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Morocco Rejoins the African Union (AU) – Professor Hussein Solomon

February 3, 2017

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Morocco Rejoins the African Union (AU) 

By Hussein Solomon

RIMA Occasional Papers, Volume 5 (2017), Number 2 (February 2017)

It was in 1984 when Morocco chose to turn its back on the Organization of African Unity, the AU’s predecessor, when it chose to recognize the independence of the Sawhrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) – or what Morocco refers to its `southern provinces’. This conflict has its roots in 1975-1976 when Morocco annexed two-thirds of the Western Sahara following Spain’s withdrawal from the territory.

It is fair to say that the Western Sahara question has long remained as a festering sore within the OAU/ AU – with Algeria and the Southern African bloc strongly supporting its independence under the Polisario Front whilst other African countries were in favour of accepting the de facto status quo – seeing the territory as part of Morocco. Still others like Egypt opted to be neutral – seeking to offend neither Algeria nor Morocco. This was reflected in last month’s vote within the AU following Morocco’s request to rejoin the AU. 39 states voted for Morocco’s re-admission whilst 9 opposed it. Morocco’s return to the AU was nothing less than momentous after a 33-year absence and holds great benefit to the continent as a whole if managed correctly.

So how did Rabat’s return to the fold come about? Having left the continental body in 1984, Morocco believed it could offset its loss by strengthening ties with the West, the Arab world and the countries in the Mediterranean Basin. However, in a globalizing world where insecurity anywhere threats security everywhere, the Kingdom soon found that problems like terrorism in North-West Africa needed regional responses. This was not possible where Rabat was the only state on the continent outside the AU. The same could be said about economic cooperation. With the rise of the African middle class and consequent rise in purchasing power, it was foolhardy for Morocco to shut itself off from lucrative markets. On the issue of the Western Sahara, it made no sense to be outside the AU, thereby preventing Rabat’s voice to be heard on an issue of such strategic importance to itself.

Morocco’s re-admission into the AU however also reflects a realization on the part of the continental body that its approach was fundamentally unworkable, and hurt the people of the Western Sahara the most – many of whom live as refugees in deplorable conditions. Nor does diplomatic recognition of the SADR translate into an alternative reality – one where Morocco does not control large swathes of the Western Sahara. To put if differently, a permanent solution to the Western Sahara needs dialogue withRabat.

Interestingly this fact is something which is recognized by Minister Mohamed Beiset, a Polario leader and member of the Sahrawi delegation to the AU who declared that, “… it was better to have Morocco inside the house, inside the family, and to try to reach African solutions to African problems”. Minister Beiset went on to congratulate Rabat for joining the AU and expressed the hope for genuine dialogue and a peaceful solution to the Western Sahara question. Other African leaders should adopt the pragmatism exhibited by the Sahrawis. One possible middle solution could well be genuine autonomy being offered to the Sahrawis as opposed to the autonomy option of previous years which was an exercise to co-opt political elites by Rabat. How this dialogue and peace process is managed by the AU is therefore crucial. The fact that the AU has a new Commission Chairman, Chad’s Foreign Minister – Moussa FakiMahamat – bodes well since he enters the post without the baggage of his predecessor.

It is clear that the AU stands to benefit from Morocco’s return to the fold. Its north African sub-regional economic and security structure was dysfunctional from birth with the absence of Morocco. The addition of Rabat may lend it a new lease of life. More broadly, Morocco’s relative wealth and it integration into European economies may also serve as a catalyst for economic growth in its region. Politically, too Morocco can play a pivotal leadership role in the North African region given the instability besetting so many of its neighbours. From a security perspective, and given the rise of radical Islam on the continent, it is important to recognize that in some West African countries, Moroccan King Mohammed VI, is viewed as a caliph. The fact that he has been promoting a moderate Islam provides a counter narrative to that of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb as well as Islamic State and its regional offshoots.

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