Mohamed Abdelaziz, secretary-general and co-founder of the Frente Polisario independence movement in the Western Sahara, died on May 31. The group announced his death last Tuesday, attributing it to a long battle with illness.
“This is a great loss for the Sahrawi people,” said Frente Polisario official Mohammed Keddad. “He sacrificed his life for the liberation of Western Sahara. He embodied the wisdom and a sincere and firm commitment to its liberation,” he added.
The death of the four-decade leader comes at a time of resurging tensions between the Frente Polisario and the Moroccan government, who have contested over the fate of the Western Sahara since Spain withdrew in 1975. Morocco considers the Western Sahara territory to be part of its southern provinces, maintaining de facto control of two-thirds of the Western Sahara including most of its phosphate-rich coastline.
Born in 1948 in the town of Smara (currently in the Moroccan-held part of Western Sahara), Abdelaziz joined the Frente Polisario movement as a student and was elected to its founding congress in 1973. He was known to be a moderate leader who supported UN efforts towards a peaceful resolution, often overruling military warmongers who pushed for the continuation of war. Abdelaziz also helped the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic gain both recognition from several African states and acceptance into the African Union in 1982.
Following his death, the movement immediately commenced a 40-day mourning period, in which movement leaders plan to assess the appointment of a new-secretary general. Khatri Abdouh, the head of the Sahrawi National Council and a long-time aide of Abdelaziz, has assumed the role of interim Frente Polisario leader.
A change in Frente Polisario’s leadership has consequently raised questions about a shift in the state-of-play in the Western Sahara. Some pundits claim that a change in leadership will facilitate future peace talks, while others emphasize that a change in leadership during a time of rising tensions may lead to the revival of hostilities between the movement and Morocco.
But a change in leadership may not have much of an influence on the future of decision-making for Frente Polisario.
“The Polisario is not the master of its destiny. Decisions are not made in the Tindouf camps (Sahrawi refugee camps), but in Algiers,” said Samir Bennis, the editor-in-chief of the online newspaper Morocco World News. “Abdelaziz’s death will not change anything between Morocco and Algeria… Abdelaziz Bouteflika (the Algerian President) has been sick for many years, and any change will depend on who rules Algeria.”
Algeria, one of the only countries to recognize the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) declared by the Frente Polisario in 1976, backed the Frente Polisario against Morocco’s annexation of Western Sahara, and even harbors the Frente Polisario leadership and headquarters in the Algerian city of Tindouf.
As the Sahrawi people mourn the death of their beloved leader, the future status of the Western Sahara remains unclear. But as the conflict continues, the UN must observe the changing leadership of the Frente Polisario and soon Algeria, as these leaders could shift the status quo in Western Sahara negotiations.
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