African leaders try to save OAU from possible breakup over W. Sahara

High-level diplomats are trying to rescue the 50-nation Organization of African Unity, whose activities are nearing a standstill.

The issue that has disrupted the 19-year-old OAU - and that some worry could spell the end of the organization - is whether to seat Polisario guerrillas as full OAU members to represent the Western Sahara.

The legitimacy of the guerrilla group as representives of a so-called Saharan Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) is disputed by Morocco, which is warring with the Polisario movement over the region. But Polisario is championed by Algeria and Libya, and its claims to statehood have been recognized by 26 OAU member-states.

The dispute has brought the organizational life of the OAU has come to a virtual standstill. Morocco and its numerous supporters refuse to attend any OAU meetings to which SADR is invited. The scheduled annual meeting of the organization in Libya was not held because of the dispute. And as long as Morocco boycotts meetings, it will not be possible to hold any OAU meetings at any level.

An effort to end this unhappy chapter in the OAU's history is under way by five African presidents - Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia, Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, Moussa Traore of Mali, Samora Machel of Mozambique, and Denis Sassou-Nguesso of the Congo.

They are visiting African states, seeking to find a formula that will allow the aborted annual summit to take place after all.

Preliminary reports suggest Morocco and its friends are refusing to budge. It therefore appears to be necessary to find some diplomatic out that will exclude SADR from the next summit. A possible solution would be to agree to put its membership into suspension.

The two key countries that have so far refused to accept this stratagem are Algeria and Libya. However, because of Col. Muammar Qaddafi's strong desire to become the chairman of the OAU this year, it is believed he might favor a compromise. If he were to do so, Algeria might follow suit.

(Another possibility that has surfaced is to hold a small meeting in Ethiopia , to iron out the Western Sahara issue, then to hold the annual meeting in Libya , as previously planned. Some sources say that under such a scenario, Colonel Qaddafi might not automatically be launched into the chairmanship of the OAU - as are most OAU hosts. His leadership might be challenged by those who are wary of his intentions in Africa.)

Despite this cleavage in the African ranks, there is an overwhelmingly strong wish among member states to avoid a permanent breach that would spell the end of the OAU. This strong desire to maintain this element of African unity is the strongest reason for optimism that the OAU can be rescued from its present predicament.

At the abortive Tripoli summit in August, there was strong support among a minority of the presidents attending it to ignore the boycotters and proceed without a full quorum to elect Qaddafi and to replace the secretary-general, Edem Kodjo of Togo, who admitted the Polisario to membership by administrative fiat when it became clear that a slim majority of the 50 states backed admission. However, there now appear to be possible defections among Polisario backers.

It was thanks only to President Julius Nyerere that the OAU did not slam onto the rocks earlier. While he shared the indignation of the other Africans in August at the boycott, he gently coaxed those favoring a militant stand not to act in a way that would undoubtedly have spelled the end of the OAU.

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