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This year’s AU could work to Morocco’s advantage over Western Sahara

By Nina Kozlowski, in Casablanca
Posted on Tuesday, 23 February 2021 13:18

King Mohammed VI of Morocco reviews a guard of honour at the National palace during his state visit to Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa
King Mohammed VI of Morocco reviews a guard of honour at the National palace during his state visit to Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa, November 19, 2016. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

Moroccan interests were recently dealt a much more favourable hand within the African Union, but just how good of one is it? We shed some light on this new state of affairs.

Are the stars aligning for Moroccan diplomacy where Western Sahara is concerned? The kingdom ended 2020 on a good note, with Donald Trump recognising the country’s sovereignty over the disputed territory and a number of African countries, including Burkina Faso, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the Central African Republic, the Comoros, Côte d’Ivoire, Djibouti, Equatorial Guinea, Eswatini, Gabon, the Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, São Tomé and Príncipe, and Zambia, opening consulates in the Saharan cities of Dakhla and Laâyoune.

In 2021, the winds of baraka (meaning “blessing” in Arabic) continue to blow strong, particularly on the continent, where recent African Union (AU) elections have brought a more pro-Morocco group of leaders to power.

To be sure, the country is not currently represented among the eight commissioners elected by the AU Executive Council; neither Hassan Abouyoub, Morocco’s candidate for peace and security commissioner, nor Mohamed Sadiki, its choice for rural economy and agriculture commissioner, made the cut.

That said, Félix Tshisekedi, the current president of the DRC – a country which is on friendly terms with the kingdom and has thrown its support behind Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara – has taken the reins of the AU’s rotating chairmanship.

And in another win for the kingdom, Algerian diplomat Smaïl Chergui, who had been at the helm of the Peace and Security Council (PSC), the AU’s decision-making body in charge of conflict management and resolution, for the last four years, was replaced by Nigeria’s Bankole Adeoye.

Neutrality reigns

Given Nigeria’s past support for the Polisario Front, Adeoye’s election win was not necessarily good news for Rabat, but Abuja has significantly tempered its stance on Western Sahara.

President Muhammadu Buhari is now adopting a neutral position on the conflict and prefers to focus on major development projects with Morocco, such as the construction of a gas pipeline connecting the two countries.

Several AU sources described Adeoye as “someone who is attuned to political issues and an authority on all [peace and security] matters” thanks to his previous experience serving as permanent representative of Nigeria to the organisation.

Most importantly, his priorities differ from those of his predecessor, Chergui. Whereas the former peace and security commissioner obsessed over the Western Sahara question, the focus of Adeoye’s agenda lies elsewhere: snuffing out Boko Haram, fostering peace in the Sahel and keeping extremism in check.

In other words, as several observers commented, the AU’s new cohort of leaders will, at the very least, be “more neutral” than the last. What’s more, it doesn’t hurt that South Africa no longer holds the rotating chairmanship, as Morocco frequently accused the country of working against its interests in Western Sahara.

When South African President Cyril Ramaphosa took office as AU chair in February 2020, he devoted a considerable portion of his speech to “the right of the people of Western Sahara to self-determination”. His party, the African National Congress (ANC), has a history of supporting the Polisario Front and deplored the United States’ move to recognise Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara.

According to Khadija Mohsen-Finan, a Moroccan political analyst and expert in issues surrounding North Africa and the Mediterranean region, the kingdom re-joined the AU in 2017 with one clear goal, namely, “to boot out the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic [SADR] from the organisation’s bodies”. But that didn’t happen, and if the SADR were to be kicked out in the future, it would take a lot longer than a year, as it would require amending the AU Constitutive Act.

Morocco adopts a new strategy

The kingdom has since changed tack and set in motion a new strategy, one that involves lobbying countries individually to recognise Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara, thereby bypassing African and international institutions. “The sub-Saharan African countries that opened consulates in Dakhla didn’t go through the AU to do so,” said Mohsen-Finan.

And does the pan-African organisation have any leverage in the matter? “The answer is no,” said Malian legal expert and international law specialist Ilo Allaye Diall. “From a legal standpoint, the AU can’t do anything about it. The UN alone has the authority to resolve the conflict.” Currently, only around 20 of 54 African countries still recognise the SADR.

Development projects shifting the balance

As things stand, Morocco can rest easy with the knowledge that not a single AU member state – even among the SADR’s backers – is expected to strongly oppose its interests. On the contrary, as Massatoma Traoré, a political scientist at the Université des sciences juridiques et politiques de Bamako (USJPB), commented: “We’re no longer in the same situation as in 1984, when Morocco quit the AU. No one is taking a radical, confrontational approach. Diplomatically speaking, other than Algeria, every member state plans to offer an olive branch to the kingdom. Everyone has backed down.”

If member states are keen to maintain ties with Morocco, its considerable economic power and substantial resources are contributing factors, as the entire continent stands to gain from them.

The kingdom is also drawing on these strengths by choosing to prioritise economic development at the AU. The country’s representatives are often described as especially active and involved on this front, and their technical expertise is held in high esteem by the institution’s various committees.

In this sense, the opening of consulates in Dakhla and Laâyoune is about more than just Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara. The Saharan provinces offer real economic opportunities owing to their geographic position as a main gateway to sub-Saharan Africa and as a point of entry for the vast majority of food shipments from Europe.

Moreover, in contrast to Algeria and Libya, Western Sahara represents a much more stable crossing point. “It attracts a great deal of interest because it is strategically located near the Sahel region, an area over which France and its allies continue to have a monopoly and whose stability is essential for Africa and Europe,” Diall said. The question remains as to which country will be next to open a consulate.