THE WESTERN SAHARA.
Not too many tourists visit the disputed territory of Western Sahara; it's a way off the beaten track, consists mostly of hamada (rocky desert) and rumours persist of the mistreatment of the local Sahrawi people and territorial disputes and potential conflict between Morocco, Algeria and the Polisario Front, the miltary and political organization who have proclaimed the area as the Sahhrawi Arab Democratic Republic.
However, it has its attractions and tourism had been increasing recently, until the advent of Covid-19. The city of Dahkla is particularly appealing and a tranquil, friendly and relaxing place. The Atlantic beaches, fringed with palm trees are pristine and the ocean is the deepest azure. Dakhla has a gorgeous long esplanade and is home to a shallow lagoon, dotted with islands. An idyllic paradise.
The hotels, cafes and restaurants have a Spanish feel, due to their colonial past and the location boasts one of the best kiteboarding experiences in the world. Low impact and eco-friendly tours were really taking off in the area.
But on the margins of the territory there are roadblocks, an overabundance of Moroccan flags, soldiers and military vehicles. This is disputed land.
Morocco considers the Western Sahara to be historically theirs and will not budge regarding what they say is their right to protect their territorial integrity. Few subjects are taboo in Morocco, but this is one of them. The vast majority of Moroccans are adamant that this is Morocco. They call it the Moroccan Sahara. To Morocco it is a region with certain autonomous rights. Moroccans can get quite angry about this, so it is probably best not to mention it.
The Spanish had begun to use the area as a base for the slave trade, but by the eighteenth century had started to lean more towards large scale fishing operations. The area is still a huge commercial fishing hub and this is the basis for much of the region's economy today. During the Berlin Conference in 1884 when the European Powers decided on who got what in the dividing up of Africa, Spain were given control of Western Sahara and made it a Spanish colony.
Morocco itself was split into Spanish and French protectorates in 1912 and became independent again in 1956. (but that's another story).
The European powers began to give back their possessions and protectorates in Africa following World War II and the Spanish followed suit, but on the 31st October 1975 the Moroccans took the matter into their own hands and troops invaded the north of the province. A few day later, on the 6th November was the Green March when 350,000 unarmed Moroccans marched across the border in a peaceful protest. The Spanish signed a tripartite agreement with Morocco and Mauretania, who also claimed the territory on a historical level, on the 14th November. Morocco and Mauretania immediately annexed the region with Morocco taking the northern two-thirds and Mauretania the southern third. Spain completely left Western Sahara, and gave up all rights to it, over the next few months.
The United Nation position was, and still is, that although there was no doubt that both Morocco and Mauretania had historical links to the region, there was not enough evidence to prove that either one should claim sovereignty and as such a referendum should be held so that the people of the region could have self-determination. Algeria, meanwhile, worried about this land grab and the fact that Morocco also claimed some of her territories, supported the Polisario in their right to self-determination and a three-way war broke out.
Four years later, Mauretania relinquished all claims to the territory and withdrew. But fighting between Morocco and Polisario continued until 1991 when a ceasefire was brokered, but no resolution has ever been implemented. A referendum was promised by Morocco, but this has never occurred and during the time since, many Moroccans have moved to live in the Western Sahara and Morocco has invested millions into the region to improve its infrastructure, education, healthcare and so on, as well as giving tax breaks to the people to encourage support. The Moroccans built a huge and impressive sand wall around 80% of the territory and the Polisario Front patrol the rest of it. About 100,000 Sahrawi refugees live in camps near Tindouf in Algeria close to the Moroccan and Mauretanian borders. A UN peacekeeping force has been present in the region since the ceasefire.
The referendum did not happen mainly because of disputes over who was eligible to vote. Also, because of the fact that as time has gone by, there has been a gradual shifting of power towards Morocco. In 2017 Morocco rejoined the African Union after a 33-year absence because the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic was a full member. (it still is). So now most African countries tend to skirt around the issue of Western Sahara as they build closer relations and trade deals with Morocco. The Southern African Development Community however, including countries such as South Africa and Zimbabwe, are still faithful to the SADR, because they remember their own colonial past, which happened through settler colonialism, which is how they see Morocco's approach to the Western Sahara.
The longer this goes on, the more the balance tips in favour of Morocco. Diplomatically and economically, Morocco is on the rise, it is now the fourth biggest economy in Africa. However, some have reported human rights violations in the region, and that protests are restricted and those who call for self-determination arrested. Morocco denies this, and the area does seem mostly happy and peaceful, so the whole business has slowly faded from the international agenda. Although officially every country in the UN bar Morocco is in favour of self-determination, in reality several countries in Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere have come out in support of Morocco's territorial integrity, in search of closer links to the comparatively wealthy Morocco, while other countries, including the SADC, Algeria and Spain still support Polisario.
I think that the time for a referendum had passed, and rightly or wrongly, the area is now firmly Moroccan. The long-term solution can only be reached by honest diplomacy.