Saturday, March 31, 2018 /05:06 PM/BMI Research
BMI View: Morocco's election to the African Union's Peace and Security Council and a general shift in approach by both AU and UN is likely to alarm the Polisario Front, leading to a hardening in the latter's position. Although the risks of return to conflict are low, we believe that a resolution is unlikely in the short- to medium term.
Morocco is making progress at improving relationships with fellow African countries and this is likely to harden the position of the Polisario Front, the political entity seeking an independent Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) in the disputed Western Sahara region. As a result, we reiterate our view that the dispute is unlikely to be resolved in the coming years, although we do not expect a return to outright conflict between the two sides.
Support for Morocco's Position Likely to Increase
Recognition of the SADR
Regional Progress for Morocco
Morocco's admission to the African Union's (AU) Peace and Security Council in January 2018, a year after it re-joined the AU following 31 years outside the organization, signals growing support for the kingdom among its African peers. 39 AU members backed Morocco's ascension to the 16-member council, which functions in a similar manner to the UN Security Council, enforcing AU decisions. The two-year membership (which can be extended for another two years if Morocco decides to run again) will give the country significant leverage over the organization and may help Rabat influencing more AU members to back a motion, signed by 28 AU members on July 18, 2016, calling for the SADR's suspension from the AU. A further eight signatories are required for the motion to be approved.
Morocco's entrance to the Peace and Security Council comes amid a change in tone from the AU with respect to the Western Sahara dispute. New chairman of the African Union Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat who took the helm in March 2017, used his first annual AU summit in January 2018 to state that the two sides must resume direct negotiations without prior conditions. This is a marked departure from his predecessor, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who openly supported SADR independence. The AU's change in approach follows a similar shift from the UN. UN Secretary General António Guterres appointed a new envoy to the Western Sahara in late 2017 in a bid to reignite the diplomatic process (see 'No End in Sight to Western Sahara Conflict', October 23, 2017). Rabat had accused the envoy under Guterres's predecessor, Ban Ki Moon, of bias towards the SADR. The former UN Secretary General was widely viewed as being supportive of SADR independence, labeling Morocco's involvement in Western Sahara as occupation.
Morocco's chances of receiving a more sympathetic ear from South Africa have also improved following the results of the leadership contest in South Africa's ruling African National Congress (ANC). Former AU chair Dhlamini-Zuma, who was competing for ANC leadership, narrowly lost the vote to rival Cyril Ramaphosa. While Ramaphosa's policy towards the dispute is uncertain, a victory for Dhlamini-Zuma would have almost certainly resulted in a continued hard line from Pretoria. South Africa, along with the region's other heavyweight Nigeria, is one of the 20 countries that formally recognizes the SADR as a sovereign state. Although not a certainty, Ramaphosa's ascension to the ANC presidency leaves the door open for improved relations between Rabat and Pretoria and this may further bolster Morocco's influence in the AU.
Polisario Digging In
These developments are likely to cause alarm for supporters of an independent Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), leading to a hardening in the position of the Polisario Front and Algeria, the group's main backers. The day after Morocco was elected to the AU Peace and Security Council, Polisario Front troops conducted military man-oeuvres in a demilitarized zone established by the 1991 peace accords that brought the conflict between the two sides to an end. Polisario troops also closed a road in the zone and briefly detained a group of Moroccans travelling on it. The road was reopened following intervention by UN peacekeeping troops stationed in the region. We believe that regional and international pressure will prevent the two sides from returning to all-out conflict. However, a likely hardening in the position of the Polisario Front will make progress difficult in the international community's attempts to find a lasting resolution to the crisis.