Morocan members of parliament vote on the first draft for Morocco to return to the African Union (AU) in Rabat on January 18, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / STRINGERSTRINGER/AFP/Getty Images
Moroccan MPs vote earlier this month on whether the country should return to the African Union © AFP

Morocco has been readmitted to the African Union after a 33-year absence in a move set to intensify the kingdom’s attempt to secure the disputed territory of Western Sahara. 

The region of 266,000 square kilometres, on the western tip of Africa, is claimed by both Morocco and the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, a state that is not recognised by the United Nations but is by the AU and some three dozen nations.

Mohamed Yeslem, SADR foreign minister, said he welcomed the readmission of Morocco into the AU, adding that he hoped it would lead to a solution to the impasse over Western Sahara. 

“The solution should be democracy, human rights, the rule of law, a referendum, a United Nations resolution,” he said. 

However African leaders said the decision to accept Morocco’s application to rejoin the organisation was taken without any conclusion on the future sovereignty of the disputed territory. 

Polisario Front soldiers parade during celebrations for the 35th anniversary of the Polisario Front's independence movement for control of Western Sahara from Morocco...Polisario Front soldiers take part in a parade for the 35th anniversary celebrations of their independence movement for Western Sahara from Morocco, in Tifariti, southwestern Algeria February 27, 2011. REUTERS/Juan Medina (ALGERIA - Tags: CIVIL UNREST POLITICS MILITARY) - RTR2J6W7
Polisario Front soldiers parade to celebrate their movement for the independence of Western Sahara from Morocco © Reuters

“Morocco is now a full member of the African Union,” said Macky Sall, the Senegalese president. “There was a very long debate but 39 of our 54 states approved the return of Morocco, even if the Western Sahara question remains.” 

Morocco left the AU’s predecessor, the Organisation of African Unity, in 1984 over the body’s recognition of SADR, which was proclaimed by the Polisario Front, which seeks independence from Morocco, in 1976. Its readmission means all 54 African countries and the SADR are now AU members. 

Morocco has yet to formally comment on its readmission but members of its delegation cheered and hugged when the decision was announced on Monday.

Analysts say that while the kingdom’s decision to rejoin the AU was driven by a desire to weaken Polisario, it is also a reflection of its economic ambitions on the continent.

“Morocco’s African Union initiative fits in with its efforts of the last few years to become a genuine player across Africa, where Moroccan major banks and corporations genuinely see a major opening, supported by the king’s view that growth south of the Sahara can be a driver for the economy,” said Jon Marks, chairman of Cross-Border Information, a UK-based consultancy focused on Africa and the Middle East. “Previous North African appeals to ‘south-south’ co-operation have produced little of substance: Morocco’s effort this time is different.” 

Morocco controls about three-quarters of the disputed territory and has persuaded dozens of AU members to withdraw recognition of the SADR.

“The African Union has been a significant arena for Polisario to promote its diplomatic credentials, backed by heavyweights Algeria, South Africa and — at least until recently — Nigeria,” Mr Marks said. “The dispute rose up the AU agenda [recently] . . . and now after years of largely ignoring it Morocco has struck back”. 

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