Since 2014 the Western Sahara situation has risen high on the agenda of the African Union (AU) with the former president of Mozambique, Joaquim Chissano, appointed as the Special Envoy of the Chairperson for Western Sahara. The Peace and Security Council (PSC) has now decided to place the issue on its agenda at least twice a year.
The conflict over Western Sahara, the longest-running dispute in Africa, is the only remaining incomplete decolonisation process on the continent. The AU’s efforts to resolve the issue have so far focused on ensuring that the right to self-determination of the inhabitants of the territory is implemented without interference. Morocco considers Western Sahara as ‘recovered’ territory and part of its kingdom. Thus far the role of the AU in the peace process has mostly been limited to endorsing United Nations (UN) initiatives and making regular calls for implementation of UN decisions. The PSC’s latest decision is aimed at scaling up the AU’s role in the crisis.
On 27 March 2015 the PSC discussed the situation in Western Sahara. The Council received the report of the AU Commission chairperson on the situation in Western Sahara and was briefed by Chissano in his role as special envoy. The Foreign Affairs Minister of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic, Salem Ould Salek, addressed the meeting, as did representatives of Nigeria, which is an African member of the UN Security Council and of the UN Secretariat. In a subsequent communiqué the Council relaunched the AU’s multi-track effort to resolve the crisis and called for the restart of the UN-brokered peace effort.
The PSC meeting also decided to consider Western Sahara at least twice a year and regularly review the situation based on updates and recommendations by the AU Commission’s chairperson. Following the meeting, Ould Salek hailed the PSC’s decision to relaunch the Western Sahara issue as ‘historic and crucial’. Algeria also commended the move.
Special envoy welcomed by the Polisario Front
In June 2014 the AU had appointed Chissano as its special envoy for Western Sahara. Sahrawi President Mohamed Abdelaziz welcomed the appointment and noted that the envoy would ensure regular follow-up on the Western Sahara issue by the PSC and the AU Commission. Abdelaziz accused Morocco of hindering both the self-determination referendum in Western Sahara and negotiations over the status of the territory.
He also accused the kingdom of illegal mining and fishing in Western Sahara and of denying independent observers access to the territory. In the past he also accused Moroccan security forces of ‘ethnic cleansing’ and ‘colonialist practices’. The Polisario Front and human rights groups claim that the Moroccan authorities commit atrocities like torture, forced detention and disappearances that target Sahrawi individuals, including women and young people.
The appointment of Chissano to lead and coordinate the AU’s efforts in the conflict could have been a step forward in enhancing the AU’s role in the resolution of the crisis. However, the move was opposed by Rabat. In a statement dated 1 July 2014 the Moroccan foreign affairs and cooperation ministry rejected the AU’s decision to appoint a special envoy for Western Sahara. According to the statement, Morocco does not accept the unilateral decision to name a special envoy without consultation and UN approval. The ministry further stated that the AU ‘has no legal basis, no political fundament, nor moral legitimacy to intervene in that issue which is the exclusive domain of the United Nations’. Morocco further called on the UN and members of the UN Security Council to ignore the AU’s decision and support the UN facilitation process.
However, the AU is acting well within its authority by putting the situation on its agenda. Its predecessor, the Organization of African Unity (OAU), had recognised it in 1984. Morocco had left the OAU due to this decision and has since remained the only African country that is not a member of the AU.
Other Moroccan voices also criticised the appointment, claiming that Chissano, who was in power in Mozambique from 1986–2005, was a well-known supporter of the Polisario Front.
Morocco still believes its proposed autonomy plan via the ‘advanced regionalisation’ programme promoted by King Mohammed VI is the best possible option for both parties. In a 2014 statement Moroccan Foreign Minister Salaheddine Mezouar said that Morocco’s conflict was no longer with the Polisario Front but with Algeria.
He said the methods Algeria used to erect obstacles to resolving the issue were pathetic and that the Polisario Front was irrelevant without the support of ‘its puppet master Algeria’. The issue of Western Sahara is a sensitive and unifying political issue in Morocco.
The Saharawi Republic enjoys great support in the corridors of the AU, most notably from continental giants like Algeria, South Africa and Nigeria. Abdelaziz held talks with a number of African heads of state and government on the sidelines of the AU’s 23rd Ordinary Summit in June 2014. He met presidents Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria, Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz of Mauritania, Jacob Zuma of South Africa, Jakaya Kikwete of Tanzania, Hifikepunye Pohamba of Namibia, Yoweri Museveni of Uganda and Idriss Déby of Chad, as well as King Letsie III of Lesotho.
Efforts to initiate a new round of talks
Since January 2009, Morocco and the Polisario Front have held 10 UN-led informal rounds of negotiations. All of these have ended without any meaningful progress.
Ambassador Christopher Ross, the UN Secretary-General’s Personal Envoy for Western Sahara, leads UN efforts to resolve the deadlock. Recently, Ross had consultations with Moroccan officials, the Polisario Front and the governments of Algeria and Mauritania on their contribution to the search for a settlement. In his 10 April 2014 report to the UN Security Council, the secretary-general raised numerous issues, including the exploitation of natural resources in Western Sahara and the restart of talks between the parties to bring about a lasting solution to the impasse. In April 2014 the UN Security Council decided to extend the mandate of the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) for another year.
Growing international interest
The 2007 Autonomy Plan by Morocco was cautiously received by some and described as ‘serious and credible’ by some members of the UN Security Council. The European Union considers Western Sahara a non-self-governing territory and Morocco as the de facto administering power.
In March a delegation headed by a member of the Polisario Front’s Secretariat and by Mohamed Khaddad, the Polisario Front’s coordinator with MINURSO, was received in Moscow by Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov as well as by members of the Russian upper house. The move angered Morocco and manifested Russia’s increasing interest in the Western Saharan issue. The same month also saw a show of support from members of different parties in Japan for the UN’s efforts to organise a referendum on self-determination by the Sahrawi people.
A year of heightened mobilisation for Western Sahara at the AU
The Western Sahara issue resurfaced on the agenda of the January 2015 AU summit in Addis Ababa. In his first speech as the new AU chairperson, President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe stressed that ‘Africa’s failure to decolonise Western Sahara would be a negation [of the] African ideals and principles’ of the founding fathers of the continental organisation. Mugabe, who was warmly applauded for this statement, further called for the implementation of all relevant UN resolutions requiring that a referendum on self-determination for the Saharawi people be held and emphasised that Africa would not be completely free ‘as long as our brothers and sisters in Western Sahara remain under Moroccan occupation’.
The issue of Western Sahara also featured on the agenda of the meeting of the AU’s Executive Council on 28 January 2015. The report of the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights adopted at the end of the 26th ordinary session of the Council included a section on human rights in the ‘occupied territories of Western Sahara’.
The report expressed its ‘grave concern’ over the continuous ‘illegal occupation of the territories of Western Sahara’ and recommended that the Executive Council organise some of its activities in the liberated territories of Western Sahara to show solidarity with the struggle for an independent Saharawi Republic. The chair of the Council, Zimbabwe Minister of Foreign Affairs Simbarashe Mumbengegwi, also announced that Western Sahara would be one of the top priorities of Zimbabwe’s AU presidency in 2015. Member states of the AU have been calling for a more active role by the AU in creating an environment in which the Sahrawi population determines its own destiny.
Most notably in May 2004, former South African president Thabo Mbeki called on the AU to support self-determination for Western Sahara. Mbeki said that it was a matter of great shame and regret for the continent that the issue of Western Sahara remained unresolved. Similar calls have been made by numerous officials at different gatherings of the AU. However the legal and diplomatic complexities of the situation have thus far limited the AU’s involvement, to the dissatisfaction of its members.
PSC/PR/2(CDXCVI) (27 March 2015) Report of the Chairperson of the Commission on the situation in Western Sahara
PSC/PR/COMM/1.(CDXCVI) (27 March 2015) Communiqué of the Peace and Security Council of the African Union (AU) on the situation in Western Sahara