The new AU leadership may harbor some grudges towards Morocco’s Western Sahara claims, but the organization’s current institutional frame prevents them from having substantial clout.
Rabat – Moroccan diplomats, whose anxiety reportedly rose with news that the new African Union leadership is poised to undermine the UN’s Western Sahara agenda, can now relax. The AU will not reverse its allegiance to the UN-led process in the Western Sahara conflict.
That is at least the spirit of a February 8 message addressed to all AU diplomatic representations.
Written by Bankole Adioye, AU legal advisor and Nigeria’s permanent representative to the AU, the message called on all delegations represented at the AU summit to refrain from making Western Sahara part of their agenda during meetings.
The message singled out the AU Peace and Security Council (PSC), the body’s branch in charge of preventing, managing, and resolving conflicts in Africa. Western Sahara has long been part of the PSC’s agenda. Adioye’s message, however, stressed that even the PSC no longer has the right to discuss Western Sahara.
Referring to the latest AU report on the conflict, which recognized the UN Security Council as having exclusive legitimacy to broker a settlement deal for Western Sahara, the message noted that the latest decisions from the AU heads of states and governments “also apply to the PSC.” It added that the PSC will no longer “mention, cite, or refer to the situation in Western Sahara.”
At the 32nd AU summit early this week in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the pan-African organization underwent a routine leadership reshuffling.
Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi took the reins from Rwanda’s Paul Kagame as AU president. Meanwhile, South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa replaced Al-Sisi as the next in line for president. The picture was a not a good sight for the majority of Moroccan diplomats and political analysts.
On the one hand, there was a current AU president, Al-Sisi, known for his ambivalent position on Western Sahara. On the other, there waited the next AU leader, President Ramaphosa, who has characteristically been forthcoming about his overt and “fraternal” sympathy for the Polisario Front.
Shortly after the leadership change, there were reports of mounting fear in Moroccan circles that the new AU leadership would undermine the progress made so far on the Western Sahara question.
The fear was that the new leadership would attempt to reverse a recent AU decision to leave the Western Sahara agenda to the UN Security Council.
In July 2018 in Nouakchott, Mauritania, the AU promised to exclusively leave the resolution of the Sahara dispute to the UNSC.
The pan-African body even created a troika tasked with “accompanying” and “supporting” the success of the UN-led process.
But with President Al-Sisi and Ramaphosa as part of that troika, it seemed doubtful whether the AU would follow the guidelines of the Nouakchott summit.
More fear than damage: Investing in continental diplomacy
While the fear was legitimate, new developments at the AU have put to rest any notions that any AU leader can individually shape the direction of the whole organization on burning issues.
In addition to Ambassador Adioye’s message, there have been other positive returns for Morocco’s continental diplomacy, according to Moroccan foreign minister Nasser Bourita.
For Bourita, the AU’s decision to completely withdraw from attempts to push for an “African agenda” in the Western Sahara dispute is a sign of a diplomatic victory for Morocco.
“This is the first time that no single decision regarding Western Sahara was taken at an AU summit,” Bourita said, explaining that Morocco should upgrade its continental diplomacy to capitalize on support from as many African countries as possible.
When Morocco asked for readmission to the pan-African organization following King Mohammed VI’s insistence that “Morocco’s future belongs in Africa,” some Moroccan analysts expressed doubt about the effectiveness of a return to AU. They argued that seeking membership in an organization that recognizes the Polisario-proclaimed Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic ran against the core of Moroccan interests.
According to Bourita, however, only by being an important player in the AU and showing its committed contribution to solving continental issues can Morocco secure the support it needs for its position.
Morocco needs to be present where decisions are made to stand a chance of shaping the narrative and having a say in the directives, Bourita suggested, speaking to the press after the Addis Ababa summit.
He gave the example of the African Observatory on Migration, an AU-sponsored research body tasked with studying and giving policy recommendations on human mobility across and from Africa.
The observatory will be headquartered in Rabat, which, according to Bourita, speaks volumes about the “sincere efforts” that Morocco has invested in African migration. The observatory is of “crucial importance” for an “African perspective” on migration.
During the closing ceremony of the AU summit in Addis Ababa, Bourita noted, a number of AU head of states “thanked and congratulated Morocco for its engagement” on the migration front. Commenting on that move, Bourita said that more presence in AU decision-making bodies and more engagement in Africa will only benefit Moroccan diplomacy.