How the African Union Failed The People Of Western Sahara

On 29th January 2018, the member States of the African Union (AU) voted in favour of Morocco re-joining the esteemed body after the North African country left the institution in 1984.  Morocco’s decision to leave the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), the predecessor of the AU, was based on OAU’s decision to recognise Western Sahara as a country.  With the addition of Morocco, there are 55 nations represented in the AU.

As stated earlier, Morocco chose to leave the OAU when the member States recognized Western Sahara, whose official name is the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), as a country.  This decision angered Morocco since the presence of their troops in the country would be then be classified as an occupation.   The Kingdom of Morocco claimed Western Sahara as its territory after the Spanish colonial power relinquished its control of the country in 1975.  The Polisario Front declared SADR a nation just four months after Spain left the country.  The invasion of Morocco soon after caused a 16-year war led by the Polisario Front, who was heavily supported by Algeria.  Following a UN-monitored ceasefire in 1991, the inhabitants of the Northern African country have had to endure the presence of UN peacekeepers and the Moroccan troops who occupy territory close to its border.  The 16-year conflict resulted in over 100,000 refugees fleeing to Algeria for safety, many of whom are still living in refugee camps.  As part of the ceasefire, the people of Sahrawi Republic were promised a referendum to decide their independence, but it has not happened.  Parties involved in the conflict could not decide who is eligible to vote.  Despite the involvement of the UN in the Morocco-Western Sahara conflict, the international institution classifies the country as a “non-self-governing territory.”

The decision for Morocco to re-join the AU was overwhelmingly supported by member States, with 39 nations out of 54 voting yes.  Morocco was able to get the necessary vote by ferociously campaigning throughout the continent, within the last year especially, while making economic and development agreements with many of these countries.

In his speech, King Mohammed stated, “Africa is my home and I am coming back home. I have missed you all.”  He continued to say, “Africa is indispensable to Morocco and Morocco is indispensable to Africa.”  In terms of the situation between Morocco and SADR, the Moroccan King claimed that the decision to admit the country into the African Union is “…a positive step for the people of Western Sahara.  After 33 years, Morocco has realised that it has to sit with the Sahrawi Republic.  We hope that Morocco will have the goodwill to resolve this conflict and withdraw its troops.”

In response to the vote, Western Sahara ambassador to the AU and Ethiopia, Lamine Baali, reiterated that the readmission of Morocco into the AU is “…made with the understanding that Western Sahara will remain a member of the AU.”  She continued to say, “all debates were focused on [the issue] that Morocco should respect the internationally recognised border of Western Sahara.”

Ten countries voted against the decision, with Algeria and South Africa leading the charge.  Algeria, led by the commissioner of the Peace and Security Council Ismail Chergui, was among the few countries that objected the return of Morocco into the African Union.  Mr Chergui urged that the AU should restart its mission in Western Sahara.  The outgoing AU Chair Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma of South Africa also attempted to restart the process of ensuring full independence for the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic.  Not only did she lobby at the UN for the resume the process for self-determination for the people of SADR but also appointed a special envoy for Western Sahara, Joachim Chissano. Joachim Chissano and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma have vocally denounced the exploitation of natural resources, especially phosphates and oil, from SADR by Morocco.

The decision to admit Morocco comes less than two years after Morocco expelled UN staff from Western Sahara after the visit of the former UN Secretary-General (UNSG) Ban Ki-Moon visited Sahrawi Refugee camps in southern Algeria.  Following the visit of the UNSG, who used the term “occupation” to refer to Morocco’s presence in Western Sahara, the King threatened to withdraw its troop out of the UN global peacekeeping mission.  Additionally, the Moroccan troops crossed the UN-mandated buffer zone in August 2017, breaking the agreed-upon ceasefire.

The readmission of Morocco into the African Union is just another example of how this continental institution continues to ignore the call for self-determination for all African nations.  Furthermore, this decision goes against the “strong messages of support and solidarity [with] the people of Western Sahara” that were uttered during the celebration of the 40th anniversary of the proclamation of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic on February 27th, 2016.  According to the AU press release, the AU delegation stated that “Africa will not be free, until the last of its colonies, Western Sahara, was liberated, free and independent.”  Moreover, during a visit to Dakhla Refugee Camp, Dr Mustapha Sidiki Kaloko, the AU Commissioner for Social Affairs, reassured the people that “Africa will stand side by side with the Sahrawi people until victory is achieved.”

African nations have illustrated to the people of Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic that they are willing to ignore the right to self-determination if the alternative is an economic gain. Morocco is the fifth largest economy in Africa, following Nigeria, Egypt, South Africa and Algeria.  According to the King’s speech, the Kingdom has signed almost 1,000 agreements and treaties with African countries since 2000.  Countries such as Rwanda and Ethiopia, who had historically supported SADR, voted for Morocco once the respective countries had signed economic agreements worth billions of dollars.  The same can be said about Western African nations. According to the International Crisis Group project director, Issandr El-Amrani, “Morocco has marketed itself as a leading investor in West Africa with a natural network of business contacts to play upon.”  He also insinuates that Morocco’s decision to re-join the African Union is partly motivated by the growing influence of Algeria in the Peace and Security Council.

Individuals representing the biggest supporters of SADR (South Africa and Algeria) are leaving or have left the office by the beginning of this year.  Those who took over their positions are big supporters of Morocco.  Therefore, it is unlikely the current deadlock will be broken anytime soon. Once again, the African Union has demonstrated that they are a dog with no bark or bite.

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