Spain, The Real Colonialist: Ceuta, Melilla, and the Moroccan Sahara

by Douaa Qadadia
Image: NormanEinstein / CreativeCommons

Brief History of Ceuta and Melillia 

Ceuta and Melilla are geographically placed in very strategic locations. They are close to Europe, Africa, the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. 

The story of these two Spanish enclaves is complex and goes back for centuries. The main inhabitants of the land were the Amazigh (indigenous people of North Africa) and various Arab tribes. In the 5th century, Ceuta and Melilla were colonized by the Carthaginians, Greeks and Romans. The Amazigh and Arabs took back the land in the 8th century and ruled it through dynasties such as the Idrisid dynasty and Almoravid dynasty. Centuries later, in 1415, Portugal took control of Ceuta, and 82 years after that, Spain conquered Melilla, which provoked the Muslim forces to attack the Spanish. Furthermore, after the Spanish and Portuguese union ended, Spain gained control of Ceuta. In 1956, when Morocco gained independence from the French and Spanish, Spain refused to let go of their control over Ceuta and Melilla, fueling the constant diplomatic conflict between Morocco and Spain.

“The most prominent victory was the United States’ recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty over the land…”

Brief History of The Moroccan Sahara
Image: Sergey Pesterev

tree in a desert field

Spain’s brutal and consistent colonialism is not only felt by Ceuta and Melilla but also in the Sahara. Formally known as the ‘Western Sahara’, the land has gone through centuries of imperialism and colonialism. The story of colonization starts in 1844, where Spain conquered the land that was inhabited by Moroccan Amazigh tribes. It officially became a Spanish Province in 1934, and was given the name “The Spanish Sahara”. After Morocco gained independence in 1956, they rightfully asked Spain back for their land after centuries of colonization. Spain declined, and instead offered the issue over to The Hague to be arbitrated. The Hague ruled in favour of the Polisario Front (Separatist Group), which led to what is now known as the Green March—a significant event in the hearts of all Moroccans when King Hassan II called on over 300,000 Moroccans to march into the land to regain control over it. This resulted in a 16-year Guerrilla war between Moroccan forces and the Polisario Front, ending in an UN-brokered cease-fire in 1991. 

Recently, Morocco gained some crucial victories on the Saharan issue, with many African, Arab, and South American countries establishing consulates in the cities of Laayoune and Al Dakhla in that region. The most prominent victory was the United States’ recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty over the land, which was announced by Donald Trump over Twitter after Morocco normalized with Israel. When Biden took office, he reassured Morocco of the United States’ continued support of the Moroccan Sahara.

Recent Rise in Tensions Between Morocco and Spain

In late May, over 8,000 immigrants, mainly Moroccans, swam across to Ceuta from Morocco. Traditionally, Morocco would protect the borders of Ceuta; however, Moroccan authorities allowed the migrants to cross through. While the reason for such action is not confirmed, it’s speculated that this is over Spain’s hospitalization and sheltering of Brahim Ghali for COVID treatment, the Polisario Front leader. Brahim Ghali was illegally snuck into Spain with forged documents provided to him by Algeria. Brahim Ghali is seen as an enemy to Morocco and is also wanted on multiple charges for crimes including genocide, torture and rape. 

“The diplomatic relationship between Morocco and Spain will only be healed if Spain owns up to its mistakes”

The Real Issue

For too long, Morocco has been affected by Spain and its self-victimization. They have been protecting the borders of the land that is ruled by a country currently occupying it. Spain accused Morocco of ‘blackmail’ after Morocco sent out a message that it will only protect its borders by letting the immigrants pass into Ceuta. Morocco shouldn’t be expected to bow down to a country that has imperialized it for centuries, a country that has terrorized the people of Morocco, and a country that is housing a wanted criminal. In any other sane diplomatic situation, hospitalizing a wanted criminal would be an act of aggression. However, as Spain is backed by the EU, and Morocco is surrounded by very hostile neighbours (Spain, Algeria, France etc), Spain has the opportunity to abuse that power. 

Morocco has world powers backing it, support that they did not have before. With the United States, and other Gulf countries maintaining their support, it’s only a matter of before Morocco starts to rise again. This is crucial as it sets a precedent for how western powers treat African and Arab countries. Western powers often exploit ‘poorer’ countries, but Morocco sets an important precedent signalling the intolerance of abused power. The diplomatic relationship between Morocco and Spain will only be healed if Spain owns up to its mistakes, both modern and colonial, and gives back to Morocco the land they currently occupy. Spain also has to stop exploiting Morocco for its own gains and start treating it more equitably. Once Spain begins to offer these gestures, then we can talk about rebuilding the diplomatic relations between the two countries.  

Even though Morocco is regaining its authority and sovereignty, a power imbalance remains. It will only continue to stay unless the EU and other global powers begin to recognize Spain’s abuse of power in North Africa in the past centuries. 

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