The Hollywood depiction of Casablanca, home to the Hassan II Mosque, the highest and second largest temple in the world, reinforces the image of Morocco as an imperial power as it rejoins the African Union. Photo: TripAdvisor

Morocco is, for many, reminiscent of the love of a bygone era, epitomized by Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart in the classic film Casablanca; the same place where in the movie, patrons in a bar sing a passionate rendition of “La Marseillaise”; or city where prisoners of war and people escaping various forces following WWII sought refuge. In this way Moroccans have been able to maintain the idyllic image bestowed on them by Hollywood years ago and which film lovers still remember to this day.

However, beyond its Hollywood image, there exists a country whose socio-political system is based on a constitutional monarchy. There, just below the Mediterranean, where tea is drunk at any time of day, a King called Mohammed VI of Morocco reigns.

In July last year, the monarch announced the decision, which he described as a “historic, responsible act,” to resume Morocco's membership in the AU, communicated in a message sent to the organization’s 27th summit held in Rwanda, a move which met with a certain amount of reticence from some nations. The AU is a regional organization – formerly the Organization of African Unity (OAU) up until 2001 – composed of the 55 nations of the continent, and which held its 28th Summit in Ethiopia’s capital city, Addis Abeba, last January 22-31, 2017.
According to local press reports, in his remarks made at this year’s AU Summit, King Mohammed VI, as well as highlighting Morocco’s contribution to migration within the continent, and offering scholarships and study programs for African citizens, stated, “This is the path to solidarity, peace, and unity chosen by my country. We reaffirm our commitment to the development and prosperity of African citizens.”

In his 2016 message to the organization, announcing his country’s intention to return to the AU, the Moroccan head of state urged Africa to leave behind the conflicts of the past which “go against the course of history” recalling that his grandfather, King Mohammed V, alongside Presidents Jamal Abdel Nasser, Ferhat Abbes, Modibo Keita, Sekou Toure and Kwame Nkrumah meeting in Casablanca in 1961, set out the bases for “an emancipated Africa and which paved the way for African integration.”

It is, however, important to remember the reasons why this North African country abandoned the multilateral organization which it also helped found. The explanation can be summed up in a single phrase: Western Sahara, a people fighting to free themselves from illegal Moroccan occupation.

Websites like InfoMarruecos and the newspaper La Estrella de Panamá, have alluded to the fact that despite rejoining the AU, Morocco continues to maintain its “rights over the Sahara, “with the historic and legal legitimacy of sovereignty over its southern provinces recovered from the hands of Colonial Spain in 1975, Morocco has, since 2007, implemented broad Autonomy Plan for the Sahara in response to a self-determination referendum that is both impractical and no longer valid given the current geopolitical and economic situation," stated La Estrella.



Beyond the fallacious rights Morocco alleges to hold, experts on the issue, such as journalist Antonio Paneque Brizuela, in an article for Granma, noted, “The government and people of the last African colony, victims of Moroccan occupation since 1975, continue to pursue their fundamental demand for sovereignty. However, faced with the possible postponement of this process, they have reiterated their willingness to return to the arms they abandoned in 1991 following a UN backed armistice.” Paneque Brizuela also highlighted the importance of the AU Summit in regards to Western Sahara’s push to strengthen its political presence within the organization, and Morocco’s intention to return to the union (now a reality).

The fact is that Rabat left the bloc of its own free will in 1984, in retaliation of Western Sahara’s admission to the AU in 1982, following the creation of the Polisario Front in 1973, and its tireless efforts to secure the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic’s (SADR) independence.

So that’s how the conflict started?...Not exactly. Over four decades ago, one of the darkest pages of Spain’s history was recorded, after it failed to fulfill its international commitments regarding the decolonization of its last remaining territory.

According to historians, on November 14, 1975, Spain, Morocco and Mauritania, signed the most shameful agreement of their history; which saw Western Sahara, freed from its Spanish colonizers and handed over to Morocco and Mauritania, in violation of UN resolutions and against the ruling of the International Court of Justice, which clearly stated, “The Court's conclusion is that the materials and information presented do not establish any tie of territorial sovereignty between the territory of Western Sahara and the Kingdom of Morocco or the Mauritanian entity.”




There are many reasons that could explain Morocco’s return to the AU, but perhaps most compelling are the benefits it provides the country, given the organization’s links with the rest of the continent. Morocco is making inter-African relations the fundamental base of its foreign policy, given the AU’s global and integrated approach to relations with all other countries on the continent.

If we look at King Mohammed VI’s speech, he clearly describes his willingness to work closely with the bloc and the marked benefit this could have for the continent, noting, “Despite having been absent from the AU institutions for so many years, our links, which have never been severed, have remained strong and African sister nations have always been able to rely on us…”

He also mentions how Morocco’s association with the bloc benefits the regional electricity market, with the Africa Atlantic Gas Pipeline project, representing a “substantial source of energy for industrial development, improved economic competitiveness, and speed up social development.” He goes on to note that fertilizer production facilities have been set up with Ethiopia and Nigeria, in the framework of projects aimed at “improving agricultural productivity and promoting food security and rural development,” thus benefiting the entire region as a whole.

“It was necessary to withdraw from the OAU; it has enabled Morocco’s action to be refocused in Africa to show how indispensable Africa is to Morocco and how indispensable Morocco is to Africa,” noted the monarch.
However, is this really the case? For South African President Jacob Zuma, the AU’s decision to readmit Morocco was “difficult but necessary,” according to the channel SABC.
President Zuma’s position, one shared by other governments of the region, is related to the idea thatMorocco has rejoined the organization to try to weaken from within the AU’s efforts in support of Western Sahara. At the same time, the country’s return to the bloc, which aims to defend the sovereignty, territorial integrity, and independence of its member states, represents an act of recognition of the Sahrawi Republic - a point which experts have highlighted.
In this regard Prensa Latina published an important article on February 15, 2017 entitled “Western Sahara willing to negotiate end of occupation with Morocco,” which cited a statement by SADR’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mohamed Salem Uld Salek, in which the diplomat expressed his government’s willingness to negotiate an end to Rabat’s occupation of Sahrawi territory, based on his people’s right to self-determination.

Morocco’s return to the AU is bitter-sweet. The reality is that the Sahrawi Republic has never been able to take the initiative like the great Ingrid Bergman did. The people’s patience – according to SADR’s Minister for Latin America and the Caribbean, Omar Mansur, speaking recently with PL – has so far been great, but is wearing out. Now it’s up to Morocco; a member of an organization which seeks to defend the sovereignty, territorial integrity, and independence of the Sahrawi Republic.
We hope that despite King Mohammed VI’s pretty speech about African unity, Morocco’s contribution to the continent’s development, and its plan to combat hunger and poverty, the issue of Western Sahara does not fall by the wayside on the international agenda.