Last week, South Africa hosted Brahim Ghali, President of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), on a working visit to the country. Before the visit, South Africa’s Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Maite Nkoana-Mashabane published an op-ed in the Daily Maverick, in which she reaffirmed “South Africa’s unwavering commitment towards the right to self-determination of the Saharawi people” and its “solidarity with the Polisario Front liberation movement.”
“The final status of the state of Western Sahara will only be settled,” she writes, “when a [United Nations] UN-supervised referendum is held in which the country’s inhabitants must exercise their legitimate right to self-determination” and adds that “South Africa remains confident that a date for holding of a referendum on the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara, will be realised.”
Although the title of the op-ed is Independence of Western Sahara is an inalienable right, the word ‘independence’ is actually avoided throughout, and Ms Nkoana-Mashabane uses the term ‘self-determination’ instead. This is important.
The relevance of the timing of Mr Ghali’s visit to South Africa is that the African Union (AU) is preparing to elect the chair of the AU Commission to replace Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma who is likely to contest the presidency of the African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa.
An election to choose the Commission chair was supposed to take place in July 2016, but then the strategic abstention of a group of West African countries forced a re-run, scheduled for January, which allowed for the nomination of two new candidates: Kenya’s Foreign Affairs Cabinet Secretary Amina Mohamed and Senegal’s Abdoulaye Bathily, a career diplomat.
The other candidates are Pelonomi Venson Moitoi from Botswana, Agapito Mba Mokuy from Equatorial Guinea and Moussa Faki Mahamat from Chad.
We are fairly sure the first race will be between Ms Mohammed and Mr Bathily, but the chair must be elected with a two-thirds majority, and this will complicate matters. The election is expected on the final day of the ordinary session of the AU Assembly in Addis Ababa on January 31.
The relevance of the Western Sahara question is that Morocco has, in the past year, been working more forcefully than before to rejoin the AU. It quit the AU’s predecessor body, the Organisation for African Unity (OAU), in 1984 when the SADR was admitted as a member.
In July it sent a delegation to the AU’s annual summit being held in Kigali, which successfully lobbied the West Africans to withdraw from the AU Commission chair election so that Mr Bathily’s name could be put forward. In the latter half of the year King Mohamed VI travelled across Africa and visited a few countries that still recognise the SADR, including Rwanda, Nigeria and Ethiopia. The latter two, along with Algeria and South Africa, are the main supporters of the SADR in the AU.
Wherever he travelled, King Mohamed managed to seal major business deals with the aim of swaying governments towards support of the Moroccan position on the Western Sahara: some form of autonomy but with no consideration of outright independence as a possibility.
It seems, thus, as if the AU Commission chair election will have much, if not mostly, to do with the question of Morocco’s readmission and what that means for the SADR’s seat. Mr Bathily has the strong support of Senegal’s President Macky Sall and the francophone West African bloc; Ms Mohamed, who visited the Sahrawi refugee camps in Tindouf (Algeria) last year, seems set to be the champion of those supporting Polisario (essentially the Angolphone and Lusophone countries plus Algeria and Mali).
By our count, since Zambia withdrew its recognition of the SADR in July 2016, 25 AU member states recognise the SADR and 29 do not, giving the advantage to those defending the Moroccan position. Of the latter, 28 wrote a letter in July requesting the SADR’s suspension.
Given the importance of the Moroccan issue, we expect it to dominate thinking and lobbying at the Addis Ababa summit in January, and for a messy diplomatic negotiation to ensue. Because the AU Commission chair must be elected with a two-thirds majority, even if Mr Bathily gets the votes of the 29 countries who do not recognise the SADR, he can still be blocked by those who do.
Either Moroccan lobbying will win seven more votes for Mr Bathily, or else a compromise will be found and one of the ‘other’ three candidates will eventually be elected. If Mr Bathily gets the job, this will pave the way for Morocco’s return and for greater support on the continent for the Moroccan position: some degree of internal autonomy but with Rabat still in firm charge of borders and security and Moroccan companies dominating the economic landscape.
Ms Nkoana-Mashabane’s use of “self-determination” rather than “independence” in her letter makes us think that previously firm Polisario backers, like South Africa and Ethiopia, might start to press Mr Ghali to accept something less than independence in exchange for a position in government, rather than dying in exile like his late predecessor Mohamed Abdelaziz. Under Mr Bathily the AU can be expected to be less supportive of the SADR position, notably in its relations with the UN.
This is a positive development. Independence for the Western Sahara made sense in 1975, when Morocco re-established rule over the territory after the Spanish withdrew, and might have made sense in 1991 when a ceasefire ended the war between the Moroccans and Polisario, but would, in our view, be regionally destabilising were it to happen now. And there is no chance that it will – the territory is too important for Morocco on too many levels which is why it has stubbornly ignored the UN resolution on the referendum for the past 25 years.
Unlike Ms Nkoana-Mashabane, we do not think the referendum will ever happen.
If Morocco returns to the AU, that would be positive. There is a degree of security risk, in that young Sahrawis who feel betrayed and hopeless by such developments may tend to turn towards terrorism – a danger that Ms Nkoana-Mashabane noted in her letter.