Why is King Mohammed VI of Morocco suddenly keen to join the African Union (AU) after his late father King Hassan II condescendingly ditched the continental Organization of African Unity the (OAU) in 1984?
Morocco is currently courting a number of African countries relentlessly, including Madagascar, Tanzania, Rwanda, and others. Morocco has signed 19 economic agreements with Rwanda and 22 with Tanzania—two countries that traditionally backed the Western Sahara’s quest for decolonization. Nigeria Morocco have signed a total of 21 bilateral agreements, a joint venture to construct a gas pipeline that will connect the two nations as well as some other African countries to Europe. It is easily transparent that the economic agreements with these countries imply ulterior motives for increasing Morocco’s leverage in its campaign to return to the AU and deal a blow to Western Sahara’s aspirations for self-determination. Morocco is waging a similar campaign internationally and in the halls of the U.S. congress by hiring expensive lobbyists and sleazy public relations firms.
In this endeavor, it appears Morocco is making significant progress in isolating the Western Sahara. For Morocco, joining the AU is part of the tactic of trying to use the organization for its objective of neutralizing Western Sahara from inside the AU. Already, it has the backing of 28 African countries. However, it needs two thirds (36) of the votes from the 54 member countries of the AU to get Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) expelled. To return to the organization, it only needs a simple majority while overcoming resistance from powerful countries like South Africa and Algeria along with Zimbabwe and Equatorial Guinea. South Africa and Algeria have been reliable allies for SADR.
This move by Morocco has become a terribly divisive wedge issue within the AU. Outside Africa, Morocco has powerful support for its position from influential Gulf States such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia, which are not members of the AU, but which can still use their political influence and the power of the purse to coerce and lobby cash-strapped African countries and the United Nations. In a clear show of muscle, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and UAE walked out from a meeting of the Arab and African foreign ministers meeting, which was held in the capital of Equatorial Guinea, Malabo, in preparation for the fourth Arab-African summit, because of opposition to the presence of a delegation from SADR. Notable here are Saudi Arabian and UAE’s forceful expressions of solidarity with Morocco. Among African countries, Senegal strongly backs Morocco’s position, undoubtedly due to great pressure from France and Moroccan economic investors in Senegal. Morocco is also the largest investor in Ivory Coast and therefore can count on strong Ivorian support. Morocco has stronger support in Francophone Africa.
Kenya, which once supported SADR, reversed course in 2007 but now Foreign Minister Amina Mohamed, candidate to head the African Union Commission, is calling for holding, as quickly as possible, “the referendum on Western Sahara people’s self-determination.” Zambia has similarly vacillated after early support for the cause of Western Sahara. According to WikiLeaks, at least until 2009 Ethiopia’s position was to recognize the SADR, declared by the Polisario (Western Sahara’s guerrilla army) in 1976 as its representative body. It still remains to be seen, how countries will vote when it really matters.
Ironically, according to the WikiLeaks report, Eritrea’s position is unknown but is not listed among the countries that recognized SADR, although the history of the territory bears striking resemblance to its own struggle for independence from Ethiopia and the independence struggles of Belize and East Timor. Both Belize and East Timor recognize SADR. Africa committed itself to maintain colonial borders, drawn arbitrarily in the 19th and 20th centuries, after the collapse of European colonialism. This commitment was not made because those borders made any sense: borders were rarely congruent with ethnic geographical homelands or previous historical delineations. One can debate the pros and cons of this but Africa made the decision in Cairo in 1964, to keep these borders in order to avoid disruptive and endless conflict of trying to rearrange colonial boundaries, to fit language groups or ethnicities. For better or worse, that is what was decided with the Cairo resolution (AHG/Res. 16(I)). Nevertheless, Morocco is choosing to mess with that resolution by gobbling up Western Sahara.
But why does Morocco need the AU? And why does it need to bribe the African countries in order to return to the continental body as dysfunctional and weak as it is? The explanation for this dubious posturing lies in Morocco’s illegal Occupation of Western Sahara and its need to legitimize it by enlisting as many African countries as possible, to accept Western Sahara’s fate as fait accompli. Morocco has been occupying or colonizing (take your pick) the territory since 1974. Recently, U.N. General Secretary Ban Ki Moon characterized Morocco as an occupying force in Western Sahara, which obviously did not sit well with Morocco.
The Western Sahara consists of the former Spanish colonies of Rio de Oro (River of Gold) and Saqiet al-Hamra (Red Creek) along the Atlantic coast, until the Spanish dictator Franco decided to leave the territories in 1974. The territories natural resources include phosphates, offshore fishing and potential oil. Morocco’s occupation has been aided by Spain and France (former colonizers) acting through the United Nations. Mauritania was also an early protagonist in occupying a part of Western Sahara but abandoned its claim after being soundly defeated by the Polisario, which precipitated the collapse of the Mauritanian government. Between Western Sahara and Morocco, there has been an impasse and a no-war, no-peace status quo since 1991, after a ceasefire brokered by the United Nations. Morocco has proposed “internal autonomy” for Western Sahara, but the Saharawis insist on a United Nations supervised referendum vote, with independence on the table. The International Court of Justice (ICJ) after consideration of materials and information provided by both sides concluded there is no evidence:
establish[ING] any tie of territorial sovereignty between the territory of Western Sahara and the Kingdom of Morocco or the Mauritanian entity… the Court has not found legal ties of such a nature as might affect the application of General Assembly resolution 1514 (XV) in the decolonization of Western Sahara and, in particular, of the principle of self-determination through the free and genuine expression of the will of the peoples of the Territory.
In a rare show of some backbone, the OAU welcomed Western Sahara’s membership, which incensed Morocco and caused its withdrawal from the organization in 1984—making it the only country to do so in the history of the organization. This was a strategic mistake by Morocco, which it seems to have finally realized. It is notable that the only country vocally supporting the Moroccan position at the time was the kleptocracy of Mobutu Sese Seko’s Zaire. Upon his overthrow, Mobutu was granted asylum in Togo but died in Morocco in 1997, where he was receiving medical treatment.
Tit for Tat with Egypt
In a setback for Morocco, relations with Egypt have been strained visibly since the end of October due to President Abdelfattah El Sissi permitting a delegation from the Polisario Front to enter Sharm El-Sheikh in an official capacity. The delegation reportedly met with presidents of Arab and African parliaments and with members of the Egyptian legislature during its stay. The visit by the King of Morocco to Addis Ababa is likely in retaliation by Rabat to exploit Cairo’s ongoing dispute with Addis Ababa over the sharing of Nile waters and specifically over the issues surrounding the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). Ethiopia has been accusing Egypt of helping and stroking the ongoing ethnic rebellions in Ethiopia.
Illegal Mining of Western Sahara’s Potash Resource
Morocco is exploiting and using Western Sahara’s potash resource to bribe and lobby countries like Ethiopia, casting doubt on the sincerity of its offer for “internal autonomy” to the territory.
According to the financialpost.com:
Two Canadian fertilizer firms have become the dominant buyers of phosphate rock from the disputed territory of Western Sahara after other companies stopped the practice… Western Sahara Resource Watch (WSRW) found that Potash Corp. of Saskatchewan Inc. and Agrium Inc. shipped a combined 916,000 tonnes of phosphate from the territory last year. That accounted for 64.5 per cent of all purchases from Western Sahara in 2015. Potash Corp. shipped 474,000 tonnes and Agrium shipped 442,000…
At a time when the Ethiopian government is gripped by nationwide protests and foreign businesses are fleeing the country, there have been headlines that “Morocco signed an agreement…to invest over two billion dollars in Ethiopia over a five year period to build a fertilizer factory.” The Financial Times reported that the OCP (Morocco’s state-owned phosphate company) sealed a deal to build $3.7bn fertilizer plant in Ethiopia. This is hailed as the largest investment of Morocco outside the country and as an example of South–South cooperation. The dubious clue for this motive is to be found in “Ethiopia’s support for Morocco’s return to the African institutional family …articulated in a joint statement issued following King Mohammed VI’s … visit to Ethiopia, the first since his accession to the Throne.”
Here, it needs to be asked: where is this resource feeding the fertilizer company coming from? And why is Ethiopia chosen for such an investment? Is this deal another case of partnership-in-crime?
Moroccan robbery of Western Sahara’s resources is widespread. Hillary Clinton was complicit with relaxing U.S. foreign aid restrictions on Morocco during her tenure as Secretary of State, allowing U.S. funds to be used in the territory of Western Sahara where OCP operates phosphate-mining operations. Collaterally, Hillary’s favor to Morocco resulted in 12-million for the Clinton-Foundation, courtesy of King Mohammed VI.
Morocco’s Questionable Commitment to South- South Cooperation
Ethiopia is seen as key for Morocco’s goals, as a founding member of the OAU hosting the headquarters of the AU’s Chinese-funded 200-million-dollar building in Addis Ababa, showcasing Chinese soft power. Morocco is framing its charm offensive in Africa in terms of South– South cooperation. But what really is Morocco’s commitment to South-South cooperation? Like Ethiopia, Morocco’s commitment, first of all, is commitment to an extreme form of neoliberalism and to an environmental narrative that blames pastoralists and their overgrazing practices as an excuse for invading and appropriating land for commercial agriculture and other land grabs. In Morocco, state services such as health care and education have faced drastic reduction. The promotion of exports and the lowering of tariffs is the reality. For the majority of their populations, rampant degradation and poverty are the reality in both countries.
A central tenet of South-South cooperation is poverty reduction, but neoliberalist market fundamentalism is incompatible with reducing inequality and protecting the environment. The beneficiaries from these policies are the elite and international capitalists; the results are a far cry from South-to-South cooperation that would alleviate poverty. Even the 22nd Conference of the Parties (COP22) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was used by Morocco to insert itself in the 16 November 2016 meeting of the Africa Action Summit in Marrakesh. King Mohammed VI was the new face in the meeting, clearly pushing his campaign to get rid of SADR from the AU.
The struggle to deal seriously with climate change should not be circumvented by the unjust political agendas of opportunistic leaders. As Hamza Hamouchene of War on Want, articulates: there cannot be authentic environmental justice in Morocco when its government ignores the political rights of the Saharawi people.
In 2009, in his capacity as a designated negotiator, the late Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi betrayed the G77’s and Africa’s collective stance in Copenhagen by making a back-door deal with France retreating from the agreed upon 1.5 degrees Celsius target to 2 degrees and thereby dealing a serious blow to the bargaining capacity of the global South. As Kate Sheppard of Mother Jones magazine wrote:
The major powers welcomed Ethiopia’s defection from the 1.5-degree target. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown…endorsed the side deal with France….Obama placed a call to Zenawi [in which he] expressed his appreciation for the leadership [of] the Prime Minister… [In negotiating] with African countries on climate change.
The truth was that Meles used Copenhagen to further his own immediate agenda at the expense of Africa in much the same way that King Mohammed VI used COP22 to support Morocco’s agenda of denying the rights of the Saharawi people.
Moroccan and Ethiopian versions of South-to-South cooperation is simply a repackaged version of neoliberalism based on extractive activities and destroying the lives of the most vulnerable. It is not a coincidence that both Ethiopia and Morocco are facing internal resistance from their populations, which they are trying to suppress with extreme violence.
The brutal death of the fish seller Mouhcine Fikri in the northern Moroccan town of Al Hoceima while trying to rescue his swordfish is being compared with the Tunisian fruit seller Mohamed Bouazizi in 2010, whose death sparked the Arab Spring uprisings. Neoliberal privatization is preventing and displacing folks who have been selling or consuming fish for as long as they have been living in the coastal towns of Morocco. In Ethiopia, it is land grab and extreme repression that is having similar effect on communities in Gambella, Benishangul, and the Amhara region, Sidama, Konso, Ogaden and Oromia.
January 31, 2017, in Addis Ababa is the next AU summit, where Morocco is hoping to achieve its sinister goal against SADR. The honorable thing for the AU to do is to rebuff Morocco’s arm twisting and vigorously support the self-determination of the Saharawi people.
By Yohannes Woldemariam
Educator and Author.