Categories: Africa Interviews Morocco Politics Western Sahara Z-Headlines

Brahim Fassi Fihri on Western Sahara: There’s No South African Monopoly on Pan-Africanism

Will Morocco’s increasing leadership in Africa prove to be definitive for the decades-long battle for Western Sahara?

Rabat – Brahim Fassi Fihri is the founder of Amadeus Institute, a leading Moroccan think tank which is increasingly becoming an agenda-setter on international debates.

In an exchange with Morocco World News on the implications of the latest UN resolution on Western Sahara, Fihri opted for cautious optimism.

When, however, it comes to the “Africanness of Morocco,” the Amadeus Institute president was adamant, saying that Africa is part and parcel of Morocco’s cultural and historical identity.

Measured optimism

After the UN Security Council (UNSC) adopted its latest resolution on Western Sahara, Omar Hilale, Morocco’s ambassador at the UN, was rather triumphant. Speaking in the heat of what seemed like a scourging victory for the Moroccan diplomacy, Hilale said the resolution (dubbed Resolution 2468) met Morocco’s expectations.

Morocco’s Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita couldn’t agree more. He, too, welcomed the notable novelty of Resolution 2468 as good news for Morocco’s Western Sahara battle. Bourita argued that the resolution was an acknowledgement—though not quite outright—of Morocco’s historical claim over the territory.

The bottom line is: Moroccan analysts and observers overwhelmingly applauded Resolution 2468, seeing in it the ultimate indication that the international community is finally waking to the real politics behind the decades-long stalemate in the Western Sahara dossier.

In their assessment, not only was the resolution a diplomatic victory for Morocco despite fierce South African lobbying, but it also appeared to indicate a denouement that points towards a politically negotiated settlement rather than the referendum-based solution that has become the mantra of Polisario backers.

Fihri agrees with the general enthusiasm surrounding the resolution and welcomes the achievement of Morocco’s diplomacy.

“We are definitely witnessing a watershed moment,” he told MWN.  Fihri warned, however, that “there is so much history and ideology” involved in the midst of it all that it sounds over-optimistic to expect that the “new momentum,” (as the UNSC resolution called the Horst Kohler-moderated political process in Western Sahara) would culminate in a conclusive agreement in a very short time span.

Fihri shows no inch of pessimism, however. Rather, his answers to MWN evinced an indomitable faith in the effectiveness of the Moroccan diplomacy.

South-South appeal

As a key figure in Morocco’s successful turn toward Africa, Fihri, whose MEDays platform has become a coveted event for discussing South-South Cooperation and global affairs, has been a first-hand witness of‒and participant in‒the increasing appeal of Morocco’s South-South Cooperation agenda.

For years, Polisario’s Sahrawi nationalism narrative somewhat compellingly portrayed Morocco as the villain in the Western Sahara story; victimhood sells in world affairs.

Regardless of King Mohammed VI’s repeated calls for a frank dialogue and compromise, Fihri suggested, it seemed to make little difference. Narratives and ideology stood in the way of history, deepening the Morocco-Algeria-Polisario animus and making confidence building a doomed enterprise.

In recent months, however, there have been indications of a paradigm shift. In Africa, to take one obviously outstanding example, Morocco’s status has exponentially improved.

Since Morocco got admitted into the African Union (AU) two years ago, the continental discourse on Western Sahara has morphed completely, gradually swinging in Morocco’s favor, according to Fihri.

On Western Sahara and other regional issues, the continental momentum now appears to be moving in Morocco’s direction. The most important illustration, Fassi-Fihri argued, is that, under President Muhammadu Buhari, Nigeria has moved much closer to Morocco.

But the story gets more interesting than that, at least as far as Morocco is concerned. Until recently, the AU—mostly under the auspices of South Africa and Algeria—used to dismiss the UN’s Western Sahara agenda.

The African body has recently decided to completely refrain from having a parallel agenda on Western Sahara. There have even been reports of firm instructions preventing all AU members states from discussing Western Sahara at AU events.

Move after move in recent years, Morocco has shown that it is as proudly African as any other African country, according to Fassi-Fihri. And while Morocco’s return to the AU has raised questions in some circles, there is not much one can do in protest of it.

So what does one make of the optimism that Horst Koehler’s handling of the Sahara dossier is generating? Is the pan-African and South-south flavored Moroccan diplomatic activism finally paying dividend in the kingdom’s Western Sahara quest? Or will it ever?

Below is MWN’s exchange with Brahim Fassi Fihri:

MWN: UN diplomats working on the Western Sahara question are rather optimistic these days. They seem to believe that things will work out this time. Spurred by what they now call “the new momentum,” their general mood is that, despite the existing profound divergences between Morocco and the Polisario Front, Horst Kohler’s moderation has much higher chances of culminating in something conclusive. Do you share that enthusiasm? Are you as optimistic?

Fassi Fihri: I do not know if after 45 years of hostility expressions like optimism and enthusiasm can be used to shed insights into this regional conflict that has been going on for far too long. On the other hand, the latest developments, both at the UN and the pan-African levels, have shown that a spirit of realism and pragmatism is gradually but strongly taking shape in how the Sahara question is discussed. We are undoubtedly witnessing a watershed moment, something that reminds me of 2007, when Morocco was given preeminence as the UN nodded to the autonomy plan for our southern provinces.

It appears today that consensus is building up at the international level about the fact that ideological options of the past, things like referendum and independence, are totally unrealistic.

But one should definitely welcome the new momentum resulting from the two Geneva roundtable discussions…. However, it begs reminding Horst Kohler that it would be totally pointless and counterproductive that the spirit of the Geneva meetings be detached from the roadmap drawn in Resolution 2468.

This means discussions should be based on realism, compromise, and the mutually acceptable solution framework, which is what King Mohammed VI highlighted in his November 6, 2017 speech. And as Nasser Bourita pointed out after the second Geneva meeting, Morocco is not participating in the UN-led political process for the sake of participation.

The kingdom has shown its good faith, but it is not willing to partake in negotiations where other parties cage themselves in obsolete proposals that the international community has already rejected in most of the latest resolutions on Western Sahara. Geneva must reflect and uphold the language and recommendations of the Security Council.

MWN: In both its formulation and recommendations, Resolution 2468 is a victory for Morocco, some analysts have asserted. Are you of the same opinion? How is this even a victory?

Fassi Fihri: This is without doubt: Resolution 2468 is globally positive for Morocco. I believe it is the most Morocco-friendly resolution since Resolution 1754 of April 2007 that gave the upper hand to Morocco’s autonomy plan. In fact, since then, most resolutions have been in favor of Morocco.

I can cite a number of satisfactory points for Morocco in the latest resolution. First of all the text mentions Algeria 5 times, which means that Algeria is now considered as an integral part to this artificial conflict. This places Algeria on equal footing with Morocco and Polisario.

Morocco has fought for years for Algeria to be considered in UN texts as the stepping stone to any political solution, since successive Algerian regimes have trained, financed, and equipped the Polisario Front.

Secondly, more than all preceding resolutions, this one puts a particular emphasis on pragmatism during the political process. In fact, the text mentions “compromise” 5 times and refers to “realism” 4 times; these two words are the pillars of Morocco’s autonomy plan, underpinned by the desire to push for a mutually acceptable solution within the parameters of chapter VI of the UN charter.

Finally, the resolution definitely ignores the notion of referendum whereas the principle of self-determination is barely mentioned.

MWN: No sooner had the resolution been adopted than dissenting voices have pounced at the opportunity to question its legitimacy. I am particularly thinking of South Africa, whose ambassador to the UN has said of the resolution that it biased and “unbalanced. “

For South Africa, Resolution 2468 is another illustration of the outside world imposing its agenda on African, deciding African issues without consulting Africans. What do you make of that sort of reference to the supposed colonial hegemony of others, non-Africans? And what do you think should be the response of Moroccan diplomats?

Fassi Fihri: True, it is a pity that this resolution was not unanimously voted by UNSC members. But there is a caveat here: Russian and South African abstentions have very different motives. For Russia, it was more about the length of MINURSO’s mandate.

In abstaining, Russia wished to express dissatisfaction with a six-month-long renewal of the MINURSO mission. Russia had advocated for a one-year extension, and so their abstention is only a sense of unease with the extension length rather than with the driving principles of the content of the resolution.

South Africa’s abstention, on the other hand, is political, ideological even. What is ironic in the statement from the South African ambassador is that his country is acknowledging that this whole thing sounds like a Moroccan victory. Recently, countries opposing Morocco’s territorial integrity have increasingly, pointedly been feeling isolated.

But there is something more profound at play here: I think there is a need to remind our South African friends, especially our friends from the ANC, that they do not have monopoly on pan-Africanism. By referring to others, non-Africans’ supposed colonial hegemony, South Africa is blatantly ridiculing Africans and African institutions.

It is sad and extremely dangerous that a country preparing to take over the AU presidency next year is willingly dismissing African conventions. It is sad that South Africa failed to mention the July 2018 AU summit in Nouakchott, Mauritania, where AU leaders decided to commit to the UN-led process and respect all decisions by the UNSC on the Sahara dossier.

In Mauritania, African governments agreed that the Western Sahara question should be the exclusive responsibility of the UNSC. But South Africa visibly can’t accept to abide by African rules.

More interesting still, despite losing all credibility on the Sahara question, South Africa, patent in its dismissal of AU directives, went on to organize its Pretoria Conference in March this year.

But there again they lost. More African countries showed up at the Marrakech conference. 38 African countries attended the Marrakech conference and reiterated their unwavering commitment to the decisions made in Nouakchott.

MWN: Speaking of the success of Moroccan diplomacy, Rabat appears to have made significant breakthroughs in recent years. In Africa, for example, the dramatic return to the AU seems to be given back to Morocco the legitimacy (although regularly questioned) of its Africanness. But still, some see in Morocco’s African diplomacy a sort of singing-to-the-choir diplomacy.

The criticism is that instead of engaging in strenuous diplomatic battles to convince hostile African countries, Morocco is taking the safest route, further befriending countries that have already shown commitment to Moroccan interests. Is the criticism legitimate? Should Morocco invest more in convincing Polisario-friendly African blocs or should it rather focus its energy on getting the nod of the heavy weights (especially the 5 permanent members of the UNSC) of the international community?

Fassi Fihri: Morocco does not have to prove its Africanness. Morocco’s Africanness is not only institutional. Morocco’s African identity is part of its everyday life experience. It is rooted in our history. Most countries in West and Central Africa know and acknowledge Morocco’s Africanness.

I do concede that the kingdom is lucky enough to count on a bloc of brother countries and friends that have always supported its territorial integrity. Moreover, King Mohammed VI’s vision for Africa does not distinguish between friendly and hostile African countries.

We have all witnessed the royal visits in 2016 and 2017 in Anglophone, mostly East African countries with which we shared very little in terms of diplomatic ties. These visits opened a new chapter between Morocco and other African giants not traditionally known for sympathizing with Moroccan causes. I am thinking especially of Nigeria, Ethiopia, and Rwanda.

Today, Morocco and Nigeria have established strategic ties currently culminating in a trailblazer continental project: the Morocco-Nigeria pipeline. Africa has become the center of gravity of Moroccan diplomacy, and this is done with zero regard to who likes us more or less.

That is why since January 2017, when Morocco joined the AU, we’ve seen that many countries that used to berate Morocco on its Western Sahara position are now reassessing their own views and policies on the question. The Nouakchott declaration is a case in point.

The devotion of Moroccan diplomats to the cause of national integrity is a comprehensive and undying devotion, looking in all directions to make a compelling case for Moroccan integrity. I really want to pay tribute to the Moroccan diplomacy which, through its activism, dynamism, perseverance, and effectiveness has made possible a number of important diplomatic victories in the last couples of years.