The African Union’s (AU) Peace and Security Council (PSC), chaired by South Africa, discussed the issue of Western Sahara on 20 March 2017. Morocco, which had joined the AU earlier this year, was absent despite an invitation from the PSC.
Staunch sympathisers of the Sahrawi people such as South Africa and Algeria had hoped that Morocco’s admission into the AU would foster renewed dialogue to address the Western Sahara crisis. However, early indications are that Morocco is not willing to relinquish its claim on the territory – and that it is not keen on discussing this in the AU.
A total of 39 AU member states accepted Morocco’s bid to join the organisation, which it did at the 28th AU summit in January 2017. Polisario Front officials said they welcomed the admission of Morocco to the AU, since it meant that the conflict would now be addressed within the organisation. The AU has taken numerous resolutions over the years supporting the independence of Western Sahara.
The 15-member PSC invited Morocco to attend its first discussion on the topic since the country had joined the AU. However, Morocco told the PSC that the issue was being addressed by the United Nations (UN) Security Council and that the PSC should adopt a ‘neutral position’ in this regard.
Morocco told the PSC that the issue was being addressed by the UN Security Council Tweet this
Is the readmission a betrayal of Western Sahara?
Some view the AU’s unconditional readmission of Morocco as a failure on the part of the continental body, which has been unequivocal about decolonising Africa. South Africa, for example, wanted Morocco to commit to the long-awaited referendum in Western Sahara, sanctioned by several UN resolutions, before being allowed to join the AU.
Since 1981, the Organization of African Unity (OAU), now the AU, has consistently adopted resolutions calling for a referendum on self-determination in Western Sahara. For Morocco’s opponents, the case of Western Sahara has always been about decolonisation, and the continental body has recognised the independence of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). This was what prompted Morocco to leave the OAU in 1984.
In view of situations like Western Sahara, the AU adopted the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which insists that ‘nothing shall justify the domination of a people by another’.
For supporters of the SARD, Morocco’s admission signals the AU’s departure from its principles and a dream deferred for the Sahrawi people. This is evident from a recent article written by Edna Molewa, South Africa’s Minister of Environmental Affairs and chairperson of the international relations subcommittee of the African National Congress (ANC).
The rise of pragmatism and decline of ideology within the AU
In the run-up to the debate over its admission, Morocco demonstrated its affluence by signing various bilateral deals with a number of African states. The fact that economic ties took precedence during the debate over re-admitting Morocco to the AU shows that African states are increasingly shifting from ideology towards pragmatism.
Morocco demonstrated its affluence by signing various bilateral deals with a number of African states Tweet this
The belief that Morocco may cover the funding gap precipitated by the overthrow and death of former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi – following the NATO invasion of Libya in 2011 – has also made Morocco’s admission attractive to the AU. Gaddafi was a generous contributor to the AU.
Morocco could use this leverage to counteract the perspective of those who support independence for Western Sahara. One strategy is to couch the Western Sahara issue as one of secession – the same as that faced by many countries in Africa, such as Nigeria, Cameroon, Mali, Ethiopia, Senegal, Somalia and Tanzania.
Internationally, Western Sahara has been described as a non-self-governing territory, meaning that Morocco’s presence is one of occupation.
Morocco has also indicated that it wants to join the Economic Community of West African states (ECOWAS). This could be good for economic development in the region, where Morocco recently signed a significant number of economic deals. But admitting Morocco will test the body’s recent gains in defending democratic values and its resilience on the Western Sahara issue.
Will African countries stand up against the exploitation of Western Sahara?
Opponents of Morocco argue that it is occupying Western Sahara due to the considerable dividends it gains from the region’s resources. Morocco benefits from the fish stocks, phosphates and other mineral deposits, agricultural produce and oil reserves in the region.
On 21 December 2016 the European Union (EU) Court of Justice ruled against any EU–Morocco trade relations that involve products from Western Sahara. The ruling affects the 2012 EU–Morocco agreement on liberalising trade in agricultural and fishing products.
The question can be asked whether, having signed new deals with Morocco, African states would look beyond the economic gains to deny any deals involving products from Western Sahara.
AU remains committed to the Western Sahara cause
According to the PSC statement that followed the meeting on 20 March, the PSC decided to elevate the status of former president Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique from the position of AU special envoy to that of high representative for Western Sahara. This is to enable Chissano to mobilise international action on the issue and facilitate direct talks between Morocco and Western Sahara.
AU member states have a significant role in sticking to the AU common position on the issue Tweet this
The PSC also decided to reopen the AU office in Laayoune, Western Sahara and to reactivate the ad hoc committee of heads of state and government on Western Sahara – established in 1978 during the early years of the violent confrontations. The PSC also restated its call on the UN to address the illegal exploration and exploitation of Western Sahara.
Addressing human right violations in Western Sahara
On 13 March 2017 a court in Morocco resumed the trial of 25 Sahrawi people who allegedly killed 13 Moroccans in Gdeim Izik camp in 2010. But questions are being asked about the Sahrawi victims who have suffered from years of human rights violations and killings by Moroccan forces.
The AU has been at the forefront of those calling for a human rights mandate for the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO). MINURSO is virtually the only UN mission without a human rights mandate. Its current mandate ends in April 2017, which is an opportunity to push for a human rights component and the need for self-determination in the region.
The UN and the AU has a greater role to play in dispelling the belief that ‘the louder the gun, the greater the international effort to resolve disputes’. AU member states also have a significant role in sticking to the AU common position on the issue and raising momentum on finding a solution to the quest for self-determination in Western Sahara.