chapter  6
25 Pages

Making Borders: Trans-Saharan Africa

T he b a c k g ro u n d to th e con flic t The territory of Western Sahara occupies 267,000 square kilometres of desert and Adantic coasdine in north-west Africa. It is bounded in the north by Morocco and Algeria, and to the south and east by Mauritania. Its sparse population of Arab and Berber livestock herders has traditionally lived nomadically, the desert conditions being unsuitable to setded agriculture. From the late nineteenth century until 1976 the territory formed part of Spain’s small and scattered African ‘empire’. The first Europeans to land in the area of present-day Western Sahara were the Portuguese as early as the mid-fourteenth century. No attempt was made to establish any settled European presence, however, until Spain began to show an interest in the area at the beginning of the seventeenth century. Although the territory offered no primary economic advantage, it provided a landing point for Spanish ships at a time when contacts with the Americas were rapidly intens­ifying. However, Spain was displaced after a few years by Morocco, which imposed a limited and haphazard rule. When Morocco itself began to attract the attention of the European imperialists in the nineteenth century, Spain reinvigorated its old claim to the Western Sahara. At the Berlin Conference in 1884 Madrid’s residual claim was recognized and it declared protectorates over the two regions of Saguia el Hamra, which composed the northern third of the territory, and Rio de Oro, which covered the southern two-thirds. ‘Spanish Sahara’, however, was effectively contained along the coastal strip. The extent of Spanish control was constrained both by French claims to Mauritania in the south and east and by the resistance of the indigenous population of the interior. Effective occupation of the territory as it exists today was not achieved by Spain until the mid-1980s.The years following this were largely uneventful, but in the mid-1950s the territory began to attract some international attention. Morocco regained its independence from France in 1956 and the following year its govern­ment, an assertive monarchy, laid claim to ‘its’ lost colony. Following France’s decolonization of Morocco, Spain had agreed to withdraw from a number of enclaves it held in the region as its position in them became untenable. Madrid, however, regarded the more substantial and contiguous territories of Saguia el Hamra and Rio de Oro as a separate issue, to the dismay of the Moroccan king, who considered them to be component parts of a ‘greater Morocco’.1 To underline its determination to stay put, Spain ended the 1 Spain retained two northern enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla. It has been suggested that Madrid’s willingness to withdraw from its other possessions in Morocco was motivated in part by the calculation that adopting an ‘anti-colonial’ stance there would mean that African support could be mobilized behind Spain’s claim against Britain for Gibraltar. J.D. Hargreaves, Decolonization in Africa (London: Longman, 1988), p. 204.