Western Sahara’s Claim for Sovereignty Undermined by Previous Colonial Power

Western Sahara’s Claim for Sovereignty Undermined by Previous Colonial Power
Photo by Adam Hegazy on Wikimedia Commons


Clea Strydom

International Justice  and Human Rights Researcher,

Global Human Rights Defence

Spain’s announcement last month supporting Morroco’s claim of sovereignty over Western Sahara, after years of neutrality, comes at a weird time and the intention us unclear. Parts of what is now known as Western Sahara was occupied by Spain from the early 1900s. In 1957 the territory was claimed by the newly independent Morocco. Spanish troops managed to repel Moroccan military incursions into the territory, and in 1958 Spain formally turned the territory into a Spanish province known as Spanish Sahara. In 1960, Mauritiana tried to claim the territory as their own. The situation was complicated in 1963 with the discovery of huge phosphate deposits in Bu Craa in the northern portion of the Spanish Sahara. Mining of the deposits at Bu Craa began in 1972. Decades of social and economic instability caused by drought, desertification, and the impact of the phosphate discoveries resulted in an increase in national consciousness and anticolonial sentiment. After unrest and guerrilla insurgency of the local inhabitant’s Polisario Front, Spain transferred administrative control over Western Sahara to Morocco and neighbouring Mauritania in 1975.  Soon after Spain left, a guerrilla war between Morocco and the Polisario Front broke out until a UN-facilitated ceasefire in 1991. A long promised referendum on Western Saharan independence has still not been held. 

The Polisario Front continues to claim Western Sahara’s sovereignty while Morocco still claims the region belongs to them, while expanding their physical infrastructure and presence in the territory despite widespread protests.  In 2020, the Polisario Front, in an attempt to break the status quo started obstructing a key trade route between Morocco and Mauritania. Morocco launched a military operation in November to break the blockade, prompting the Polisario Front to announce that it would no longer observe the 1991 cease-fire agreement. In December  of 2020, the United States became the first country to formally recognise Morocco’s right to Western Sahara. The Polisario Front continues to receive material and ideological backing from Algeria, which severed diplomatic relations with Morocco.

Since handing over administrative control to Morocco, Spain has remained silent and neutral on Western Sahara’s sovereignty, until last month when Spain decided to endorse Morocco’s claim over the territory. It is a strange move, considering Algeria’s support of the Polisario Front and Spain’s reliance on Algerian gas, especially in light of other gas sources becoming more difficult to access, i.e. Russia. Spain’s intention is unclear but it does undermine their former colonised territory’s quest for independence and justice.

Further reading and sources

Encyclopaedia Britannica. Western Sahara. https://www.britannica.com/place/Western-Sahara

International Intrigue (March 31, 2022). The Geopolitical Situation in Western Sahara Heats Up. https://daily.internationalintrigue.io/s7o9o3i4k6/1917976769055430718/q1j0/

Shapiro, J (March 19, 2022). “Spain, Seeking Better Ties with Morrocco, Shifts `stance on Western Sahara”. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/19/world/europe/spain-morocco-western-sahara.html