Morocco, the AU's Prodigal Son?

Is Morocco planning a return to the AU from where it can work for the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic's removal?

After 32 years in the African political wilderness, Morocco is preparing to return to the continent’s highest body, which it stormed out of in 1984. Rabat left in a huff because what was then still the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) admitted the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) as a full member. SADR, represented by the Polisario Front, claims sovereignty over all of Western Sahara but occupies only about 20% of it. Morocco occupies the rest and claims it all.

The African Union (AU), successor to the OAU, officially regards the Western Sahara as the continent’s last remaining unresolved anti-colonial struggle. And Morocco has remained outside the AU in protest.

But now that seems to be changing. In a letter to current AU chairperson and Chadian President Idriss Deby at the organisation’s summit in Kigali last month, Morocco’s King Mohammed VI said the time had come for ‘Morocco to take its natural place within its institutional family.’

He insisted that in 1984 Morocco had ‘never left Africa’ but had only left the OAU because of its recognition of the SADR, which he denounced as a ‘coup against international legality’; and ‘an act of deceit … similar to the abduction of a child.’

Change from within the AU seems to be the new Moroccan strategy

He duly dismissed the SADR as a ‘phantom’ or ‘pseudo’ state, unworthy of recognition compared to Morocco, and said that despite the AU’s recognition of it, at least 34 individual AU member states did not.  

Nevertheless – and this was the most significant part of the king’s speech – he added that, ‘On reflection, it has become clear to us that when a body is sick, it is treated more effectively from the inside than from the outside’.

So, change from within, that seemed to be the new Moroccan strategy.   

Also in Kigali, Deby received a motion signed by 28 AU members, welcoming Morocco’s decision to rejoin the AU but also declaring that these states would ‘act for the immediate suspension of the “Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic" from the AU’, because it did not represent a real state and was not accepted in other inter-governmental bodies like the UN. Suspending SADR would free the AU to play a ‘constructive role’ in UN efforts to resolve the Western Sahara dispute.

Senegal’s President Macky Sall is said to be leading this drive, according to the Institute for Security Studies’ Peace and Security Council Report. ‘Morocco is an important investor in West Africa and has strong political and religious links with this part of the world,’ the report says.

The demand of the 28 for SADR to be kicked out has suggested to some that Morocco was just repeating its familiar condition for re-joining the AU. But the king’s letter suggests – and Moroccan diplomats confirm – that Rabat’s approach this time is different. It intends to get into the AU and then work from there for SADR’s removal.

The first part should be easy.

The real issue would be expelling or suspending SADR from the AU

AU Commission chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma last week dispelled rumours that Morocco had attended or addressed the Kigali summit. But she confirmed that Deby had received the king’s letter and noted that ‘any African state’ may be admitted as an AU member by vote of a simple majority. So, with 28 states in its camp, Morocco already has that simple majority.

But that’s not the contentious issue. The real issue would be expelling or suspending SADR. Dlamini Zuma’s statement underscored that ‘the AU Constitutive Act does not have any provision for the expulsion of any Member State of the Union.’ The act itself can however be changed by two-thirds majority.

The timing of Morocco’s strong membership bid has also sparked considerable curiosity.

Morocco’s outgoing charge d’affairs in South Africa, Rachid Agassim, says it’s happening now simply because Morocco wants to realise more fully the economic and political potential of Africa. He notes that Morocco is upgrading relations with Pretoria, which were downgraded when South Africa recognised SADR in 2004, back to full ambassador level.

Some other diplomats offer more sceptical explanations for Morocco’s big push for membership, including that it is trying to take advantage of a hiatus at the helm of the AU Commission.

Morocco regards outgoing chairperson Dlamini Zuma as an inveterate opponent because of her strong defence of SADR, reflecting her own government’s line. However she will be gone in January, and the Kigali summit’s failure to choose a successor has created an opportunity for Rabat.

The timing of Morocco’s strong AU membership bid has sparked considerable curiosity

These diplomats suspect that one of the francophone West African countries that form the core of Morocco’s support in the AU – perhaps Senegal – will put up a candidate.

If they secure a pro-Moroccan chairperson, that would put Rabat, which would probably rejoin the AU at the same time, in a favourable position to try to suspend SADR. 

AU watchers in Addis Ababa, though, predict an immense and divisive fight in the AU if that happens, with Algeria, Nigeria, South Africa and most of SADC leading a fierce resistance.

And if Morocco were to succeed in suspending SADR, what then? That would simply throw the problem of determining the status of Western Sahara even more firmly back into the hands of the UN Security Council.

Yet the basis of that resolution is a referendum which the Security Council proposed in 1991 to be held among the Western Saharan/Sahrawi people to decide if they wanted to be just an autonomous region within Morocco – as Rabat desires – or a fully independent state, as the Polisario wants.

It is Rabat which has been resisting that referendum but it blames its arch-rival Algeria – SADR’s strong ally – by saying that Algiers has so far refused to allow a census of the Western Sahara’s inhabitants, to determine who should be eligible to vote in the proposed referendum.

The real issue is that Morocco wants everyone in Western Sahara to be allowed to vote, including the many Moroccan citizens who settled there after a call from former King Hassan II. Algeria and Polisario Front want only original Sahrawis to be eligible.

If Morocco were to succeed in commanding enough support in the AU to suspend SADR, it would also presumably then command enough support to determine the AU’s position on the eligibility issue too. And that would greatly amplify its voice in the Security Council where Western Sahara’s future will be decided. An ugly battle looms.

From Rabat’s perspective, though, that might not be a problem. If it could get itself firmly seated in the councils of the AU and tolerate the SADR’s presence just long enough to suspend it, the UN referendum, presumably, could wait forever.

Peter Fabricius, ISS consultant

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