African Union (AU) member states are more divided than ever over the longstanding Western Sahara conflict. This was evident during the two coinciding conferences on the issue held by the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and Morocco in March 2019.
Clearly, the Western Sahara issue is set to be a major challenge for the Peace and Security Council (PSC) in the coming months. Several PSC members support Western Sahara, while others side with Morocco, also a member of the council.
Going forward, if the AU wants to remain relevant, it is crucial that the PSC meet at the level of heads of state to discuss Western Sahara. This follows the decision made by the AU Assembly in Nouakchott last year that the issue would only be discussed by the PSC at the highest level and by the AU troika.
SADC’s Solidarity Conference
SADC organised a ‘Solidarity Conference’ with the peoples of Western Sahara from 24–25 March 2019. The meeting was attended by more than 20 African countries, political parties and civil society organisations. The heads of state of Lesotho, Namibia, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Uganda attended the meeting, while others were represented at lower levels.
The final declaration of the conference raised a number of important issues. As has been the case in AU documents in the past, the declaration describes Western Sahara as ‘the only territory in Africa under colonial rule, and [subsequently expresses] support for the self-determination and decolonisation of the region whilst urging Morocco to respect colonial borders, as they existed at the time of independence, as enshrined in the AU Constitutive Act’.
The meeting further emphasised the centrality of the AU to the resolution of the conflict and reaffirmed the right of member states to participate in AU negotiation efforts concerning Western Sahara. The declaration also established SADC’s support for United Nations (UN) efforts led by the UN secretary general’s personal envoy for Western Sahara, and for AU efforts as per AU Assembly Decision AU/Dec.693 (XXXI) of July 2018, which highlighted the need for a mutually acceptable political settlement.
Concurrent ministerial conference in Marrakech
At the same time as the SADC meeting in Pretoria, Morocco organised a meeting in Marrakesh under the theme ‘African Ministerial Conference on the African Union’s support to the United Nations’. The meeting attracted representatives from 36 African countries, including Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Liberia, Nigeria, Rwanda, Tunisia and Zambia.
Like the SADC declaration, the meeting adopted a statement expressing support for the implementation of AU Assembly Decision AU/Dec.693 (XXXI) of July 2018. It also recognised the UN framework for seeking a ‘mutually acceptable, realistic and lasting political solution’ to the Western Sahara issue.
Unlike the SADC declaration, however, the Marrakech conference pushed for the exclusion of AU organs from negotiations, except the AU troika, comprising the current chair of the union (Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi), the previous chair (Rwandan President Paul Kagame) and the incoming chair (South African President Cyril Ramaphosa), supported by the chairperson of the AU Commission. The troika is tasked with ‘accompanying’ the UN process for Western Sahara. Its exact role within that is not clearly defined.
Polarising views of the two blocks
The two meetings, in and of themselves, have no legal bearing on AU decisions and actions. However, they do underline the deep divisions over the role of the AU in the conflict. While the SADC meeting prescribes a central role for the AU in the processes leading to a referendum on the self-determination of Western Sahara, the Marrakech meeting restricts the AU’s involvement to the troika, which should support the UN process.
Talks are currently underway, mediated by UN Special Envoy Horst Koehler, but the two parties are still set on their positions: while supporters of Western Sahara want independence for the territory, Morocco has put forward a plan that proposes political autonomy for Western Sahara under Moroccan sovereignty.
Historically, Morocco has accused the AU and its member states of siding with Western Sahara, since the Organization for African Unity (OAU) recognised the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic as a member state in 1984. Morocco subsequently withdrew its membership and boycotted further mediation efforts by the OAU. The readmission of Morocco in 2017, however, raised questions as to how the AU would engage in the Western Sahara dispute.
Member states that support Western Sahara’s referendum for self-determination, such as South Africa, have called on the AU to enforce the normative and legal principles laid out in the AU Constitutive Act. These include the sovereignty and equality of member states and respect for those borders existing at the time of independence.
Some AU member states, particularly Algeria, South Africa and Zimbabwe, insist on the AU’s involvement in Western Sahara because they question the UN’s ability to resolve the dispute on its own, arguing that UN interventions over the last 50 years have failed to resolve the issue.
A divided SADC
Some AU member states, such as Angola, Burundi, Burkina Faso, the DRC, Eswatini, Malawi, Tanzania, Central African Republic, Ghana and Nigeria, attended both conferences.
At the same time, SADC members such as the Comoros and Madagascar sent representatives only to the Morocco conference. This attracted strong criticism from other SADC members, notably from Namibian President and current SADC Chairperson Hage Geingob, who saw this as a threat to the unity of SADC.
The division within the AU over this issue is also likely to be evident in the AU troika. While Kagame is perceived to support Morocco, both South Africa and Egypt have expressed support for the self-determination of Western Sahara.
The role of the PSC
The polarising viewpoints expressed in the SADC and Marrakesh conferences could have a serious effect on the PSC in 2019. This is because staunch supporters of Western Sahara such as Algeria, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Lesotho and Nigeria (historically) are current members of the PSC – as is Morocco.
If AU member states, particularly those in the PSC, decide to focus on their divergent views, the conflict in Western Sahara may remain unresolved for many years to come. However, if member states focus on their points of convergence, such as mutual support for the UN process, which was also evident in the SADC statement, they could make headway in resolving the dispute.
As the PSC can only be involved in the issue of Western Sahara at the level of heads of state and government, it is crucial that it meets at this level more than once a year, as is currently the norm. The fact that most of the current members of the PSC are invested in the resolution of the conflict makes this a possibility.
In addition to members of the PSC, members of the AU troika are also keen to see the Western Sahara conflict resolved. Ramaphosa has been very vocal on this issue. This promises to make it easier for the PSC at the level of heads of state and government to meet at regular intervals to follow up on the progress made by the troika and the AU chairperson. Strong political will, however, will be needed for any successful resolution of this longstanding dispute.