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Africa’s Last Colony: Western Saharan Independence Movement Mourns Loss of Polisario Front Leader

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A leader of the independence movement in Western Sahara died Tuesday. Mohamed Abdelaziz was the leader and co-founder of the Sahrawi people’s Polisario Front movement, which has demanded independence ever since Morocco took over most of Western Sahara in 1975. He was 68. A 16-year-long insurgency led by the indigenous Polisario Front ended with a U.N.-brokered truce in 1991. The resolution promised a referendum on independence, which has yet to take place. Morocco is only willing to grant limited autonomy to the disputed region. Eighty-four countries as well as the African Union recognize Western Sahara as an independent nation. In March, Morocco expelled U.N. staffers from Western Sahara after Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon referred to Morocco’s rule over the region as “occupation” during a visit to refugee camps in the Algerian town of Tindouf, located in southwestern Algeria. The expulsion of the 84 U.N. staffers has put at risk the ceasefire between Morocco and the Polisario Front. We speak to Sidi Omar, ambassador-at-large of the Polisario Front, and University of San Francisco professor Stephen Zunes.

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NERMEEN SHAIKH: A leader of the independence movement in Western Sahara died Tuesday. Mohamed Abdelaziz was the leader and co-founder of the Polisario Front movement, which has demanded independence ever since Morocco took over most of Western Sahara in 1975. He was 68 years old. The front has declared 40 days of mourning, after which a new secretary general will be chosen. This is Abdelaziz speaking in 2009 in Tindouf, Algeria, where he lived for over 40 years.

MOHAMED ABDELAZIZ: [translated] We are sure, as we are sure that God exists, that the Saharan people’s objective is independence, and that is a right we must address today, tomorrow, next year, in our time, in our children’s time. It doesn’t matter when. The important thing is to achieve national independence. The conditions we are living in, the weakness in policy and failures of the Moroccan kingdom, the importance of the Saharan case in the world today and the focus of Saharan people on independence are indicators that victory is imminent, independence is imminent.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: A 16-year-long insurgency led by the indigenous Sahrawi’s Polisario Front ended with a U.N.-brokered truce in 1991. The resolution promised a referendum on independence, which has yet to take place. Morocco is only willing to grant limited autonomy to the disputed region. Eighty-four countries, as well as the African Union, recognize Western Sahara as an independent nation.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: In March, Morocco expelled U.N. staffers from Western Sahara after the U.N. secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, referred to Morocco’s rule over the region as an “occupation” during a visit to refugee camps in the Algerian town of Tindouf, located in southwestern Algeria. The expulsion of the 84 U.N. staffers has put at risk the ceasefire between Morocco and the Sahrawi people’s Polisario Front.

To talk more about the situation in the Western Sahara and the death of the leader, we’re joined now by two guests. Sidi Omar is the ambassador-at-large of the Polisario Front. He’s joining us by Democracy Now! video stream from the Valencia autonomous region in Spain. And from San Francisco, we’re joined by Stephen Zunes, professor of politics and international studies and chair of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of San Francisco. He’s the co-author of the book titled Western Sahara: War, Nationalism, and Conflict Irresolution.

We turn first, though, to Sidi Omar. Our condolences on the death of your leader. And the significance of his death for the people of Western Sahara, and if you could start by just telling us who he was?

SIDI OMAR: Well, first of all, thank you very much for your kind words, and thank you particularly for dedicating some time to the question of Western Sahara, which is hardly known in the U.S. and many parts of the world. Well, indeed, we have lost a great leader and a president who was leading us for the past 40 years. And just to say briefly, the centrality of President Abdelaziz to our cause can be simply explained by the fact that—the major achievements that our people have achieved along these four decades and so are largely due to his leadership and high sense of dedication. So we have lost a great and dedicated leader. He was not only one of the founders of our revolution, but he’s actually the creator of the modern Sahrawi state. So that’s how he and his legacy will be remembered by the Sahrawis for many generations to come.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Sidi Omar, could you also say what you think is likely to happen next with the Polisario Front? And when will another leader be elected, and how?

SIDI OMAR: Well, in line with our internal laws, a new leader will have to be elected within the coming 40 days. Now, we have the speaker of Parliament who has taken over as the acting president of the republic and secretary general. So we have 40 days during which time we will prepare for this [inaudible] in Congress, that we hold—that we are planning to hold to elect a new secretary general. But first, as you may know, tomorrow or the day after, we will be in the process of burying our president, in a ceremony which will be conducted first in refugee camps, and then he will be buried in the liberated part of Western Sahara.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to turn now to Professor Stephen Zunes, who’s in San Francisco, has written a book about the Western Sahara. Can you talk about the significance of Mohamed Abdelaziz in terms of his role in the struggle over these decades? And you know, as a professor here in the United States, how little people understand about the Western Sahara, so if you can talk about also its significance here and the whole dynamic between the United States and Morocco?

STEPHEN ZUNES: President Abdelaziz was not a defining figure in the revolution. I mean, he was not the equivalent of Ho Chi Minh or Fidel Castro or Mao Zedong. The Polisario has traditionally practiced more of a collective leadership. At the same time, he played a very important role in terms of holding the movement together through a long and arduous struggle. Unlike many liberation struggles, it did not split into factions. They were able to keep a cohesive unit, both during the armed struggle against Morocco and subsequently in the diplomatic efforts to win recognition of so many countries, to keep the issue, if not on the front pages here in the United States, at least in the United Nations and various regional organizations. And we’re seeing the beginnings of an international solidarity movement, as well.

The United States has traditionally been a major supporter of Morocco; France, even more so. And collectively, they have prevented the United Nations from forcing Morocco to live up to its responsibilities, initially to withdraw and allow the people the right of self-determination, as was in the initial United Nations resolutions back in the 1970s—our ambassador at the time, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, bragged in his autobiography at the way the United States was able to prevent these resolutions from actually being enforced—and more recently the failure of the United States and France to allow the United Nations to go ahead with the referendum that would give the people of Western Sahara the opportunity to choose incorporation into Morocco or independence, as they have as a right as a recognized non-self-governing territory that is in incomplete decolonization.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I want to ask about the nonviolent protests by the Sahrawis against Moroccan occupation. The protests are often filmed by media activists as they’re disrupted by Moroccan security forces. Protesters are often beaten and detained, or simply disappeared. This video was produced by WITNESS Media Lab.

SAHRAWI PROTESTER 1: [translated] The journalists, observers and activists who come from abroad are expelled. So what do we do? We break through this blockade from within. We are the witnesses. I’m going to suffer. If I do this work, I suffer more, yes, I’m going to make more sacrifices. But if I don’t, I will always live under occupation.

SAHRAWI PROTESTER 2: [translated] I get phone calls with threats of rape and physical harm. We are determined to carry on to tell the truth to the world and to tell the truth of the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Protesters speaking out against the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara. Special thanks to the WITNESS Media Lab and FiSahara for the video. So, Stephen Zunes, can you talk about the role of youth in the independence movement in Western Sahara and the fact that you’ve suggested there might be a generational struggle as a successor is found for Mohamed Abdelaziz?

STEPHEN ZUNES: Well, as in South Africa and Palestine during the 1980s, with the armed struggle not making the kind of difference that people had had hoped in terms of forcing a compromise, and the diplomatic maneuvers at a stalemate, the young people inside the territory have taken a leadership in the struggle. It’s been overwhelmingly nonviolent. Though given the fact the settlers, Moroccan settlers, now greatly outnumber the indigenous Sahrawis inside the territory, there are some limits to the effectiveness of the nonviolent resistance, as well. And as a result, there’s a great frustration among young Sahrawis, who are at least as nationalistic as their parents in terms of the belief in self-determination of the right to independence. There have been calls for resumption of the armed struggle. And though, you know, legally and morally one could argue, as an occupied territory, they certainly do have that right, I believe it would be very dangerous. It would play right into the Moroccan narrative that these are terrorists. And Morocco being a Western ally would—many Western nations would accept that narrative, even though even during the height of the armed struggle, Polisario was very careful to avoid any kind of civilian casualties.

As a result, I think the only real hope would be to have global civil society get involved, as we saw around East Timor, which is a comparable situation of a late decolonization, conquered by a powerful neighbor with powerful friends, or, of course, in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. A BDS-type movement, if you will, similar to what we’re seeing regarding Palestine, would also help bring the issue to the people who really could make a difference—that is, those of us in the United States and other Western nations that continue the Moroccan occupation—because while President Abdelaziz’s death will not make a huge difference immediately, it is a sign that the founding generation is getting older, and the younger generation are demanding that there be action, because the cautious approach that the elders have taken in recent years has not gotten very far in terms of allowing the refugees to come home and allowing the country to achieve independence through a referendum as promised by the United Nations.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Zunes, you’re speaking to us from San Francisco. The California primary is about to take place June 7th. The secretary of state—former secretary of state, of course, Hillary Clinton. What is the role of the United States when it comes to Morocco? How close is the U.S. with Morocco? And the U.S.’s stand on the Western Sahara?

STEPHEN ZUNES: Morocco is one of only a handful of countries that are designated as major non-NATO allies. The United States has a free trade agreement with Morocco. And interestingly enough, these two upgrades, if you will, in the relationship took place right after Morocco rejected the final U.N. Security Council proposal for a referendum, which many people interpreted as essentially rewarding Morocco for its intransigence. The Obama administration has tried to be more neutral, but has not been willing to pressure Morocco or pressure France, Morocco’s principal ally, to make the necessary compromises.

A lot of people are concerned that Hillary Clinton, as president, will be closer to the French position, a much more hardline, pro-Moroccan position. She’s certainly showed that as a U.S. senator. As secretary of state, in the internal discussions within the Obama administration, she took the pro-Moroccan line. She’s endorsed the kingdom’s dubious autonomy proposal, which would deny the people of Western Sahara the right to independence. And indeed, just an example of how close they are, the chief funder of the global—Clinton Global Initiative conference in Marrakech, of the Clinton Foundation, was largely funded by a state-owned phosphate company that is illegally exploiting the natural resources of Western Sahara in violation of international law. And so, again, it’s an issue that if the United States or other countries are going to do the right thing, the people are going to have to demand it. The civil societies, in solidarity, are going to have to mobilize, because clearly the politicians are going to be prone to otherwise support the status quo.

AMY GOODMAN: The whole issue of the Clinton Foundation accepting a $1 million donation from OCP, a fertilizer giant owned by the Moroccan government, the significance of this?

STEPHEN ZUNES: Again, it’s an example, I think, of the closeness that both the corporate—Western corporations and as well as the military complexes of the countries have made it difficult for the United States and France and others to take the kind of forceful action. In many ways, it’s comparable to Israel, which is also violating a number of U.N. Security Council resolutions, but is ultimately protected by the U.S. threat of a veto. The close relationship, both personally the Moroccans have with leading politicians, like Hillary Clinton, in these countries, as well as the strategic relationship, that Morocco initially was seen as a great Cold War ally against the Soviets and, more recently, as an ally in the so-called war on terror, that once again we’re seeing this all-too-familiar phenomenon of narrowly defined economic and strategic interests trumping basic principles of human rights and international law.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, before we conclude, I just want to go very quickly to Ambassador Sidi Omar. Could you tell us what the prospects are for a referendum being held, which is what the Polisario Front has been calling for, and what the problem is with holding a referendum?

SIDI OMAR: Well, the basic problem in holding the referendum was the fact that Morocco, after having accepted the idea of a referendum, backed on its commitments, when they realized that any referendum held in transparent and free conditions would lead to the independence of Western Sahara. Now, what are the prospects today? As you already mentioned, Morocco has rebelled against the United Nations’ authority, expelled the major—or the entire civilian component. And that says something about Morocco’s mood, because, as you know, it’s the civilian component that was charged with organizing the referendum. And there is also a very [inaudible] issue that we have already talked about, which is the human rights [inaudible]. And Morocco fears that the United Nations may—and that’s what he hope, and that’s what we’ve been holding for—a mandate [inaudible] the human rights situation. But with the absence of any civilians on the ground, that will be definitely difficult. So the question is, one of the United Nations, and especially the Security Council, [inaudible]—

AMY GOODMAN: Ambassador Sidi Omar, we’re going to have to leave it there. I’m so sorry. And also, condolences. Stephen Zunes, professor at the University of San Francisco.

That does it for our show. Special thanks to María Carrión. Democracy Now! has two full-time job openings: news producer and office coordinator.

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