Last week, Mohamed Abdelaziz, the secretary-general of the Polisario Front independence movement in Western Sahara, passed away at the age of 68. Abdelaziz helped found the movement in the 1970s and served as the president of the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), the government-in-exile that the group founded in Tindouf, Algeria, since 1976. He was in the middle of his 12th consecutive term as president when he died this week.
The Polisario quickly announced an interim replacement—Khatri Addouh, a longtime aide to Abdelaziz and the current head of the Polisario’s National Council—as well as a 40-day mourning period before a permanent successor will be named. In the rush to figure out what Abdelaziz’s death might mean for a resolution to the protracted conflict between Morocco and the Polisario, observers have overlooked what his death says about the Polisario itself and, by extension, what it might tell us about the nature of an independent Western Sahara sometime in the distant future.
According to the Polisario, Western Sahara, home of the Sahrawi people, is Africa’s last colony, and it continues to employ anticolonial rhetoric to great effect. Sahara Press Service, SADR’s official press agency, published a eulogy that likened Abdelaziz to the last wave of African anticolonial leaders, such as Samora Machel of Mozambique and Agostinho Neto of Angola. Morocco, for its part, doesn’t have the best track record with the people of the Sahara (Morocco does not use the term “Sahrawi”). Rabat has offered lump sums, jobs, and housing to Moroccans willing to relocate to the “Southern provinces” and has cracked down on protests and dissent. The overarching goals have been to change the demographic makeup of the territory and to complicate the creation of a voter list, which MINURSO (the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara) has mandated and could be used in a referendum on independence.
Morocco is unwilling to allow such a referendum for obvious reasons: it worries that voters would
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