/ 20 July 2016

Morocco’s renewed bid for AU membership has once again divided the organisation

An indigenous Sahrawi woman walks at a refugee camp of Boudjdour in Tindouf
An indigenous Sahrawi woman walks at a refugee camp of Boudjdour in Tindouf

African Union Commission chair Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma becomes teary every time she addresses the AU on the slow progress towards an independent Western Sahara state.

“The country now has a whole generation languishing in refugee camps. They have never known any home because they were born and raised in the camps,” Dlamini-Zuma told the 26th session of the AU Summit on January 30. “We can no longer be indifferent to the position of the people of Western Sahara.”

The AU statement of concern, which ended up in a summit declaration, slamming United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon for delaying his visit to Western Sahara, has quickened the Moroccan shuttle diplomacy efforts, amid pressure from the AU for an end to the political standoff.

Africa’s failure
The AU, associated with the struggle for the liberation of Africa from colonial rule through its predecessor the Organisation of African Unity, largely sees the failure to grant full independence to the Western Sahara for the past 40 years as a stain on its legacy.

“Africa will not be free until the last of its colonies, Western Sahara, is liberated, free and independent,” Dlamini-Zuma said in a message on February 27, the 40th anniversary of the proclamation of the State of Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic. The event was marked at the Dakhla refugee camp in Western Sahara’s Tindouf region. Dlamini-Zuma stated: “Africa will stand side by side with the Saharawi people until victory is achieved.”

The Moroccan effort to get back its seat at the AU has been largely pushed by “Friends of Morocco”, led by mostly North African neighbours seeking Rabat’s unconditional return to the fold, but it appears to meet bare-knuckle hostility from influential African leaders.

King Mohammed VI’s statement to the summit asking for Morocco’s unconditional readmission to the AU, was, as usual, distributed to delegates, but not read out.

Intense lobbying
Morocco’s latest diplomatic offensive was dead on arrival, when the AU chair President Idriss Deby declined to read the King’s request, according to diplomats at the summit.

Lobbying by Moroccan diplomats has been intense in recent months, after the AU summit called on the UN Security Council and the UN general assembly to set a date for holding a self-determination referendum in Western Sahara.

The AU demanded the UN acts to “protect the integrity of Western Sahara, including the country’s mineral wealth, as a non-self-governing territory” from any acts that may undermine it – essentially a call to guard the country from Morocco.

Although critics roundly condemn Morocco for using undemocratic tactics to block any UN actions that may quicken the search for a final resolution on the Western Sahara, Ban visited Western Sahara.

Dlamini-Zuma hailed Ban for “demonstrating the serious resolve” of the UN to take its responsibility in ending the 40-year impasse on Western Sahara.

A Namibian diplomat blamed the failure to end the Western Sahara issue on “the lack of commitment by Western Sahara to holding the independence referendum. Morocco is also hesitant to accept an outcome that will give the people of Sahara self-determination.”

Open division
In the latest diplomatic offensive, a special envoy of King Mohammed, Taieb Fassi, met Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, asking for Kenya’s support for Morocco.

In another move, Senegal’s attempt to have the AU revoke the admission of Western Sahara as a member of the AU was defeated at the summit, according to diplomats.

The Moroccan efforts to block action on Western Sahara appears to have divided the AU once again. Analysts see it as a test case for an organisation gearing for another leadership change.

“The issue of Morocco has been a test to the AU. Rejecting Morocco’s membership of the AU would be an unfortunate decision that goes against the spirit of the union as spelt out in its Constitutive Act. Of course, it affects progress on the issue of Sahrawi Republic unless the AU is ready to deploy a military force to liberate the territory,” said Tanzanian analyst Anaclet Rwegayura.