As the longstanding leader of the disputed territory dies, the Sahrawi people continue to face an uncertain future.
The leader of the Western Sahara independence movement Polisario Front, Mohamed Abdelaziz, died of lung cancer aged 68 on May 31st, after spending four days in a coma, and was buried on June 4th in the disputed territory.
Abdelaziz had spent more than 40 years fighting for independence. His coffin was draped with the flag of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), which was proclaimed by Polisario Front in 1976.
The Moroccan authorities consider the Western Saharan to be its “southern provinces” but many other countries, including Moroccan neighbour Algeria, recognise the SADR. Morocco is also the only African country not to be a member of the African Union (AU), while the SADR has been a full member for a number of years, reported BBC News.
Abdelaziz served as secretary-general for the group through many decades of independence struggle. He was born in 1948 in Smara, Western Sahara, and was from the Reguibi, one of three Sahrawi tribes. Reports said that he was educated in the south of Morocco and his father was in the Royal Moroccan Army.
Abdelaziz reportedly became acquainted with Sahrawi nationalist militants at Moroccan universities and in May 1973 became a founding member of the Polisario Front along with Mustapha Sayed El Ouali.
Sahrawi Refugee Camp – CC 2012
The Algerian government is the main backer of the Polisario Front, and Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal was one of those to pay tribute to Abdelaziz, and President Abdelaziz Bouteflika decreed eight days of mourning after his death.
According to Al Monitor, in a refugee camp in Boujdour, where Abdelaziz had lived, many people came into the streets wailing when they heard the news. United Nations (UN) Secretary General Ban Ki Moon also expressed his sadness at the death of the leader, reported the UN News Centre.
However earlier in April Morocco had expelled most UN staff from the territory after Ban Ki Moon referred to the situation as an “occupation” At the same time there had been reports on the possibility of violence if there was not a deadline set for self-determination, reported the Washington Post.
Abdelaziz’s successor is expected to be announced within the next 40 days and in the interim the President of the Sahrawi National Council, Khatri Addouh, is to lead the group according to Polisario sources.
The dispute is a complex issue; in the Huffington Post, Professor of Political Science from Oklahoma University, Mohamed Daadaoui, writes that the framing of the conflict in terms of a colonial occupation force has discredited some of the historical and cultural links between the two regions. The regional rivalry between Morocco and Algeria has also fuelled tensions.
Discussing theoretical notions of self-determination throws to light questions of who is actually to be involved in deciding the regions future, Daadaoui states. The boundaries of the region are themselves a colonial construction which have little bearing on the movements of nomadic tribes.
Whatever the developments as the Polisario Front elects an new leader, the Sahrawi people themselves, especially many of those in Algerian refugee camps – numbers that the Polisario Front puts at 160,000 and the Moroccan regime at 50,000 – should remain the central concern of negotiations.
Find out more in the Africa Research Bulletin:
ALGERIA, MOROCCO – WESTERN SAHARA / UN: Row Over Disputed Territory Status
Political, Social & Cultural Series
Vol.53, Issue.3, Pp.20917A–20918A
ALGERIA – MOROCCO: Bone of Contention
Political, Social & Cultural Series
Vol.51, Issue.11, Pp.20342A
Vol.51, Issue.10, Pp.20305A–20306A