Independence now seems increasingly unlikely
Western Sahara's territory on the north-west coast of Africa is largely flat and almost entirely desert. The western two-thirds of the country is occupied by Moroccan troops, while the eastern third, though with only 30,000 people, is controlled by the independence movement, Polisario.
The Saharawi are a mixture of Arab, Berber, and black African descent. Around 90,000 people, are now living in refugee camps in western Algeria. The camps are fairly well run; even so, there appear to be serious health and nutritional problems. In recent years, the country has also been flooded with around 200,000 Moroccan settlers and more than 100,000 Moroccan soldiers.
In the past, the Saharawi have survived largely as nomadic herders, with a little agriculture along the coast. But this is an area of huge potential. In 1963, large phosphate deposits were discovered at Boucraa in the north. Total reserves have been estimated at 10 billion tons. In addition, there are rich coastal fishing grounds which are currently exploited by Spanish trawlers.
Western Sahara was a Spanish colony. An armed liberation movement, Polisario, was formed in 1973 but when Spain relinquished the territory in 1976 it handed the northern two-thirds to Morocco and the southern third to Mauritania—though the International Court of Justice said that the Saharawi were entitled to independence. Years of brutal warfare ensued with Polisario working from bases in Algeria. Mauritania withdrew in 1976 and Morocco seized their portion too.
Polisario's guerrilla attacks did not shift Morocco, but their diplomatic offensive proved more successful. By the mid-1980s, more than 60 countries had recognized them as the legitimate government. The real breakthrough, however, came in 1990, when the UN managed to achieve a peace plan that would lead to a UN-supervised referendum on independence based on a 1974 census. A ceasefire was declared in 1991.
Since then there has been little progress on the referendum. Polisario, and its main supporter, Algeria, wants the electorate to be limited to anyone on the 1974 census, while Morocco, relying on its settlers, had wanted it to include anyone born there. The UN has arrived at a list of 86,000 voters but also has claims from another 130,000 people in Morocco.
Now, however, Morocco is refusing to hold a referendum at all and the process has ground to a halt. The UN now seems to consider independence as unrealistic.
www.un.org/en/peacekeeping/missions/minurso/index.html UN mission news
www.spsrasd.info/en/main3e.php Sahara Press Service - Polisario-run news site
Land area: 266,000 sq. km.
Population: 0.5 million—urban 81%
Capital city: L'ayoune
People: Saharawi, Moroccan
Government: Government in exile
Life expectancy: 54 years
GDP per capita: $PPP 2,500
Currency: Moroccan dirham
Major exports: Phosphates