Op-Ed: Morocco and the AU summit

PUBLISHED: Mon, 30 Jan 2017 12:48:57 GMT

The African Union’s (AU) 28th summit meeting in Addis Ababa began on Wednesday, January 25, with a meeting of foreign ministers, and will conclude tomorrow. The first days of the conference will be concerned with the many peace and security issues plaguing the continent.

The almost painless expulsion of President Yahya Jammeh from The Gambia (when he was threatened with an intervention by a multilateral force from the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) will be discussed as a model for future instances of handling heads of State proving reluctant to leave office. But many other issues remain unaddressed.

The most murderous conflict in Africa is still that in South Sudan, and the summit will discuss collaborating with the United Nations (UN) on deploying a regional protection force in line with a UN resolution. Trickier still will be handling rebel leader Riek Machar – conflict has eased since he has left his country for South Africa, so some diplomats reportedly want to find a way to keep him out of the country permanently.

The slow-burning crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) still threatens to turn into extensive conflict. As of writing, President Joseph Kabila was dragging his feet on a political settlement – apparently in order to once again find a pretext to push back elections now supposed to take place before the end of the year.

The illness of his main opponent, the octogenarian Etienne Tshisekedi, who is in Europe on a medical visit, appears to have motivated the president to hold back on forming transition institutions to which he agreed on December 31.

Our baseline expectation is that he will again try to stay in power and will use force against protests, when those happen again, and we do not think entreaties from the AU (which we expect to be half-hearted anyway) will result in any fresh enthusiasm on his part to set up a transition government.

The security situation in Mali has been deteriorating in recent weeks, with terrorism by jihadist groups in the north of the country returning to levels not seen for a few years.

Libya is even worse, but the UN has taken the lead in that country by pushing hard for – essentially installing – a ‘Government of National Accord’ under the unpopular Fayez Al-Serraj, while in the east Khalifa Haftar keeps scoring successes against the jihadists of Islamic State (IS). We think the AU will follow the UN’s lead on this, but think it will ultimately be relieved when, as looks likely, Egypt and Algeria back Mr Haftar more openly and force an agreement that is more to the benefit of the latter and the secularists in the House of Representatives government.

As to Somalia, finally, the summit will discuss the eventual withdrawal of the AU mission there, Amisom. The plan is for the force to start being drawn down in 2018 and to exit by 2020. If this optimistic calendar (Amisom was created in 2007 with an initial six-month mandate) is to be respected, much more will need to be done to increase the legitimacy of Somalia’s putative government, which effectively governs a part of Mogadishu – and that only thanks to Amisom’s arms.

More purely political questions will be treated on Monday and Tuesday, January 30 and 31, with the heads of State summit. The most important of these are progress towards Morocco’s return to the AU and the election of the AU Commission chair to replace the South African Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma who is set to return home to play a greater role in domestic politics.

The two dynamics will overlap, as the Moroccans not only want to rejoin the AU, but want to work in the longer term to expel the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), the putative government-in-exile of the Western Sahara. To this end, Morocco will seek to have a friendly figure chairing the AU Commission which is in charge of the day-to-day management of the union and so has substantial influence on what the body does.

Observers expect the vote on Morocco’s admission to take place on the first day of the heads of State summit, on Monday. It seems clear that the vote will be for readmission, as the kingdom seems to have decided to postpone addressing the really thorny issue – that of the AU membership of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR).

Some friends of Morocco will back it on that initiative; most countries in the AU will welcome it back as long as it is prepared to share the assembly with the SADR, and the strongest backer of the SADR, Algeria, may think that Morocco’s joining means that it has accepted the SADR’s membership, which it certainly has not.

Even more optimistic is Brahim Ghali, president of Polisario (the movement that constitutes the SADR government), who told reporters that Morocco’s acceptance of the AU’s Constitutive Act means that the kingdom “respects the borders” of the SADR.

The matter of the AU’s Constitutive Act will be the subject of some interesting diplomatic and legal manoeuvring in coming years.

The relevant clause here, and the reason why the AU recognises the SADR, is one of the principles in Article 4: “Respect of borders existing on achievement of independence.”

For the SADR and the AU, this means the line drawn by agreement between the Spanish and the Moroccans in 1969, which was the border when the Spanish left the territory in 1975. The Moroccans will no doubt argue that the territory is still not independent and attack the SADR as an illegitimate representative of the Sahrawi people anyway.

To advance its interests in this complicated debate, Rabat will want a friend as Chair of the AU Commission. There are five candidates in the running to replace Ms Dlamini-Zuma:

1.         Amina Mohamed, 55, Kenya: currently Foreign Cabinet Secretary, Ms Mohamed was educated at Oxford, entered the diplomatic service in 1985, was Head of Mission to the UN in Geneva from 2006 to 2013, and was named to cabinet in 2013. Relevant to the Morocco-SADR issue, she visited the Sahrawi refugee camps in Algeria which Polisario runs.

2.         Abdoulaye Bathily, 69, Senegal: also a career diplomat whose recent experience has been in the UN, in Mali and as special representative of the secretary-general for Africa. He started his career as a university lecturer and was engaged in politics under presidents Abdou Diouf and Abdoulaye Wade who both named him to cabinet. He has run for president twice, but supported President Macky Sall in the 2012 election. He has the support of most Francophone countries who are friendly to Morocco.

3.         Pelonomi Venson-Motoi, 65, Botswana: also currently Foreign and International Co-operation Minister. Ms Motoi studied in the US and worked as a journalist before entering politics as a member, then Member of Parliament (MP), of the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP). She was first named to cabinet in 2001 and has held six portfolios including her current one. She looked like a strong contender to win the chair in July 2016 in Kigali when the election was suspended because of the abstention of a number of West African countries. At the time, some thought that the abstention was a reaction to the unpopular positions of Ms Venson-Motoi’s boss, President Ian Khama, in support of the International Criminal Court (ICC), but we think the abstention was strategic in order to allow Senegal’s President Sall to name Mr Bathily as a candidate.

4.         Agapito Mba Mokuy, 51, Equatorial Guinea: the third foreign minister on the list, and the youngest contender. He has spent the past two decades at Unesco. He is generally considered very unlikely to win given that his government is practically a global pariah.

5.         Moussa Faki Mahamat, 56, Chad: The fourth foreign minister on the list: he has held that portfolio in Chad since 2008. He has been working in the civil service for almost 30 years and served as prime minister from 2003 to 2005. His nomination was puzzling, as it seemed timed to block that of Mr Bathily who had been counting on Chad’s support.

Ms Venson-Motoi and Mr Mba are highly unlikely to win. As of writing it looked as though there will be a deadlock between supporters of Ms Mohamed and those of Mr Bathily (winning the vote requires a two-thirds majority), and it is here that Mr Faki might slip through as an acceptable candidate.

There is always much negotiation in these races – a country might agree to vote for another’s candidate for the presidency, for instance, in exchange for its support in the election for the chair of the Peace and Security Council. Furthermore, a principle of rotation between regions exists.

We will not speculate over the probable winner and will reserve comment for when the new chair will have been elected.

The return of Morocco to the fold will be welcome. The kingdom was a founding member of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) in 1963 and left in 1984 when the SADR was admitted (Morocco’s army was fighting a gruelling ground war against Polisario at the time).

Not least relevant is that Morocco will contribute about $1.5m a month to the AU’s budget.

Morocco already has strong ties across West Africa and is improving those in the east. When looking at the Western Sahara issue specifically, it is uncertain whether its membership will make a resolution more or less likely. We do not think the Moroccans will make any concessions, so the status quo will persist.

If they press too hard for the SADR’s expulsion, some risk will result.

Commentators have been talking about the risk of a return to full-blown war in the Western Sahara – we see this as extremely unlikely. Polisario cannot do anything much against the Moroccan army in the Sahara and knows it. It is more likely that more angry young Sahrawi men will join jihadist networks (something that has already been happening) and contribute to terror risk in Morocco.

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