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.