The world lost a great Muslim champion for democracy, human rights and the rule of law, with the untimely death of Mohamed Abdelaziz of Western Sahara on May 31st of this year. As the democratically elected President of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), Abdelaziz labored his entire life to see justice prevail for the people of Western Sahara, the only colony in Africa yet to be decolonized.
Abdelaziz led the POLISARIO, an organization he helped found initially to liberate Western Sahara from Spain, and the SADR, the Republic established by the Sahrawis. He first sought peaceful resolution to the conflict over Western Sahara through the International Court of Justice in1974. But, the brutal invasion of his homeland by Morocco in 1975 led to armed conflict until the United Nations brokered a cease fire in 1991 with the promise that the people of Western Sahara would have a referendum on self-determination. Twenty five years later that referendum still has not occurred.
Mohamed Abdelaziz, President of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic passed away May 31. Few Americans who read the short obligatory mention of his death had ever heard of him or knew there even is a Sahrawi Republic, but he was a great leader, a Muslim democrat and a man who had spent a lifetime fighting for the independence of his people many of whom have lived for decades in U.N. administered refugee camps in Algeria just across the border from their own land. They are in these camps because their land was seized and is occupied by Morocco which has refused all attempts to displace them so the rightful occupants of the land can return to it and live in peace.
The Sahrawi of the Western Sahara, along with the Palestinians, are homeless. Most people haven’t heard of their plight, however, because President Abdelaziz was a man of peace who, perhaps naively, believed in justice and the rule of law. He was instrumental in the formation of the Polisario Front which fought the Spanish when they ruled the area then known as the Spanish Sahara, but when they left and Morocco moved in he decided to appeal to the world for justice. He went to the International Court of Justice in 1974 claiming that the occupiers of his peoples’ land had no legal or historical claim on which to base their claim and won. The Moroccans ignored the Court findings and dug in as his people fled to the camps in Algeria.