Implicit in Polisario’s African champions’ persistent mobilization of the “decolonization struggle” argument is their assumption about the meaning and mission of pan-Africanism.
Rabat – A specter is haunting African geopolitics as some continental giants clash over the future of Western Sahara—the specter of conflicting pan-Africanisms.
As it fights for a foothold in the shifting diplomatic sands of the Western Sahara conflict, Polisario is deploying its familiar litany of objections and condemnations to stay relevant in Africa’s increasingly pro-Morocco position on the issue.
On October 24, the independence-seeking militant front, which broadcasts itself as the “only legitimate representative of the Sahrawi cause,” sent out yet another salvo of accusations and warnings.
The group’s remarks, couched in its signature style of a vehement communique against Morocco’s “illegal occupation” and its African brigade of enablers, came after a number of sub-Saharan countries — Burkina Faso, Eswatini, Equatorial Guinea, Guinea, and Guinea Bissau, among others– opened consulates general in Dakhla and Laayoune.
Self-servingly citing both the UN Charter and the AU’s Constitutive Act, the group argued that African countries have a solemn obligation to refrain from legitimizing and legalizing “an illegal situation.”
At the time of writing, the regions of Dakhla and Laayoune are home to 15 African diplomatic representations, dealing a distinctly devastating blow to Polisario’s once-promising recognition prospects in Africa.
From Polisario’s perspective, however, a more poignant, if implicit jab in this pro-Morocco frenzy, which some have fittingly described as Morocco’s “consulates diplomacy,” was Rabat’s triumphant announcement that “more countries” are preparing to join the pro-Morocco momentum on the Sahara question.
Discrediting Morocco’s African allies
To bring its point further home, Polisario’s statement dramatically borrowed from popular mythology, presenting the openings of African consulates as a Faustian bargain. Even as their populations still linger in extreme poverty and chronic lack, it argued, some African “governments have sold their souls to the devil in exchange for some empty promises.”
For Morocco, though, the opening of African diplomatic representations in the southern provinces constitutes a ringing affirmation of both the “Moroccanness” of the territory and Morocco’s unquestionable pan-African pedigree.
“Moroccan diplomacy is reaping the fruits of King Mohammed VI’s African diplomacy,” said Morocco’s Foreign Affairs Minister Nasser Bourita upon the October 27 opening of Zambia and Eswatini’s consulates in Laayoune.
To the top Moroccan diplomat, the recent — and coming — series of diplomatic overtures in Dakhla and Laayoune speak to the broad and growing agreement among African countries that Morocco is a “credible” and “reliable” partner. And that, beyond all else, Morocco no longer has to prove either its commitment to Africa or its “genuine interest in its southern provinces.”
As Bourita sees it, the consulates are at once an uncompromising repudiation of Polisario’s blinkered, outdated view of the Sahara question, and a resounding acknowledgement of Morocco’s “sincere” interest and investments in African unity and prosperity.
But as Polisario groans in frustration at Morocco’s growing political clout in Africa, it might be more pertinent to put the group’s pugnacious communique within the broader context of the long-standing rivalry between Morocco and Polisario’s most vocal and influential supporters in Africa.
Behind Polisario’s invocation of a Faustian deal between Morocco and its African allies is the traditional inclination in Africa’s vociferously assertive, but dwindling, pro-Polisario quarters to question Morocco’s Africanness and its interest in pan-African ideals.
Shaping and promoting this view are Algeria and South Africa, two African giants who, in January 2017 and long before, made no secret of their fundamental opposition to Morocco’s return — or admission — to the African Union.
The two countries are widely reported to have worked tirelessly to prevent Morocco from coming back to a pan-African organization whose predecessor — the Organization of African Unity (OAU) — it left in 1984 over the admission of the self-styled, Polisario-administered Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic.
As Carmel Rawhani notes in a 2018 article about the motives and implications of Morocco’s return to the AU, the tiny minority of African countries that voted against Morocco’s re-entry into the pan-African club cast doubts on Rabat’s African aspirations. Morocco, they argued, was only interested in raising its continental profile to ultimately hijack the AU’s original, decolonization-inspired pan-African agenda.
They feared that, having become a much stronger country since leaving the OAU in 1984, Morocco would use its return, and the unprecedented velocity with which it happened, to advocate for a new, self-serving pan-African vision. Their point was — and still is — to question Morocco’s Africanness and discredit its African allies’ commitment to African unity and the pan-African revolutionary spirit.
There was a time when many African circles readily invoked, even embraced, such arguments. No longer ago than March 2017, the AU’s Peace and Security Council voted in favor of a referendum for self-determination in Western Sahara.
A paradigm shift
In recent years, however, observers have witnessed a notable paradigm shift in how most African diplomats approach the Western Sahara question. Many analysts, myself included, credit the increasingly pro-Morocco sea-change to the 31st AU summit in Nouakchott, Mauritania, in July 2018.
Meeting in the Mauritanian capital to discuss Africa’s take on the Sahara question, African heads of states made a historical u-turn by recognizing the “centrality” of the UN-led political process in Western Sahara.
Despite the usual, steady drumbeats of “Sahrawi decolonization” and “Moroccan occupation” from the AU’s pro-Polisario bloc during the Nouakchott summit, the continental organization pledged allegiance to the UN Security Council-moderated peace process. African leaders vowed that the AU would no longer pursue a “parallel agenda” on the Sahara conflict.
Since then, the African discourse on the continent’s oldest territorial dispute has dramatically shifted towards Morocco’s position. The new reality is that of an increasing cohort of African voices calling for pragmatism and applauding Morocco’s “serious efforts” towards peace and prosperity in its southern provinces and across Africa. What happened? What could be the reasons behind this Gestalt shift?
For many in the pro-Morocco camp of this shifting continental divide, the past few years have shone a harsh light on Polisario’s contradictions, including a major gap between its rhetoric and the reality on the ground.
Against the pro-Polisario camp’s insistence on revolutionary, almost doctrinaire, pan-Africanism, the pro-Morocco voices seem to point to the necessity of embracing a new breed of pan-Africanism.
Citing Africa’s ever-shifting geopolitical landscape, especially in terms of new, increasingly mounting security challenges in the Sahelo-Saharan corridor and the Guinea Gulf, they take a dim view of a Polisario-governed Western Sahara.
For them, Morocco is not only an established continental powerhouse; it has proved itself capable of providing security and prosperity to its southern provinces.
As it embraces the requirements of the new, complex African realities, while showing its willingness to help other African countries rise to their own challenges, argues the pro-Rabat vogue, Morocco could be the embodiment of the coming, assertive Africa.
Pan-Africanism, a number of Rabat-based sub-Saharan diplomats told me in various conversations on the “new Africa,” should no longer be a show of blanket pronouncements about authenticity and revolutionary pride. To chart itself a coherent, far-sighted path through the complexities of modern geopolitics, they argued, Africa needs more than copious declamations of its revolutionary fervor.
In that sense, the rift between Morocco and South Africa over Western Sahara is not only a conflict of visions between two candidates for continental primacy looking to outgun each other in their scramble for African leadership. It is also a split between puritanism and pragmatism—a fundamental disagreement over what pan-Africanism is or should be today.
It is hard to say with confidence which vision currently prevails around the continent, especially as much of contemporary African discourse straddles the two edges. There is, however, an increasing shift towards the pragmatist camp, or at least towards those voices calling for Africa to embrace new narratives that go beyond the puritans’ dogged devotion to an illusive African authenticity.
Informing or sustaining this new trend is the desire to shatter the illusion of a monolithic, rigid tale of Africa and Africanness; or the need to shout down the preachy and disparaging posture of the self-appointed arbiters of pan-African sensibility.
Read also: Brahim Fassi Fihri on Western Sahara: There’s No South African Monopoly on Pan-Africanism
Nigerian literary critic and philosopher Denis Paul Ekpo, one of the most insightful critics of the authenticity-obsessed pan-Africanism, has called, for example, for “the formulation and formation of a new African thinking.”
For Ekpo, this essential task of rethinking and reformulating can only occur by waging an intellectual crusade against the “misplaced hubris,” “disastrous voluntarism,” and “uncritical fundamentalism” of “angry Afrocentrists.” The goal, he insists, is to “retrieve the modern African mind from the Afrocentric trap.”
As the Nigerian philosopher writes: “Afrocentric moralism and idealism merely bring about frustration and decline. So now is the time to search for new routes, new interpretations since the old ones have proved powerless and groundless in the modern era.”
But this — carving a new, unorthodox way of approaching Africa’s development and security challenges — will not be an easy ride, not least because the authenticity and revolutionary pan-Africanism theses still carry considerable potency in some African circles.
And so, as one analyst warned in the months following Morocco’s return to the AU, this continental battle is only just beginning—and winning it will take patience and strategic guile.