LIFE Summer Research Grant Reflections: Scramble for Western Sahara

This is the third blog post in a series written by the 2023 recipients of the Duke University Libraries Summer Research Fellowship for LIFE Students. You can read the first post here and the second post here. Jurica Miklobusec is a junior majoring in Political Science.

Even though released from Spanish occupation in 1976, Africa’s last colony is still undergoing the process of decolonization. Why is that?

After the Berlin Conference (1884-1885) during which European empires carved up the African continent, the territory of present-day Western Sahara was given to the Kingdom of Spain. After the decolonization of Morocco in 1956, the country has been claiming rightful and historical ownership of the Western Saharan territory, contending that European colonization separated the two geographical entities. Since its independence, Morocco has unremittingly insisted on the incorporation of Western Sahara within its territory, despite the clear resistance and desire for self-determination of the Indigenous Saharawi population that inhabits the area.

The dynamic between Western Sahara and Morocco has long been a perplexing geopolitical riddle. The clash between a collective memory of historical ties and the modern aspirations of a people seeking to define their identity in the post-colonial era piqued my interest. To me, it wasn’t just a question of territorial claims, but one of identity, historical legitimacy, and the complex relationship between the past and the present.

At the heart of my research was a quest to unravel the complex interplay of legal, historical, and social threads that have woven the fabric of Western Sahara’s aspirations for statehood. The primary focus was to understand the influences causing legal and social issues that this territory faces in its pursuit of self-governing and statehood. These questions took me on a journey to Morocco to find the root of Moroccan endeavors to incorporate Western Sahara,
based on what they believe are historical connections predating European colonization.

Morocco’s claim to historical and legal ties to Western Sahara is largely based on religion. In Islam, the sultan is given sovereignty by the population’s pledge of allegiance; historically, several tribes of Western Sahara have offered their pledge of allegiance to Moroccan
sultans. Morocco traces these ties back to the eleventh century. Therefore, Morocco considered that the end of French and Spanish colonial rule over Morocco and Western Sahara would enable the restoration of the old sultanate (now a kingdom). The people of Western Sahara claim that Morocco’s desire for proprietorship has no relation to historical or religious ties, but the exploitation of natural resources. Polisario Front (a Saharawi liberation group) considers Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (a partially recognized state) to be the only legitimate entity representing the desires of the Indigenous population. It considers that Saharawi people bear no more connections to Moroccan sultans.

The problem that I was trying to understand in this research was twofold. First, similarly to the majority of contemporary African countries, Western Sahara lacks a historical antecedent. The Saharawi people never constituted a nation in pre-colonial times, and their present-day nationalism can be described as a recent phenomenon, which took root only in the latter part of the Spanish colonial period. Second, the desire to realize its national project has led Morocco to unrelenting suppression of human rights and defiance of the United Nations and International Court of Justice’s resolutions for holding a referendum that would allow the Indigenous population to choose whether it wanted to be incorporated within the Moroccan territory or establish an independent nation.

Since the end of the armed conflict between the two parties in 1991, the case of Western Sahara has been considered a frozen conflict. Since most of the world’s countries want to retain a neutral influence over the sovereignty issue, they do not express any real desire to negotiate or advocate in favor of any party. This political limbo is an indispensable problem worth researching and solving due to the lack of exposure to International Law, the statelessness of the Saharawi people, and the complete lack of their cultural and national identity.

Engaging with the Indigenous Sahrawi population as well as Moroccans was the most enlightening and enjoyable aspect of this research. Listening to their stories, hopes, and dreams painted a more vivid picture than any document or scholarly article ever could. Their oral history, combined with their modern aspirations, provided an authentic human perspective often overshadowed by political debates. What truly took me by surprise was the resilience and determination of the Sahrawi people. In the face of external pressures and political maneuvers, their unwavering belief in their right to self-determination was both humbling and inspiring. On the other hand, understanding Morocco’s perspective and the genuine belief in a shared history underscored the nuanced complexities of the situation.

I believe that the best approach to conducting research of this kind is to dive deep into the local narratives and engage directly with the communities involved. While scholarly articles and official documents are invaluable, the pulse of such issues can often be best felt by immersing oneself in the lived experiences of the local populace. For anyone wanting to conduct research of this kind—remember that it’s a delicate balance of empathy, objectivity, and thorough analysis. Research, I realized, is as much about listening as it is about questioning. The power of local narratives, the importance of cultural sensitivity, and the need to approach subjects with an open heart were invaluable lessons. Furthermore, the realization that not every question will find an answer, but that every answer will surely lead to more questions, is what keeps the research going.

I am very grateful to Duke Libraries for giving me the guidance, resources, and support to deepen my understanding of this issue and refine my research skills. Being able to personally visit both Morocco and Western Sahara has allowed me to gather firsthand perspectives from different parties involved in this intricate issue. Since the literature on the topic of Western Sahara is quite scarce due to media blockade and journalism suppression in Morocco, conducting this research would have been that much more difficult without hands-on experience. The summer spent researching Morocco and its past was definitely one of the best educational opportunities I’ve had so far at Duke.