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Morocco readmitted into the African Union: Will the AU remain resolute on Western Sahara?

The African Union (AU) welcomed an old member, the Kingdom of Morocco, that left the then Organisation of African Unity (OAU) after the continental bloc refused to support Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara, which it occupied in 1976. The dispute over Western Sahara will hog the limelight and the issue, which has continued to divide the AU member states will resurface and test the AU’s strength and resolve to address a longstanding political crisis.

The African Union (AU) welcomed an old member, the Kingdom of Morocco, that left the then Organisation of African Unity (OAU) after the continental bloc refused to support Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara.

Morocco’s protracted dispute with Western Sahara seems to be the raison d’etat for its return to the AU. After lengthy and futile battles with the AU and the United Nations (UN) Morocco now seems convinced that the conflict could better be resolved from within the AU, where it could influence member states.

Morocco left the continental organisation in 1984 in protest over the bloc’s decision to accept the membership of the disputed territory of Western Sahara. Western Sahara, also known as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), is a disputed region, partially recognised as a state, rich in phosphate and believed to hold offshore oil deposits. The territory has been under Moroccan control since 1976.

How can the AU complement the mammoth role played by the UN? Photo: Embassy of Equatorial Guinea/ Flickr
How can the AU complement the mammoth role played by the UN? Photo: Embassy of Equatorial Guinea/ Flickr

The Saharawis have been a target of human rights abuse by Moroccan security forces. Western Sahara has been fighting for independence from ‘Moroccan colonialism’. Currently over 90,000 Saharawis are in refugee camps in southern Algeria.

Former UN Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon has previously supported the Saharawis in their quest for freedom. Following Morocco’s readmission to the AU, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe reportedly criticised the readmission, arguing the continental bloc accepted Morocco back for financial reasons and not out of principle. President Mugabe has over the years consistently backed the Saharawi independence.

Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe delivers his State of the Nation address in Parliament in Harare. Photo: Jekesai Njikizana/AFP
Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe delivers his State of the Nation address in Parliament in Harare. Photo: Jekesai Njikizana/AFP

The dispute has led to break in some trade deals between Morocco and the European Union (EU). Western Sahara is recognized by the AU and it was this acknowledgement that led to Morocco leaving the AU.

The atrocities against the Saharawis is hardly mentioned in mainstream media. One wonders what would be the fate of Western Sahara with Morocco now back as a full member state of the AU. The dispute might be a case which can test the AU’s strength and resolve in addressing domestic issues

Following previous actions by Morocco to withdraw its troops from peace keeping missions in Africa, the country has also previously pressured its allies to expel Western Sahara from the AU. Against the backdrop of these diplomatic manoeuvres, one can expect Morocco to use the trade deals it signed with various African countries as leverage to influence the position of the AU in this dispute.

This dispute is undoubtedly at the centre of Morocco’s decision to rejoin the AU. The dispute over Western Sahara will be reignited and the issue, which has continued to divide the AU member states will resurface. Morocco is likely to continue pushing its line claiming authority over the SADR. With countries like Nigeria, Algeria, Kenya and South Africa among others supporting the existence of Western Sahara, it is likely that the Baker Plan of 2000, which requested for a referendum after a self-rule of five years might be reconsidered.

With the AU playing a prominent role in resolving the Sudan crisis, addressing a conflict which stretched for over 20 years, via a referendum. It is likely that the AU has a similar case on its table.

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