There are few places as desolate as the camps of the Polisario Front in western Algeria. Over the years, infrastructure has been built to accommodate the tens of thousands of Saharawi refugees who live in the camps, but it remains a temporary shelter for those who dream of returning to the Western Sahara, which they claim as their home. Some of the refugees have been in the camps for over forty years.
On 31 May, Mohamed Abdelaziz - the historic leader of the Polisario Front - passed away after a long illness, at the age of 76. He was buried on Sunday 11 June in the so-called liberated zone, near the sand wall built by Morocco around the Western Sahara territory, to which it lays claim.
Messages of condolence poured in from around the world. Many describe Abdelaziz as a war hero and a pacifist - the man who agreed to a ceasefire with Morocco in 1991 in return for the promise of a referendum. Some even call him the Mandela of Western Sahara.
'The Saharawi people, wherever they are, draw their strength from the values of national unity enshrined by the foresight and ingenuity of martyr Mohamed Abdelaziz, as the only guarantors of the freedom of our country from the Moroccan occupation, under the leadership of our legitimate representative, the Polisario Front,' read a statement by the party at the announcement of the death of Abdelaziz.
Yet Abdelaziz was a controversial figure - even within the ranks of the Polisario Front, which he'd led since 1982. Many accused him of being intolerant, dictatorial and inflexible. He followed a Cold War type of logic and was not prone to compromise. Three of the founding leaders of the Polisario Front broke away from the organisation, accusing Abdelaziz of not consulting with the leadership.
A key question now is whether Abdelaziz's passing will have any significant effect on resolving the conflict that has divided North Africa and caused so many years of suffering for the Saharawi people. His death comes in the wake of recent events concerning the United Nations Mission for a Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO), which could also point to possible new solutions and a greater role for the African Union (AU) in this regard.
Researcher and Western Sahara specialist Khadija Mohsen Finan told French daily Le Monde that Abdelaziz's death could bring about an 'ideological rethink' with the aim of pushing for a negotiated settlement. Mohsen Finan pointed out earlier this year that resolving the Western Sahara problem is now more urgent than ever due to the growing terror threat in North Africa and the Sahel.
'With organisations like AQIM [the al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb] and Daesh [the Islamic State] growing in the region, the situation is explosive,' she told Radio France International. The lack of real hope for a solution has made many young people in the camps desperate and bitter. Mohsen Finan says this could create a breeding ground for terrorist organisations. She believes countries like France, the United States and Spain, which have an influence on Morocco, should convince the Kingdom that things have changed and a situation needs to be found urgently. That is easier said than done, however.
Clearly, for the Polisario Front - up to now led by Abdelaziz, and supported by Algeria - the only solution would be a referendum to determine the independence of Western Sahara. It should also be a referendum in which only Saharawi, the original inhabitants of the area, can vote.
On the other hand, Morocco has offered the Saharawi a large measure of autonomy, but still under the Moroccan flag. Over the years, despite many rounds of negotiations mediated by the United Nations (UN) and an array of proposals on the table, the positions of both camps have hardly moved an inch towards compromise.
Mohamed Bensaïd Aït Idder - one of Abdelaziz's former comrades in arms, who fought with him against the Spanish occupation of Western Sahara - also says that Abdelaziz's passing might bring a window of opportunity. He told Jeune Afrique that after the war ended he stayed in Morocco, but Abdelaziz, who was born in Marrakech, decided to move to the Polisario Front camps of Tindouf. Aït Idder believes the territory is at a crossroads. 'I hope that the Polisario will start a process of profound reflection in the interest of the Sahara,' he said. (Those who argue that the territory has always been part of Morocco, refers to it as the Moroccan 'Sahara'.)
The speaker of the Saharawi National Council, Khatri Addouh, has been appointed acting president of the Saharawi Arab Republic until the party selects a new one within forty days. The new leader would have the responsibility to engage with international actors like the UN.
In March this year, a few weeks before the death of Abdelaziz, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was involved in a serious spat with Morocco after calling its claims over Western Sahara an 'occupation'. This was during a visit to the Tindouf camps. It was reportedly already clear during the meeting between Abdelaziz and Ban that the Polisario Front leader's health had deteriorated.
Morocco subsequently withdrew its personnel from MINURSO in protest against what it saw as the UN secretary-general's lack of neutrality. A heated debate followed in the UN Security Council (UNSC) during the vote to renew MINURSO's mandate. Some members of the UNSC accuse the United States and France of treating Morocco with kid gloves by turning a blind eye to its belligerent stance over MINURSO.
Ten members voted for the resolution renewing the mandate, while Venezuela and Uruguay voted against it and Angola, Russia and New Zealand abstained. The UNSC has now asked the secretary-general to submit a report on progress made before the end of next month.
Meanwhile, former Mozambican president Joachim Chissano, who was appointed the AU special envoy for Western Sahara in 2014, is making renewed efforts to engage with the UN on the issue. In a strongly worded statement that confirmed its support for Western Sahara, the AU Peace and Security Council (PSC) condemned Morocco for withdrawing from MINURSO. The PSC warned that this 'further complicates the current deadlock in the peace process, rekindles tensions in Western Sahara, and threatens regional security.'
Thus far, the AU has been largely excluded from efforts to find a resolution to the Western Sahara dispute, because Morocco sees it as biased. Yet Chissano's latest round of lobbying at the UN headquarters in New York last month could have an impact, especially given the divisions within the UNSC over Western Sahara. Even if Morocco is not a member of the AU, it is an African country and the AU should have a place at the table when negotiations hopefully restart to solve Africa's most enduring territorial conflict.
Liesl Louw-Vaudran, ISS Consultant