The Western Sahara has been reduced to a political football in Africa in a grim game between Morocco and the Polisario. Morocco aggressively claims it as its southernmost province, while the latter insists it is the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), the African Union’s 55th member state.
Keeping score in this contest, trying for instance to follow which of the other African states recognise the SADR at any moment, takes some forensic skill.
Going by Wikipedia, the current number of African states recognising the SADR is only 22. Wikipedia shows that another 15 states that once recognised SADR have withdrawn, or ‘frozen’ their positions – whatever that means. That leaves 17 states of unknown position. But presumably it means they’ve never recognised the SADR.
Recognition is often a fluid status, subject to easy change. It seems to depend partly on the ability of states to resist the blandishments of Morocco’s aggressive diplomacy. ‘As you know the Moroccans, they have a singular objective to emphasise the “Moroccanness of the Sahara,”’ as one African diplomat puts it. ‘The king in his recent speech suggested that the “Sahara is the lens through which Morocco will conduct its international relations.”’
So Rabat lobbies hard for derecognition of the SADR as an independent state and recognition of Western Sahara as a province of Morocco. Meanwhile the SADR’s champions – like South Africa and most of the Southern African Development Community more generally – vigorously counter-lobby.
Trying to follow which African states recognise the SADR at any moment takes some forensic skill
But even if the scoreboard is not always easy to read, diplomats note that SADR is losing ground diplomatically in Africa just as it is elsewhere. Spain and the United States, under Trump, recognises Morocco’s claim to Western Sahara. The diplomats say Egypt also backs Morocco’s claim. They suspect Ghana, which officially recognises the SADR now, may soon switch.
Riccardo Fabiani, project director for North Africa at the International Crisis Group, agrees that over the longer term, Morocco has been ‘winning’ the diplomatic war in Africa.
‘Rabat has rejoined the [African Union] AU (in 2017), has managed to convince a large number of African countries to open consulates in Western Sahara (some say 22), and, most importantly, has de facto frozen all discussions on Western Sahara at the AU.
‘This organisation is now effectively paralysed and unable to take a stance on this dispute, unlike in the past, when it used to be very vocal and active on this file (the first time the idea of a referendum on self-determination was floated was by the [Organisation of African Unity]). Morocco has neutralised one of its most determined adversaries and is now in a position to influence its decisions. Taking a longer-term perspective, this is a major success.
The African Court last month condemned the presence of Moroccan military forces in Western Sahara
‘Kenya is a case in point, but the diplomatic manoeuvring around Nigeria (with Morocco and Algeria vying for the construction of a gas pipeline that will probably never see the light of day) is another good example. While the number of African governments opening consulates in Western Sahara is still considerable and keeps growing, the pace has slowed and it has become increasingly difficult for Morocco to convince more countries to do the same, due to Algeria and the Polisario’s counterbalancing pressure.’
The Kenya case Fabiani refers to blew up on 14 September this year when newly elected President William Ruto, having received an envoy bearing congratulations from Moroccan King Mohammed VI on his election, tweeted: ‘Kenya rescinds its recognition of the SADR and initiates steps to wind down the entity’s presence in the country.’
That sparked criticism especially from the SADR, prompting Ruto to almost immediately delete the tweet and his government to issue a statement confirming Kenya’s continued recognition of the SADR. ISS Today hears that one of Ruto’s coalition partners, Moses Wetangula, leader of the Ford-Kenya party and a former foreign minister, was the one who interceded. Though Ruto’s controversial tweet has widely been seen as a diplomatic gaffe by Ruto, mostly attributed to his ignorance of Kenya’s foreign policy, some insiders believe Ruto nearly became a victim of Morocco’s ‘fertiliser diplomacy.’
With rich phosphate resources – some but not all in disputed Western Sahara – Rabat has evidently been dangling fertiliser in front of African governments at a time of an acute fertiliser shortage provoked by Russia’s war against Ukraine. Both protagonists are major fertiliser manufacturers and the drop in their production has aggravated the food crisis caused by the drop in grain exports from both.
Rabat has evidently been dangling fertiliser in front of African governments during an acute global shortage
The SADR’s champions have also taken some comfort from the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which last month condemned the presence of Moroccan military forces in Western Sahara as an illegal military occupation in violation of international law. This was the first time the body had ruled in a case dealing with the right to self-determination, observers say.
The court said this right, enshrined in Article 20 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, constituted a peremptory norm of international law ‘which does not tolerate any derogation.’ This imposed an obligation on all African states not to recognise any violation of this right to self-determination.
Some of the SADR’s champions believe that all that’s now preventing the continent tipping completely against the SADR is the AU’s Constitutive Act and its enshrinement of the principle of self-determination that the African Court has just upheld.
But how useful is this theoretical and legal support for the SADR’s cause when it is steadily being abandoned by the world and Africa?
Jakkie Cilliers, Institute for Security Studies chairperson, wonders why Western countries have not condemned Morocco’s annexation of Western Sahara as vociferously as they have condemned Russia’s annexation of Ukraine.
In practical terms he notes that the dispute over Western Sahara has hobbled the Arab Maghreb Union, which is in turn frustrating economic integration through the African Continental Free Trade Area.
‘This issue must be resolved or we need to look at a new regional economic community in North Africa that excludes Morocco so that this impasse can be overcome. Intra-regional trade in North Africa is lowest globally,’ he says.
Peter Fabricius, ISS Consultant