A journey through the desert: Western Sahara

And so they marched… (pt. I)

🇮🇹 Per la versione in italiano clicca qui.

For every end there is always a new beginning

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

They say that there was something in the air in Madrid and in Spain as whole in the month of November 1975. It was on everybody’s lips, vox populi. Everybody suspected it, many hoped for it, no one dared saying it. Despite the many communiqué, a whole nation held its breath until 10 in the morning, when the then president of the government, Carlos Arias Navarro, appeared on every screen of the Peninsula announcing: “Españoles, Franco ha muerto“. Franco was dead, a 20 of November. It was the dawn of a new day in Spain, the beginning of the Transición towards democracy. It also was the dawn of a new day in Western Sahara.

Arias Navarro was one of the members of government that in the very previous months more had pushed in favour of the devolution of the then overseas province. It was no secret that Franco’s medical condition had been precarious for years, and because of the diplomatic, legal and military pressure strategy promoted by Morocco and supported by its main ally, the United States, at first Madrid found itself divided between the advocates of maintaining the Sahara Español and the proponents of its cession to the North African state. The first ones, lead by the president of the government Luís Carrero Blanco, ended up finding themselves in clear minority when he died at ETA’s hands in ’73.

In the meanwhile, Rabat had been already working for some time on an multilevel articulated operation designed with sibylline cunning, patience and a mastery of time only comparable to that of a philharmonic orchestra. After achieving the inclusion in 1963 of Western Sahara in the UN Non-Self-Governing-Territories list -hence awaiting to be decolonized-, the Alawite state began a diplomatic offensive intended to obtain for the cause of the “Great Morocco” -expansionist idea that included, apart from the Sahara, Mauritania and part of Algeria too as parts of the Moroccan nation- the support of the Nixon administration and, in particular, the sympathy of Henry Kissinger, deus ex machina of the American foreign policy.

These contacts bore fruit when, in 1974, and following the announcement of Portuguese withdrawal from its African and overseas colonies, Madrid announced a census of saharawi population to determine the exact number of its components and the eligible voters in preparation for the self determination process to follow. In fact Spain, as the administrative power designated as such by the United Nations, was required to guarantee a peaceful and organized transition of power towards independence by holding a referendum.

Nonetheless, Morocco and Mauritania, seeing both the Sahara as theirs by right, appealed to the International Court of Justice. The ICJ, in its October 16th advisory opinion, determined that, at the moment of Spanish colonization, Western Sahara’s territory was res nullius, nobody’s thing, therefore denying that Moroccan sovereignty claim based on historic reasons. In addition to this, The Hague defined the consultation of the people of the territory awaiting decolonization as an “inescapable imperative” and as conditio sine qua non for any decolonization process, even if integration was demanded by an interested state.

Despite the diplomatic setback, king Hassan II, taking advantage of the worsening of Franco’s health and enjoying Washington’s support, called for the people to mobilize urging them to cross the border with the “pacific” Green March. Rather than a march it seemed like an invasion: more than 350.000 civilians and 25.000 soldiers crossed the Rubicon waving Moroccan and green Islam flags and occupying the saharawi’s desert.

The sun was setting on the desert: Western Sahara had lost its freedom even before obtaining it. After the sunset, though, comes the night, a long and dark night.

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