OBITUARY: Mohamed Abdelaziz, President of the Saharawi Republic 1948-2016

Mohamed Abdelaziz, President of the Saharawi Republic 1948-2016
Australian Western Sahara Association (AWSA), June 2016

With the death on 31 May 2016 of Mohamed Abdelaziz, Saharawi president, the people of Western Sahara have lost a major figure in their recent history.

He was one of the founders of their independence movement, the Polisario Front (Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el Hamra and Rio de Oro) in 1973, fighting first against the Spanish coloniser, then in 1975 battling the Moroccan invader. He has been at its helm since the inaugural Polisario leader, El Ouali Mustapha Sayed, died in action in 1976. (cont.)

Abdelaziz helped frame the constitution which was ratified later that same year, while continuing to engage in active service in the war against Morocco’s military occupation of Western Sahara.

When elected president of the Saharawi Republic in 1982, he directed his attention more towards building the state-in-exile in the refugee camps near Tindouf in south west Algeria and, after 1991, moving towards a peaceful settlement of the conflict through diplomacy.

His funeral on Friday 3 June was held in the Saharawi refugee camps (to which half the population fled in 1975) and was attended by high level delegations from the African Union, Algeria, Mauritania and representatives of Venezuela, Ecuador, Cuba and many African countries as well as Saharawis from the occupied zone of Western Sahara together with friends from solidarity groups abroad, especially Spain (though no Spanish government presence). On Saturday 4 June his body was taken for burial at Bir Lahlou, in the liberated zone of Western Sahara, the closest he could get to Smara, his birth place, the other side of the military wall built by Morocco to keep one part of the Saharawi population in and the other part, the refugees, out.

The Polisario practised collective leadership.  However, President Abdelaziz undoubtedly had a huge influence over developments in the past 40 years. He took advantage of the relative leisure of the refugee camps, albeit in a very harsh environment, to develop the institutions of a modern democratic state with participation of all adults living in the camps. Everyone took a responsibility for the community in one of four main areas, education, food, health, justice and social issues.

During the 1980s it was exciting for British volunteers from the NGO War on Want to visit the Saharawi refugee camps with a view to setting up vegetable gardens in the desert to supplement the very limited diet provided by the World Food Program. They were fascinated to be in a society without money and largely without cars – two prominent features of the Western world. They were impressed by the education system which was providing not only a basic education for the children, but an adult literacy campaign which resulted in the population reaching 90% literacy – the highest in Africa. Equally impressive was the role taken by women in running the camps and today women take a part in all levels of the society, including as ministers and diplomatic representatives. The vegetable gardens only ever produced enough food for nutritionally vulnerable groups such as children, pregnant women and old people. The Saharawis were concerned they should not become too embedded in their exile which must continue to be seen as temporary.

In 1991 the United Nations brokered a cease-fire and set up a mission known as MINURSO to organise a referendum of self-determination. The referendum has never been held. Morocco, hopeful at first that it could win, became set against it after the voter list was published and it realised it would lose. Attempts to resolve the conflict through peace talks are in stalemate, but were it not for the persistence of the Polisario leadership under Abdelaziz, the issue might very easily have been resolved against Saharawi interests.

Abdelaziz has guided his people through many difficult situations in the past forty years and held the population together focused on achieving their inalienable right to self-determination. In this he has been helped by their fundamental sense of justice, their patience and love of peace. He was a well-loved leader. At the same time the younger generation, born and raised in the harsh refugee camps, are becoming impatient with the no-war-no-peace status quo and are talking of returning to arms. He managed to hold them in check as he succeeded in keeping social cohesion generally, always reminding his people that the priority was a return to the homeland through a vote of self-determination.

Many around the world will share the sadness of the Saharawi at the death of President Abdelaziz whose determination to achieve justice for his people through international law and diplomacy contrasts starkly with the violence witnessed in other conflicts in the region.

His vision of an independent Western Sahara lives on. It must now be realised by a new generation.