Western Sahara: what lies ahead as Abdelaziz is laid to rest?

Colonized by Spain in 1884, endowed with phosphate, iron ore, fishing grounds and offshore oil deposits, and  described recently by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon as “one of the forgotten humanitarian tragedies of our times” , Western Sahara has lost its dogged emancipator, President Mohamed Abdeaziz  Ezzedine.

The North African country which borders Algeria, Morocco and Mauritania and sized the US state of Colorado and New Zealand has been embroiled in a territorial dispute and struggle for self determination for over 40 years. The struggle which was led by Polisario Front formed in 1973 which later led to the formation of Sahara Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) had Abdelaziz as its leader over the years.

Abdelaziz’s dream for a homeland was cut short by his death. What lies ahead after his death is a big question many parties have to answer, the first being the Polisario Front and Sahara Arab Democratic Republic (SADR).

The choice of a successor who shares the same aspirations and dreams as the late Abdelaziz is important in determining the future of the republic described sometimes as the “last colony in Africa”.  The people of the republic are tired of “empty promises” for a long awaited referendum. Many believed a return to war front is their last option. The choice of a successor as determined and acceptable within and outside the republic like Abdelaziz would determine the future of the struggle in the country.

Any internal power struggle that is not settled on time could spell doom for the republic, and whether the current Prime Minister, Abd-el-Kader Taleb Omar will succeed Abdelaziz or someone within the Front will be chosen is still unclear at the moment. Mindful of “a common enemy”—Morocco, the Front is likely not going to accept any power struggle that will create division among them. Whoever emerges as the new President must be as determined as the late President for any serious push.

The second important party is Algeria. Described by Kamilu Sani Fagge, a Professor of International Relations at the Bayero University Kano, northern Nigeria, as “a power broker”, Algeria has been and will continue to be at the fore front. It houses the temporary headquarters of the republic in its soil. Some political spectators believe Algeria is at war with Morocco by proxy. Their role on who emerges as the new leader according to Professor Fagge is eminent “I think they will definitely play a key role in terms of who becomes the next leader, the only thing is whether the role they will play is going to be a mediatory role or they are going to impose a person. So I doubt it very much if they will gamble to the extent of imposition” which he says may weaken the struggle.

Other important parties in the struggle are the African Union (AU), European Union (EU) and the United Nations. The African Union is seen as a lame dog. It has issued several diplomatic statements in support of the Saharawis, but there has been no serious political and diplomatic will to back the republic. Although Rabat has pulled out of the union since 1985 in protest against the recognition of the republic, AU has been unable to broker any powerful deal that will push for a referendum.

The EU on its part is still the major donor of humanitarian aid to the Saharawi refugees, but lack of unity among EU countries remains a big challenge in promoting a clear road map towards peace. France which is part of the UN Security Council is vehemently in opposition to any move that will broker a deal for self determination for the Saharawis. The lack of consensus among EU members and the fear that even if the whole world will accept a deal to end the dispute by granting Saharawis their wish, France is likely to veto it out, remain a serious concern.

The UN has long been trying to broker a settlement for the region’s future, but it is seen as only playing a “recognition” role, sparking criticisms even among Saharawis. To them, mere acceptance and recognition by international organizations and a recent trip to the region by the UN Secretary General Ban Ki- Moon with his “diplomatic utterances” are not enough to give them any hope.

Despite all these challenges on board, Professor Fagge is optimistic that “Western Sahara will one day become a full independent country in Africa”, but admitted that their success depends on internal resilience, more diplomacy and commitment within the international community.