Studies 14 June, 2017

Morocco and the African Union: a New Chapter for Western Sahara Resolution?

Yasmine Hasnaoui

​Yasmine Hasnaoui is a communication and outreach specialist- She has worked in various policy institutions at the national and international levels. Ms. Hasnaoui is profiled regularly in media within the United States and Morocco, and is a frequent guest speaker at forums and events focused on human rights and the relations between Morocco and the US.

Morocco, aware of the prominent role the African Union could play in the process of the resolution of the Western Sahara conflict, formally requested in September 2016 to join the African Union. In this way it could defend its sovereignty over the Western Sahara and break many African leaders’ unanimous support of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). Furthermore, a few years ago, many African leaders, at several occasions, extended the invitation to Morocco to step up to the plate and join the organization.

On January 31st, 2017, Morocco became the 55th member of the African Union (AU), the pan African body which took the place of the Organization of the African Unity (OAU) in July 2002. After more than thirty years in the African political wilderness, Morocco’s return to the African Union, witnessed the culmination of a yearlong extensive and fervent diplomatic battle aimed to extend its circle of African allies to major nations in the region.

When Morocco bitterly departed the pan-African organization in 1984 in protest of the admission of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) as a full member[1],  it  continued to deal with this situation at a distance, or from behind the scenes and through allies, yet expereienced ups and downs. Indeed, the fact that Morocco left the Pan-African organization was repeatedly criticized by many analysts and friends of Morocco, who described it as an ‘empty chair policy’. Politically, this long distance combat became stiff, and this move ceded the advantage to Morocco’s adversaries through the influence of powerful states. Economically, however, Morocco has been slowly and steadily establishing itself, as an important economic power in sub-Saharan Africa. Although Morocco had pledged to have the SADR suspended from the Pan-African Organization, and swore that it will not sit in the same room as the SADR, Rabat will now have to coexist with all AU member states, including SADR.

Besides general political, economic and security interests, Morocco was persuaded to reenter the AU because of several specific factors. These include the UN stagnation in solving the Western Sahara dispute and Morocco’s priority to supress the international pressure to have the human rights component included within the duties of the mandate of the United Nations Mission for Referundum in Western Sahara (MINURSO). Furthermore, reviving the Western Sahara dispute at the AU with Morocco’s presence, will allow Rabat to capitalize on the AU’s new transition, in order to benefit from more favorable terms and promote Morocco’s priorities in the Western Sahara[2]. In addition, the May 2016 death of the SADR’s Secretary General, Mohamed Abdelaziz, a leader who has led the Polisario movement for more than 35 years, will help Rabat, to influence the movement’s new leadership in resolving the Western Sahara conflict.

 Lastly, Morocco rejoining the African Union adheres to the organization’s objectives and priorities, to “... accelerate the political and socio-economic integration of the continent” (African Union, 2002). This again is also reiterated  in the AU’s “Agenda 2063,” which states that “... the political unity of Africa will be the culmination of the integration process, including the free movement of people, the establishment of continental institutions, and full economic integration” (African Union, 2014).

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[1] In November 1984, Morocco left the Organization of the African Union (OAU) after the SADR became a member. In the context of that period, the withdrawal from the OAU seemed necessary. The landscape offered by the continent did not allow Morocco to do otherwise. Already in 1982, the so-called SADR was admitted as the 51st member of the OAU, deemed illegal by Morocco, which succeeded in boycotting the Tripoli Summit by 24 of the 54 member countries in the organization. One can understand the reasoning behind the decision by the late King Hassan II to leave the African organization. The cost of this departure was evidently high: the diplomacy of the country was put in a difficult situation for approximately 32 years. Diplomats hostile to Morocco were given free rein for their views and undertakings.


[2] Jacques Roussellier, “Morocco Brings the Western Sahara Issue Back to the AU,” Sada, Jan. 31, 2017, accessed on 11/6/2017 at: