11 March 2017

Western Sahara: An albatross on the AU’s conscience



Morocco is back in the African Union unconditionally while illegally occupying Western Sahara, the continent’s last colony. This raises troubling questions about the Union’s commitment to its own principles. Morocco has no intention of giving up its occupation. Its return to the Union is intended to eventually push Western Sahara out of the AU in connivance with friendly member states and foreign powers, thus silencing the voices of the Sahrawi people.

At the 28th Summit meeting of the African Union (AU) held in Addis Ababa on 30 January 2017, Morocco’s readmission to the continental body generated heated discussion. At the end of the day the Kingdom of Morocco managed to win over sufficient member states on its side and it was allowed to re-join the fold unconditionally. 

Morocco left the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), precursor to the AU, in 1984 after the OAU recognised the right to self-determination and independence for the people of the Western Sahara and admitted the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) that was proclaimed in 1976 by the Sahrawi people’s Polisario Front. Western Sahara is a founding member of the OAU.

It was in keeping with the OAU principle not to recognise the occupation of any part of the continent that it admitted the SADR to its membership. While SADR claimed sovereignty over the Western Sahara territory, Morocco saw it as an integral part of its own territory. Thus, rather than accept SADR’s independence, Morocco left the OAU.

Since then Morocco refused to join the AU unless the organisation withdrew the membership of SADR.

The area of Western Sahara has been occupied by Morocco since 1976 when Spain pulled out and relinquished its claim as a colonial power over the territory. This former Spanish colony was then annexed by Morocco. Saharawi people, who fought Spanish colonial oppression, were now forced to fight Moroccan occupation. They conducted a resistance struggle under the leadership of Polisario Front until 1991 when the United Nations (UN) brokered a truce.

A UN-supervised referendum on independence of Western Sahara was promised in 1992 but it was aborted by Morocco. A UN peacekeeping mission that was to organise the referendum has remained in the territory ever since, while Morocco built a 2,700km-long sand wall, with landmines.