Sunday,18 November, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1331, (9 - 15 February 2017)
Sunday,18 November, 2018
Issue 1331, (9 - 15 February 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Morocco’s African return

Morocco has rejoined the African Union after an absence of 30 years over the status of the contested Western Desert region

Morocco’s African return
Morocco’s African return

Morocco has returned to the fold of the African Union (AU) after an absence of more than 30 years, with a majority vote by member states acceding to its request to retake its empty seat without the precondition of stripping the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) of its membership of the group.

Although nine countries rejected Rabat’s return to the AU, 39 agreed, making Morocco the 55th member of the organisation.

Morocco’s King Mohamed VI said in his address to the AU Summit in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa that “Morocco’s return to the AU is a return home after a long absence in order to once again belong to the African family.”

Morocco withdrew from the regional grouping in 1984 when it was called the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) after it recognised the SADR. Rabat believes that SADR territories (geographically the Western Desert) fall under its sovereignty and any attempt to create a separate state in that region would be an act of secession that the OAU and its successor the AU should not recognise.

At its inception in 1962, the OAU/AU adopted the principle of recognising border agreements on the continent inherited from the European colonial powers in order to block claims by separatist groups that were widespread across the continent.

The struggle over the Western Desert of Morocco began soon after Spanish colonial forces withdrew in 1976. The late Moroccan king Hassan II launched a “Green March” that sent hundreds of thousands of Moroccans to the newly independent province.

However, the Polisario Front in the Western Desert refused to be incorporated into Morocco and demanded independence. It was strongly supported by Algeria, which went to war with its neighbour Morocco in the 1960s.

Polisario benefited from the support of oil-rich Algeria, also influential in Africa at the time, in its battle with Morocco for procuring African recognition and membership of the African group.

Morocco’s return to the AU was preceded by extensive talks that were described as “protracted”. Some African countries argued that Morocco must recognise the borders of the SADR, while the majority accepted Morocco’s return, leaving the Western Desert conflict to rage on.

SADR Ambassador to Addis Ababa and the AU Lamine Baali told news agencies this week that discussions had focussed on the need for Morocco to respect the borders of the SADR, which are internationally recognised. “We hope Morocco’s return to the AU is a step towards a resolution of the conflict” in the Western Desert, he said.

Polisario has strong support from Algeria and South Africa, both of which are demanding that a referendum should be held to decide the fate of the region. Morocco, which believes the Western Desert should be granted autonomy and nothing more, is supported by most West African countries, notably the Francophone states.

Although Morocco has always linked returning to the AU with stripping the SADR of its membership, the US newspaper the Wall Street Journal has reported that it is unclear if Rabat’s return is contingent on conditions regarding Polisario. It added that the AU had gained the return of a major country, and that this would resolve part of its reliance on international institutions for funding.

The French newspaper Le Monde said that Morocco’s return to the AU was an admission that its “empty seat” policy had failed in the conflict over the Western Desert. Rabat’s return also means the conflict will now shift to the AU and between countries that oppose or support Morocco. This will enable Rabat to work within AU institutions to benefit from the large pool of countries that voted in favour of its returning.

Morocco’s first gain was the victory of Chadian Foreign Minister Moussa Faki Mahamat in his appointment as chair of the AU Commission – Chad is a Francophone country that has strong economic and political ties with Morocco – even though Rabat had supported Senegalese candidate Abdoulaye Bathily as Senegal supports Rabat’s position in the Western Desert.

“Mahamat’s victory is better for Morocco than a win by a supporter of its opponents,” said Walid Sayed, a professor of political science in Khartoum. “Morocco’s return and Mahamat’s victory is a great loss for South Africa, but a victory for Morocco.”

South Africa’s greater loss may be the minimal discussion that took place at the AU Summit about a mass withdrawal from the International Criminal Court (ICC), which Pretoria had hoped would be a consensus decision to shore up the position of South African President Jacob Zuma.

South Africa decided to withdraw from the ICC after refusing to detain Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir during a visit there last year to attend an African summit.

The move was strongly criticised by domestic and international human rights groups, and it contradicted a ruling by the Supreme Court in Pretoria preventing Al-Bashir from leaving the country. He is wanted by the ICC to face charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity in the western Sudanese region of Darfur.

Algeria does not object to Morocco’s return to the AU, according to Algerian officials.

Morocco’s return is not only a political move, but also an economic one. Rabat has signed more than 1,000 commercial agreements with other countries on the continent since 2000 when king Mohamed VI came to power.

The Moroccan monarch has also undertaken 46 trips to more than 25 countries south of the Sahara during this period and to six African countries in 2016 alone, including Ethiopia, home of the fastest growth rates on the continent, and Nigeria, one of the largest African economies.

According to reports, Morocco has invested billions of dollars in Africa through its banks opening dozens of branches in 20 countries, as well as food manufacturing companies and phosphates extraction. Meanwhile, Casablanca has become a main African travel hub, and Royal Air Maroc is one of the fastest growing airlines in Africa.

This economic influence will increase with Rabat’s return to the AU, especially since many countries south of the Sahara are now witnessing more growth than their European counterparts. Observers believe that Morocco is seeking to diversify its economy away from the EU, its largest trading partner (with a 55.7 per cent share of Morocco’s trade with the rest of the world), especially Spain and the former colonial power France.

Although Morocco is back in the African fold without the SADR losing its membership of the AU, South African think tanks now suggest that Morocco will seek to expel its Sahrawi rivals from the organisation.

“I don’t believe that this is Morocco’s plan,” Sayed countered, “at least not in the next few years. It is more important for Rabat to strengthen its economic ties with Africa. Then we will see what happens,” he said.

Polisario could have a hard time as Morocco expands its influence on the continent, especially since economic interests have become a top priority in Africa with many countries seeking investments. Many African countries have also chosen to ignore political sensitivities in return for Chinese or Indian investment even in the most corrupt and authoritarian countries.

The membership of the AU is now complete with the return of Rabat, but this is unlikely to change the nature of the conflict in the Western Desert, with Polisario demanding a referendum and Rabat suggesting granting the region a broad measure of autonomy instead.

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