The African Union (AU) has gotten itself into a pickle with a majority of members voting this week to admit Morocco in defiance of the presence of AU founding member Western Sahara, which Morocco considers integral to its territory - but which the latter's liberation movement considers to be a colonised territory. This piece was written on 17 January 2017, two weeks before the fatal AU decision.
A battle royale is looming in the African Union, primarily between its Francophone and Anglophone blocs, over the bid by prodigal son Morocco to join the Union in defiance of the presence of founder member the Sahrawi Arabic Democratic Republic (SADR) which South Africa and half the member states view as the continent’s last colony.
The matter will come to a head at the AU’s Heads of State and Government Summit at the end of January, though it seems Morocco has a straight majority backing its application: at the previous summit in Kigali last July, AU Assembly Chair Idriss Déby received a motion signed by 28 out of 54 member states in favour of Morocco’s bid – but also stating they would move to immediately to suspend SADR because it did not represent a true state.
SADR’s claimed state, Western Sahara, tops the United Nations’ list as the world’s largest non-self-governing territory. But in a letter to Déby in Kigali, Moroccan King Mohammed VI declared SADR to be a “phantom” state. In recent years, as Moroccan business has spread ever further south, and with new embassies opening in Benin, Rwanda, Tanzania, Mozambique, and Mauritius, the king has embarked on a charm offensive across the continent – and it seems to be working.
Morocco’s claim is mostly backed by French-speaking AU members, especially those in West Africa who are under the sway of key Rabat ally Paris, which views Morocco as a vital moderate Muslim bulwark against terrorism – but is resisted by traditional opponent Algeria plus most of English-speaking Africa, notably Nigeria and South Africa, the latter’s ANC government viewing SADR’s Polisario Front as a sister liberation movement.
On 6 January, President Jacob Zuma officially received SADR President Brahim Ghali, an old Polisario fighter. Ghali said afterwards that the “Sahrawi people are struggling to recover the total sovereignty of their state and of all their national territory,” and Zuma responded that "it is unfathomable that Western Sahara... still remains colonised… We remain committed to continue to support the people of Western Sahara until you are free to live in your own land and able to decide your own future.”
Veteran journalist Jean-Jacques Cornish, who interviewed Ghali during his visit, said Morocco’s bid was as if apartheid South Africa had attempted to rejoin the Commonwealth while downplaying its own occupation of Namibia. Cornish conceded Morocco might win the vote on entry, but said it would immediately be faced with a dramatically divisive battle over any subsequent attempt to expel SADR.
Rabat’s former Chargé d’Affaires to Pretoria, Rachid Agassim, would not be drawn on any Moroccan plans to expel SADR, however, stating only: “We are not going back for a clash; we are going back to strengthen African countries for the development of the continent. Morocco has been for the last few years the second-largest African investor in Africa…”
Rabat withdrew its ambassador to South Africa in 2004 when Pretoria formally recognised SADR – but, Agassim said, the kingdom had applied in June last year to upgrade its representation again to full ambassadorial status.
“We are not colonising anybody. You know the history of colonialism in Africa is quite clear and Morocco’s experience was among the harshest; we were colonised by two different countries… This is a question of the territorial integrity of the Kingdom. With the AU, it is better to solve questions from inside than from outside.” He said that it was Algeria that had unaccountably refused to allow the UN to conduct a census of Sahrawi camps on its territory, thus blocking a plebiscite on Western Sahara’s future.
Morocco stormed out of the Organisation of African Unity 32 years ago over its admission of SADR as a full member. Former colonial power Spain had relinquished control of Western Sahara in 1975 to a joint administration of Morocco and Mauritania, but this precipitated a war with Polisario, backed by Algeria. Today, Morocco controls two-thirds of the territory, with Polisario restricted to the desert hinterland.
Yet next Tuesday [24 January], Pretoria is scheduled to accredit new SADR Ambassador Rachid Radhi, who is upbeat over the decision by the European Union Court on 21 December that two politico-economic deals, giving access to Moroccan agricultural produce in exchange for European fishing rights in Moroccan waters and financial aid, did not include Western Sahara, which the court did not recognise as a part of the kingdom as its people had not consented to the deals.
Radhi said Morocco, in its AU bid, was trying to ignore the colonial issue, “but they cannot; it’s a stumbling block in front of them and under the Constitutional Act, no country can be admitted into the AU without respecting the borders at the time of independence.”
He said that with its ocean resources, Africa’s largest phosphate fields, and new gold finds in the desert, an independent SADR would probably model itself on a similar desert economy like that of Namibia. Both Radhi and Agassim dangled carrots of potential South African investments in the disputed territory.
Although the Moroccan application sits on the desk of outgoing AU Commission Chair Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, her spokesperson Jacob Enoh Eben said “Decisions to admit members are taken by member states, so the chair’s role is to facilitate the administrative process and the transmission of requests.” The vote on Morocco is expected to take place on either 30 or 31 January.
Clayson Monyela, Deputy Director General of the Department of International Relations and Co-operation (DIRCO) said that Morocco’s request as a colonial power was “without precedent”: “it would seem essential to obtain from the Moroccan Government an explicit and unequivocal statement of its commitment… to: the sanctity of colonial borders; recognition of the sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence of all African Union Member States; the peaceful resolution of conflicts among Member States of the AU; and the non-acquisition of a territory by force, which requires an immediate end to the illegal military occupation by the Kingdom of Morocco of most of the territory of Western Sahara.”