Morocco rejoins African Union: why is Rabat looking south?


Back in the African family

On January 31st, 2017, Morocco became the 55th member of the African Union (AU), the pan-African body that replaced the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) in July 2002. Thirty-three years after its withdrawal from the OAU to protest against the admission of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), Rabat seems prepared to cohabit with all AU member states, including SADR.

During the 28th AU Summit in Addis-Ababa, thirty-nine leaders approved Morocco’s bid, whereas Algeria and other eight countries voted against it.

Polisario leader and member of the Sahrawi delegation, Minister Mohamed Beiset, for his part, congratulated Morocco for joining the AU and hailed the event as a great opportunity to start a genuine dialogue. But does Morocco’s reintegration suggest a realistic hope for reconciliation?

Just a few months ago – while King Mohammed VI was campaigning to return to the continental organisation – 28 of the bloc’s 54 member states sent a motion to the AU Chairman Idriss Deby formally asking for the suspension of SADR from the body. In contrast, powerful countries such as Nigeria, South Africa, Algeria and Kenya have long showed strong support to the Sahrawi people’s right to self-determination.

First of all, such considerations seem to throw uncertainty over Morocco’s Western Sahara policy and raise doubts about SADR’s future relations with the AU. Secondly, it is worth considering Morocco’s significant influence in the sub-Saharan region. Finally, careful attention needs to be paid to the impact of Rabat’s return in terms of political and economic cooperation.

An attempt to break the stalemate?

It is too early to say whether Morocco’s reintegration will lead the parties to find a lasting solution to the conflict or, conversely, will pose a new threat to Sahrawi demands for full independence. On the one hand, Rabat still considers Western Sahara an integral part of the kingdom that might enjoy a semi-autonomous status, if a constructive agreement was reached. On the other hand, the Algeria-backed Polisario Front aspires to the political independence of the disputed territory through a referendum, which the United Nations’ peacekeeping mission (better known under the acronym MINURSO) aims to facilitate.

Last year Morocco banned eighty-four international civil servants (including UN and AU personnel) from the MINURSO mission and ordered the UN to close down a military liaison office following Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s use of the term occupation to explain Morocco’s control over Western Sahara. In April, the UN Security Council adopted its annual resolution (2285) to extend the mandate of MINURSO until April 2017. Nonetheless, the language used was not binding, since Morocco was not obliged to comply with the return of MINURSO to its state prior to the diplomatic crisis, neither was the government ordered to rescind the expulsions.

Therefore, in a long term perspective, Morocco’s readmission to the African family could be expected to affect the AU’s efforts to resolve the ongoing tensions in Western Sahara and block regional cooperation and economic growth. However, immediately after Morocco’s re-entry, the AU Heads of State and Government called for the UN Security Council to restore the full operation of the MINURSO. Additionally, it is certain that influential nations such as Nigeria and South Africa will continue to back Western Sahara on self-determination. Similarly, Algeria has always encouraged Sahrawi aspirations for a sovereign state different from Morocco and provided the Polisario Front with political and military support. As for Egypt, political and economic bonds with Algiers and Pretoria can explain why Cairo refused to sign last year’s statement to suspend SADR from the AU. More importantly, it should be taken into account that, as a rule, AU’s decisions are guided by the principle of consensus, so that an expulsion or suspension of SADR from the continental bloc seems highly unlikely in the near future and it could only depend on unconstitutional changes of government or non-payment of contributions.

A regional success story

Over the past years, Morocco has played a key role in addressing critical national and regional challenges. For example, the UN peace deal to form a Libyan unity government in December 2015 was partly driven by Morocco, and signed in Skhirat. Again, Rabat demonstrated its mediator role and diplomatic skills after the 2008’s Mauritanian coup d’état and the 2010’s failed coup in Guinea and has recently offered to mediate the escalating political tensions in the Gambia. But Morocco is also engaged in UN peacekeeping operations, from the Ivory Coast to the Central African Republic, in order to assure peace and stability in conflict-affected countries.

Furthermore, Rabat is generally regarded as a major actor in counter-terrorism: as part of its counter-radicalisation strategy, interfaith dialogue and various initiatives aimed at mitigating extreme violence have led to the integration of moderate Islamic movements in the political life and to the prosecution of terrorist activists and supporters. Consequently, regional hopes to develop the AU into an effective security institution may be further intensified.

More widely, Morocco is a keen supporter of South-South Cooperation (SSC) and the only Maghreb country that boasts long-standing relations with sub-Saharan Africa. Such diplomatic ties explain why a large number of developing countries like Gabon, for instance, have shown an interest in learning from the Moroccan experience and have formulated their own development strategies on the basis of the kingdom’s National Human Development Initiative (NHDI).

Also, according to the African section of the UN Department of Public Information (DPI), in 2016 Morocco distinguished itself as a major investor in Sub-Saharan Africa and earmarked investments worth $ 600 million mainly in the insurance, banking and telecommunication industries. Thus, the emergence of a new economic force will surely provide invaluable benefits to the AU as a whole, which lost a key backer in Colonel Gaddafi and is now seeking financial independence.

Economic interests and political consequences

Leveraging its strategic location between Europe and Africa, Morocco has become an active player on the North African chessboard, committed to promoting long-term stability and development in the South Mediterranean region. Besides, an intensive reform programme culminating in the 2011 new Constitution opened the way to a more democratic society – although some experts argue that the King continues to exercise near absolute powers.

In spite of such social cohesion efforts and a gradual approach to democratization, it remains to be seen whether the Moroccan pattern is as effective as it seems to be and, in that case, what impact this may have on the regional and continental level.

Moreover, Morocco’s economy appears to be vulnerable and shows several signs of weakness, despite the World Bank’s 2016 Doing Business index ranking the country 3rd in Africa and 68th globally. According to the International Monetary Fund, the national unemployment rate presents a serious challenge to economic growth and social development and is expected to exceed 10.2 percent in 2017. Another issue concerns Morocco’s dependence on the EU for its investments and trade since Europe accounts for 61 percent of Morocco’s exports and bilateral trade in goods amounts to over € 30 billion a year.

At this point, the key question is whether Rabat will manage to make the economy more resilient, diversify its trade partners and establish closer ties with African countries. In this respect, sub-Saharan Africa represents undoubtedly a significant market for Moroccan industries. Many analysts suggest indeed that Morocco’s re-entry into the AU has not only a symbolic meaning, but is also a political manoeuvre to raise the country’s international profile and reduce its reliance on European markets.

Luttine Ilenia Buioni

MA in Peace Building Management

Cover Photo taken by Dimitry B. (CC BY 2.0)


Western Sahara welcomes Morocco’s African Union membership, 31 January 2017, BBC News,

Morocco brought back into African Union after 33 years, 30 January 2017, Middle East Eye,

European Commission – Morocco – Trade, 27 October 2016,

Why Morocco really wants back in the African Union, 27 July 2016, Al Monitor,

Majority of AU countries demand the expelling of Polisario Front from their block, 18 July 2016, The Maroccan Times

UN renews mission in Western Sahara in Divisive vote, 29 April 2016, The New York Times,

United Nations, 29 April 2016,

International Monetary Fund, last updated 4 April 2016

The World Bank Doing Business 2016

July 2016, European Commission statement,

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