Western Sahara: An albatross around the African Union’s conscience

March 11, 2017
Morocco has been readmitted into the African Union despite still occupying Western Sahara.

At the 28th Summit meeting of the African Union (AU) held in Ethiopia in January, Morocco’s readmission to the continental body generated heated discussion.

At the end of the day, the Kingdom of Morocco managed to win over sufficient member states to its side and it was allowed to join the fold unconditionally.

Morocco left the Organization of African Unity (OAU), precursor to the AU, in 1984 after the OAU recognised the right to self-determination and independence for the people of the Western Sahara, who have been occupied by Morocco since the 1970s.

The OAU granted membership to the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), proclaimed in 1976 by the Sahrawi people's Polisario Front in a declaration of independence rejected by Morocco. The decision was in keeping with the OAU principle not to recognise the occupation of any part of the continent. While the SADR claimed sovereignty over Western Sahara, Morocco saw it as an integral part of its own territory.

Rather than accept the SADR’s independence, Morocco left the OAU. Since then Morocco has refused to join the AU unless the group withdraws the SADR’s membership.


Western Sahara has been occupied by Morocco since 1976 when Spain pulled out and relinquished its claim as a colonial power over the territory. The former Spanish colony was then annexed by Morocco.

Sahrawi people, who fought Spanish colonial oppression, were now forced to fight Moroccan occupation. Under the leadership of the Polisario Front, they conducted  armed resistance until 1991, when the United Nations brokered a truce.

A UN-supervised referendum on independence of Western Sahara was promised in 1992, but aborted by Morocco. A UN peacekeeping mission that was to organise the referendum has remained in the territory ever since, while Morocco built a 2700 kilometre sand wall, with landmines.

The SADR, headed by the Polisario Front, has been recognised by the AU as the legitimate government in exile. For decades Morocco made futile attempts to delegitimise the SADR and Polisario. Eventually, it applied to rejoin AU without preconditions.

AU member states argued that Morocco should not be readmitted unless it accepted the 1960 UN Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, which states: “All peoples have the right to self-determination; and by virtue of that right they freely determine their political status.”

Morocco was also asked to accept unconditionally the OAU/AU African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which states: “Nothing shall justify the domination of a people by another. All peoples shall have the unquestionable and inalienable right to self-determination. They shall freely determine their political status.”

Thus, before readmission, Morocco should have accepted all 33 articles of the Constitutive Act of the AU with Western Sahara as a founding member. Morocco should also accept the AU Act, which recognises African colonial boundaries, thus making its continued occupation of Western Sahara illegal.

All this was thrust aside and Morocco was readmitted to the AU when 39 out of the 54 African member states voted for Morocco. They tacitly endorsed the longstanding occupation of Western Sahara, while Morocco refuses to comply with successive UN resolutions on the holding of a referendum on self-determination.

Western Sahara thus remains the continent’s last colonial outpost, occupied by another African state. It is an albatross around the AU’s conscience, since it was a departure from its founding principles.

Goodwill tour

Morocco’s readmission was reportedly influenced by Moroccan King Mohammad’s wealth. This became evident when he demonstrated his largesse while touring the continent, lobbying for support from African heads. It is said he will now bankroll the AU in line with the way Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi used to.

That is why prior to the AU vote, the King embarked on a charm offensive by touring African countries, seeking support for his AU bid. In February 2014 he set off on a tour of Mali, Ivory Coast, Guinea and Gabon. This was his second regional trip in less than five months.

He took with him a contingent of advisors and business executives who negotiated a pile of agreements covering practically everything — from religious training to agriculture and mining projects.

In December, the King concluded the second leg of a nearly two-month, six-country Africa tour, resulting in about 50 bilateral agreements. The visits came on the heels of trips to Rwanda, Tanzania and Senegal in October, when more than 40 bilateral agreements were signed.

For those who say the royal expeditions to African countries had altruistic motive, suffice it to quote his official who said: “Aside from west and central Africa we must open up to east Africa and that is what is under way. The context of Morocco’s return to the African Union is there too of course, and these are important countries in the AU.”

The tour of east Africa “is also a way to get closer to countries which historically had positions which were hostile to Morocco's interests,” said the Moroccan source.

In some circles, it is argued that Morocco’s readmission was a “positive” step in that, as full member of the AU, it will now have to recognise the independence and sovereignty of SADR. If that is so then the readmission should have been conditional.

In any case, Morocco has no intention to give up its occupation. Its return to the union is intended to eventually push Western Sahara out of the AU, thus silencing the voice of the Sahrawi people in connivance with “friendly” member states.

Yet while the AU fails to stand by such principles, the Kingdom of Morocco is under pressure in the international diplomatic arena where Polisario is gaining global support. In fact, on December 21, a few days before the AU Summit, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) dismissed Morocco's claim to Western Sahara.

The ruling means the European Union’s trade deals with Morocco do not apply to the occupied territory of Western Sahara which is endowed with fish stocks, mineral deposits, agricultural produce and oil reserves.

The UN and EU

The ruling confirms the long-established legal status of Western Sahara as a non-self-governing territory, and upholds existing international law.

The EU member states and institutions have been asked to comply with the ruling and immediately cease all agreements, funding and projects reinforcing Morocco’s illegal occupation of Western Sahara.

The court also ruled that a trade deal between the EU and Morocco should be scrapped because it included products from Western Sahara. Morocco had to accept that any free trade deal would have to exclude Western Sahara. This includes the fruits and vegetables grown by companies such as Les Domaines Agricoles, which is partly owned by King Mohammed VI.

On top of this, there have been more than 100 UN resolutions calling for self-determination for Western Sahara. In March last year, then-UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon described the situation in Western Sahara as an “occupation”.

The UN, however, has to go beyond rhetoric by enforcing its resolutions. It formally recognises the occupation of Western Sahara as illegal, and has maintained a peacekeeping mission (MINURSO) commissioned to hold a referendum in Sahara since 1991. But it has a skeleton staff, with no mandate to even monitor human rights abuses, thanks to France’s Security Council veto.

French oil company Total is active in Western Sahara, while others have pulled out. Big investors such as the Norwegian government's pension fund avoid any deals which involve Western Sahara.

The European Free Trade Association, a group of non-EU countries including Norway, Switzerland, Iceland and Liechtenstein, excludes Western Sahara goods from its free trade deal with Morocco.

Morocco’s return to the AU is an affront not only to the people of Western Sahara but to African people. Morocco is a country that once refused to host the African Cup of Nations on flimsy grounds that Moroccans would be infected by African teams bringing in Ebola virus.

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Sahrawi people are disenfranchised.

[Abridged from The Bullet. Nizar Visram is a freelance writer from Tanzania.]

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