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Western Sahara clouds Morocco's return to African Union

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King Mohamed VI AFP PHOTO/FADEL SENNA

After a 32-year hiatus, Morocco officially announced its intention to rejoin the African Union on Monday after leaving in a row over the status of Western Sahara. Morocco claims the disputed former Spanish colony is an integral part of its territory, but the African Union recognizes it as an independent state. Neither Rabat nor the AU have changed their position.


The request was made in a letter from the Moroccan King to heads of state gathered at the African Union summit in Rwanda.

In it, Mohammed VI evokes the memory of his grandfather Mohamed V, and his father Hassan II, and their contribution to the African continent.

"Morocco never quit Africa", the monarch insists, despite Rabat leaving the former Organization of African Unity, now known as the African Union.

"Yet it was impossible for it to sit alongside the Polisario Front," Abdelatif Bendahane, the king's former director for African affairs, told RFI.

Relations soured in 1984 when the African Union welcomed Western Sahara as a member; the north-west corner of Africa is seen by Morocco as an integral part of its territory.

More than thirty years on, the status of Western Sahara -- led by the Sahrawi rebel national liberation movement the Polisario Front-- still remains problematic explains Omar Brouksy, author of Mohammed VI derrière les masques or Mohammed VI behind the masks.

"Morocco quit the AU because of the recognition accorded to the Polisario Front. That hasn't changed," he told RFI.

The African Union indeed has reiterated its commitment to the Sahrawi people's independence. It's a struggle that led to the creation of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) in 1975, during which thousands of indigenous people fled to refugee camps in Algeria.

"I don't believe they are refugees, armed refugees do not exist. Yet the Polisario Front was able to convince certain member states that the Sahrawi people were disenfranchised, and it did so by bribing them, we shouldn't hide it! And so on that basis, Morocco left the AU," Bendahane explains.

Now it wants to return. But without concessions.

In his address to the African Union, the Moroccan king instead urged the 54-member bloc to rethink its position on what it describes as Western Sahara's "phantom state".

Returning Empty-handed

"The African Union is out of sink with the rest of the international community," the king wrote. "This so-called state [the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic] is neither part of the United Nations, nor is it a member of the Arab League. But most importantly, at least 34 African countries don't recognize it."

Bendahane agrees. The king's former African affairs director, who today works as a consultant and presidential advisor, argues that Morocco doesn't need to change its policy on Western Sahara.

"I can assure you that a country like Uganda doesn't care what happens in Western Sahara. The Ugandan president [Yoweri Museveni] didn't even know where it was!"

Morocco may not want, nor need to change its policy, but Omar Brouksy says the country may be lulling itself into a false sense of security if it expects the African Union to change.

"Unless a major incident takes place, I don’t think the African Union would roll back its policy on the Western Sahara by suspending or excluding the Polisario Front, for one very simple reason: it will have to contend with the political and diplomatic clout of two countries: Algeria and South Africa. And of course there’s also Nigeria. All three powerhouses recognize the Polisario and this is a well-known fact.”

While the AU is still to deliberate on Morocco's possible return within its "institutional family," among the Sahrawi population, the news has received a lukewarm response.

"For the moment, the people are waiting to see what the reaction of the African Union will be. We don't have a negative or positive reaction yet," Reda Taoujni, director of an NGO that campaign's for the recognition of Western Sahara, told RFI.

Asked whether he thought the AU could put pressure on Morocco to allow Western Sahara to hold a self-determination referendum, he was less optimistic: "The African Union doesn't have the legitimacy nor the capacity to do so," he said.

Ultimately, most African countries are reluctant to jeopardize relations with a strategic regional power, even one that has been out in the cold for more than thirty years.