By Tamba François Koundouno
Rabat – In September 2004, upon South AfricaSouth Africa’s decision to recognize Western Sahara as an autonomous and self-determined country, the Kingdom of Morocco recalled its ambassador to Pretoria, engaging the two African giants in a series of implicit hostilities that lasted for over a decade.
Recently, after 13 years of cold and unfriendly bilateral terms, Morocco and South Africa have finally agreed to end their diplomatic stalemate. The move was made after King Mohammed VI met his South African counterpart during the 5th summit of the African Union in Abidjan, and is considered by many as part and parcel of Morocco’s recent drift towards a more dynamic and politically conclusive foreign policy, the culmination, in fact, of King Mohammed VI’s Africa agenda.
Upon meeting in the Ivorian capital, the two leaders, according to a statement from Morocco’s foreign ministry, affirmed, through this bilateral rapprochement, their common desire to build a more prosperous and interdependent Africa. During a press conference, Nasser Bourita, Morocco’s minister of cooperation and foreign affairs, spoke of Morocco and South Africa as pivotal to the continent’s aspirations for peace, sustainable development, and sounder migration policies.
For his part, President Jacob Zuma expressed the same upbeat mood regarding the move’s possible results for Africa. In a recent article on the topic, Reuters quoted the South African president as saying: “Morocco is an African nation and we need to have relations with them.”
As promising as this bilateral rapprochement may be, however, it cannot be isolated from Morocco’s recent spectacular return to the African Union, a seat that, in 1984, the Kingdom decided to vacate upon disagreements on policies concerning Western Sahara.
In late January 2017, with a crushing majority in favor of Morocco’s demand to join the African Union (39 voices for out of 54), Africa’s leaders expressed their willingness to accept Morocco’s claim over its “natural place”. Over three decades after withdrawing from the body, Morocco was welcomed by its counterparts as an integral member of a body to whose foundation it had, after all, enormously contributed in 1963. In his speech on that epochal day, King Mohammed VI reaffirmed Morocco’s legitimate place in the body. He noted: “After 32 years of absence, I have finally decided to come back to my family.” Squarely addressing his African counterparts, “his African brothers” as he likes to insist, the king added: “I missed you. I missed my home.”
The king’s fraternal tone resounded in the attitudes of many of his counterparts. Speaking to the press after the summit, the Senegalese President Makcy Sall explained: “Even if the Sahara question remains an issue… we can, as a family, continue to try to find solutions. The admission [of Morocco to the AU)] is done, and that’s the most important: today, Morocco is an integral member of the African Union.”
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the then Liberian president, expressed the same welcoming attitude when she tellingly remarked in the aftermath of Morocco’s admission that Africa wants to have one important voice. And for that voice to be vocal and important enough, all African states need to be associated.
Pretoria-Rabat rapprochement, then, comes at a time when, more than ever, Africa needs the voices of its giants, its economic torch-bearers. There is no doubt that Morocco and South Africa are two indispensable players in African politics. In a continent mostly mired in social unrests and sluggish economic performances, Pretoria and Rabat stand out as hubs of political stability and sustained economic development. By deciding to open a new diplomatic page, the two countries send signals of their eagerness to claim the important role that is theirs in helping Africa materialize its 2063 agenda of a more prosperous and peaceful continent. In addition to exploring and coordinating their policies on topical issues like peace/security, sustainable economic development, and migration, Rabat-Pretoria rapprochement also heralds the two countries’ asserted aspiration towards more South-South cooperation.
The Sahara question might still be, as underlined by a South African news agency, a stumbling block to the sustainability of this bilateral rapprochement. However, as time and again evinced in the King’s public stance on the Sahara question, Morocco has consistently shown its genuine commitment to a doable political solution that benefits both camps. The recent appointment of Nasser Bourita as minister of foreign affairs and international cooperation is, to a number of observers, an important indicator of the Kingdom’s shift towards a more efficient and grounded foreign policy. In the utterly unpredictable waters of international politics, however, whether things will turn out as anticipated is altogether another question.
For now, though, one thing remains clear: The Africa 2063 dream of a more prosperous and vocal Africa can only be materialized if leading African economies cooperate on vital topics for the continent. That two African giants decide to resume their diplomatic relations might not bring immediate rewards to the continent; nonetheless, in the long run, it heralds an emboldened and fundamentally inward-looking Africa that wants to have its voice heard on global issues.