Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs
A Short History of the Western Sahara
IT IS WORTH TAKING a retrospective look at the Western Sahara issue. Occupied by Spain in 1884, it had little to recommend it--but to be a great European power in those days a nation had to have its own bit of Africa, and Spain was left behind in the scramble. Madrid wasted a lot of its military resources in quelling the mostly nomadic local tribes. The discovery of phosphates, however, caused the winds of change to blow a little more strongly in that corner of the continent. Spain wanted out, Morocco and Mauritania both wanted in, and the locals established Polisario to fight for independence.
In 1974 the Spanish conducted a census, and found 74,000 Sahrawis in the vast territory. The U.N. General Assembly, meanwhile, had referred the impending dispute to the International Court of Justice, which ruled in a landmark decision that the locals were entitled to self-determination. There is little doubt that, at the time, they wanted independence.
At the end of 1975, however, Spain pulled out and Morocco's King Hassan initiated a "Green March" of 350,000 Moroccan wannabe-Sahrawis into the territory. The deal was that, in return, Morocco would not embarrass Spain's Generalissimo Francisco Franco by raising the issue of the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, which otherwise would have somewhat compromised the legal basis of Madrid's perennial claim to Gibraltar.
Madrid was acting in collusion with Morocco and Mauritania, which proceeded to occupy the southern third of the territory as the Moroccans took the north. The U.N. Security Council passed a resolution condemning the takeover, but then U.S. Ambassador Daniel Patrick Moynihan boasted rather than confessed in his memoirs of how the U.S. helped thwart U.N. resolutions against Washington's allies. "China altogether backed Fretilin in Timor, and lost," he wrote. …