King Mohammed VI of Morocco is currently touring East Africa. Officially he is looking to improve relations with the region but he has another goal: Find support for Morocco joining the African Union.
With a military parade, traditional dancers and a private tour through the Ngorongoro National Park, it is clear that the Tanzanian government wanted to make Moroccan King Mohammed VI feel welcome. The king is on a three-day visit having just arrived from Rwanda. The official reason for the visit is to build political and economic relations between Morocco and East Africa. In Rwanda, the king and President Paul Kagame signed 19 bilateral agreements. Morocco has traditionally not been a very close partner to the region.
But the king also has a second important item on his agenda: After more than 30 years, the country wants to rejoin the African Union (AU). This goal was revealed in a letter to the AU during the organization's summit in July and the king has been pushing for the move ever since. But Morocco rejoining the AU is a politically sensitive issue. Mohammed's father, Hassan II, pulled the country out of the then-called Organization of African Unity (OAU) in 1984 by because of the acceptance of Western Sahara into the organization. Morocco still considers Western Sahara as it southern province.
So why the sudden change? The South African AU expert Liesl Louw-Vaudran thinks she knows the answer. "Moroccan diplomats say the country has realized that its absence in the African Union does not advance the Western Sahara issue," she said.
Morocco annexed the former Spanish colony of Western Sahara four decades ago and much is still under Moroccan control. The eastern part of the country is occupied by the Polisario Front liberation movement. So controversy remains as to whether Western Sahara is an independent state, or merely part of the Kingdom of Morocco.
The United Nations wants to clear this up through a referendum. Morocco would support this as long as the vote is not about independence but only the internal autonomy of Western Sahara. Louw-Vaudran believes that through acceptance into the AU, Morocco is hoping to be able to better sell this stance. Western Sahara is currently represented at the AU by the Polisario Front.
Soft tones and the power of money
Morocco is presenting itself as conciliatory and claims that there are no demands regarding Western Sahara in its move to rejoin the AU. It is getting some backing from East Africa with Rwanda's Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo saying that it is time the country returns to the AU. Her Tanzanian counterpart, Augustine Mahiga, matched this view: "If they stick to the formalities, there will be no big fuss. Instead it will be exclaimed 'Behold here comes one of your kind,'" he said.
Nevertheless, the peaceful coexistence of Morocco and Western Sahara in the AU-family is difficult to imagine. Indeed 28 states have signed a petition calling for the exclusion of Western Sahara from the confederation.
Morocco does have a critical argument on its side as it is one of the affluent countries on the continent that could help the AU finance itself. African leaders have recently been pushing for more independence from international donors. Louw-Vaudran added that the recent fall in oil prices has hurt three economic heavyweights on the continent, namely Nigeria, Angola and Algeria.
Morocco could be accepted into the African Union as soon as January. According to the legal counsel for the AU, all that is needed is a two-thirds majority of countries at the next summit. And no member state can be expelled from the union except if there is a coup, something that has not happened in Western Sahara. Morocco would then need another two-thirds majority to change the rules of the AU in order to expel Western Sahara.
So after Rwanda and Tanzania, more diplomacy is needed in order to win over those countries still supportive of Western Sahara. These include South Africa and Algeria, two heavyweights with significant influence in the AU. South African Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma will leave as the head of the AU Commission in January and one of the potential successors is an Algerian. It is no wonder then that Morocco's king has chosen Addis Ababa as his next stop of his tour of East Africa as it is the site of the AU headquarters.