By Afro-Middle East Centre
In his speech at the fifty-first ECOWAS heads of state summit in Monrovia, Liberia on 4 June, Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu claimed Africa and Israel shared ‘a natural affinity’ and ‘similar histories’. His attendance at the summit is a further indication of Israeli ambitions to shore up support from African states, extend Israel’s influence in Africa, and obtain observer status in the African Union (AU). ‘Israel should once again be an observer state of the African Union…I fervently believe that it’s in your interest too, in the interest of Africa. And I hope all of you will support that goal,’ Netanyahu told West African leaders. This initiative included Netanyahu’s visit to East Africa last year, the first visit by a sitting Israeli prime minister to an African state in twenty-nine years. However, the summit was punctuated by spats between Morocco and Israel after King Muhammad VI of Morocco reportedly skipped the summit citing the Israeli presence.
ECOWAS is a subregional bloc comprising fifteen member states dedicated to the advancement of political and economic integration in the West African region. Members include: Benin, Cote d’Ivoire, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Togo, Cape Verde and Burkina Faso. Except for Nigeria, all fifteen states attended the summit, which discussed issues of security, political stability and economic integration. In his speech at the summit, Netanyahu addressed these issues, hoping to charm the West African delegates sufficiently to be able to garner support for Israel’s AU bid as well as to boost economic ties in the agriculture and technology sectors. As part of this effort he attempted to compare African struggles to Israel: ‘With determination and conviction, you won your independence…This is very much our story. Our people too were denied independence,’ he said.
Other non-member attendees at the summit included UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, AU commission chairperson Moussa Faki and a Moroccan delegation championing its application for ECOWAS membership. All the non-member attendees gave addresses at the summit except Morocco’s representatives. The fact that no Moroccan was slated to speak has been cited as one possible reason why King Muhammad VI did not attend the summit.
The Israeli government’s prioritising the bolster of ties with African states gained a boost last year when Netanyahu visited East African states Rwanda, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda. Regaining AU observer status has been a crucial objective of Israel after losing this status in 2002, when the Organisation for African Unity (OAU) was dissolved and replaced by the AU. Israel’s loss of observer status was due to pressure exerted by former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, who accused Israel of promoting African wars, and South Africa. That the State of Palestine is an observer at the AU makes Israel’s bid even more desperate. Such a status will bolster Israel’s legitimacy in Africa, and enhance its ability to lobby and influence African states on several issues. It will also allow Israel to influence the voting behaviour of African states at multilateral institutions such as the United Nations.
Morocco and Israel have a shared ambition to influence African states in the AU and the UN. The West African country, which recently rejoined the AU, seeks African states’ support for its control of Western Sahara. Both Israel and Morocco see African states as a means to an end in the pursuit of their interests, hence the row between the two countries at the ECOWAS summit. According to the Moroccan Foreign Ministry’s official statement, Mohammed VI cancelled his trip to the summit because of Netanyahu’s presence at the meeting; he ‘did not want his presence at the summit to take place under a context of tension and controversy’. The Israeli government denied the Moroccan claims, saying Mohammed’s absence reflected his sulking after he was not given an opportunity to address the summit.
Netanyahu used the summit to secure support from West African states, including in sideline meetings with representatives of individual states. Believing that East Africa is securely in the Israeli camp, Netanyahu focused on renewing and forging relations with Francophone states. Even small states such as Togo are important for Israel because the votes of such small states at the UN General Assembly have equal value to any other states, which might be critical of Israel, especially states in the Arab and Muslim world. More support at the UN means Israel can more effectively oppose resolutions against its occupation. Netanyahu was clear about his objective to divide Africa: ‘There are 54 countries [in Africa]. If you change the voting pattern of a majority of them, you at once bring them from one side to the other. We want to erode the opposition and change it to support.’ Netanyahu also used the occasion to mend relations with Senegal, which, in December 2016, co-sponsored a UN Security Council resolution condemning Israeli’s ongoing construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, resulting in Israel recalling its ambassador. After a side meeting at the ECOWAS summit, Israel reconciled with Senegal, which will see the Israeli ambassador reinstated.
Netanyahu considers his East Africa trip last year as successful. He met Kenya’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta, who visited Israel in February 2016, and pledged that Kenya would advocate for Israel’s observer status at the AU. Kenya has strong trade and security relations with Israel. During the July 2016 multilateral meeting with East African states, Tanzania announced it would open an embassy in Israel, reversing the diminished bilateral ties between Tanzania and Israel following the 1973 October War. Following the July meeting last year, ECOWAS President Marcel Alain De Souza visited Israel where he and Netanyahu signed a declaration for greater economic cooperation between ECOWAS and Israel.
This will not be Netanyahu’s last trip to Africa this year; he is scheduled to attend an Africa-Israel summit in Togo in October, where he plans to meet representatives from twenty-five African states. Continental heavyweights, such as South Africa, Nigeria and Algeria, appear dissatisfied with Israel’s growing presence in the continent, and Nigeria’s absence at the ECOWAS summit may be an indication of such discontent. South Africa, Algeria and other states have staunchly criticised Israel, and expressed reservations about the upcoming Togo summit, but have not yet actively lobbied other African states in this regard, suggesting an incapacity or lack of commitment to curb the Israeli quest for influence on the continent.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
In the culmination of an extended process, Morocco was admitted to the African Union on 30 January 2017. This process saw the king undertake numerous visits to francophone allies, as well as concluding economic agreements. It also included the upgrading of ties with continental leaders such as Nigeria, South Africa and Kenya. A key cog in the country’s accession strategy was its resolve to no longer make accession contingent on the de-recognition of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). This resulted in the clear majority voting for its membership at the recent AU summit.
Central to this reconfigured stance is Morocco’s belief that the current civil war in South Sudan has diluted the independence drive among African states, as well as its view that counterterrorism cooperation will ensure closer ties with its allies. It also believes that the low oil price and leadership transition in Algeria will impair its support for the Polisario Front (PF), the main indigenous political force fighting for Sahrawi independence. Morocco thus believes that its 2007 autonomy plan will soon be recognised as an optimal solution for the forty-one year long conflict, especially since foreign powers such as the USA and France already support it.
Though indirectly, Morocco’s accession to the AU under this reconfigured stance will dampen support for SADR independence. Already twenty-eight states have formally advocated for SADR’s suspension. South Africa and Algeria will continue to support the PF and SADR; however, their influence will be limited in such an arena.
Autonomy for the territory within the Moroccan state, in some form, will thus likely be the eventual outcome. This will be complex and intractable, especially as the Moroccan monarch continues to maintain most state powers. However, in the short term we may see a return to active conflict, particularly if Morocco expands its territorial annexation.
History of the Sahrawi struggle
The issues currently facing the sparsely populated desert region of Western Sahara historically link to the 1884 Berlin Conference, which divided the continent among European powers. Spain took control of the 100 000-square-kilometre territory, known then as the Spanish Sahara. At the time, Spain saw it as strategically important because of its geographical location and fishing resources. Spanish rule remained until 1960, when UN Resolution 1514 advocated self-determination for former colonies. Between 1965 and 1973, the UN passed seven resolutions regarding the status of Western Sahara, and by 1975, Spain announced its intention to institute a referendum and relinquish control of the territory. However, at the time three contending actors sought the territory – Morocco, Mauritania and the indigenous Sahrawi under the banner of the Polisario Front. Feeling threatened that the referendum would result in Western Sahara’s independence, Morocco’s Hassan II successfully sought the International Court of Justice’s arbitration in the matter. Morocco contends that its colonial borders are incompatible with the country’s historical boundaries, which are believed to include the whole of ancient Mauretania, Northern Mali and parts of Algeria. Thus, it is unwilling to relinquish further territory.
In October 1975, the court ruled that although Sahrawi tribes have historical links with the Moroccan monarch, self-determination was incompatible with this claim. In November that year, around 350 000 Moroccans subsequently marched into the territory, stymieing the Spanish referendum attempt. As a result, Spain pulled out in 1976, without holding a referendum, and deferring sovereignty to Morocco and Mauritania. Subsequently, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) was declared on 27 February 1976, and currently maintains a government in exile from Tindouf. Mauritania renounced its territorial claims in 1979, redeploying its troops, and ceding most of the territory it controlled to Morocco.
Since then the PF and Morocco have been engaging in conflict. Algeria currently houses the PF’s leadership, and has financially, militarily and diplomatically supported the group. This is in line with Algiers’ historic stance on independence from colonialism, as well as due to the country’s fears that ceding this territory to Morocco would pose a threat to its southwestern border. The PF currently controls around fifteen per cent of Sahrawi territory, with Morocco controlling the rest. The struggle between Morocco and the PF was originally a military one. However, in recent years, it has been carried out in international institutions such as the UN and AU, and most recently the European Court of Justice. The two sides signed a settlement agreement in 1991, which foresaw the holding of a referendum on Sahrawi self-determination, and endorsed the creation of the United Nations Mission for the Referendum on Western Sahara (MINURSO). Originally slated for 1992, the referendum has yet to be instituted. Both sides still disagree on issues surrounding voter eligibility, even though in 1999 the UN approved an 86 000-person voter roll. Furthermore, the Moroccan monarch sought to circumvent the process over the fact that independence was to be an option on the ballot. Rabat thus left the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) in 1984, following the admission of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), and has remained outside the organisation since.
The disagreements between Morocco, SADR and Algeria culminated in the 2003 ‘Peace Plan for the Self-Determination of the People of Western Sahara’, drafted and supported by UNSC Resolution 1429. The plan advocated for a four-year transitional period, during which the territory would be governed autonomously, followed by a referendum. Originally intended to force compliance among the main parties, subsequent UN resolutions (1495 and 1541) weakened the enforcement and implementation capabilities. By this point, Morocco was fully entrenched in the Bush Administration’s War on Terror and was seen as a key ally. The Secretary General’s special envoy to the region, James Baker, resigned in 2004, and the council has not formulated a credible initiative since. Morocco has recently been emboldened, and following former Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s alleged labelling of the territory as ‘occupied’ during a trip to refugee camps in Tindouf in March 2016, the country expelled around eighty personnel from MINURSO, and thereby severely impeding its monitoring capacity.
Recent events: The 2007 autonomy plan
In 2007, the country launched an autonomy initiative for the territory, which was to allow limited judicial, legislative, and executive autonomy in return for control over defence, foreign affairs and religious affairs. Furthermore, in step with this initiative, the country invested into the territories and announced its intention to invest an additional one billion dollars, in an effort to integrate the territory into Morocco, as part of its ‘advanced regionalisation initiative’. At the heart of this move is Morocco’s attempt to shift the Sahrawi issue from the realm of international politics to one of local negotiations. It now refuses to even recognise the whole territory as having special status under the autonomy plan, while viewing it as the first step in its regionalisation process. This would enable the king to remain in control, yet give an impression of decentralisation. Mohammed VI considers the Western Sahara issue as critical for his survival, since most Moroccans support his stance.
Thus, the king has also sought to expand its control of Sahrawi territory. In 2015, it dispatched troops into the PF-controlled region of Guerguerat, and now controls over eighty-five per cent of Western Sahara. In July 2016, the country announced its intention to join the African Union without preconditions; it submitted a formal request in September. The PF has threatened to recommence armed struggle, with student groupings already issuing declarations in this regard. However, thus far, the situation remains peaceful yet tense.
Morocco’s renewed confidence centres on two major factors: perceived disillusionment from the international community with independence struggles and the impact of the oil price on the PF’s Algerian backing. Rabat believes that the struggles in South Sudan have diluted the continent’s optimism for independence struggles. No African state has gained independence since Eritrea in 1994, with South Sudan’s 2011 recognition being an anomaly. Morocco assesses that many states will reconsider SADR recognition if major African countries and the AU accept the 2007 autonomy plan. As of 2016, more than thirty of the eighty-four states that had previously recognised Western Saharan independence globally have frozen and/or withdrawn SADR recognition, even though such a move does not comply with the 1933 Montevideo Convention on statehood recognition. Further, the country believes that the rise in weapons proliferation and militancy in the Sahel, largely caused by the NATO-led ouster of Muammar Gaddafi, will increase the tendency for states to favour their own stability over the right to self-determination of others. Consequently, after Gaddafi’s ouster, Morocco has actively engaged with states such as Mali and Mauritania, in addition to supporting France’s 2013 Mali intervention. Its position received a boost when it was elected to lead the executive committee of the twenty-eight-member Community of Sahel-Saharan States’ (CEN-SAD) in 2013.
Rabat likewise believes that the oil and liquefied natural gas (LNG) price drop has negatively affected Algeria to the extent that it would be unable to continue supporting Polisario at the same level as previously. It also believes that Algeria’s succession question will weaken its resolve. Algeria, however, argues that it remains committed to the Sahrawi struggle, and that its economy will weather the oil price crisis.
Sub-Saharan Africa’s economic opportunities and the need to re-engage
For Morocco, Sub-Saharan Africa represents a significant market for its industries, especially following the 2008 global crisis, which slowed the US and European economies. Under Mohammed VI, the country is thus looking southwards. Moroccan exports to sub-Saharan Africa have increased more than tenfold from around 250 million dollars in 2000, to exceeding 3.5 billion in 2014. This is in addition to foreign direct investment from Morocco to the rest of Africa, which was doubled to around 500 million dollars in 2010, from 250 million just two years earlier. The continent remains third in Morocco’s foreign relations priorities, after Europe and the USA.
Morocco-Western Sahara and the AU
With this change in approach, Morocco is also increasing its diplomatic influence and activities in multilateral organisations. Apart from its leadership role in CEN-SAD, it was elected to the UN Security Council in 2012 as a non-permanent member. Morocco also regards conflict resolution as an important component guiding its foreign policy. It attempted to mediate between various parties following the failed coup in Guinea in 2010, and acted as a mediator to smooth US relations with Mauritania after the 2008 coup. Furthermore, the December 2015 agreement to form a unified Libyan government (GNA) was partly driven by Morocco, and signed in the Moroccan resort city of Skhirat.
The country was thus keen to restore its African Union seat. To this effect in September 2016, Mohammed VI formally submitted his request to accede to the AU. Morocco was subsequently admitted as a member in January 2017, with a clear majority. A key factor in this was Mohammed VI’s decision not to make the country’s admission contingent on SADR’s de-recognition. As a result, an unprecedented thirty-nine out of fifty-four AU member states supported the move, with only nine voting against it. Mohammed VI now believes that advocating for SADR de-recognition would have a better chance from within the organisation. This is especially since being inside the AU allows Rabat to lobby against the efforts of Algeria and South Africa, and use the support it receives from allies to weaken the organisation’s positions on the crisis. Significantly, continental heavyweights Algeria and South Africa voted not to instate the country.
Implications for SADR independence
Morocco’s accession to the AU has dampened support for SADR from within the institution. Already in July 2016, twenty-eight states formally requested that the organisation suspend SADR. Security coordination with Morocco was explicitly stated as a reason informing the appeal. While the AU’s Constitutive Act does not permit de-recognition of a state, the act can be amended to allow for this. Furthermore, AU commission chair Moussa Faki Mahamat represents Chad, whose leader Idriss Deby Itno is a strong advocate of Morocco’s stance. Only thirty-six votes are required for SADR’s suspension from the organisation, and already thirty-one members have expressed their support for this move.
Autonomy in some form will thus likely be an eventuality, especially since the USA and Spain now see the 2007 autonomy plan as credible. In addition, it is unlikely that the AU will remain assertive in its calls for self-determination, with Mahamat at the helm. This is especially since Morocco can provide much needed funding to the organisation.
Already in the 1980s, the UN envisaged such an autonomy-based solution, iterated by former Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar, who conceptualised the plan. However, autonomy will be difficult to implement in an autocratic political system, which complicates the matter, especially since Morocco’s king has near absolute powers. He chairs the supreme council of the judiciary, the national security council, and the council of ministers, and is the self-designated ‘amir al-mu'minin’ (leader of the faithful). The king will thus retain his power to dissolve governmental institutions, inhibiting checks and balances, and enabling him to influence the territory’s domestic self-determination. Mohammed VI’s influence over judicial institutions means that even matters concerning the division of powers and responsibilities, which were to be adjudicated by the constitutional council and administrative courts, would be discredited and seen as prioritising the Moroccan state. In addition, a solution based on democracy within autocracy is incompatible with the rights provided to ordinary Moroccans, and consequently may lead to problems with implementation, and cause friction between citizens from Western Saharan territories and the rest of the country. Anna Khakee thus observes that it would be difficult for freedom of speech to be fully implemented in the territory when criticism of the monarch is not tolerated in the rest of the country; the king will face difficulty in allowing the participation of communal Sahrawi parties when the largely communal Al-Adl Wal-Ihsane group remains banned. This raises pertinent questions about the applicability of the solution in the current Moroccan political system and the impact of the proposed reforms in engendering nation-building.
In the short term, this may mean a return to active conflict, especially if Morocco continues to expand the territory it controls. This is particularly if institutions such as the AU and UN are not able to constrain Rabat’s demands, and if the PF begins to believe that armed struggle is the only means to ensure self-determination. Morocco and the PF may consider it more likely now that twenty-eight states formally requested that the AU suspend the SADR. Rabat thus intends to work through the institution to alter its constitutive act and realise this suspension. It believes that the aforementioned change in stance among many African states will enable this to be achieved swiftly.
For the moment, it remains improbable that the organisation will institute such a radical measure in the immediate term. The already vociferous opposition from South Africa and Algeria over Morocco’s accession to the organisation without the monarch’s recognition of SADR will be heightened. Article 10 of the resolution adopted at the twenty-eighth head of states summit in Addis Ababa was thus very stringent in its calls for the UNGA to set a date for the referendum, and in its criticism of Morocco’s exploitation of Sahrawi natural resources. Moreover, South Africa and Algeria are able to leverage similar interests as Morocco. Both countries have well-developed security sectors, and Algeria is seen as a country with vast amounts of knowledge in countering militancy. Further, both have vast resources – liquefied natural gas in the instance of Algeria, and financial and technical expertise in South Africa. These will likely be leveraged to ensure that countries, especially in southern and eastern regions of the continent vote against SADR’s suspension. Notably, the level of South African and Algerian opposition to Moroccan admission was tempered by the country’s modification of its previous stance that accession was contingent on SADR’s suspension.
In conclusion, continental heavyweights, such as South Africa and Algeria will continue to support the PF financially and diplomatically. This is especially the case for its main supporter, Algeria. In light of the current leadership transition, Algiers will exert extra effort to support the PF, since, just as is the case with Morocco, the Algerian regime’s legitimacy has become increasingly entangled with the Sahrawi struggle. An autonomy-based solution will thus meet much opposition, unless there is reform of the Moroccan political system, with real autonomy for Western Saharans, or until we see a real rapprochement between Morocco and Algeria.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
The results of the recent, 7 October, Moroccan parliamentary election means little in terms of the exercise of actual political power, but is indicative of the continued popularity of the ruling Islamist Freedom and Development party (PJD) which won twenty-five per cent of the vote. Voter turnout stood at a low forty-three per cent because of apathy flowing from the realisation that King Mohammed VI will maintain control and the election meant little in terms of politics or power, and the belief that political parties’ objective was to join the extensive patronage networks rather than representing ordinary Moroccans’ grievances. Ideological polarisation and a skewed political system that inhibits the emergence of large political parties will further contribute to the legislature’s inability to keep the monarch in check.
With little real opposition to the king, the PJD’s victory is not terribly significant, especially in foreign policy and long term strategic planning. The party will rather attempt to further pry open the political space by confronting the palace on electoral and constitutional reform, and by focusing strongly on corruption. All this will be an incremental, attritional process.
Moroccan elections have been historically plagued by two major difficulties. First, the system promotes ideological fragmentation by encouraging the growth of multiple small parties. A low three per cent voting threshold is implemented, forcing larger parties to partner with small ones to gain a parliamentary majority. This inhibits ideological and policy coherence and allows Mohammed VI to stymie parliamentary opposition to his rule through what some call ‘political rationalisation’. Second, and more importantly, parliament has little actual power. Even though the king piloted constitutional reforms in July 2011 to curb his powers, he is still able to dissolve the government, and has absolute powers in the realms of foreign policy and strategic planning. Most major decisions must be ratified by the king, who chairs the supreme council of the judiciary, the national security council, and the council of ministers, and is the self-designated ‘amir al-mu'minin’ (leader of the faithful). Electoral power is thus circumscribed and many parties contest elections to gain access to the Makhzen (the palace) and thus its patronage networks.
This was manifest in the 7 October elections. The PJD increased its seat count from 107 in 2011 to 125, beating its main rival and the king’s favoured party, the Party of Authenticity and Modernity (PAM), which won 102 seats. The party must thus partner with some of the other thirty other parties to govern. It has entered into talks with the Democratic Front, consisting of the nationalist Istiqlal party (with forty-six seats), the Socialist Union of Popular Forces (USFP, twenty seats) and the Party for Progress and Socialism (PPS, twelve seats). These will likely form a coalition to exclude PAM. The PJD’s leader, Abdelilah Benkirane, has had to delicately balance his party’s opposition to aspects of the monarch’s power with the party’s need for monarchical endorsement to contest elections. Thus, although criticising the current political system that he calls tahakoum (politically manipulated authoritarianism), he repeatedly clarifies that he serves at the monarch’s behest and that bad decisions should be attributed to the monarch’s advisors and not Mohammed VI himself.
The low election turnout, down from forty-five per cent in the 2011 parliamentary election and fifty-three per cent in last year’s municipal vote, is due to voter apathy, and the boycott calls from the civil society Islamist movement Al Adl wa Al Ihsaane (Justice and Goodness) movement and the leftist Democratic Way party, which have been shunned from the political system. At the heart of the apathy is the realisation that the legislature’s power is severely curtailed. Hence the higher turnout for municipal elections, which many citizens see as more relevant to their needs.
The election has proven the popularity of the PJD, despite the Makhzen’s attempts to weaken it through ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ vote rigging and explicit backing for PAM. The PJD has improved from five per cent in the 2009 municipal election to sixteen per cent in the 2015 vote and from 107 seats in 2011 to 125 in the October poll. The party is thus likely to endure, despite its worse than expected performance in last year’s election, and in spite of the situation in the Middle East and North Africa region, that is unfavourable to parties referencing Islam. However, similar to Tunisia’s Ennahdha and Jordan’s Islamic Action Front, the PJD’s success lies in a focus away from ideology and toward partnerships with non-Islamist parties, and a reluctance to strongly pronounce on regional issues.
With youth unemployment at twenty per cent and graduate unemployment in many urban areas at forty per cent, the conditions that sparked the February 2011 Moroccan protests persist. Parties such as the PJD will need to carefully navigate the current political terrain else, or risk being seen as complicit when protests erupt again. Already around eighty per cent of people polled by the Arab Barometer III survey view the state as corrupt and judicial decisions as open to corruption.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
The February 2016 announcement by Moroccan King Mohammed VI that the kingdom intended to upgrade diplomatic ties with South Africa pointed to a recalculation of that country’s national interests. This has mainly been caused by regional factors such as the increase in militancy in the Sahel, and the drop in oil and liquefied natural gas (LNG) prices. In Morocco’s assessment, these factors have helped weaken support for Saharawi independence, and the kingdom believes that its 2007 autonomy plan will soon be accepted as an optimal method of resolving the issue, especially since it has created new facts on the ground. Morocco thus expelled UN civilian monitors in March, and wants to ensure that the mandate of the United Nations’s Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) no longer includes holding a referendum. Moreover, it has stepped up attempts to engage with African countries, such as South Africa and Kenya, which recognise the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), to gain support for the Moroccan position on the SADR, and lobby the African Union to alter its stance on this issue.
The slowdown in the global – and especially European – economy following the 2008 financial crisis, and the weakening of domestic demand, has also forced Rabat to look toward Sub-Saharan Africa, including South Africa, for economic partnerships. An upgrade in ties between Morocco and South Africa will, however, be of little political consequence. Although bilateral economic opportunities and counter terrorism coordination will likely be facilitated and increase, South Africa will continue its support for the Polisario Front, the Saharawi liberation movement, and its recognition of the SADR, which has an embassy in Pretoria. Morocco hopes economic convergences and increases in bilateral trade will help mitigate these differences.
Relations since 1990
Moroccan-South African relations were formally established in September 1991 after Pretoria established an interest office in Rabat. Morocco reciprocated in April 1992, and both offices were upgraded to embassies in 1994. Earlier, Morocco had supported the anti-apartheid movement and provided diplomatic, military and financial backing to the African National Congress (ANC). Nelson Mandela had travelled to the kingdom in the 1960s to garner support for the anti-apartheid struggle, and received some military training there. Since 2004, however, relations between Pretoria and Rabat have been tense because of ANC support for independence of the SADR, whose territory is claimed by Morocco.
Morocco formally downgraded relations in September 2004 after severely criticising Pretoria’s inauguration of a Saharawi representative office in Pretoria. South Africa believed that it could maintain good relations with both Morocco and the SADR, which it views as independent states. This is similar to South Africa’s position on Israel and Palestine. When the term of South Africa’s ambassador to Rabat ended in 2006, Ashraf Suleiman was appointed to head the South African mission. Rabat ignored the appointment and did not issue South Africa with the necessary agrément (approval). After about a year of waiting, it seems President Thabo Mbeki got the message. He deployed Suleiman elsewhere, and downgraded South Africa’s representation in Rabat to chargé d’affaires level.
At the time, trade between the two countries stood at around 500 million rands annually, with companies such as Eskom and Anglo American benefiting the most. NEXSA (formally the nuclear energy cooperation of South Africa) had been building a facility in Morocco and procuring material to assist in the area of nuclear medicine.
The situation has since changed. A 150-member Moroccan delegation, including the country’s prime minister and foreign minister attended last year’s Africities summit in Johannesburg, and it is probable that diplomatic ties will soon be upgraded to ambassadorial level, following a February announcement by King Mohammed VI of a new ambassador to Pretoria, AbdelKader Chaoui. He is, however, no longer the ambassador-designate because of ill-health, and the king is currently considering a replacement. That Chaoui’s appointment was publicly announced suggests that agreement had been received from Pretoria for the upgrade in ties, and South Africa will likely reciprocate. In a further indication of an upgrade in relations, Royal Air Maroc (Morocco’s national carrier) will soon launch direct flights to South Africa.
Why the change from Rabat
The change in approach is mostly in terms of Morocco’s foreign relations; Pretoria has not altered its positions much from its 2004 decision to recognise the SADR – the main reason for Rabat’s downgrading of relations. Until then, the kingdom had believed that it had the upper hand in attempts to get African states to withdraw recognition of the SADR and its Polisario Front. South Africa’s recognition, unofficial from the ANC’s accession to power in 1994 until 2004, was an obstacle in this process.
Morocco claims Western Sahara, a Spanish colony until 1975, as part of its territory, and has since occupied much of the territory. Morocco also refuses to join international and regional organisations which recognise the independence of the SADR, pulling out of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) in 1984, and playing little role in other regional bodies on the continent. Pretoria, though, views the Saharawi struggle as the last anti-colonial struggle in Africa, has lobbied international organisations for the Saharawi right to self-determination, and believes that its support for the SADR is integral to a foreign policy guided by human rights imperatives.
Rabat now believes that there is no longer enthusiasm for Saharawi recognition, and that the Polisario’s capabilities are on the wane – because of three key factors. First, the kingdom believes it has created a situation on the ground that makes Saharawi independence less viable than previously. It has conceptualised an autonomy plan that will allow the territory some legislative and judicial powers, but guard Rabat’s control over defence and foreign policy. Certain major powers, such as USA and France, have responded positively to the plan, and have worked with the kingdom to halt opposition to it. France and Senegal (currently a non-permanent UNSC member) have even lobbied to alter MINURSO’s mandate to exclude the hosting of a referendum.
Second, the South Sudan crisis has diluted optimism for independence struggles even amongst European states. No African state has gained independence since Namibia (formally South West Africa) in 1990 with South Sudan’s 2011 recognition being an anomaly. Morocco assesses that many states will reconsider SADR recognition if African heavyweights and the AU accept the 2007 autonomy plan. To date, over thirty of the around eighty-four states that had recognised Western Saharan independence have frozen or/and withdrawn SADR recognition, even though such a move does not comply with the 1933 Montevideo convention on statehood recognition.
Furthermore, the kingdom believes that the increase in weapons proliferation and militancy in the Sahel, largely caused by the NATO-led overthrow of Muammar Gadhdhafi, will increase the tendency for states to favour their own stability over the right to self-determination of others. Morocco has thus been actively engaging with states such as Mali and Mauritania after Gadhdhafi’s ouster, and supported the French 2012-13 Mali intervention. The increasing influence of al-Qa'ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in areas around Western Sahara and the group’s recruitment of Saharawi youth convinced Rabat that its assessment of states’ response was correct. Its position received a boost when it was elected to lead the Community of Saharan and Sahelian States’ (CEN-Sad) executive committee in 2013.
Third, Rabat believes that the oil and liquefied natural gas (LNG) price drop has negatively impacted Algeria to the extent that it would be unable to continue supporting Polisario at the same levels as previously. It also believes that Algeria’s succession question will weaken its resolve. The over fifty per cent drop in the oil price between 2014 and 2015 placed immense pressure on Algiers, which sought loans and suspended subsidies. Algeria, however, argues that it remains committed to the Saharawi struggle, and that its economy will weather the oil price crisis.
Sub-Saharan Africa’s economic opportunities
For Morocco, Sub-Saharan Africa represents a significant market for its industries. Although previously relying on Europe for over sixty per cent of its exports and for foreign direct investment, the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent increase in competitiveness of Eastern European states placed pressure on this export potential. Under Mohammed VI the kingdom thus looked southwards, backed by Moroccan companies which possess a competitive advantage in many industries such as banking, construction and electricity generation. Domestic demand within Morocco has stagnated, increasing by a mere 2.4 per cent from around six per cent in 2011, and the free trade agreement with the US failed to realise an increase in trade.
The rest of Africa still however remains third in Morocco’s foreign relations priorities, after Europe and the USA. Moreover, even though trade between the Kingdom and the rest of the continent has increased in recent years, it only comprises around five per cent of overall Moroccan trade. Moroccan exports to sub-Saharan Africa tripled from around 250 million dollars in 2000 to over 840 million in 2010, and foreign direct investment from Morocco to the rest of the continent has doubled to around 500 million dollars in 2010 from 250 million just two years earlier. Focal sectors include banking, agriculture and pharmaceuticals. Airline diplomacy, cultural ties, and counter terrorism cooperation have been used to strengthen ties with francophone West African states such as Senegal and Cote d’Ivoire. King Mohammed VI has himself increased his visits to West and Central Africa, and concluded treaties on eliminating double taxation and reducing tariffs.
With this change in approach, Morocco is also increasing its diplomatic clout and activities in multilateral organisations. Apart from its leadership role in CEN-SAD, it was elected to the UN Security Council in 2012 as a non-permanent member. As such, it successfully prevented the UN from extending its Western Sahara mandate to include human rights monitoring. Morocco also regards conflict resolution as an important component guiding its foreign policy, and it attempted to mediate between various parties following the failed coup in Guinea (2010), and acted as a mediator to smooth US relations with Mauritania after the 2008 coup there. Furthermore, the recent agreement to form a unified Libyan government, which resulted in the Government of National Accord, was partly driven by Morocco, and signed in the Moroccan resort city of Skhirat.
The Kingdom is keen to restore its African Union seat, but will rejoin the AU only if the SADR’s recognition is revoked. While the AU’s Constitutive Act does not permit the de-recognition of a state, the act can be amended to allow for this, and there is a precedent in this regard. At the founding of the OAU in 1963, the Portuguese protectorate of Kabinda was recognised as the thirty-ninth African state still to be decolonised, and Angola the thirty-fifth. However, when Angola gained independence in 1975, the OAU recognised the incorporation of Kabinda into Angola despite Kabindan opposition. For any such attempt by Morocco, South African support will be crucial, partly because of Pretoria’s clout in Southern Africa, and because it is one of the ‘big five’ members of the African union.
Impact on Morocco-South Africa relations
it is within this context that Morocco is looking to upgrade relations with Pretoria and return them to ambassadorial level. Chaoui, named by Mohammed VI as the new ambassador to South Africa, is a former dissident who spent fifteen years in jail for belonging to the Leninist ‘March 23’ movement. Released in 1990, he joined the justice ministry, and is currently the ambassador to Chile. It is probable that Chaoui was strategically selected because of his dissident credentials and favourable reputation amongst Moroccan opposition parties, which Morocco would have hoped would endear him to Pretoria. His replacement will likely have similar credentials. However, it is inconceivable that any ambassador to South Africa will have a different position on the SADR than Rabat; most political parties and politicians operating in Morocco, those supporting and those opposing the monarchy, support the king’s claims over Saharawi territory.
The participation of a large delegation – with the largest exhibition stand – to the Africities summit in Johannesburg in November 2015 was not coincidental. Morocco’s attendance was to garner support for its stance on Saharawi independence, and to exhibit its local government-decentralisation model. Yet the country’s foreign minister, Salaheddine Mezouar, met with South Africa’s Maite Nkoana-Mashabane. It is likely that Chaoui’s appointment and Pretoria’s reciprocation was a key issue discussed.
The upgrading of diplomatic ties and recently-announced direct flights between Morocco and South Africa will have mainly economic implications. Opportunities for investments for both South African and Moroccan companies will increase. This is especially pertinent because they are the two largest investors in the continent. South African companies, especially in the areas of retail, finance and mining, have been very active on the continent, while Morocco’s banks have replaced much of the French continental banking investments following the 2008 economic collapse. In 2015 South Africa’s largest insurer, Sanlam, acquired around thirty per cent of Moroccan insurer Saham Finances in a five billion rand deal that will allow Sanlam to have a foothold in the largely untapped and lucrative Francophone West African market. South African trade statistics already show an increase in bilateral trade from around thirty four million rand in 1992, when the interest office was established, to over four billion in 2015. The tripling of exports from South Africa to Morocco from 1.2 billion in 2014 to over 3.2 billion in 2015, and the quadrupling of imports from Morocco to over one billion in 2014 from around 270 million the previous year point to increasing economic convergences. It is thus not surprising that Morocco’s reading of the change in the SADR situation prompted it to reconsider its diplomatic relations with South Africa.
The political consequences will, however, be minimal. The upgrade might strengthen continental counter terrorism cooperation, which Morocco is keen on. However, South Africa’s stance on the SADR is unlikely to change. Pretoria has been emphatic on the issue, and altering its position will undermine its soft power, hegemonic aspirations and its moral authority on the continent. Pretoria is also unlikely to support Moroccan attempts to lobby the AU to change its position regarding SADR recognition. South Africa’s close ties with Algeria will ensure that it will defer to Algeria’s position on the SADR, which is unlikely to change even with the current budget crunch and succession battle. If Rabat seeks better diplomatic relations with South Africa while ignoring Pretoria’s recognition of the SADR, the upgrade in relations will be successful; however, if the kingdom expects to move Pretoria’s position on the SADR, it will likely fail. Economic convergences can mitigate these differences, and bilateral relations will likely improve in the short- to medium-term.
By Mohamed Darif
As with other Arab countries, a wave of protests calling for change is sweeping across Morocco. These protests have largely been inspired by the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, and the revolutionaries believe that the current period provides the opportunity to put pressure on the ruling regime by mobilising the Moroccan street, and calling for a series of far-reaching institutional and political reforms. The wave of protests began with an appeal to Moroccans to join a protest on 20 February 2011, a date that has since been associated with the movement calling for change, which is now eponymously called the ‘February 20 Youth Movement’. Since the announcement of protests for that date, political groups and rights organisations have engaged in a series of actions throughout Morocco.
The February 20 Movement also called for demonstrations on 20 March and 24 April, and defied a ban on protests by again taking to the streets on the 22 May in protests that saw riot police wounding dozens of protesters.