The African Union vote on January 30 to readmit Morocco is a landmark decision in the tumultuous relations between Morocco and fellow African states. The vote followed the kingdom’s unprecedented year-long diplomatic and economic offensive to garner support for its bid. The move temporarily shifts the focus of the Western Sahara issue from stalled negotiations at the UN to diplomatic wrangling at the AU on the status of the Polisario independence movement and its Algeria-backed state, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). Yet there are few prospects for a fresh start or innovative approaches to settle the Western Sahara dispute.

It was the contentious issue of Western Sahara that initially led Morocco—a founding member of the Organization of African Unity in 1963 and a supporter of other liberation movements—to quit the AU’s predecessor in 1984 after it admitted the SADR as a full member in a move clouded with legal ambiguities.1 At the heart of the African institution was states’ explicit recognition of the sanctity of each other’s colonialism-inherited borders—though Rabat made reservations, arguing that the realization of its territorial integrity was still pending (a reference to Western Sahara).

Keeping a keen eye on economic, trade, and diplomatic dividends, Rabat hopes its readmission will make the AU as a whole more neutral on the issue and therefore give it additional leverage with the UN to seek a political settlement of the Western Sahara dispute. Though Morocco has vowed to seek the suspension of the SADR from the AU, this threat—necessary after having spent the last three decades swearing it will never sit in the same room as the SADR—has little substance, as the union can only suspend member states whose governments came to power through unconstitutional means. Yet the departure of Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, former South African Minister of Foreign Affairs, as head of the AU Commission and internal politics surrounding the delayed appointment of her successor may have encouraged Rabat to seek readmission. Indeed, the same day Morocco was readmitted, the AU elected a more favorable chief executive, Chadian diplomat Moussa Faki Mahamat; Chad withdrew its recognition of the SADR in 2006. Rabat might be able to push the suspension of the SADR through AU constitutional amendments (requiring a two-thirds majority), though it would face a fierce battle with pro-Polisario stalwarts like Algeria, Nigeria, South Africa, and many southern African states.

Besides economic, political, and security interests, the timing of several factors pushed Morocco to reenter the pan-African institution. These include the UN’s fundamental lack of progress on Western Sahara and Morocco’s corresponding need to reduce international pressure to include human rights as part of the mandate of the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO). In addition, shifting the Western Sahara’s diplomatic battleground from New York to Addis Ababa allows Rabat to exploit the AU’s leadership transition to secure terms more favorable to Morocco’s objectives on Western Sahara, including a potential suspension of the SADR. Finally, the death in May 2016 of Mohamed Abdelaziz, Polisario’s controversial head, allows Rabat to test the movement’s new leadership, which is expected to have greater flexibility on a negotiated solution for the status of Western Sahara.

Both Algeria and Polisario have welcomed Morocco’s readmission as its implicit recognition of its international borders at independence (meaning the exclusion of Western Sahara) and its obligation as an AU member to recognize the SADR. They also portray Rabat’s decision as evidence that its obstructionist maneuvers at the UN failed to resolve Western Sahara’s status on its own terms. Yet beyond Algiers’ tactical welcoming of Morocco’s AU membership—a tacit recognition of changes taking place in Africa—lies a vigorous counter-strategy to save the SADR’s place at the AU. Thus far, the AU has had limited impact on the Western Sahara dispute, leaving the UN Security Council (UNSC) in the front seat and even excluding the issue from regular joint consultations. However, Morocco’s reentry in the union can reduce pressure on the UNSC to find a solution by providing a new forum for its diplomatic feud with Algiers—not only on the Western Sahara dispute but also a whole range of regional and security issues where the two Maghreb countries have competing interests.

Critically, Morocco’s new place at the AU serves its strategy of streamlining, if not sidetracking, the Western Sahara issue, so the dispute does not stand in the way of long-term regional interests. Indeed, its de facto rule of most of the Western Sahara territory is no longer an obstacle to Morocco’s management of relations with the AU and most individual African states. However, as Rabat found out in December 2016, when the European Court of Justice made its latest ruling on a trade liberalization agreement between the EU and Morocco, that strategy will always ultimately hit a legal snag. Whether Morocco is in or out of the AU, the sovereignty of Western Sahara still needs to be determined.

Jacques Roussellier teaches international relations at American Military University and is co-editor of the book Perspectives on Western Sahara: Myths, Nationalism and Geopolitics (Rowman & Littlefield: New York, 2014). 

1. Antonin Tisseron, “Diplomatic Struggle in Africa and Europe over the Western Sahara Conflict,” in Boukhars, Anouar and Jacques Roussellier (eds.), Perspectives on Western Sahara: Myths, Nationalisms, and Geopolitics, (Rowman & Littlefield: New York, 2014), pp. 143-144.