Between 13 and 22 January 2023, the Frente Popular para la Liberation de Saguia El Hamra y Río de Oro (Frente POLISARIO, left-wing|centre-left) held its 16th Congress in the Dajla refugee camp in Tindouf (Algeria), the first one to be held in a war situation since 1991. Due to the ongoing conflict, the Congress was held in Tindouf for the first time as opposed to its standard locations in the Liberated Territories.
The current situation made of this Congress a decisive one, not only because it allowed for POLISARIO to decide in which direction to take the country and how to fight a complex war of liberation, but also to tackle several reforms that have been heavily demanded inside the Front and the SADR by the Sahrawi population.
However, to understand the context of this Congress, there’s a need to have a basic knowledge of Sahrawi history, which will be presented here in this article.
Who was here before the Spaniards arrived?
Western Sahara is a non-self-governing territory as per the United Nations. Saguia El Hamra and Río de Oro (the two regions that form the modern-day territory of Western Sahara) were colonised by Spain from 1884 to 1976, and then occupied by Morocco after the Green March (Mauritania also partially occupied the southern part of Río de Oro from 1975 to 1979, calling it Tiris El Gharbiya).
Before colonialism, the modern-day territory of Western Sahara wasn’t ruled by any state, with the exception of the Almoravid Empire (founded in Mauritania and expanded up to Spain, with the Almoravids leading to the creation of the modern-day state of Morocco). The International Court of Justice in The Hague determined that there were in fact ties between the Moroccan monarchy or the pre-colonial Mauritanian emirates and some Sahrawi tribes (mostly based on religious alliegance or commerce in the case of Morocco or tribal and cultural ties in the case of Mauritania), but that those weren’t enough for territorial sovereignty, thus making Western Sahara a stateless territory in which tribal councils such as Ait Arbain (The Council of the Fourty) formed a protostate that ruled and coordinated the different tribes in the territory during times of war and emergency.
Resistance to occupations – the predecessors of the POLISARIO Front
All of these occupations were met by resistances from Sahrawi indigenous movements: Cheikh Ma al-‘Aynayn, an important religious leader which founded the town of Smara, led a rebellion between 1904 and 1910 against both Spanish and French colonial presence in the Sahara. After the rebellion was put down by the French, Spain managed to colonise the territory, with the Spanish presence being limited at first to small coastal settlements while the Sahrawis (a people of mixed African, Arab and Amazigh heritage that speak Hassaniya Arabic) kept living a nomadic lifestyle and governed by the tribal system and laws that had been ruling them for years.
Spain intensified its presence in Western Sahara after it discovered important phosphate reserves in Bucraa in 1947. This led to a sedentarisation process of the Sahrawi population that further settled in towns such as El Aaiún (capital of Western Sahara since 1940), Villa Cisneros (now Dajla), Bojador and Smara. Some of this newly sedentarised population worked for the Spanish colonial administration with lower wages than those Spaniards received, and although there weren’t any major issues between the indigenous Sahrawi and the Spaniard colonisers, the Sahrawis still wanted to gain further self-governance.
This led to the creation of the National Movement for the Liberation of Saguia el Hamra and Wadi el Dhahab, known in Arabic as Harakat Tahrir (Liberation Movement). It was founded by Mohamed Sidi Brahim Bassir, a journalist and Quranic teacher. Bassiri (as he was widely known), influenced by the pacifist anti-colonial movement of Gandhi along with pan-Arabism and Islam, sought to reach an agreement with Francoist Spain for further devolution that would eventually lead to full independence, but he ended up being forcibly disappeared after the Zemla Intifada in 1970.
The failure of Harakat Tahrir of obtaining any negotiation with Spain led to the birth of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia El Hamra and Río de Oro (POLISARIO). The POLISARIO Front was founded in 1973 as a national liberation movement with strong influences from Marxist-Leninism in addition to pan-Arabism and pan-Africanism; with it immediately taking military actions against the Spanish colonial regime on 20 May 1973. Francoist Spain answered with the creation of the Sahrawi National Union Party (known as PUNS due to its Spanish name Partido de la Unión Nacional Saharaui).
PUNS (centre-right) first seeked to defend the status of Western Sahara as a Spanish province (status that Western Sahara gained in 1958 as Spain tried to avoid decolonising the territory) but later evolved to defend Spanish interests in an independent Western Sahara “that with a political regime in which, combining democracy and Islam, its institutions are modernized and a popular and sovereign government is established“. It was mostly supported by tribal leaders and older Sahrawis, while POLISARIO gathered massive support from the youth, students, women, and workers. By 1975, it was clear that POLISARIO was the dominating force of Sahrawi politics, with waves of PUNS members joining POLISARIO during that year’s UN visiting mission. A notable exception was Khalilhenna Ould Errachid, who was the Secretary General of PUNS for most of its time, as he left the party and the territory to support Morocco. His cousin Hamdi Ould Errachid (Istiqlal, conservative) is the current mayor of El Aaiún under the Moroccan administration, while he currently leads the Moroccan “Royal Advisory Council for Saharan Affairs” (CORCAS), an advisory body to the Moroccan government on Sahrawi affairs.
Two wars and a ceasefire – Western Sahara after the ‘Green March’
As it was clear that the Sahara wouldn’t remain under Spanish control, Morocco invaded Western Sahara through the “Green March“—a military and civilian operation in which 20,000 Moroccan soldiers and 350,000 civilians invaded the territory. Spain did not oppose the invasion and gave full administrative control to the territory to Morocco and Mauritania through the Madrid Accords (which didn’t cede sovereignty and was considered to be temporal, but Spain later renounced to all of its powers as an administrative power of the territory). The Madrid Accords are considered invalid by the United Nations.
This left the POLISARIO Front to fight both Morocco and Mauritania in the Western Sahara War (1975-1991), with support from Algeria, which hosted the base of the POLISARIO Front and the newly-created refugee camps of Tindouf. After the last Spanish soldier left the territory and Spain effectively renounced to the administration, the POLISARIO Front (which had managed to get PUNS to merge inside it and for tribal leaders to endorse it through the Ain Bin Tili Declaration) proclaimed the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic on 27 February 1976 to avoid a legal void.
The Sahrawi Republic thus took full administrative control of the refugee camps and of any territory of Western Sahara the newly-formed Sahrawi People’s Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación Saharaui, EPLS) took control of, with these territories being called the Liberated Territories while those under Moroccan (or Mauritanian until 1979) control are considered Occupied Territories by the SADR.
The EPLS, with support from Algeria, managed to quickly make Mauritania leave the war and control most of the territory; while Morocco held on a “useful triangle” north of the country (El Aaiún-Smara-Bucraa, later expanded to include Bojador) and build a 2,700 kilometer berm to block POLISARIO from further controlling any territory. This led to a stalemate and a ceasefire in 1991 with a promise for a referendum of self-determination for the Sahrawi people based on the 1974 Spanish census and with an option for independence, which ended up being blocked by Morocco, which filled Western Sahara with Moroccan settlers (which conform around 60% of the population of the territory as per estimates).
The war led to the Sahrawi people being divided for the first time and with their freedom of movement limited: on one side, the Sahrawi population had to resist an occupation that has been heavily criticised by international NGOs while they became a minority in their own territory (based on Moroccan census data only around 30% of Western Sahara still speaks Hassaniya Arabic at home, which is a good indicator of the native population as Sahrawis have resisted assimilation attempts).
The “camps of dignity” – state-building in exile
The other side has been ruled by the newly-created SADR, which has tried to build a welfare state (providing free education and healthcare to its population along with trying to improving living conditions) while depending on humanitarian aid and confronting societal reform (Frente POLISARIO has pushed for women’s rights, anti-racist, and anti-tribalist policies) in a war situation. All of these challenges had to be faced by a state that claimed to put democracy as one of its main objectives while trying to maintain national unity.
The Sahrawi Republic has put priority in this phase “in exile” (while controlling around 20% of Western Sahara, mostly empty land inhabited by a population of no more than 15,000 inhabitants, mostly nomads and soldiers or administrative personnel) in state-building, seeking to have a state administration and bureacracy ready to be established in Western Sahara as soon as it gains full control of the territory. This can be seen on the different Constitutions and amendments passed by the POLISARIO Congresses for the SADR, that make sure to differentiate between the considered “temporary situation” of occupation and a scenario of “total independence”, or in the fact that the SADR avoids to build permanent infrastructre in the refugee camps unless absolutely necessary or how the camps are named after towns in Western Sahara proper – with the belief that those that live in a camp named after such area will be able to be sent to that proper area after independence.
This had led to the complex governance system of the SADR (a sui generis situation in the world), the confusion most have in differenciating between the SADR and the POLISARIO Front and the challenges it faces today and that will be adressed in this 16th POLISARIO Congress, especially after the reanudation of the armed conflict in 2020.