Rabat officially ended its empty chair policy at the AU, and its absence from the AU meeting demonstrates why.
The communique that the African Union’s Peace and Security Council ((AUPSC) published on Thursday evening has raised eyebrows in Rabat. It brings to the fore the issue of the AU’s neutrality in the Western Sahara dossier and the UN’s central role in assisting the parties to the conflict to reach a political solution in line with Security Council resolutions.
This communique raises many questions about the circumstances and conditions of its adoption, and whether Morocco was privy to its language, which is inconsistent with its interests and with the AU’s position since the adoption of Decision 693 at the Nouakchott summit in July 2018.
It is surprising that the communique came nine days after the Peace and Security Council met, on March 9, and published a statement stressing where it called for an immediate ceasefire. It also called for the African Union’s Troika and the AU special envoy for the Sahara to strengthen their support for the UN-led political process.
The statement on March 9 called on the UN secretary-general to expedite the appointment of a UN personal envoy to Western Sahara, a position that has remained vacant since Horst Kohler resigned in May 2019.
One can argue that the statement did not contain anti-Moroccan language, and it stressed that the AU’s role is to support UN-led political efforts to find a mutually acceptable and agreed-upon solution to end the conflict.
The communique’s troubling elements
However, the communique published on Thursday contains worrying language, reminiscent of the Peace and Security Council’s position when Morocco was not part of the AU. The situation raises many questions about Morocco’s vigilance and influence within the organization. Below are the main points in the statement that give cause for concern:
1- A reference in the statement’s preamble to the issue of human rights and the alleged exploitation of the Sahara’s natural wealth. This clearly demonstrates that the Peace and Security Council seeks to play the same biased role towards Polisario that it had played before Morocco’s return to the African Union.
2- An attempt to revive the AU’s now defunct role in the UN-led political process through the Special Envoy for the Sahara Joaquim Chissano.
3- Giving the impression there is a war underway between Morocco and Polisario. This shows that the Peace and Security Council is adopting the propaganda that Algeria and the separatist group continue to promote, despite UN Secretary-General Spokesman Stéphane Dujarric refuting the allegations.
In two press conferences, on February 26 and March 1, the UN spokesperson said that the UN did not receive any information indicating the occurrence of a war between the two parties, including in Guerguerat.
4- An emphasis on the need to reach a solution to the conflict in line with the contents of the African Union’s founding document. This shows the Peace and Security Council’s intention to circumvent Security Council decisions, which have become the sole reference for a political resolution to the conflict.
5- The communique calls on the African Union’s Troika to revive the consultations between Morocco and Polisario. The communique says that it also decided, if necessary, to undertake its “role” in the conflict by examining it at the level of heads of states and governments. The document also asks the African Union Commission to take the necessary measures to reopen the organization’s office in Laayoune so the AU can revive its role in helping the parties reach a solution to the conflict. The statement further calls on the Commission to conduct a field visit as soon as possible to follow up on the situation on the ground.
6- The document invites the UN secretary-general to appoint a new UN envoy in the near future, to work closely with the African Union to reach a final resolution to the conflict. More dangerously, it calls on the UNSG to request the UN’s legal counsel regarding the legality of opening consulates in the Sahara.
The communique vs AU Decision 693
The contents of the communique directly contradict the fifth paragraph of AU Decision 693, which affirmed that the role of the African Union is limited to the Troika’s support of the UN’s political efforts and to think in consultation with the UN on how to reach the compromise-based solution it seeks to achieve.
Decision 693 does not contain any reference to the role of the AU’s Special Envoy, nor does it give him any mandate to revive the political process. Additionally, it notably does not give the Peace and Security Council any mandate to revive the political process to replace the AU’s Troika or to ask the secretary-general to take any action regarding the conflict. It also contradicts the consensual language that resulted from the 14th Extraordinary Summit of the AU held last December, which emphasized the UN’s central role in resolving the conflict.
The statement’s language and timing expose Algeria’s attempt to bypass the UN’s political process, and to revive the negative role that the AU played before Morocco’s return. Additionally, the Council published the communique four days after the mandate of the Commissioner for Peace and Security in Algeria, Smail Chergui, came to an end. Chergui used his presence at the head of the Council to harm Morocco’s interests and torpedo the UN’s political process. It is also a disgraceful attempt by the Algerian official to put his Nigerian successor, Bankol Adeoye, in a critical, confrontational position with Morocco.
The circumstances of the communique’s adoption suggest that Chergui took advantage of Morocco’s absence from the meeting on March 9 and used his last days as the head of the Peace and Security Council to pass a statement that served Algeria’s agenda. This is not the first time that the Algerian official has tried to bypass the decision and revive the AU’s role in the conflict. Since the adoption of Decision 693, Algeria has seized every opportunity to achieve this goal.
This was clear when Algerian FM Sabri Boukadoum, during the 21st extraordinary session of the Executive Council of the AU on December 2, claimed that the Troika mechanism had failed to fulfill its mission and called for the restoration of the Peace and Security Council’s role in the conflict. Algeria also made this claim/attempt during the summit held the previous December but to no avail.
Given the new dynamic evident at the AU, as well as the organization’s commitment to respect Decision 693, it is very unlikely that AU Commissioner Moussa Faki would consider the content of the above-mentioned statement, or that it would have any impact on the organization’s position on the conflict.
A lesson in proactivity for Morocco
However, the release of the statement shows that Moroccan officials did not take the pre-emptive actions required to avoid its issuance. This event demonstrates how useful Morocco’s absence from the March 9 meeting was for Algeria. If Morocco returned to the continental body, put an end to its empty chair policy, and inaugurated a new strategy of confronting Algeria within the AU and used the AU mechanisms for Morocco’s benefit, why then did Moroccan diplomacy decide to boycott that meeting?
As we say in football, no changes should be made to a winning team, so no changes should be made to a policy that has brought Morocco many diplomatic gains over the past four years.
After Morocco ended its empty chair policy that had lasted more than three decades, it reaped the fruits of the strategy it pursued in Africa during the last decade and which was crowned by its return to the AU.
Morocco could not have succeeded in persuading an important country such as Nigeria to change its bias towards Algeria and adopt the position of positive neutrality had it not been for its return to the AU, or without the pragmatic African policy adopted by King Mohammed VI. Nor would Morocco have succeeded in persuading countries like Zambia — which was among the countries that recognized the self-proclaimed SADR of Polisario — to open a consulate in the Sahara had it not been for Morocco’s new approach.
Since this policy has proven useful, Morocco should not deviate from it in the future. Otherwise, it will leave a vacuum and give its opponents the opportunity to once again impose their narrative and agenda in the AU.
Perhaps this is what happened when Morocco decided not to participate in last week’s meeting. If the country had participated in that meeting, it might have avoided the issuance of this communique, preventing Algeria from exploiting Morocco’s absence to impose language contradicting the AU’s new approach towards the Sahara.
Despite Morocco’s recent diplomatic gains, whether at the regional or international level, Algeria is determined to use all tools at its disposal to prevent its neighbor from building on this momentum so it can end the conflict in the medium term. Algeria will spare no diplomatic or financial effort to ensure the continuity of its five-decade-old war of attrition against Morocco.
Consequently, Morocco must be more vigilant than ever and draw lessons from this incident to ward off Algeria’s attempts at obstruction as it works towards preserving its territorial integrity and its strategic interests.
Source: Morocco World News.