>> Detailed Chronology
The history of the people of Sanhaja Berber and Arab blood who inhabit Western Sahara goes back hundreds of years. In the XIth century, a confederation of tribes, the "veiled Sanhaja", formed the Almoravid State. The Almoravids were pious Sanhaja marabouts , who left the Sahara to go north where they conquered Morocco. Then there was a split; one faction returned south to the desert while the other crossed the Mediterranean, invaded Andalusia, settling in large parts of Spain, as well a in the present Maghreb. They founded Marrakesh and other centres and there was a great flowering of culture during their reign. However they lost contact with the country of their origin and their former way of life.
The direct ancestors of the present-day Saharawis were tribes which came from the Yemen in the XVth century. They crossed North Africa and eventually established themselves in the region of Western Sahara. In the following centuries there were clashes bet ween these tribes and any newcomers, for they have always been fiercely independent. The situation was stabilized in the XVIIIth century when Saguia el-Hamra became known as the "Land of Saints", a centre of learning and holiness, which attracted people in search of instruction from far and wide.
Because of the low, irregular rainfall, the region was inhabited
exclusively by nomadic tribes. They lived by pasturing animals and
growing crops where possible. Their religion was that of Islam, their
law was based on custom and the Koran. Ethnically and culturally
distinct from the populations around them, they moved across the
desert on more or less regular routes, dictated by seasons, wells,
waterholes. They knew no frontiers.
Towards the end of the XVIth century, the Sultan of Morocco, Ahmad al-Mansour, sent an expedition to conquer Timbuktu. His motivation was economics: the desire for salt, with which to purchase gold and silver. This expedition, which followed the regular caravan route, had a great influence in the region. However, it turned out to be ephemeral, the descendants quickly becoming absorbed in the local population. For slightly over a century Timbuktu paid tribute to Morocco, then this came to an end. There were connections over the centuries: religious, cultural and personal ties, but they were sporadic and did not at any time constitute ties of territorial sovereignty between Moroc co and Western Sahara.
This can clearly be seen from the terms of the Treaty of Marrakesh
signed in 1767:
«His Imperial Majesty (of Morocco) refrains from expressing an opinion with regard to the trading post which His Catholic Majesty (of Spain) wishes to establish to the south of the River Noun, since He cannot take responsibility for accidents and misfortun es, because His domination does not extend so far... . Northwards from Santa Cruz, His Imperial Majesty grants to the Canary Islanders and the Spaniards the rights of fishing without authorizing any other nation to do so."
Saharawi society, like many others in Africa at that time, was a tribal society, but it had some specific characteristics. For example, it was governed by an Assembly of Forty, each of whom represented one of the Saharawi tribes (this, in contrast with its neighbours, for example Morocco, where there was a hereditary monarch with absolute powers, or Mauritania, where it was the strongest tribe which imposed tribute on the weaker tribes and, in general, dominated them).
Each Saharawi tribe was divided into sub-tribes which had so much autonomy that a colonial historian from Spain described them as living in "complete anarchy".
During the XIXth century, relationships with Spain were mostly
limited to questions concerning fishermen from the Canary Islands: in
fact Spanish interest in the territory was principally determined by
its desire to protect the Canary Archipelago. From tim e to time
Spain was forced to negotiate with the chieftains of the area to
obtain the restitution of its sailors. In 1884, to ensure its
domination, Spain proclaimed a protectorate from Cape Blanc to Cape
Bojador. In 1885, the Berlin Conference, which sett led the partition
of Africa between the European powers, ratified this
The Saharawis fiercely opposed the Spanish forces.
In the meantime, France had become the dominant power in North-West Africa and wished to extend its possessions still further. In 1886, negotiations were started, to define the frontiers between the French and Spanish zones. These continued until 1900, whe n the first Franco-Spanish secret treaty was signed, to be followed by further secret agreements in 1904 and 1912. There was intense resistance, also against the French penetration, which was to drive Ma al-Aineen, a chieftain of considerable prestige, fro m Mauritania into Western Sahara, where he headed a coalition of tribes from Mauritania, Wadi Dahab and Saguia el Hamra. In 1905 he asked the Sultan of Morocco to support the resistance of the tribe in the Djihad (holy war) against the invaders.
Apart from fine words, the help was limited to the delivery of a
few arms. Faced with Morocco's weak opposition to the invaders (the
monarch was already coming to terms with French imperialism), Ma
al-Aineen, renewing the exploits of the Almoravids, turned against
the Moroccan king. Marrakesh was taken, but the warriors were stopped
on their march to Fez in 1910 by the French army which had already
settled in Morocco (in fact the French protectorate was only signed
in 1912). France, in control of Morocco, i ntensified its military
offensive in Mauritania. Numerous incursions were also made into
Saguia el Hamra and France took later its revenge on Sheikh Ma
al-Aineen and his son, al Hiba.
The fighting continued until 1936. Since Wadi Dahab and Saguia el Hamra had, for forty years, resisted all efforts at pacification, France threatened Spain in 1934 that it would occupy these territories.
This diplomatic menace led to Franco-Spanish military cooperation to destroy the resistance movement north of Mauritania and in the whole of the "Spanish Sahara". Spain thus truly took possession of its "colony" in 1936.
The cooperation between France Spain and Morocco culminated, in 1958, in the military action known as the Ecouvillon Operation. The Saharawi fighters, who had supported the Moroccans (and also the Mauritanians and the Algerians) in their liberation struggl e against France, asked them for support in their liberation struggle against the continuation of Spanish domination. The Moroccans went through all the motions of helping the Saharawis and then betrayed them, cutting off their supplies and munitions. As a result, Spain awarded Morocco the present province of Tarfaya, south of the Moroccan frontier, which up until that time had been under Spanish domination and inhabited by Saharawis.
THE TERRITORY IN THE DECOLONIZATION PERIOD
During the 1950s and 1960s, when so many African countries began to accede to their political independence, the question of the Spanish Sahara was first on the agenda of the United Nations General Assembly in 1965. The argument for the liberation of the te rritory was based - as in so many analogous cases - on the UN General Assembly Resolution 1514 (XV) of 1960, the Declaration of the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples. The 1965 resolution set the tone of the many resolutions subseq uently passed on the Sahara question, both by the UN General Assembly and by other international gatherings, especially the Non-Aligned Conference and the Organization of African Unity.
THE SAHARAWIS CONTINUE THEIR STRUGGLE FOR INDEPENDENCE
The Saharawi people have not remained passive spectators at the invasion and bartering of their land.
After 1958, there were sporadic demonstrations against the Spanish domination, but it was in 1967 that the struggle began to take organized form with the creation of the Movement for the Liberation of the Sahara. An intensive campaign to mobilize the Sahar awi people on behalf of their independence led to a massive demonstration, in 1970, against the efforts by the colonial power to turn the Sahara into a Spanish province. The Spaniards reacted by massacring the demonstrators and dissolving the liberation mo vement.
Having understood that there was no other way out, the Saharawis decided to take up armed struggle. On 10 May 1973, the Constitutive Congress for the Front for the Liberation of Saguia el Hamra and Rio de Oro, known as the POLISARIO Front, was held.
Shortly afterwards, the first armed action was carried out. Such actions have caused an escalation of bombardments, massacres and torture of the civilian population who have been forced to make a mass exodus to the areas controlled by the POLISARIO Front a nd over the border to Tindouf in Algeria,which has been supporting the struggle of the Saharawis for self-determination.
PREPARATION FOR THE NEW SOCIETY
Like the liberation movements in other parts of Africa, especially the former Portuguese colonies, POLISARIO has had to concern itself not only with the armed struggle, but also with the sheer survival of the population and, as such, has had to organize fo od distribution, medical assistance, the construction of schools and hospitals, literacy courses and, in general, lay the groundwork for the future liberated society.
Recognition that the POLISARIO Front does indeed represent the Saharawi people has led a majority of African States to recognize it. But the Saharawis have gone one step further. On 27 February 1976, the day the last Spanish soldier left the territory, the y proclaimed at Bir Lahlou the creation of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic. Since then the Republic has been recognized by numerous African and other States.
The Republic was proclaimed on 27 February to emphasize that the Saharawi people had affirmed their sovereignty and that it was no longer possible for a new colonisation to take place. Since then, further shape has been given to the institutions of the Rep ublic, in particular at the Third General Congress of POLISARIO, which was held in August 1976.
THE ISSUES AT STAKE
Why has what would have seemed a normal decolonization process turned into a desperate struggle for survival, both of the people and of their country ?
The main reasons are, as so often happens, economic and strategic. Western Sahara is rich in mineral deposits, especially phosphates, uranium, iron, natural gas and oil. The fishing grounds are also very rich. There are large French and Spanish economic in terests in the area, which have important strategic aspects (the oil routes).
Seen in this light it is easier to understand all the obstructions, both open and concealed, that are being put in the way of the Saharawis' struggle for self-determination. Indeed it is important to see this fight in the much broader struggle of the Third World countries for control over their own natural resources.