EXPLAINER | The Western Sahara crisis

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  • South African President Cyril Ramaphosa and Kenya's William Ruto are the two most recent African leaders to reaffirm support for Western Sahara.
  • Morocco controls 80% of Western Sahara while 20% is under the control of the Polisario Front.
  • Both Morocco and the Polisario Front enjoy split support from the global community.

When Kenya's President William Ruto came into office, a gaffe in the form of a tweet from his communications office posted that Nairobi would no longer recognise the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), the portion of Western Sahara ruled by the Polisario Front exiled in neighbouring Algeria.

The tweet was eventually deleted and Foreign Affairs Principal Secretary Macharia Kamau said Nairobi would continue to support the African Union's plea, as well as United Nations (UN) mediation programmes, to allow the people of Western Sahara to decide their future.

On Tuesday, President Cyril Ramaphosa, hosted President Brahim Ghali of SADR and acknowledged that South Africa enjoys "fraternal bilateral relations anchored not only on our shared history of struggle, but also on our common vision for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara".

Ramaphosa also said the decolonisation agenda was not complete until SADR was granted sovereignty and Africa needed to "intensify international pressure so that the long-delayed referendum on the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara is held". 

What is Western Sahara?

Since 1975, the territory has been a battleground for independence, with everything from bloody clashes to violent protests.

It's a disputed territory on Africa's northwest coast. Decades of violence between Morocco's Kingdom and the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic have characterised it.

The territory enjoys diplomatic relations with 41 UN member states and is regarded as a case of incomplete decolonisation.

It covers 266 000 square kilometres of desert and flatlands with a population of over 560 000 residents.


About 80% of the area is under Morocco, while 20% is controlled by the nationalist Polisario Front, led by Ghali.

The main source of conflict is the occupation by Morocco.


Known as Spanish Sahara between 1884 and 1975, it was a Spanish colony and Morocco eventually sought to annex it.

Hence, in 1975, Spain left it to the joint administration of Morocco and Mauritania.

The following year, Polisario declared the establishment of the SADR, and the UN upheld the right to self-determination for the Sahrawi people.

In 1979, after clashes, Mauritania abandoned its claim to the area and in 1988, Polisario and Morocco agreed to a UN referendum that would allow Western Sahara to choose between independence or integration with Morocco.

Unfortunately, due to fighting, the vote was not conducted, and in 1991 a ceasefire was reached.

READ | South Africa vows 'unapologetic' support to Western Sahara

While peace was there for almost 14 years, in 2005 there were riots and protests in the 80% controlled by Morocco. 

Some scholars say Western Sahara is the origin of the Arab springs in 2010 with protests in a Sahrawi refugee camp.

This resulted in almost 100 dead, the protests re-erupted in 2011, spreading throughout the entire region.

There are still pockets of resistance but generally the 2011 outbreak has been the worst.

Morocco problem

Since 1963, Western Sahara has been part of Morocco as the country's southern part and the 20% controlled by SADR is somewhat a buffer zone.

The major cities are under the control of Morocco, and in something similar to the Berlin Wall, between 1980 and 2020, Morocco built a defence structure stretching more than 2 700km that separates the 80% controlled by Morocco from the 20% under the Polisario Front.

The Polisario Front has Moroccan origins. It was formed in 1973 in Mauritania and its goal was to fight the Spanish settler regime.

Today, they also want to control the 80% under Morocco, which, once granted, would set up a democracy.

Now they are waiting for a UN-led solution to the crisis.

International support

Through the years, Algeria has been supporting the Polisario Front with military training, refugee asylum and money.

SADR is a member of the African Union (AU) and enjoys the support of 51 UN member states, most of which are from the AU.

On the other hand, Morocco enjoys the support of 65 UN member states drawn from the Arab world and some from the AU.

In 2020, Morocco got a boost from the US. Through a trade off for Morocco to recognise Israel, the US rallied support for Morocco's claim of Western Sahara.

However, the UN recognises the Polisario Front's claim to Western Sahara.

The News24 Africa Desk is supported by the Hanns Seidel Foundation. The stories produced through the Africa Desk and the opinions and statements that may be contained herein do not reflect those of the Hanns Seidel Foundation

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