Mohamed Abdelaziz. Photo: An Phoblacht.
Mohamed Abdelaziz, President of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), died on May 31, following a long illness.
A period of 40 days' mourning has been announced. A new president will be elected by an extraordinary general meeting of the Polisario Front, the force leading the struggle to liberate Western Sahara from Moroccan rule. Until then, the speaker of the Saharawi National Council (parliament), Khatri Addouh, will act as interim president.
The Polisario Front was formed in 1973, during the struggle against Spain's colonial occupation of Western Sahara. When the Spanish withdrew in 1975, they allowed Morocco to invade the country. In February 1976, the Polisario Front declared the SADR.
In the 1980s, the Moroccans built a wall dividing the areas they occupied from the Polisario-controlled areas. The Moroccan-occupied area includes the coast and the main towns and cities, while the liberated zone is sparsely populated. The Moroccan government has encouraged Moroccan settlers to move to Western Sahara.
About 160,000 Saharawi people live in SADR-administered refugee camps on the border with Algeria. In the Moroccan-occupied areas, Saharawi are becoming a minority in their own country due to the influx of settlers.
Cate Lewis of the Australia Western Sahara Association summed up Abdelaziz's life: “As a young man growing up in Smara, Western Sahara, when it was Spanish Sahara, he became interested in the growing movement for independence from the Spanish colonisers … in May 1973, Abdelaziz was a founding member of the Polisario Front.
“When its charismatic leader, El Ouali Mustafa Sayeed, was killed in action in Mauritania in 1976, Mohamed Abdelaziz was elected by the Polisario Congress to be the new leader. He has filled the role of Secretary General of the Polisario Front and President of the Saharawi Republic, taking part in framing the constitution adopted at the Third Congress in August 1976.
“Thus he moved from being a soldier to a politician, but the respect accorded to him as a military man helped him to hold all the different sectors of the population together.”
Under Abdelaziz's leadership, the refugees in the SADR-administered camps have made huge strides in democratic self-administration, equal rights for women, religious freedom, health care provision and education.
The literacy rate in the camps is more than 90% — the highest in Africa.
Solidarity from socialist Cuba played a significant role in these achievements, in particular through the work of Cuban health workers and educators in the camps and through offering Saharawi youth access to tertiary education in Cuba.
The State Council of the Republic of Cuba declared two days of official mourning, describing the SADR as a “sister republic”.
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro used his tribute to Abdelaziz to demand the implementation of several United Nations resolutions on Western Sahara.
The SADR is a member of the African Union (AU). In response to the SADR being admitted to the group, Morocco left — making it the only country in Africa not in the AU.
The AU has ordered flags to be flown at half-mast. AU Chairperson Dr Dlamini Zuma urged the people of the Saharawi Republic “to let the memories of President Abdelaziz spur them on as they continue the struggle for liberation he has been at the forefront for over 40 years … the struggle to attain their right to self-determination, until they are liberated and independence is attained to fulfil one of the dearest dreams and goals the late African leader died for.”
In 1991, the United Nations brokered a ceasefire between the Polisario forces and Morocco. The basis for this was that a UN-supervised referendum would determine the country's future.
However, despite many promises and resolutions from the UN, the referendum has not taken place. This is largely due to support for Morocco from the Western powers, particularly France and the United States, motivated by geopolitical and economic interests.
French and US oil companies are involved in prospecting for oil and gas in Western Sahara's waters. Australian companies are also involved in the plundering of Western Sahara's resources, in violation of international law.
“Australian company Incitec-Pivot is a major importer of Western Saharan phosphate,” Polisario representative to Australia Kamal Fadel said in a March 21 article on the Union of Saharawi Journalists and Writers website. “The commodity becomes the raw material for superphosphate, one of the most common forms of plant fertiliser on Australian farms and backyards.”
France's main economic interest is fisheries. An EU-Moroccan agreement allows EU fishing fleets to plunder the seas off Western Sahara, despite a 2010 European Parliamentary Legal Service finding that this is illegal.
During the 25 years that UN resolutions for a referendum have not been implemented, the situation for Saharawi people in the refugee camps and Moroccan-occupied territories has worsened.
In the Moroccan-occupied zone, human rights abuses are widespread. Saharawi activists are routinely subjected to arrest, torture and extrajudicial executions.
Moroccan settlers have far greater educational and economic opportunities than the Saharawi population. Settlement is encouraged by subsidised fuel and basic goods, and tax exemptions for settler-owned businesses. Without the heavy state subsidies, the Moroccan settler population in Western Sahara would be unviable, a confidential 2005 US diplomatic cable, published on WikiLeaks, revealed.
In the camps, resources are distributed relatively equitably. However, dwindling UN food aid, which is calculated to meet the temporary needs of 90,000 refugees, is leading to malnutrition, particularly evident in children. A lack of water resources makes the future viability of the camps uncertain.
Consequently, growing numbers of Saharawis are questioning the wisdom of maintaining the ceasefire.
The ceasefire became more fragile when Morocco expelled the non-military personnel of the UN mission in response to UN Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon using the word “occupation” to describe the Moroccan occupation during a visit to the refugee camps in March. This has severely limited the UN mission's ability to administer the ceasefire.
However, on April 29, the UN Security Council voted to continue the mission for another year. But it did so without ordering the Moroccans to rescind the expulsions or specifying any measures to resolve the mission's resulting limitations.
“This resolution has dealt with the crisis in a soft manner,” Polisario Front representative at the United Nations Ahmed Boukhari told the April 30 New York Times. “Why this accommodation with Morocco?”
Expressing sadness at the death of Abdelaziz, who he described as “a central figure in the search for a resolution of the Western Sahara conflict”, Ban said he was looking forward “to continuing to work to help the parties to achieve a mutually acceptable political solution, which will provide for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara,” Sahara Press Service reported.
However, with US ambassador to the UN Samantha Power telling the NYT that the lack of demands on Morocco was needed so that Morocco might, at some unspecified time, allow the UN personnel to return, the referendum promised in 1991 looks further away than ever.
On June 1, the Polisario Front issued a communiqué paying tribute to Abdelaziz: “The deceased left an important legacy of assets and achievements and a firm willingness and determination to pursuing the struggle until triumph.
“Our pain is tremendous but we must assume the responsibility, make further sacrifices and remain united to stand in the way of our peoples' enemies. We remain convinced that our people will not betray its martyrs…
“In the face of this painful circumstance and as part of national struggle, the [Polisario leadership] offers the Saharawi people its sincere condolences and expresses deep compassion after the death of this figure that devoted his life to defending the Saharawi people's dignity and rights…
“The Saharawi people, wherever they are, draw their strength from the values of national unity enshrined by the foresight and ingenuity of martyr Mohamed Abdelaziz, as the only guarantors of the freedom of our country from the Moroccan occupation, under the leadership of our legitimate representative, the Polisario Front.”