Morocco to rejoin AU, offers autonomy to disputed territory

Morocco left the African Union in 1984 over the territorial dispute for the Western Sahara region, but now it seeks readmission.

Photo by: AFP
Photo by: AFP

Heads of states from the African Union member countries pose during a photo call before the official opening of the 27th African Union (AU) Summit in Kigali on July 17, 2016.

Morocco has asked the African Union (AU) to readmit it to the organisation 32 years after it left as it seeks support for its plan to offer autonomy to the disputed territory of Western Sahara while keeping it under Moroccan sovereignty.

"It has been a long time that our friends have been asking Morocco to take back its seat in its natural institutional place, and now the time has come," Morocco's King Mohammed said in a letter to the AU, according to state news agency MAP.

Morocco has occupied the sparsely populated Western Sahara area since 1975 in a move that was not recognised by the international community.

Why did Morocco quit AU?

The country quit the AU in protest in 1984 when the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), a partially recognised state that controls a thin strip of area in the Western Sahara region and claims sovereignty over the entire territory of Western Sahara, was admitted as a member. Morocco controls and administers rest of the disputed territory. In 1991, the United Nations brokered a ceasefire between Moroccan troops and Sahrawi rebels of the Algerian-backed Polisario Front independence movement but a promised referendum to settle the status of the desert territory has yet to materialise.

Morocco claims that at least 36 of the 54 AU member countries do not recognise SADR as a separate state and it was time to withdraw its recognition. None of the Western powers, nor the United Nations, recognise the Sahrawi Republic.

But it is unclear if powerful AU members including Algeria and South Africa, which have expressed support to hold a referendum of the people of Western Sahara on their sovereignty, would accept Morocco's request.

Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni (L) gestures at Liberia's President Ellen Johnson Silreaf (R) before the official opening of the 27th African Union (AU) Summit in Kigali on July 17, 2016.

“Although Morocco left the club, it never quit Africa," King Mohammed said in his message to AU leaders as they began a two-day meeting in the Rwandan capital.

"Through this historic act and return, Morocco wants to work within the AU to transcend divisions," he added.

Will Morocco rejoin the AU?

The AU chairman, Chadian President Idriss Deby, said that he would like to see Morocco return to the regional body.

"Morocco has the right and the obligation to return to its great family when and how it wants," Deby told reporters on the margins of an AU summit in Kigali.

"Now I do not know if it (Morocco) posed conditions or not, and that is not important," he added.

Morocco has controlled most of the Western Sahara territory since 1975. The area has offshore fishing, phosphate reserves and oilfield potential. Moroccan officials visited Algiers, Abuja and Nairobi last week as the country seeks support for its autonomy proposal.

Politicians attend a meeting of the African Union's (AU) economic development program New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) on July 16, 2016.

Rabat is also in talks with the United Nations about letting civilian staff of the Western Sahara peacekeeping mission MINURSO back into the country, after expelling them earlier this year when UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon used the word "occupation" to describe its 1975 annexation of the territory.

The UN mission was formed more than 20 years ago ahead of the expected referendum on the Western Sahara's political future.

In 2014, Morocco rejected the AU's decision to appoint a special envoy for the Western Sahara, saying the body had no legal authority to intervene.

"On the Sahara issue, institutional Africa can no longer bear the burden of a historical error and a cumbersome legacy," King Mohammed said.

Morocco's return to the AU would need to be validated by a vote.

TRTWorld and agencies