Thirty-three years after it broke ranks with the African Union (AU), then known as the Organization for African Unity, Morocco has been readmitted as a member of Africa’s main regional body after a vote at the AU Summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia yesterday (Jan. 30).
Morocco’s readmission means that all African nations are now a part of the AU. ”Africa wants to speak in one voice. We need all African countries to be a part of that voice,” Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, president of Liberia, said after the vote.
But despite Morocco’s readmission, the dispute which triggered its exit from the union still remains. In 1984, Morocco left the AU after the body decided to recognize the independence of Western Sahara, also known as Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), and admitted it as a member state. Morocco has long contended the territory is under its control. While most of the territory has been annexed by Morocco since 1975, it has been in involved in a violent conflict with Western Saharan independence movement Polisario Front which insists the territory is a sovereign independent state. Until a ceasefire brokered by the United Nations (UN) in 1991, both parties remained at odds resulting in the displacement of 90,000 people, according to UN’s Refugee Agency.
When Morocco formally requested to be readmitted into the AU last July, it also asked the body to reconsider its stance on recognizing SADR’s independence. With Morocco back in the AU, there are fears it could step its bid to “secure” the region. For its part, SADR has diplomatically accepted Morocco’s readmission. Mohamed Yeslem, foreign minister of SADR, says he hopes the readmission will result in a solution to the territorial dispute through “a referendum” and “a United Nations resolution.” The UN currently does not recognize SADR.
Despite’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s idealistic view of Africa speaking with one voice, Morocco’s readmission was not a smooth-sailing process. As many as 15 of the AU’s 54 member nations, including continental bigwigs Algeria and South Africa, longtime supporters of SADR’s claim of independence, were against readmitting Morocco.
Morocco’s request to rejoin the AU also signals a significant shift in the North African country’s foreign policy. Previously focused on Europe, under King Mohammed VI, Morocco has increasingly looked to the south for more friends. In 2016, King Mohammed VI visited six African countries, including Nigeria and Ethiopia, two of the continent’s leading economies, signing trade deals in a bid to deepen its relationship with those countries as it seeks to establish itself as a more dominant player on the continent.