Dispute over the Western Sahara Erupts in the Green March Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Spain’s plans to turn over Western Sahara to the Polisario Liberation Front prompted renewed claims to the territory by Morocco and Mauritania. Morocco responded by initiating the Green March, in which 350,000 Moroccans trekked across the border with Western Sahara in a show of popular support for Moroccan control. Spain subsequently relinquished control to the two countries, which divided the territory the following year, but conflict persisted for decades.

Summary of Event

As Spanish dictator Francisco Franco grew increasingly frail in late 1975, Spain was losing control of its northwest African colony of Spanish, or Western, Sahara. The independence movement known as Polisario was mounting an increasingly effective resistance to Spanish troops. Spain had proposed but then postponed a referendum, and had opened secret negotiations with the group in early September. At the same time, Morocco and Mauritania, which lay north and south of Western Sahara, respectively, were pressing long-standing claims to the territory, and King Hassan II of Morocco was developing a unique plan for capitalizing on the chaotic situation. Green March (1975) Spain;and Western Sahara[Western Sahara] Madrid Accords (1975) Morocco, Green March [kw]Dispute over the Western Sahara Erupts in the Green March (Nov. 6-13, 1975) [kw]Western Sahara Erupts in the Green March, Dispute over the (Nov. 6-13, 1975) [kw]Sahara Erupts in the Green March, Dispute over the Western (Nov. 6-13, 1975) [kw]Green March, Dispute over the Western Sahara Erupts in the (Nov. 6-13, 1975) Green March (1975) Spain;and Western Sahara[Western Sahara] Madrid Accords (1975) Morocco, Green March [g]Africa;Nov. 6-13, 1975: Dispute over the Western Sahara Erupts in the Green March[02100] [g]Morocco;Nov. 6-13, 1975: Dispute over the Western Sahara Erupts in the Green March[02100] [c]Colonialism and occupation;Nov. 6-13, 1975: Dispute over the Western Sahara Erupts in the Green March[02100] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;Nov. 6-13, 1975: Dispute over the Western Sahara Erupts in the Green March[02100] [c]Expansion and land acquisition;Nov. 6-13, 1975: Dispute over the Western Sahara Erupts in the Green March[02100] Hassan II Juan Carlos I Osman, Ahmed Solís Ruíz, José Carro Martínez, Antonio Waldheim, Kurt Franco, Francisco

Morocco had referred the question of Western Sahara’s status to the International Court of Justice International Court of Justice;Western Sahara but was disappointed with the advisory opinion delivered on October 16. The court recognized limited ties between the tribes of Western Sahara and the governments of Morocco and Mauritania but rejected the two countries’ territorial claims. It asserted instead that the territory’s inhabitants, the Sahrawis (or Saharawis), were entitled to determine their own political future. Hassan immediately broadcast a censored version of the opinion to his subjects and declared that he would lead a march of 350,000 unarmed volunteers into the disputed territory in a display of Morocco’s claims. He called the march “green” in honor of the holy color of Islam. The following day, October 17, Spanish dictator Francisco Franco fell seriously ill.

On October 18, Spain requested an urgent meeting of the United Nations Security Council to consider the situation, but Hassan and his officials were moving quickly. Recruiting stations had been set up to register volunteers, and special trains began running several times a day from points throughout Morocco to the southern city of Marrakech. Several thousand trucks then provided transport to a staging area near Tarfaya, a tiny coastal settlement about twenty-five miles (forty kilometers) north of the Western Saharan border. Here, the volunteers waited in a two-square-mile encampment of tents made from green army blankets and ate rations of bread and sardines.

The date for the final march was set for October 26. Meeting on October 20 and 22, the U.N. Security Council directed Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim to confer with representatives of Mauritania, Morocco, Spain, and Algeria—the last of which shared a border with Western Sahara and supported Polisario—but took no further action. Hoping to avert a violent confrontation, Spanish cabinet member José Solís Ruíz met with King Hassan in Marrakech on October 21. Solís persuaded Hassan to postpone the march and to send a representative to join Spain and Mauritania in talks in the Spanish capital of Madrid on October 24 and 25. These talks resulted in an agreement to let the great march take place on November 6, but on face-saving terms for Spain. Spanish troops would withdraw a short distance from the border, allowing the marchers to make a symbolic penetration into Western Sahara.

By October 30, Franco’s condition had worsened, and control of the country was turned over to Prince Juan Carlos, who flew to the Western Saharan capital of El-Ayoun to assure troops garrisoned there of the government’s support. However, Spain had already begun a quiet withdrawal from the territory’s most remote army posts, allowing Polisario to occupy them unhindered. Moroccan troops crossed into northeastern Western Sahara on October 31 and engaged Polisario troops in several skirmishes.

On November 6, 1975, the Green March began as scheduled, with enthusiastic marchers wearing green sashes and carrying Moroccan flags, copies of the Qur՚ān (the Muslim holy book), and portraits of Hassan—all supplied by the government. At the last minute, the king had announced that he would not join the march after all. In his place, he sent the country’s prime minister, Ahmed Osman, who led fifty thousand marchers across the border to the Spanish outpost at Tah, where they raised the Moroccan flag over an abandoned fort. A camp had been set up a few miles south of the border, at Sebkha Um Deboaa. Two more groups of marchers crossed the border the following day, one of them farther to the east, but again they penetrated only a few miles.

Prepared for the worst, Spanish troops waited behind a heavily mined “dissuasion line” about nine miles (fourteen kilometers) south of the Moroccan border, supported by artillery, tanks, jet fighters, and helicopters. The troops’ commanders anticipated falling back before the masses of civilian marchers if necessary, but they were prepared to defend El-Ayoun, which lay to the southwest. By this time, Spanish troops in the colony numbered 16,500, of which 1,500 were recent reinforcements. Morocco had deployed four infantry brigades north of the border, while Algeria had deployed two brigades on its border with the colony.

Knowing that he had the upper hand, Hassan now insisted that Spain enter into formal negotiations to determine the future of the colony. Spanish cabinet member Antonio Carro Martínez met with Hassan on November 8 in the Moroccan city of Agadir, acceding to Moroccan demands, and in turn Hassan called for the marchers to withdraw. An initial contingent left on November 9, and by November 13, the last remnants of the Green March had returned to Moroccan territory.

Spain entered into a final round of talks with Morocco and Mauritania on November 12, and on November 14, the three governments ratified the Madrid Accords (also known as the Madrid Agreement). Under this agreement, the colony was to undergo a short transitional period in which Spanish, Moroccan, and Mauritanian officials would collaborate, all the while respecting the wishes of the Sahrawis.

In practice, however, Morocco proceeded to occupy the northern two-thirds of the territory, leaving Mauritania the remainder. In return for its cooperation, Spain retained fishing rights along the coast of its former colony and was guaranteed 35 percent of the income generated from the territory’s mineral resources. Less than a week later, on November 20, Francisco Franco died.

Significance

While they provided convenient cover for the occupation of Western Sahara by Morocco and Mauritania and for the withdrawal of Spain, the Madrid Accords ignored the interests of the Sahrawi people and produced a costly, violent, and seemingly endless stalemate. Polisario established a Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic on February 27, 1976, and continued its armed struggle against the intruders. Its attacks on the Mauritanian capital of Nouakchott in 1976 and 1977 forced that country’s withdrawal, although Morocco then claimed the entire territory.

No other country recognized the annexation of Western Sahara, and Morocco sidestepped repeated calls from the United Nations for a referendum. Instead, Hassan undertook the large-scale resettlement of Moroccans in the region, and in 1981 he began construction of a fortified wall to safeguard the richer coastal regions of the territory from Polisario attack. This move left Polisario free to operate within the interior from refugee camps in southern Algeria, but it enjoyed few other advantages.

The death of Hassan II in 1999 and the accession of his son, Mohammed VI, brought no significant changes to the situation. In the opening years of the twenty-first century, no peaceful settlement to the longest-running conflict in Africa appeared in sight. Green March (1975) Spain;and Western Sahara[Western Sahara] Madrid Accords (1975) Morocco, Green March

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Carroll, Raymond, with Malcolm MacPherson. “The Great Sahara March.” Newsweek, November 17, 1975, 54-55. Immediate, impressionistic contemporary account with photos and maps.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hodges, Tony. Western Sahara: The Roots of a Desert War. Westport, Conn.: Lawrence Hill, 1983. Contains an authoritative and detailed summary of the march and the events preceding and following it. Maps, illustrations, bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pennell, D. R. Morocco Since 1830: A History. New York: New York University Press, 2000. The first political and cultural history of nineteenth and twentieth century Morocco in English. Glossary of terms, extensive bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shelley, Toby. Endgame in the Western Sahara: What Future for Africa’s Last Colony? New York: Zed Books, 2004. Comprehensive if overly optimistic analysis by a reporter for London’s Financial Times. Maps, illustrations, bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thobhani, Akbarali. Western Sahara Since 1975 Under Moroccan Administration: Social, Economic, and Political Transformation. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 2002. Wide-ranging survey containing a chapter on the Green March. Maps, bibliography.

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