Mauritania Table of Contents

Until the late nineteenth century, the Western Sahara, a land inhabited by the nomadic Sahrawi people, had remained largely free of any central authority. But when competing European colonial powers embarked on their division of Africa, Spain claimed the Western Sahara. Spain historically had had an interest in the territory, primarily because it lay near the Spanish-owned Canary Islands. In 1884 Spain occupied the Western Sahara and remained until 1976.

For the first fifty years after the occupation, intermittent Sahrawi resistance to Spanish rule in what was then called the Spanish Sahara effectively forced the Spanish occupiers to limit their presence to several coastal enclaves. It was not until the 1950s, following the discovery of vast phosphate deposits at Bu Craa, that Sahrawi nationalism developed. For the first time, the Spanish Sahara appeared valuable to the indigenous population as well as to the governments of Morocco, Algeria, and Mauritania. The discovery of the deposits also renewed the historic rivalry between Algeria and Morocco, both of which encouraged Sahrawi aggression against the Spanish occupiers. In 1973 a number of indigenous Spanish Sahara groups formed an organization called the Polisario, the purpose of which was to secure independence from Spain.

By the mid-1970s, the government of Spain appeared willing to relinquish the territory, which was becoming more costly to administer. In addition, the sudden collapse of Portugal's empire in Africa and the ensuing liberation of Mozambique and Angola had strengthened the determination of the Polisario to shake off Spanish colonial rule, and attacks on Spanish settlements and forts had become more intense. Morocco, Mauritania, and Algeria also orchestrated international opposition in the United Nations to continued Spanish occupation. The Spanish government finally terminated its claim to the Spanish Sahara in February 1976 and bequeathed the territory--renamed the Western Sahara--jointly to Morocco and Mauritania, both of which consented to allow Spain to exploit the Bu Craa phosphates. Spain excluded Algeria from the withdrawal agreement, largely because Algeria intended to prevent Spain from exploiting the Bu Craa deposits, a decision which contributed considerably to the growing discord in an already troubled area.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress