Morocco Rejoins African Union After 33-Year Absence

The African Union’s 2013 summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Source: Wikicommons Morocco rejoined the African Union (AU) on January 30, ending the kingdom’s 33-year absence from the regional organization. Morocco quit the AU in 1984, when a majority of the members of the AU’s predecessor, the Organization of African Unity, recognized the right to self-determination of Western Sahara, a territory contested for decades between Morocco and the separatist Polisario Front. Morocco requested permission to rejoin in July 2016 and gained the support of 39 AU states for its readmission, ending its status as the only African state outside the union.

Analysts cite a wide array of motivations behind Morocco’s decision to rejoin the AU, such as economic and territorial incentives. South African analyst Liesl Louw-Vaudran, however, characterizes the move as an attempt by Morocco to gain legitimacy in its Western Sahara policy.

The protracted dispute over Western Sahara stems from Spain’s withdrawal from its former colonial possession in 1976, after which Morocco annexed the region—which contains phosphate resources, fishing grounds, and possible offshore oil fields. Morocco claimed the territory as its “southern provinces,” but met with an insurgency by the militant Polisario Front in the name of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). The 16-year conflict led to the construction of a 2,700 km sand barrier, “the largest functional military barrier in the world,” according to the U.S. Army Strategic Studies Institute, that enabled the Moroccans to control roughly 80 percent of the region.

Tens of thousands of ethnic Sahrawis fled to Algerian refugee camps, and thousands of refugees died in the war. Even today, roughly 90,000 Sahrawis remain in the Algerian camps, where the Polisario Front maintains its government-in-exile.

A 1991 UN-enforced ceasefire halted the war and deployed multinational peacekeepers, but the status of Western Sahara remains unresolved. Critics consider the Colorado-sized region Africa’s last colony.

Morocco hopes to capitalize on its renewed membership in the AU. “It is so good to be back home, after having been away for too long!” said Moroccan King Mohamed VI in his January 31 speech to the 28th AU Summit. He also touted Morocco’s bilateral relations and economic initiatives, including the Africa Atlantic Gas Pipeline project and the Adaptation of African Agriculture Initiative, and declared that “it is time for Africa to benefit from Africa’s wealth.”

The contention of Western Sahara by Morocco has also spilled over into AU politics. Moroccan politician Saad Eddine Othmani insisted that Morocco’s re-entrance into the AU does not indicate recognition of Western Sahara; rather, it indicates that the kingdom would rather pursue regional influence through the AU. Morocco’s Foreign Ministry also blamed the AU Commission chair, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, for allegedly working to prevent the country’s re-entrance into the AU. Kenya’s Amina Mohamed, who was the favored candidate to succeed Dlamini-Zuma, lost in part because of Kenya’s unclear stance on Morocco’s readmission. Similarly, Senegal’s candidate lost the votes of Polisario-supporters due to the country backing of Morocco’s membership.

Despite the uproar, Morocco has AU allies for its stance on Western Sahara, illustrated by a joint statement from 28 of the 53 total member states calling for the AU to suspend the SADR’s membership. Algeria, a long-time supporter of the Polisarios, shot back that expelling the SADR was “impossible.” The SADR praised the move, but Morocco has insisted that it “will never recognize” Western Sahara.