Africa Watch

Another AU summit leaves Africa badly divided

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While massive shifts in the global strategic balance of power are taking place, the African continent looks more divided than ever after the African Union (AU) has just completed its 28th summit.

Ironically, it is an old colonial-era divide between so-called aglophone and francophone countries that forcefully reasserted itself in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The big bone of contention: The readmittance of Morocco to the Union.

There were some other important matters also on the table – the election of a new chairperson; the decision to withdraw from the ICC; and US president Donald Trump’s impact on the global scene, particularly with his new US travel restrictions, but in the end Morocco dominated the news.

Background on Morocco 

Morocco was a founding member of the AU’s predecessor, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU).  However, when the OAU in 1984 admitted the Western Sahara (a former Spanish colony), as a separate member, Morocco angrily withdrew from the AU.

Morocco firmly believed, and still does, that the territory, now known as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), is an integral part of its territory.

The International Court of Justice, predecessor of the ICC, suggested a referendum on self-determination in the disputed territory as far back as 1975.

Now, 33 years after Morocco left the OAU, the AU’s member states overwhelmingly (39 out of 54) voted in favour of the return of Morocco as full member.

Among the 15 opposing votes, notably, counted Algeria and South Africa. As a regional bloc, the SADC showed solidarity – Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia and Botswana, also casting opposing votes.

The overall voting pattern, however, once again amplified the anglophone/ francophone divide in the AU. Most francophone countries voted in favour of Morocco’s re-admission and the majority anglophones against.

Nigeria and Kenya were prominent Anglophone countries that broke rank and supported readmission.

Most commentators agree, more tests for African unity lie ahead as new pressure for a referendum on SADR self-determination gains momentum.

South Africa's dilemma

Morally, a case can be made for South Africa to support the SADR, but there are also some important strategic considerations involved – Morocco is a political and economic heavyweight in Africa.

It is the sixth largest economic power in Africa and its AU membership will help bolster the organisation’s dire financial situation. Currently 70% of the AU’s budget depends on foreign donations, particularly from the European Union (EU), which seriously compromises its independence.

In the volatile North African region, plagued by political and socio-economic unrest and extremist acts of terror in countries like Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Mali, Morocco is the exception – although not immune.

Morocco is a bulwark against the spread of Islamic fundamentalism, but also retains considerable influence in the Muslim world as a founding member of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference and member of the League of Arab States.

With the royal house of Morocco descending directly from the prophet Mohammed, and with King Muhammed VI as “commander of the faithful,” Morocco plays an important stabilising role in the Islamic world.

Morocco’s significance in continental affairs needs to be contemplated by South Africa.

Her siding with the minority vote and amid accusations that Dlamini-Zuma violated the neutrality required from her as AU chairperson by openly canvassing for a 'no 'vote,  has added Morocco to the growing list of African nations critical of South Africa, in particular of its government.

New AU Commission chairperson

The election of the former Chadian prime minister and minister of foreign affairs, Moussa Faki Mahamat, to replace Dlamini-Zuma as chairperson of the AU Commission came as a surprise to many and also deepened existing divisions.

Faki was not among the early front runners and is another “victory” for the Francophone countries. 

General consensus is that Faki will, considering his background, follow a different path to his predecessor. A reorientation of AU policies, with a focus on issues of peace and security is more likely, with fighting terrorism as priority.

It will please both Europe and the US as it fits in well with their policies to fight back against international terror. 

Faki is, however, also a supporter of the ICC which puts him in conflict with the majority view in the AU.

Decision on the ICC

On the ICC, South Africa found itself on the side of the majority, with most members agreeing to a collective withdrawal from the court.

With African states making up more than two-thirds of the ICC’s membership, their withdrawal could put the future of the ICC in question.

The decision in favour of a collective withdrawal is not binding on member states and only a recommendation. With a significant number of members expressing their reservations, the future relationship between Africa and the ICC remains uncertain and precarious.

Criticising Trump

On one issue the AU was united – it joined the international outcry against president Trump’s executive order banning immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries, three of which are AU members namely Libya, Somalia and Sudan.

Outgoing AU Commission chairperson, Dlamini-Zuma, aptly expressed the consensus view of AU members when she said, “The very country to which many of our people were taken as slaves during the trans-Atlantic slave trade has now decided to ban refugees from some of our countries.”

Her warning that the ban and its consequences for Africa "... is one of the greatest challenges to our unity and solidarity" could still turn out to be timely and true.

Uncertain future

With the surprising Brexit-vote in the United Kingdom  and Trump’s unexpected victory, the world in 2017 is, as the old Chinese saying goes, now “living in interesting times.”

Outgoing AU Commission chairperson, Dlamini-Zuma, is perhaps close to the truth with her remark, "We are entering very turbulent times."

Her words are particularly ominous, considering the conclusion by many analysts after the summit, that the different views within the AU family on the ICC and Morocco leave the now 55-member bloc "more divided than ever."

by Garth Cilliers

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