• After thirty-two years, Morocco is set to return to the African Union. No one knows the exact date but excitement has been high ahead of the Rwanda Summit where Morocco is expected to make the announcement of its return to the African bloc. An anonymous source is said to have revealed this information to the Moroccan newspaper, Akhbar al-Youm this Wednesday while Morocco special envoy Taieb Fassi Fihri confirmed the reports in an official visit to Kenya. There was, however, no confirmation of whether King Mohammed VI would attend the Rwanda Summit.

    The History of the Western Sahara Impasse

    In the listing of the African Union members found on the official AU website, a note reads, “Morocco left the AU’s predecessor, the OAU, in 1984. Morocco is the only African country that is not a member of the AU.” Morocco left as a result of the decision made by the then Organisation of African Unity to accept the Sahrawi Republic as a full member state of the organisation.

    It has been 40 years since Morocco annexed part of Western Sahara, a North African territory which had been ceded by Spain. Indigenous Sahrawis, the inhabitants of the territory and Morocco both lay claim to the land. The Polasario Front (Popular Front for the Liberation of the Sahara), which is the sole legitimate representative of the Sahrawis waged a guerrilla war until the United Nations brokered a ceasefire in 1991. Western Sahara is an arid territory but it has been described as the theatre of one of Africa’s most bitter and intractable wars.

    Tony Hodges, an author of one of the most acclaimed books (Western Sahara: The Roots of a Desert War) on the Western Sahara conflict describes the land in these not so flattering words, “In most of Western Sahara there appears to be nothing but rocks and stones, stretching interminably over monotonous plains, for mile upon mile.” However, the fact that the coastline is rich in fish and the land in minerals makes it a very attractive territory.

    Morocco’s claims to the territory go back as far as the time of Moroccan independence. Leaders of the young Moroccan nation claimed Western Sahara had always been a part of Morocco and independence would only be complete when the territory had been integrated into the greater country. The International Court of Justice determined the claims to be null and Spain, the Western Saharan colonial power also rejected the claims prompting the United Nations to gather information from the Sahrawi people to get their opinions. The people wanted to be independent and as such, the United Nations ruled in favour of the territory’s independence on October 14, 1974. Morocco’s response was the Green March on November 6, 1974, a demonstration by more than 300,000 Moroccan civilians who went to settle in the Spanish Sahara (Sahrawi Republic) which they referred to as their “Southern Province”. As these were civilians, Spain did not engage in military action but instead engaged Morocco and Mauritania for a round of negotiations which resulted in the Madrid Accords which was the basis of Spain’s withdrawal from the region. Western Sahara would be divided between Mauritania which got a third and Morocco which got the remaining two thirds. Spain got fishing rights along the coast and access to Western Sahara’s phosphate.

    The Polisario’s fight has been to see the establishment of an independent state and the then Organisation of African Unity accepted Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic as a member state. This is the whole reason Morocco pulled out of the OAU (now AU). Its return is therefore a topic of debate. Morocco’s presence in the region has been described as an “occupation” by the U.N Secretary General. The presence has resulted in a humanitarian crisis which the Spokesman of the Secretary General said Moon had tried to bring attention to. He said, “He (Sec General Moon) also wanted to bring attention to the humanitarian crisis of the Sahrawi people, a very much forgotten humanitarian crisis that has been going on for 40 years.”

    Seeing that Morocco has been at the centre of this storm, is it right that the African Union would readmit the country?

    A sacrifice of the Sahrawi people?

    After Ban Ki Moon referred to the Sahrawi Republic situation as an “occupation”, Morocco expelled United Nations peacekeepers from the region in retaliation. It also accused the Secretary General of not being neutral. The action was denounced by the African Union as it set a “dangerous precedent” and threatened regional peace. With this recklessness and disregard for the Sahrawi people’s right of self-determination, Morocco should be apologetic in the very least. Instead, Morocco has been stubborn with the envoy (Taieb Fassi Fihri) sent to Kenya clearly saying “All we want is our membership to be reinstated without pre-conditions.”

    How can the continent not have conditions when Morocco keeps foiling plans of a referendum in the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic? With the current drive to have Morocco readmitted, states are willing to forget the suffering of the Sahrawi people. The Sahrawis are being sacrificed on the altar of regional integration. More and more countries are coming out as supporters of the readmission.

    Senegalese Foreign Minister Mankeur Ndiaye said, “Morocco is a fully-fledged member of the African family, and no-one has the right to exclude the kingdom from the AU.”

    That is a fact. No one has a right to deny Morocco of its seat in the African Union but just as well, no one has a right to deny the Sahrawi Republic of its sovereignty if that is what its people desire. Modern Africa cannot pretend to be blind to modern colonialism, violent and vile in nature. This situation should be fixed.

    Welcome back Morocco, but there is a lot of work to be done.