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The President In Waiting...

Western Sahara

The President-in-waiting
has waited long enough

Chris Brazier interviews Muhammad Abdelaziz,
leader of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic.

I missed out on meeting Muhammad Abdelaziz, Polisario’s leader since 1976, while I was in the camps. He'd flown out unexpectedly to Kinshasa in an attempt to persuade Laurent Kabila’s Congo to recognize the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (now recognized by 76 nations, though six African countries recently suspended their recognition following pressure and 'aid' or cash inducements from Morocco and France). I spoke to him instead over the phone at the end of October while he was visiting Washington.

How many voters do you think will end up taking part in the referendum based on the agreement Polisario has just signed?

Until the identification process is complete figures can only be approximate. All the same I believe that a figure of 80,000 voters will end up not being far from the reality.

What is there in the terms of the agreement to stop tens of thousands more voters than that being identified?

What does Morocco want? It wants Moroccans to participate in the referendum in great numbers. But the UN operation is there to organize a referendum of self-determination for the Saharawi people, not to include in it Moroccans or indeed people of any other nationality. The sole credible census made of Saharawis was the Spanish one of 1974. If we update this census we’ll find that the number still living will be around 60,000 people. If we add their children and those who were absent at the time of the census or missed in error we’re still not going to get much beyond a figure of 80,000.

Is the Moroccan Government behaving differently now from how it has in the past?

The last few months have made us optimistic. First, we have felt that the UN has finally taken the Western Sahara situation in hand. When Mr James Baker was charged with the responsibility for taking things forward it signalled to us that the international community had really decided to get to grips with the Western Sahara issue.

The second reason for optimism has been the behaviour of the Moroccan Government during the negotiations. We felt that the composition of the Moroccan delegation showed they were taking things seriously and that they approached things in a constructive manner. Having said that, last week a big Moroccan ministerial delegation visited our occupied capital, L’ayoun, and the visit was preceded by a campaign of repression against our population – intimidation, arrests, torture and so on. So we are still questioning the will of the Moroccans – do they really want to break with the intransigence of the past? Or have they been constructive in the negotiations for tactical reasons? We will soon know – the identification process will enable us to judge.

I’d like to ask you about the shape of an independent Western Sahara. Your conversion to multiparty democracy is fairly recent and cynics might say it had more to do with public relations than with principle...

The independent state we will propose to the Saharawi people will be one with a free-market economy and with a political system based on multi-party democracy. We will also propose that just as Polisario has been an instrument of liberation it can be an instrument of government. We in Polisario consider that our main mission will be accomplished at the moment of independence. But afterwards if people want us to govern we will be ready; if they choose others to govern we will honour the decision.

Wouldn’t it be best if Polisario dissolved itself so as to avoid the danger of a one-party state in all but name? After all, what chance would another party have against the movement that won independence?

The Polisario Front will remain as a political force in an independent Western Sahara – we have a history, an experience, a programme, which demands it. If the Saharawi people want to create other political parties we are not against this. But Polisario will certainly continue.

Your people have suffered too long. But do you accept that on a political level you are much more ready to cope with the demands of independence than you would have been ten years ago?

The years of struggle from 1973 until now have involved terrible sacrifices. No-one would have wished our exile to last a moment longer and in the last ten years we could have been developing our country. But, yes, it is probably true that the experiences we have lived through and the opportunity we have had to study things on a political and cultural level have better equipped us to choose the right course.

Do you believe in a year’s time you will be living in L’ayoun?

I am ready to be in L’ayoun before the end of next year with my family and my people in a situation of secure independence. But I hope that you and your magazine will join us in the months leading up to the final return. Indeed you must be present to observe, to constitute an independent arbiter between us and the Moroccans and ensure that the referendum takes place in a climate of peace and justice.

You think the presence of international journalists and observers is important...

It’s not just important, it’s vital. It will be the sole guarantee of a just and durable solution, of a free and transparent referendum. We badly need the presence of the international press and of independent observers from the whole world. I invite you and through you I invite the press and non-governmental organizations to take part in this march towards the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara.

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New Internationalist issue 297 magazine cover This article is from the December 1997 issue of New Internationalist.
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