François Conradie | NKC African Economics

The African Union-European Union (AU-EU) summit was held in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, last week (November 29-30). Most of the discussion at the summit was about migration, with a horrific recent video of a slave auction in Libya at the forefront of delegates’ minds. The summit agreed on the formation of a special task force to protect migrants’ and refugees’ lives, including in Libya.

There was also much talk of how Europe might help African countries to build their economies in such a way that fewer Africans seek to migrate. The speeches on the subject were generic and general, but did show, we think, a widely shared will to do something to address the iniquities and deterioration in living conditions that make people flee their homes.

We think some diplomatic developments at the summit were more interesting for being more likely to lead to concrete measures in the near future: the interactions between Morocco and two of its most important diplomatic adversaries on the continent, South Africa and Algeria.

King Mohammed VI of Morocco met South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma on the sidelines of the conference for a quick talk and photo opportunity. The South African delegation included International Relations Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, Ambassador to the AU Ndumiso Ntshinga, and Mr Zuma’s lawyer Michael Hulley.

According to a South African diplomatic source, who spoke to the Mail & Guardian and State-owned Moroccan media, the countries are set to re-establish diplomatic relations which were suspended in 2004 when South Africa, under President Thabo Mbeki, recognised the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) as the government of the disputed Western Sahara. Since then, the two countries have only had chargés d’affaires in each other’s capitals.

A recent incident has brought relations to a low point: in May the Marshall Island-flagged NM Cherry Blossom, a ship carrying 50,000 tonnes of phosphates mined in the Western Sahara by Morocco’s State-owned Cherifian Phosphates Office (OCP), was seized in Port Elizabeth in terms of a civil maritime court order brought by Polisario (the armed movement/political party that makes up the SADR government) on the grounds that the shipment belongs to the Sahrawi people and the group is their legitimate representative. The vessel remains in Port Elizabeth pending a court case to resolve the issue.

Morocco is trying to get South Africa to withdraw its recognition of the SADR and is using economic sweeteners to do so. (Although the presence of Mr Hulley, Mr Zuma’s personal lawyer, may indicate that the South African head of State has his family’s interests at least partly in mind). The South African source thinks that better relations will help the South Africans get the Moroccans to “go easy on Western Sahara,” without clarifying what that means for Pretoria’s recognition of the SADR or its support for the increasingly theoretical referendum that the United Nations (UN) called for in 1991.

It would be helpful if Pretoria really can push for better human rights in the territory, and the acceleration of a move to some form of self-rule short of independence that the Moroccans have been promising. From the point of view of trade and investment, there is a lot that Morocco and South Africa can do together.

Another notable moment at the summit was the warm, friendly handshake that King Mohammed shared with Algeria’s Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia, while France’s President Emmanuel Macron beamed genially at them.

Morocco’s relations with Algeria have been extremely fraught, essentially since Algeria’s independence, because of Moroccan claims to parts of Algeria in the 1960s, and the two armies fought a brief war in 1963. When Morocco re-established control of the Western Sahara in 1975 after 90 years of Spanish rule, Algeria backed the Polisario movement which wanted independence. The difficult relationship has meant that the Union of the Arab Maghreb (UMA) remains an empty shell, and there is practically no trade between the two countries.