help of the Moroccans, but without any kind of conviction, so they betrayed them, cut off their supplies and ammunition. Spain, as a result of this, rewarded Morocco with the current province of Tarfaya, south of the Moroccan border, which was until then under Spanish rule and inhabited by Sahrawis.


While many African countries were beginning their access to their political independence, during the 50s and 60s, the issue of the Spanish Sahara was a priority and was present on the agenda of the United Nations General Assembly in 1965. The argument for the liberation of the territory was based on Resolution 1514 (XV) of 1960 of the General Assembly, the Declaration of Recognition of Independence of Colonized Countries and Peoples. The 1965 resolution set the pattern for many subsequent resolutions passed on the Sahara question, both by the General Assembly and by other international meetings, especially the Conference of Non-Aligned Countries and the Organization for African Unity.

However, the Saharawi people were never satisfied or passive during the invasion and exchange of their land. Isolated actions were carried out against Spanish domination, but it was in 1967 when the struggle became organized with the creation of the Movement for the Liberation of the Sahara. In 1970 an intensive campaign was developed to mobilize the Saharawi people in the name of their independence, which triggered a demonstration against the efforts of the colonial power to turn the Sahara into a Spanish province. The Spanish reacted by massacring the protesters and dissolving the liberation movement.

Polisario Front

The Sahrawis understood that they had no other way than to take up arms and go out to fight, so on May 10, 1973, the Constitutive Congress for the Front for the Liberation of Saguia el Hamra and Río de Oro, known as the Polisario Front, was constituted. The actions of this Front provoked an escalation of bombings, massacres and torture to the civil population that was forced to a massive exodus to the areas controlled by the Polisario Front and on the border towards Tindouf in Algeria, which has supported the Sahrawi cause for the self-determination.

The Polisario Front, like the liberation movements in other parts of Africa, had to get involved with the armed struggle and with the distribution of food, medical assistance, the construction of schools and hospitals, literacy courses and, in general, preparing the conditions for the future liberated society.

The Polisario Front represents the Saharawi people, however, the recognition of this has led most of the African States to see it. However, the 27 of February of 1976, the day the last Spanish soldier left the territory, the Polisario Front proclaimed at Bir-LELU the creation of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). Since then the Republic has been recognized by numerous states, both African and others. It was proclaimed on February 27 to emphasize that the Sahrawi people had asserted their sovereignty.

The Saharawi Republic had been recognized until 1990 by 74 states, mainly African and American; He joined the Organization of African Unity in 1982 and obtained, from 1979, a progressive acceptance in the UN, which constantly advocated in its resolutions a referendum on self-determination and preliminary talks between Morocco and the Polisario Front to reach a halt. the fire. Although Morocco refused to do so, finally, in January 1989, Hassan II received those responsible for the Front, but without achieving positive results.

The efforts of the Secretary General of the UN, Pérez de Cuellar, until 1991 contributed considerably, since they managed to obtain a plan for the Sahara. In april That year, Morocco was forced to accept this plan, the Polisario Front admitted it and the resolutions of the UN Security Council also endorsed it. The fundamental point was the realization of a referendum of self-determination of the Saharawis, with the options of independence or integration in Morocco, under the control and auspices of the UN. The plan was very detailed and included the ceasefire, exchange of prisoners, freedom of political detainees, withdrawal of part of the Moroccan forces, confinement of the combatants, return of the exiles, preparation of an electoral census, freedom of propaganda, annulment. repressive laws, etc. The long history of a people, with its own personality and culture and a tradition of independence through the centuries,

For the year 1992, a consultation for the Referendum in Western Sahara was foreseen, this did not take place due to the discrepancies on the census. The 90s are happening one after another full of attempts to prepare a census for the referendum, between continuous discrepancies between both parties. Meanwhile, Hassan II of Morocco, established the division of Western Sahara into provinces, with a structure very similar to that of Morocco. Subsequently, the first electoral roll was published in 1999, without progress, as the Saharawi situation remains intact. The census is completed in the year 2000, but without progress, as disagreements continue between the Polisario Front and Morocco, so the referendum cannot be carried out that year either.

UN sends in 2003 to James Baker as a special envoy for the issue of the Western Sahara, proposing the two sides in the matter a program that included a wide range of Western Sahara within Morocco as a preliminary to holding a referendum on the final status of the territory within four years. Morocco and the Polisario Front did not agree with Baker’s proposal, made in March of that same year, and rejected it, however, the Polisario changed its point of view and in July accepted the plan, without agreeing with the Moroccan side that remained intransigent on the issue of the sovereignty of Western Sahara.

So far no solution has been reached and, of course, no consultation has been held. Meanwhile, the Sahrawi refugees remain in the Algerian desert, mainly in the refugee camps of Tindouf.

Kofi Annan, the president of the UN, pointed out that at the end of his term that the Sahara conflict had a very difficult solution. The main urban centers of Western Sahara in 2005, became the scene of serious protests against the Moroccan occupation; The peaceful demonstration in support of independence and the Polisario Front was dissolved. In 2010, the Moroccan police dissolved a protest camp on the outskirts of El Ayoun, later starting a series of protests by the Sahrawi people in the city itself, with the subsequent intervention of the Moroccan authorities.

History of Western Sahara