Addis Ababa, Ethiopia — The Organization of African Unity has survived the worst crisis in its 20 -year history. But African leaders are celebrating a victory fraught with potential conflict.
This week's breakthrough and the potential conflict both involve the Polisario guerrilla front - which for eight years has fought a desert war against Morocco for control of the Western Sahara.
The breakthrough came when Polisario's supporters forced the guerrilla group to withdraw from the OAU summit meeting here. Polisario's drive to be seated at the 19th annual OAU meeting as the representative of the Western Sahara stymied two efforts to hold the summit last year. Its bid to be seated at this meeting appeared to be headed for the same stalemate until the group backed down Wednesday, agreeing to abstain from participating in the meeting.
Sources here say both supporters and opponents of Polisario chose to salvage the OAU from a possibly irreversible split rather than declare once again failure to convene a summit because of what many Africans see as an essentially Arab conflict.
Libyan Foreign Minister Abdel Ati Obeidi quoted Mohammed Abdul Aziz, president of Polisario's shadow government of the Western Sahara, as saying: ''We were forced to get out.''
Polisario has been assisted by Algeria and Libya in its war against Morocco and its effort to gain admission to the OAU. Morocco has refused to attend any summit at which Polisario would be seated, and some 24 African states have supported the Moroccan position. Their boycott has prevented the 34-member quorum necessary to open the OAU annual meeting.
The Polisario pullout from the Addis meeting is viewed as a major defeat for Libya's Col. Muammar Qaddafi. The mercurial Libyan leader is said to have arrived in Addis this week certain that he would assume the OAU chairmanship.
The summit was scheduled for Qaddafi's own capital last August, but it never materialized because of the Polisario issue, the Libyan leader's support for rebels fighting the government of President Hissein Habre in Chad, and African hostility toward him.
Qaddafi would have become OAU chairman - a position he had wanted - if the summit had been held in Tripoli. Instead, Ethiopian leader Mengistu Haile Mariam was appointed OAU chairman this week.
Qaddafi left the Addis meeting rather than concede defeat of his position on Polisario. His departure appeared to be greeted by a sigh of relief in Africa Hall, where African leaders had gathered in the same room where the OAU was founded 20 years ago. But many African diplomats expect that Qaddafi will not resign himself to this latest defeat.
Informed African sources predict that the Libyan-backed insurgency in Chad will be stepped up. A spokesman for the Chadian rebel leader, Goukhouni Woddei, told reporters here: ''We shall now march on (the Chadian capital) in N'Djamena.''
Last November's attempt to convene the OAU summit in Tripoli failed because Qaddafi tried to seat Woddei as a representative of Chad.
The conflict over the Western Sahara is certain to continue to dominate African politics. Many African states are expected to pressure Morocco to respond to Polisario's pullout from the summit. They expect Morocco to cosponsor a referendum in which Saharans would choose independence or integration into Morocco. The 1981 OAU summit in Kenya called for such a referendum.
Polisario is demanding direct negotiations with Morocco and a withdrawal of all Moroccan troops from the Western Sahara prior to such a referendum. Morocco this week rejected these conditions.
''Why should we withdraw from our own country? We have already conceded the holding of a referendum in a territory we consider to be ours,'' a Moroccan here said.
But diplomatic sources say Morocco has informally agreed to a deadline for the referendum and to a formula for involving Polisario in the settlement of the Sahara conflict. OAU delegates expect details of the deal to be made public during the summit.
Various African delegates expressed hope that Mengistu will be a strong enough chairman to deal with the conflicts in Chad and the Western Sahara - conflicts that still could threaten the future of the OAU.
The Soviet-backed Ethiopian strong man is said to have the revolutionary credentials that are theoretically necessary for such a task as well as the respect of many of the more moderate OAU members - respect Qaddafi did not have.