Since becoming an AU member, Morocco has taken bold steps towards the realization of a “pan-African agenda.” But a lingering challenge remains to confront old, abiding stereotypes.
Rabat – The speaker of the Moroccan House of Representatives, Habib El Malki, has said that Morocco’s commitment to the cause of the African continent has been an essential factor of Rabat’s diplomacy and its latest public relations efforts.
El Malki, who was hosting an African Union delegation at his office in Rabat on Thursday this week, took the opportunity to stress Morocco’s profound interest in the wellbeing of the continent, its peoples, and economies.
A complicated history
In January 2017, Morocco made a dramatic return to the African Union, a continental club whose predecessor’s—the Organization of the African Unity—doors Rabat had slammed in 1984 over internal disagreements with the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), the Polisario Front-proclaimed state in Western Sahara.
Many governments on the continent, including Morocco’s strongest allies in Francophone Africa, took issue with Rabat’s abrupt exit from an organization whose founding and functioning it had significantly contributed to.
Even as Rabat maintained formal—and sometimes very close—diplomatic relations with most of the continent, its absence from the most important continental club had a considerable bearing on its interests in the African continent.
In three decades of institutional absence from Africa, Rabat’s “policy of the empty chair” meant for many that Rabat had little interest in the continent.
Instead, critics argued, Rabat identified politically more with Europe and culturally with the Arab world. In off-the-records discussions in African circles, Morocco’s 1987 application to join the European Communities, the precursor of the EU, still carries a significant weight. Some still use that event to shun increasing discourse of Morocco’s “genuine Africanness.”
When Morocco started turning its gaze towards Africa in the first years of King Mohammed VI’s reign, there were suggestions that Morocco’s “Africa turn” was insincere and only for convenience.
As far as critics were concerned, the decision to turn back to Africa was a result of the EU’s refusal to embrace Moroccan membership rather than a genuine Moroccan desire to actually “return home.”
Morocco’s “historic homecoming,” as recounted in the Moroccan press, was dismissed in some circles as economically and politically motivated. Morocco’s Africanness was set to only last as long as its economic interests rest with the continent.
Morocco’s commitment to its ‘African responsibility’
El Malki disagrees with that reading of Morocco’s “African commitment.”
In his reckoning, while it is true that Morocco has “realized that its future belongs in Africa”—a point King Mohammed VI also evoked in his speech at the AU when the body agreed to take Morocco in—El Malki argued that Rabat’s recent actions on the continent point towards responsibility instead of convenience.
An alternate reading of Morocco’s increasing shift towards Africa is that the North African country wants to reconcile itself with the “historic role” it played in African affairs between the late 1950s and early 1980s, the first episodes of post-colonial Africa.
Having realized that its future belongs in Africa, El Malki suggested, Morocco now wants to go beyond that realization phase. The country now wants to ensure that it shoulders its role and responsibility for the realization of that future, which is a “collective African future.”
According to the Moroccan parliamentarian, the responsibility phase of Morocco’s AU membership has already started. He said, “Morocco’s African vocation and the promotion of the South-South agenda constitute the most strategic choices for Morocco.”
Morocco prompting a new post-colonial phase?
El Malki’s reference to Morocco’s emphatic insistence on the necessity of a South-South agenda, which King Mohammed VI has maintained should include heightened intra-African exchanges, has been hailed by a number of Africa observers.
In an opinion piece for Britain’s the Financial Times, Jon Marks touted Morocco as an invaluable player in the new configuration of African geopolitics.
Armed with powerful financial and banking institutions investing all over the place in sub-Saharan Africa, a national company—OCP—that is a global leader in the agricultural sector, telecommunication companies considering expansion to the rest of Africa, as well as an effective scholarships-based soft power, Marks argued, Morocco is setting up a new plot for post-colonial Africa.
“While Morocco’s new African strategy has been most evident in commercial deals, it also points towards the emergence of a genuinely post-colonial African order,” Marks concluded.
Take nothing for granted
An Africa-centered Morocco was King Mohammed VI’s idea in his early years in power. Two decades after he came to power, the idea appears to have become the lifeblood of Morocco’s diplomatic identity.
Most conferences and cultural activities organized in Morocco in recent months have had one thing in common: An almost aggressive focus on Africa. Panels at the latest events of conferences like the Casablanca Insurance Meeting, MEDays, or Africities put the future of Africa or “African modernity” at the heart of discussions.
Cooperating with the rest of Africa, a high-ranking Moroccan official said at the Casablanca Insurance gathering on April 3, is a priority instead of a simple desire.
While there is little question—at least judging from existing data—that Morocco’s Africa turn is genuine, it will take some time for Moroccan diplomats to garner the support of some African countries.
Morocco’s ECOWAS bid is still facing subtle but significant blockades. Many member countries of the West African club fluctuate between pro-Rabat pronouncements at public events and unarticulated reservations about how local populations would feel about Morocco joining the ECOWAS family.
The idea is that Morocco should take nothing for granted so it can continue working with the diplomatic determination it has shown in recent years to garner more continental and regional support.
The question, however, is whether Morocco will not lose its nerve as it waits.
For Moroccan journalist Noureddine Jouhari, Rabat is not diplomatically naive enough to think that three decades of absence can be undone in five years, or less. “The fight for Africa is just getting started,” Noureddine fittingly titled one of his columns for Maroc Hebdo.
Brahim Fassi Fihri, one of the fiercest advocates of Morocco’s Africanness and founder of the leading Moroccan think tank Amadeus Institute, said something similar at a panel on the potential advantages and disadvantages of Morocco’s dream to join the West African club.
“Morocco is not in a rush…. Morocco knows the value of consultation and negotiations. We are not rushing at all,” Fihri said.