Spanish Sahara


Map of Spanish SaharaFlag of Spain 1945-1977





















In 1884, Spain claimed a protectorate over the West African coast from Cape Bojador to Cap Blanc. Later, the Spanish extended their area of control. In 1958 Spain joined the previously separate districts of Saguia el-Hamra (in the north) and Río de Oro (in the south) to form the province of Spanish Sahara.


Raids and rebellions by the indigenous Sahrawi population kept the Spanish forces out of much of the territory for a long time. Ma al-Aynayn started an uprising against the French in the 1910s, at a time when France had expanded its influence and control in North-West Africa. French forces finally beat him when he tried to conquer Marrakesh, but his sons and followers figured prominently in several rebellions which followed.


Not until the second destruction of Smara in 1934, by joint Spanish and French forces, did the territory finally become subdued. Another uprising in 1956-1958, initiated by the Moroccan-backed Army of Liberation, led to heavy fighting, but eventually the Spanish forces regained control - again with French aid. However, unrest simmered, and in 1967 the Harakat Tahrir arose to challenge Spanish rule peacefully. After the events of the Zemla Intifada in 1970, when Spanish police destroyed the organization and  its founder Muhammad Bassiri "disappeared", Sahrawi nationalism again took a militant turn.


From 1973 the colonizers gradually lost control over the countryside to the armed guerrillas of the Polisario Front, a nationalist organization. Successive Spanish attempts to form loyal Sahrawi political institutions (such as the Djema'a and the PUNS party) to support its rule, and draw activists away from the radical nationalists, failed. As the health of the Spanish leader Francisco Franco deteriorated, the Madrid government slipped into disarray, and sought a way out of the Sahara conflict. The fall in 1974 of the Portuguese Estado Novo-government after unpopular wars in its own African provinces seems to have hastened the decision to pull out.


In late 1975, Spain held meetings with Polisario leader El-Ouali, to negotiate the terms for a handover of power. But at the same time, Morocco and Mauritania began to put pressure on the Franco government: both countries argued that Spanish Sahara formed an historical part of their own territories. The United Nations became involved after Morocco asked for an opinion on the legality of its demands from the International Court of Justice (ICJ), and the UN also sent a visiting mission to examine the wishes of the population. The visiting mission returned its report on October 15, announcing "an overwhelming consensus" in favor of independence (as opposed to integration with Morocco or with Mauritania, or continued rule by Spain). The mission, headed by Simeon Aké, also declared that the Polisario Front seemed the main Sahrawi organization of the territory - the only rival arrangements to what the mission described as Polisario's "mass demonstrations" came from the PUNS, which by this time also advocated independence. Polisario then made further diplomatic gains by ensuring the backing of the main Sahrawi tribes and of a number of formerly pro-Spanish Djema'a elders at the Ain Ben Tili conference of 12 October.


On 16 October, the ICJ delivered its verdict. To the dismay of both the Rabat and Nouakchott governments, the court found with a clear majority, that the historical ties of these countries to Spanish Sahara did not grant them the right to the territory. Furthermore, the Court declared that the concept of 'terra nullius' (un-owned land) did not apply to the territory. The Court declared that the Sahrawi population, as the true owners of the land, held a right of self-determination. In other words, any proposed solution to the situation (independence, integration etc), had to receive the explicit acceptance of the population in order to gain any legal standing. Neither Morocco nor Mauritania accepted this, and on 31 October 1975, Morocco sent its army into Western Sahara to attack Polisario positions. The public diplomacy between Spain and Morocco continued, however, with Morocco demanding bilateral negotiations over the fate of the territory.


On 6 November 1975 Morocco launched the Green March into Western Sahara. About 350.000 unarmed Moroccans converged on the city of Tarfaya in southern Morocco and waited for a signal from King Hassan II of Morocco to cross into Western Sahara. As a result, Spain acceded to Moroccan demands, and entered bilateral negotiations. This led to the Madrid Agreement, a treaty that divided the territory between Morocco and Mauritania, in return for phosphate and fishing concessions to Spain. Spain and Morocco did not consult the Sahrawi population, and the Polisario violently opposed the treaty.


The developments in the region until the 90s were strongly influenced by the power struggle of the Cold war. Algeria, Libya and Mali were allied to the Eastern bloc. Morocco was the only African country in the region that was allied to the West.


On 14 November 1975, Spain, Morocco and Mauritania signed the Madrid Accords, hence setting up a timetable for the retrieval of Spanish forces and ending Spanish Occupation on the Western Sahara. These accords were signed by the three parties in accordance with all international standards. In these accords, Morocco was set to annex back 2/3 of the northern part of the western whereas the lower third would be annexed to Mauritania.


On 26 February 1976 Spain's formal mandate over the territory ended when it handed administrative power on to Morocco in a ceremony in Laayoune. The day after, the Polisario proclaimed in Bir Lehlou the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) as a government in exile. Mauritania in its turn renamed the southern parts of Río de Oro as Tiris al-Gharbiyya, but proved unable to maintain control over the territory. Polisario made the weak Mauritanian army its main target, and after raids on the Mauritanian capital Nouakchott (where a gunshot killed El-Ouali, the first president of the SADR), Mauritania succumbed to internal unrest. The presence of a large number of Sahrawi nationalists among the country's dominant Moorish population made the Mauritanian government's position yet more fragile, and thousands of Mauritanian Sahrawis defected to Polisario. In 1978 the army seized control of the Mauritanian government and Polisario declared a cease-fire, on the assumption that Mauritania would withdraw unconditionally. This eventually occurred in 1979, as Mauritania's new rulers agreed to surrender all claims and to recognize the SADR. Following Mauritania's withdrawal, however, Morocco extended its control to the rest of the territory, and the war continued.

Through the 1980s, the war stalemated through the construction of the Moroccan Wall, but sporadic fighting continued, and
Morocco faced heavy burdens due to the economic costs of its massive troop deployments along the Wall. To some extent aid sent by Saudi Arabia and by the United States relieved the situation in Morocco, but matters gradually became unsustainable for all parties involved.


In 1991 Morocco and the Polisario Front agreed on a UN-backed cease-fire in the Settlement Plan. This plan, its further detail fleshed out in the 1997 Houston Agreement, hinged upon Morocco's agreement to a referendum on independence among the indigenous population. The plan intended this referendum to constitute their exercise of self-determination, thereby completing the territory's yet unfinished process of decolonization. The UN dispatched a peace-keeping mission, the MINURSO, to oversee the cease-fire and make arrangements for the vote. Initially scheduled for 1992, the referendum has not taken place, due to the conflict over who has the right to vote. A second United Nations attempt to solve the conflict, James Baker's 2003 peace plan, though accepted by the Polisario, met rejection out-of-hand from Morocco, which had by then reneged on its promise to hold a referendum, declaring it "unnecessary".


The prolonged cease-fire has held without major disturbances, but Polisario has repeatedly threatened to resume fighting if no break-through occurs. Morocco's withdrawal from both the terms of the original Settlement Plan and the Baker Plan negotiations in 2003 left the peace-keeping mission without a political agenda: this further increased the risks of renewed war. Meanwhile, the gradual liberalization of political life in Morocco during the 1990s belatedly reached Western Sahara around 2000. This spurred political protest, as former "disappeared" and other human rights-campaigners began holding illegal demonstrations against Moroccan rule. The subsequent crackdowns and arrests drew media attention to the Moroccan occupation, and Sahrawi nationalists seized on the opportunity: in May 2005, a wave of demonstrations subsequently dubbed the Independence Intifada in separatists circles, broke out. These demonstrations, which continued into 2006, were the most intense in years, and engendered a new wave of interest in the conflict - as well as new fears of instability. Polisario has demanded international intervention, but declared that it could not stand idly by if the "escalation of repression" continues.


Capital:                      El Aiún

Government:              Spanish province

Area:                         252.120 km²

Population:                 100.000 (1975)

Currency:                   Peseta (100 centimos)





Spanish Sahara in Wikipedia.

Flag of Spain between 1945 and 1977 in Flags of the World.




Stamp catalogue


UPU Centenary

date:                  May 1974

designer:            -

printer:               Fábrica Nacional de Moneda y Timbre, Madrid, Spain

perforated:         13¼


1     15 PTAS       UPU Monument, Berne, Switzerland, text "CENTENARIO DE LA UNION / POSTAL UNIVERSAL"


                          (cat. Michel 345/SG 311/Yvert )


Spanish Sahara - stamp as described above









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last revised: 16 May 2009