African unity's toughest test: deciding who rules W. Sahara

The cloud hanging over the future of the 50-nation Organization of African Unity has temporarily lifted, but its troubles are a long way from being settled.

The pan-African group came close to a breakup this summer in a dispute over whether to admit Western Sahara guerrillas to full OAU membership. Now a compromise plan may put the organization back on track - in part by pushing this most divisive issue temporarily into the background.

The plan, crafted in three months of difficult diplomacy led by Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere, calls for Polisario guerrillas to stay away from an OAU summit scheduled for Nov. 23. This gives Morocco, which now rules the Western Sahara, a temporary diplomatic victory. But the compromise also requires Morocco to agree to a referendum to determine the wishes of Western Sahara's inhabitants.

Morocco has been engaged in a costly war with Polisario's forces (heavily backed by Algeria and Libya) ever since Spain surrendered control of its Saharan colony in 1976.

Morocco's King Hassan II had agreed to a referendum in 1981, but discussions on how to carry out the vote ended in deadlock.

So if all goes according to plan, the OAU can hold its annual meeting without grappling with its testiest issue. The group's summit was originally called for July, but was canceled - permanently, some worried - for lack of a quorum. The Morocco-Polisario dispute, which had split the organization almost down the middle, as well as objections to the choice of Libya as the conference site were the key reasons the July conference never got off the ground.

Fully a third of OAU members stayed away from that summit for one or both of these reasons. Some of the nations that objected to Libya as the conference site may stay away from the November meeting, too, because the conference host - in this case the controversial Col. Muammar Qaddafi - automatically becomes OAU chairman for the next year. So far only Sudan and Egypt have declared they will continue a boycott.

But the thorny issue of Saharan Arab Democratic Republic (the Polisario's shadow ''government'' in the Western Sahara) remains in serious contention. Under the compromise, the issue of its membership in the OAU remains in abeyance until after an internationally supervised referendum in the Western Sahara.

In 1981, referendum discussions deadlocked over the question of who should be eligible to vote in the region - a difficult issue to resolve because traditional Saharan peoples are nomadic and because there are large numbers of Saharan refugees in neighboring countries.

But the future of the OAU itself hangs in part on resolving these issues. Thus a meeting of African foreign ministers, scheduled to be held next week and before the official OAU summit, is critical for the OAU and the disputed Western Sahara. The main item on that agenda will be Western Sahara. Morocco and its 14 OAU supporters have agreed to attend. In theory this meeting will relieve OAU members from having to hash out the Polisario-Moroccan matter at the annual summit.

And with this arrangement, it seems reasonably certain that the required two-thirds of OAU members will be present for the official summit.

It is certain that the bargaining at the pre-summit meeting in Tripoli will be tough. Polisario's friends (particularly Algeria) are likely to be just as determined as Morocco and its supporters to try to obtain the best conditions for their side.

Unless the referendum questions are settled, most observers say there is no way out of the Saharan crisis. And so long as that issue remains unresolved, the deep divisions among African governments will remain a continuing threat to the effective functioning of the OAU.

The only hopeful factor in this situation, diplomats say, is the determination shown by the overwhelming majority of African leaders to put African unity above all other considerations. It was only this desire that enabled President Nyerere to win support for the compromise.

If it can find a way through the tangle of the Saharan conflict, the OAU will demonstrate its usefulness as an important mediating body in Africa. Failure would almost certainly contribute to further polarization in Africa, knowledgeable observers say.

Morocco has been engaged in a costly war with Polisario's forces (heavily backed by Algeria and Libya) ever since Spain surrendered control of its Saharan colony in 1976.

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