Explainer: Western Sahara conflict, a war for independence

Jake Pemberton

Digital Journalist | @jake_pemby

8 min read
Polisario Front soldiers warm themselves by a fire near Bir Lahlou, Western Sahara, October 15, 2021.
AP Photo/Bernat ArmanguePolisario Front soldiers warm themselves by a fire near Bir Lahlou, Western Sahara, October 15, 2021.

Western Sahara is the site of a war for independence, from intense demonstrations to bloody clashes

Western Sahara – a disputed territory on the northwestern coast of Africa and the site of a decades-long, violent tension between the Kingdom of Morocco and the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic.

Since 1975, the territory has been the scene of a war for independence, from intense demonstrations to bloody clashes.

Western Sahara

Estimated at 103,000 square miles of mostly desert flatlands, the region is one of the most sparsely populated territories in the world with over 560,000 residents. 

The Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), controlled by the nationalist Polisario Force, makes up 20 percent of Western Sahara, while the other 80 percent is administered by Morocco.

It is considered by the United Nations as a case of incomplete decolonization.

AP Photo/Bernat Armangue, File
AP Photo/Bernat Armangue, FileA Sahrawi nomad feeds cattle on the outskirts of the Boujdour refugee camp in Algeria, October 16, 2021.


Between 1884 and 1975, Western Sahara was occupied by Spain known as the Spanish Sahara, to the dismay of Morocco.

1975 – Spain relinquished control to a joint administration by Morocco and Mauritania south of the region.

1976 – Polisario declared the establishment of the SADR, and the UN reaffirmed the right to self-determination for the Sahrawi people.

1979 – Mauritania withdrew from the conflict and abandoned its claim to the territories.

1988 - Morocco and Polisario agreed to a UN referendum that would allow the people of Western Sahara to choose between independence or integration with Morocco.

The vote was not held due to a resurgence of clashes, leading to a ceasefire in 1991.


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2005 - Independence Intifada: Sahrawi protests and riots in Moroccan-controlled areas that disrupted years of peace initiatives.

2010 – Protests in a Sahrawi refugee camp led to dozens of casualties, re-erupting again in 2011 that spread throughout the entire region.

Though sporadic demonstrations continue, the conflict eased since the 2011 unrest.

Kingdom of Morocco

Morocco considers Western Sahara as its “Southern Provinces” and the SADR-controlled territory as a buffer zone. 

The kingdom’s official position is that since 1963, Western Sahara has been an integral part of Morocco.

It controls the major cities and most of the natural resources, and in January 2020 added the region to its maritime borders.

From 1980 to 2020, Morocco built the Western Sahara Berm - a defensive structure over 1,600 miles long that acts as a separation barrier between the Moroccan- and Polisario-controlled regions.

Polisario Front

The nationalist Polisario movement was formed in 1973 as an insurgency based in Mauritania - with Moroccan origins - to launch an armed struggle against the occupying Spaniards.

It considers the region as the “Free Zone” and claims total sovereignty.

Polisario officials have stated that, when Sahrawi self-determination is achieved, it will either function within a multi-party system or be completely disbanded.

In 2020, Polisario declared the almost 30-year-long ceasefire over and resumed armed conflict, demanding the long-awaited referendum promised by the UN.

AP Photo/Bernat Armangue
AP Photo/Bernat ArmanguePolisario soldiers sit on a cliff in the Boujdour refugee camp in Algeria, October 15, 2021.


Some make the case that the true conflict is between Morocco and Polisario’s main supporter - Algeria - east of Morocco and Western Sahara.

When Spain colonized the Sahara in 1884, Algeria did not resist or describe it as an occupying country, and viewed Morocco’s takeover in 1976 as an invasion.

The North African country has since supported Polisario in demanding that Morocco leave the region, supplying the front with weapons, money, land for refugees, and military training.


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International Community

Both Morocco and the Polisario Front have tried to boost their claims to the territory through foreign recognition. 

The SADR is a member of the African Union (AU) and is recognized by 46 states as an independent nation.

Morocco’s claim is supported by 65 states - including several African nations and most of the Arab world - and 23 have consulates in Western Sahara.

In 2020 the United States recognized Moroccan sovereignty in exchange for normalization with Israel.

The UN considers the Polisario Front to be the legitimate representative of the Sahrawi people.

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Peace Process

The UN and the AU continue to urge a ceasefire and peace agreement between the two parties.

In 2018, the UN Security Council announced that peace talks regarding Western Sahara would resume, but no referendum materialized.

Staffan de Mistura, the UN envoy for Western Sahara, mediated a round of discussions in January 2022 between Morocco’s Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita and the SADR’s President Brahim Ghali.

FABRICE COFFRINI / AFPUN Special Envoy for Western Sahara Staffan de Mistura gives a press conference in Geneva, Switzerland, on December 18, 2018.
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