This Friday is the 40th anniversary of one of the defining moments of the post-colonial history of Morocco and, indeed, all of Africa. At dawn on Nov. 6, 1975, some 350,000 Moroccans armed only with flags and copies of the Quran crossed the border arbitrarily imposed by 19th-century European imperialists to peacefully take back a sparsely populated, wind-swept territory that Spain claimed in the wake of the Congress of Berlin in 1885 and over which it only managed to impose a modicum of control in the 1920s.
In March 1956, the French protectorate ended and Morocco regained its independence under King Mohammed V. A month later, Morocco recovered the Spanish protectorate of Tetouan in the northern part of the country. In August 1956, Morocco succeeded in having the international control council for the international zone around Tangier repeal its status and then reintegrated the city into the kingdom. It took two more years, until April 1958, for Spain to return the Tarfaya district in south. And it was only in 1969, during the reign of King Hassan II, Mohammed V's son and successor, that Madrid finally ceded back Ifni.
Although historically it derived virtually no economic value from the colony, Spain hung tenaciously to its major remaining Moroccan holding in the Sahara, an anomaly perhaps explicable by nostalgia on the part of the aging caudillo, Generalissimo Francisco Franco, who had not only made his early fame as soldier in the "Rif War" to take over the territory, but also later used it as a staging ground when he assumed leadership of the Nationalist uprising in the Spanish Civil War.
Thus the stage was set for the historic "Green March" with the Moroccan masses crossing from Tarfaya into the Spanish Sahara territory (also known as the "Western Sahara"), demanding the restoration of the status ante quo prior to the colonial interlude when the tribes of the area acknowledged Moroccan suzerainty. As the distinguished French historian of North Africa Benjamin Stora recalled, "With the exception of the far left, the kingdom was united in total consensus and the Spanish army stood by while the impressive cortège passed the frontier." Less than a fortnight later, with Franco then on his deathbed, his government negotiated an accord that divided the Spanish Sahara, with most of the territory going back to Morocco and a small sliver in the south being handed to Mauritania (which subsequently renounced its claim).
Nevertheless, egged on by Algeria's socialist strongman Houari Boumediènne, whose military intervened against the Moroccan army in the Sahara just before the Spanish withdrawal, and aided by cadres from Cuba, East Germany and other communist bloc states, the separatist Polisario Front rejected the Madrid accord and, demanding full independence for the territory, launching a guerrilla war that lasted until the end of the Cold War and a United Nations-mediated ceasefire in 1991. Today, more than 85 percent of the former Spanish Sahara territory is controlled by Morocco and fully integrated into the kingdom. A modest U.N. peacekeeping force is more or less permanently deployed to monitor the dividing line, leaving the "question of the Western Sahara" another one of the so-called "frozen conflicts" perennially on the agenda of the world body, but never definitively resolved.
If most of the world has largely ignored — if not forgotten — the Saharan territory, Morocco has not. As the director-general of the Geopolitical Studies Observatory in Paris, Charles Saint-Prot, recently noted, over the years the kingdom "undertook monumental efforts to raise these provinces, long-neglected during the Spanish occupation, up to the same level as the rest of the country," highlighting financial, technological, educational, healthcare and administrative investments in what was "a desert without infrastructure." In fact, in a trip he is undertaking in the region this week, Morocco's current monarch, King Mohammed VI, will preside at the groundbreaking of a new 500-kilometer highway linking Tiznit and Laâyoune as well as launch expansion work on the one between the latter city and Dakhla, a regional hub perhaps best known as the venue of the world kitesurfing championships. The sovereign will also inaugurate the largest renewable energy project on the African continent, the 300-megawatt windfarm at Tarfaya.
Despite occasional carping from foreign activists about alleged "exploitation" of the region's resources, since 1975, the Moroccan state has invested seven dirhams in developing the recovered region for every dirham in revenue it has ever collected there, as the king himself disclosed in a speech last year. Moreover, Moroccan firms like OCP, the world's largest fertilizer company, have been careful to keep the profits from their operations in the territory within their respective subsidiaries — in the case of OCP, reinvesting in its local operations and the surrounding communities. As a result of these policies, the human development indicators in the region which, four decades ago, were lower than those in the rest of Morocco, are today much higher than the national average.
In an effort to politically resolve the dispute over the territory once and for all, in 2007, Morocco proposed the creation of a "Saharan Autonomous Region" with an elected local administration — including executive, legislative and judicial branches — with broad powers over local administration, the economic sector, infrastructure, social and cultural affairs, and the environment. The only matters that would remain under control of the central government would be defense and foreign affairs as well as the currency. The reform constitution adopted by Morocco in 2011 and the subsequent legislation on regionalization of the country as a whole have given a framework for this decentralization.
The U.N. Security Council has welcomed what it described as "serious and credible Moroccan efforts to move the process forward towards resolution." The Obama administration has called the proposal "serious, realistic, and credible." Bipartisan majorities of both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives have come out in support of what one congressional letter a few years ago called "the only feasible option."
If the colonial enterprise was a great historic injustice visited upon nations and peoples of Africa in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, the Green March was a unique instance of one nation's extraordinary effort to right that wrong, not just in terms of peacefully vindicating a historical claim to territory, but also promoting the governance and development that are the foundation of political legitimacy and long-term peace and security.
Thus it is certainly in the interests, not only of those directly affected, but also of states in the region and other members of the international community, that the artificial conflict over the Saharan region should end and the aspirations of the Green March be fulfilled. To this end, policymakers and analysts would do well to bear in mind that while Morocco — a key partner in the global fight against terrorism (and a major non-NATO ally of the United States), as well as a significant gateway to business in Africa — separated from its Saharan provinces is somewhat diminished, the Western Sahara without Morocco is but a wasteland, albeit one with considerable potential for mischief in a part of the world that has already amply demonstrated its vulnerability to ethnic fissures, extremist militancy and criminal networks.
Pham is director of the Atlantic Council's Africa Center.