But the vote to bring Morocco into the African Union also puts the Western Sahara dispute back in the spotlight — a deeply divisive issue within the organization. Morocco considers the Colorado-sized territory historically its own and has controlled two-thirds of the land since 1975, when colonial Spain withdrew from Africa.
The A.U., like the United Nations, recognizes the right to self-determination for the Sahrawi people. More than half of the African Union’s member states have at some point recognized the independence movement Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR — also known as the Polisario movement), which claims the territory.
Since the 1970s, the SADR has fought for full recognition as a state, and for full control of the Western Sahara — labeled by United Nations a “non-self-governing territory.” Polisario led Sahrawis in a guerrilla war against the Moroccan occupation that lasted until 1991. That year, the United Nations brokered a cease-fire pegged to the promise of a referendum for the Sahrawi people.
Morocco has stonewalled on this referendum for the past 26 years. More than 150,000 Sahrawis still live in SADR-run refugee camps in southern Algeria. Some of them, stuck there for four decades, have children and grandchildren who have never seen their homeland.
The African Union has pressured Morocco to back off on its claims
Outgoing A.U. Chair Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma of South Africa was proactive on Western Sahara. Over the past four years, she applied steady pressure for a peaceful resolution to the conflict, lobbying the U.N. Security Council to jump-start the stalled peace process and pave the way for self-determination. She also appointed the first A.U. special envoy for the Western Sahara. Special envoy Joachim Chissano, a former president of Mozambique, requested that the Security Council set a date for the referendum, include a human rights protection mandate in its peacekeeping mission, and denounce the illegal exploitation by Morocco of the natural resources of the Western Sahara, which include phosphates, fish reserves and oil.
New A.U. Chair Moussa Faki Mahamat of Chad, which has close ties to Morocco, is less openly partisan than either his predecessor or the front-runners he beat for the post (Senegal’s Abdoulaye Bathily is pro-Rabat, while Kenya’s Amina Muhamad is pro-SADR). That means the new A.U. chair is well situated to moderate new divisions within the African Union concerning the conflict.
The Moroccan side sees A.U. membership as an opportunity to neutralize Sahrawi influence within the bloc.
“The A.U. was our adversaries’ last battle horse,” a high-ranking Moroccan diplomat told Le Monde. It was an interesting choice of words — SADR officials have described Morocco’s candidacy as a Trojan horse sent to destroy an increasingly adversarial African Union. “The Moroccans merely want to sow mistrust — to drive a wedge,” a SADR official told me over the phone in December. Their goal is “to neutralize an A.U. in the hands of anti-Moroccans,” as one Moroccan diplomat put it.
The vote on Morocco’s membership reflected a post-Arab Spring African Union
West Africa’s Francophone states, with close economic and geographic ties to Morocco, supported its quest for membership — although there are no details on the actual vote. The countries of southern Africa, favoring Sahrawi self-determination, which the African National Congress and the late Nelson Mandela had long supported, remained wary of Morocco’s motives for joining the union.
North Africa’s influence was less pronounced than it might have been had this debate taken place before the Arab Spring. Missing from the discussion was SADR support from the late Moammar Gaddafi. Egypt’s traditional support for Morocco sputtered out in the face of internal and regional crises. Algeria’s longtime tough advocacy for the SADR did not change and is not likely to do so anytime soon.
That left East Africa as the key battleground on whether Morocco could join the African Union. Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania traditionally favored Western Saharan self-determination. However, Morocco broke the consensus by forging new deals with Rwanda and Ethiopia. In October, Moroccan King Mohammed VI paid a state visit to Kigali, Rwanda’s capital, where he concluded 19 agreements on areas that included foreign relations, finance and private-sector development. In November, he signed a $3.7 billion investment deal in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, along with seven bilateral conventions and agreements.
But Morocco prevailed, becoming the African Union’s 55th member
In the final tally, 39 of the African Union’s 54 members voted to admit Morocco. A.U. membership should strengthen Morocco’s economic interests, including banking, mining, construction and insurance investments on the continent. The 39 votes in favor of admitting Morocco gives the country a strong mandate to pursue its objectives.
A number of African diplomats and A.U. observers say the desire for inclusivity and economic integration on the continent were what drove states to vote in Morocco. The vote was not a referendum on Moroccan control of Western Sahara, however. Many African states, including all three of the biggest A.U. heavyweights — Algeria, Nigeria and South Africa — still support Sahrawi self-determination.
A.U. membership gives Morocco a regional platform that increases its reach and influence as an international actor. And membership offers Morocco an opportunity to make a good-faith effort to resolve the Western Sahara crisis. The African Union already has seen Moroccan maneuvering to downgrade or expel the SADR from the organization, pitting union members and regional blocs against one another. That means it is up to the African Union to prove its potential for forging homegrown solutions to homegrown problems.
African states have the most at stake in what unresolved colonialism and shifting borders mean for states and institutions. If African states, whose collective voice is now enriched by Morocco’s for the first time in 30 years, cannot build a consensus on resolving the dispute, then who can?
Hannah Armstrong is a writer and independent analyst of North Africa and the Sahel.