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Moroccans march into Western Sahara in the Green March, 1975
Ever since gaining its independence from Spain in 1956, Morocco firmly held that the Spanish Sahara (now known as the Western Sahara) should be included within its borders. Morocco based this assertion on the fact that some of the nomadic populations in the region had apparently once owed allegiance to the Moroccan sultan, yet the strength of its commitment to securing control over Spanish Sahara may have increased after it became known in the early 1970s that the region contained substantial phosphate mines. Morocco was already the world’s largest phosphate exporter, and was keen to gain control of the newly found reserves. Mauritania also wished to control the region, with similar justifications for its desire.
Spain had been under pressure from the United Nations to relinquish control of Spanish Sahara since 1965. This was compounded by two years of guerrilla warfare by POLISARIO (the Sahrawi liberation movement) and a drawn-out UN led process of decolonization, and by 1975 Spain was willing to step back from its role in Spanish Sahara and to accept the UN’s renaming of the region as the Western Sahara.
On October 16, 1975, the International Court of Justice in the Hague released an advisory ruling which stated that the people of the Spanish Sahara should have the right to exercise self-rule, despite Morocco and Mauritania’s opposition. In response to the announcement, that night King Hassan II of Morocco announced to the entire nation over radio that he would organize and lead a “Green March” in order to “reclaim” the Western Sahara. The announcement of the Green March triggered a massive mobilization of 350,000 Moroccans: King Hassan outlined in his initial address that 306,500 of the volunteers were to be members of the general public roughly representing each of Morocco’s districts (although rural Morocco was over-represented), and the remaining 43,500 were to be government officials, yet all were to take part on a voluntary basis.
Quietly, King Hassan deployed troops along the northwest region of Western Sahara on October 31 in order to fend off any external interference from other African countries, while much more publicly in the south volunteers continued to gather in the city of Tarfaya for the Green March. On November 6, King Hassan gave the signal for the march to begin, and the Moroccans who had congregated in southern Morocco entered Western Sahara.
The Moroccans carried pictures of their king and of the Qur’an with them, as well as flags representing Morocco, Jordan, the United States, and Saudi Arabia. The march itself was called the Green March because of the religious importance of the color green, which symbolizes Islam. The Spanish troops still positioned in the area were given orders not to attack, in order to avoid a massacre.
The march continued for four days until November 9, by which point the marchers had pushed ten kilometers into Western Sahara. Once there, King Hassan called the volunteers back and they returned to Morocco, completely unharmed. On the 14th of that month, Spain, Morocco, and Mauritania arrived at a tripartite agreement during the Madrid Accords, where the three countries were given joint control over the region until 1976 when Spain would pull out entirely.
Over the next decades the region experienced substantial political (and military) turmoil since the native Sahrawi people still believe in their right to self-determination. Nearly half of the Sahrawi have left the region entirely and are now housed in four refugee camps in Algeria. The Western Sahara remains a disputed territory, and the Green March has become a powerful symbol for Moroccans who believe that the region belongs to Morocco.