Upwards of 350 people, including academics and students, attended the round table covered by national and regional media.
Rabat – The intricacies of Morocco’s diplomatic strategy, on a continental and international level, have long been the subject of debate and discussion at the highest levels. The US State Department, the Spanish government, and the General Secretary of the UN are among the cacophony of voices throwing Morocco’s counterterrorism strategy, return to the AU, and growing international reputation onto the limelight.
Morocco’s internal and foreign policies are also a hot topic for discussion in academic circles. On Saturday, October 26, the University of Ibn Zohr in Agadir held a round table under the theme “Morocco’s Diplomacy towards West Africa.”
Reda El Fellah, a research professor at the university and the director of the research team in public law, moderated the round table and introduced the panel of high-level academics, authors, and analysts.
Mohamed Ahmed Gain, a research professor at the University of Ibn Tufail and president of the African Institute for Peacebuilding and Conflict transformation, tabled the first topic for discussion.
Security threats in the Sahel
Gain’s intervention focused on “Security Challenges for Morocco in West Africa.”
A defining aspect of Morocco’s national security policy is that it incorporates the stability of the region and continental concerns into internal affairs. The country’s security services have long voiced the importance of reinforcing cooperation with neighboring countries to face security challenges in Morocco and beyond.
Morocco is particularly aware of security threats in the Sahel region and the potential of the region as a nest for would-be terrorists.
Under Gain’s leadership, academics and analysts at the round table looked in-depth at how Morocco’s security services aim to counter terror threats by developing relationships and cooperations with other African nations.
The crises now facing the African continent “are complex crises not only at political, social and environmental levels but have impacts across a wide geographical area,” Gain explained.
Gain, who is also a professor at the National School of Commerce and Management (ENCG) in Kenitra, identified three specific agendas that threaten security in the region, including terrorism, separatism, and criminal networks.
“These agendas increase the level of challenges and the most important results of the expansion of the influence of “non-state” entities,” Gain emphasized.
Security experts in Morocco and across the world shared concerns about terror threats in the Sahel.
Top security agents, including the head of Morocco’s Central Bureau of Judicial Investigation (BCIJ) Abdelhak Khiame, have long described the region as a breeding ground for terrorism and terrorists.
Khiame also described the Polisario Front as a terrorist organization.
In 2018, Khiame recalled that the BCIJ managed to identify more than a hundred of the Polisario Front members, who are operating in AQIM “along which they have been involved in attacks in northern Mauritania.”
Morocco’s pan-African politics
Gain also spoke about the significance of Morocco’s return to the African Union in 2017 and its bid to join ECOWAS.
He outlined how Morocco’s policy is driven by the long-term goal of strengthening cooperation with Africa and pan-African perspective in terms of internal and foreign policies.
The academic went on to emphasize Morocco’s decision to move beyond francophone allies in Africa in order to diversify partnerships with anglophone states across the continent.
Dr. Samir Bennis, a Moroccan political analyst based in Washington D.C., contributed to the discussion with a clear outline of the history and strategy behind Morocco’s new pan-African vision.
According to Bennis, Morocco’s pan-Africanist approach paved a way for its return to its “home,” as King Mohammed VI described it during his speech during the 28 African Union Summit on January 31, 2017, marking its comeback to the African Union (AU).
The first hints of Morocco’s plans to return to the AU came to light in 2013 when King Mohammed VI began to emphasize the importance of making Africa’s development one of Morocco’s priorities, the Moroccan analyst emphasized.
Diplomatic overtures in the AU’s direction began, under King Mohammed VI’s leadership, with Morocco’s moves n to reinforce ties with Mali, Guinea, Senegal and other traditional allies on the continent.
“During the first 13 years [in power] the King worked to further strengthen Morocco’s relations with traditional allies, such as Senegal, Cote d’Ivoire, Gabon, Mali, as well as Guinea,” explained Bennis.
In his speech at the 69th UN General Assembly in September 2014, the King emphasized that the former colonial powers bear the responsibility for the issues and conflicts still prevalent in Africa decades after most African countries gained independence.
“Though many years have passed, the colonizers bear historic responsibility for the tough – and at times tragic – circumstances experienced by some countries of the South, particularly in Africa,” said the monarch.
The King’s focus on solidarity with Morocco’s African neighbors was a new direction for Moroccan diplomacy. However, the ultimate sign of Morocco’s intention to rejoin the AU came in July 2016 when the King announced Morocco’s intention to rejoin the AU, said Bennis.
Then, on November 6, 2016, the King delivered the Green March speech from Dakar, Senegal. This marked an unprecedented move in Morocco’s history that reflected the monarch’s pan-African vision for the Kingdom, he added.
The Moroccan monarch then undertook his first-ever official tour of East Africa between October and December 2016.
The King made significant trips to Rwanda, Tanzania, Ethiopia and Nigeria. These countries had long advocated for the Polisario’s independence claims.
The King’s tour was part of Morocco’s outreach policy, a policy that aimed to diversify the country’s partnerships, the former advisor at the United Nations underlined during the roundtable.
The move bore fruit, with countries including Nigeria and Rwanda expressing willingness to establish diplomatic relations with Rabat.
Bennis pointed out that Morocco’s return to the AU was not an arbitrary move but a calculated maneuver “based on strategic decisions to achieve economic and political interests in the long term.”
Bennis emphasized that, as part of Morocco’s long-term diplomacy aims, King Mohammed VI increased official visits to Morocco’s African neighbors since he came to power 20 years ago.
The King has made more than 46 visits to more than 25 African countries.
Just months before the King’s African tour in the fall of 2016, the sovereign officially announced Morocco’s return to the AU after 33 years of absence.
‘Algeria-Pretoria-Abuja axis against Morocco’s territorial integrity’
Bennis explained that Morocco’s relationship with the AU and its member states had been for over three decades. Morocco left the pan-African organization in 1984 after the AU decided to admit the Polisario Front as a “member state,” a move that served as a direct threat to Morocco’s territorial integrity.
Bennis explained how “the vacant seat provided the separatist group with an opportunity to spread its ideology among member states,” with both Algeria and South Africa supporting and backing its attempts.
Outlining the Algeria-Pretoria-Abuja axis’ pro-Polisario maneuvers in the Union, Bennis recalled that the African Commission issued reports in 2013 and 2015 condemning “Morocco’s exploitation of natural resources” in Western Sahara.
The report alleged that Morocco was responsible for violations and human rights abuses in the region. The AU report also called for a mechanism to extend the UN peacekeeping mission, MINURSO, mandate to human rights monitoring in the region.
Another significant pro-Polisario move was the appointment of Joaquim Alberto Chissano as a personal envoy for the Western Sahara conflict, Bennis added.
The move aimed to oppose Morocco’s position and threaten its territorial integrity. Chissanon attempted to hold a briefing at the Security Council in April 2016 about the conflict, a maneuver that Morocco’s diplomacy thwarted.
Bennis argued that Morocco’s strategy to open up to countries that have traditionally supported the Polisario has started to bear fruit. He gave the example of Nigeria, a country that before King Mohammed VI’s visit in December 2016 had been a staunch supporter of the Polisario.
“After King Mohammed VI’s visit in December 2016, Nigeria reconsidered its position on Western Sahara. While until 2015, it was present in the statements of Nigerian President before the UN General Assembly, it is no longer among topics that Nigeria mentions during the yearly gathering,” said Bennis.
“For example, in the statement delivered by Nigerian President Mohammed Buhari before the UNGA in September 2015, he did not only call on the UN to enable the Saharawis to exercise their right to self-determination, but he also equated the question of Western Sahara with the Palestinian question.”
Bennis explained, through his analysis and narration of the Kingdom’s ongoing diplomatic voyage, that Morocco’s pan-African vision and long-term strategy in African diplomacy have already seen tangible gains within the AU and in terms of continental cooperation but the long term effects of the country’s policy are yet to be seen. What is undeniable, however, is that Morocco has well and truly filled the “empty seat” at the AU and that the long arm of its diplomacy is ready to curb further moves against its territorial integrity.