There is a rich menu of issues on the agenda of the 28th African Union (AU) summit. It is sure to be a historic summit. Its historic importance is arguably in the league of the May 1963 Addis Ababa conference founding of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), predecessor to the AU and the July 2002 Durban summit inaugurating the AU.

What makes it historic is not the election of the new chairperson of the AU Commission expected to take place on 30 January 2017. It is not either the much-anticipated report of Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame on the restructuring of the Union.

What makes the 28th summit of the AU historic is the AU’s Shakespearean dilemma of admitting or not admitting the Kingdom of Morocco.

Since its withdrawal from the OAU in 1984, the northern Africa Kingdom has been the only African country remaining outside of the pan-African body, the AU. The O/AU has since grown from strength to strength with expanding political muscle and assuming increasing role on continental affairs. As it becomes alive to the reality of AU’s continental and global profile, Morocco sought to end its self-imposed diplomatic exile. 32 years after its departure, the Kingdom is now seeking to be part of the continental political fold.

After its very publicized announcement on its desire to have a seat on the AU table at the 27th AU summit held in Kigali Rwanda, Morocco formally submitted its request for admission to the AU in September 2016. Most recently, it signed and ratified the Constitutive Act of the AU, the founding treaty establishing the regional body.

Morocco’s charm offensive: Laying the groundwork for AU membership

As part of his visit to Kigali during the 27th AU summit, King Mohammed VI stated that although his country has left the organization, ‘it never quit Africa’. Indeed, despite severing its institutional ties, Morocco has over the years built strong economic and political ties in francophone Africa, where it enjoys its strongest backing.

In recent years, the Kingdom sought to extend its reach by deploying African wide diplomatic outreach. The Kingdom has opened embassies in Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania, and Mozambique. In a diplomatic offensive that combined high level visits and wide-ranging economic cooperation agreements, Morocco sent some 20 high level missions to some 15 African countries during the past three years.

The King and senior officials also paid a visit to Nigeria, Ethiopia, Tanzania and Rwanda during the last six months of 2016. Morocco has signed 19 economic agreements with Rwanda and 22 with Tanzania, the later one a firm traditional advocate for decolonization and natural supporter of Western Sahara. Following his visit to Addis Ababa, the headquarters of the AU, King Mohammed VI announced the signing of a deal for building a $3.7 billion fertilizer company in Ethiopia, the largest single investment made outside of Morocco.

Reaping the fruits of its campaign

Morocco’s diplomatic overtures to obtain support from the wider membership of the AU did not go unrewarded. Although its attempts to get a hearing for its cause during the 27th AU summit was dead on arrival, in a display of strong support for Morocco 28 member states were reported to have signed a motion for the suspension of Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) from the AU.

Following the communication by the AU Commission Chair Dr Dlamini-Zuma to AU member States on Morocco’s official request for membership in the AU, more than half of the members of the AU responded assenting to Morocco’s request. It was following the receipt of support from majority of AU member states that the Chairperson of the Commission put the issue on the agenda of the 28th summit of the AU.

 A dilemma like no other

 Given the ambition of the continental body for the unification of Africa, one of the founding ideals pan-African institutionalism, Morocco’s absence in the AU is an anomaly. At the same time, its return to the AU could mark one step to a more perfect union.

Yet, unlike South Sudan’s accession to the AU, Morocco’s raises a dilemma like no other. Morocco left the continental body in protest of OAU’s admission of the SADR as a member of the OAU. While Morocco was the founding member of the OAU, with the transition of the OAU to the AU, the SADR has become one of the founding members of the AU whose name is inscribed into the Constitutive Act, the founding treaty of the AU.

Other than the various geo-strategic changes that happened in Africa and the Middle East, as far as the reason for Morocco’s withdrawal is concerned nothing has changed. SADR remains a part of the AU.

Although no one disputes the pan-African roots and the African membership of Morocco, understandably, its move for joining the AU is not seen as a manifestation of the Kingdom’s affection for the continental body. There is legitimate concern that Morocco’s return carries serious peril for the Union. It threatens to create unprecedented split within the membership of the Union, exacerbating existing fault lines continuing to impede continental unity.

Apart from Algeria, the staunch backer of the Western Sahara cause, other major regional powers on the continent also firmly support Western Sahara. Western Sahara has its strong regional support in Southern Africa. In an opinion piece published recently, South Africa’s Foreign Affairs Minister Maite Nkoana- Mashabane expressed South Africa’s unequivocal support for SADR affirming that South Africa remains ‘committed to continue to walk with the people of Western Sahara until they are free to live in their own land and able to determine their own future.’ SADR can also count of no less a firm support from such countries as Zimbabwe. It also enjoys support in East Africa from countries such as Uganda. Kenya’s Foreign Affairs Minister, who is also one of the frontrunners of the candidates for replacing AUC Chair Dr Dlamini-Zuma, announced her plan to push for holding of the referendum on the right to self-determination of Western Sahara.

The applicable legal processes  

The legal process to be followed in determining Morocco’s request for readmission to the AU has been outlined in a briefing that the Legal Counsel of the AU, Prof Vincent O. Nmehielle, gave to the Peace and Security Council of the AU on 12 August 2016. According to the Legal Council, there is a three-stage process for approving a request for AU membership under the AU Constitutive Act.

The first stage of this process is stipulated in Article 29 of the Constitutive Act. This involves the formal submission of a request for membership in the AUC Chairperson, the communication by the Chairperson to member states indicating the request. The second phase depends on whether simple majority of member states approve of the request for member ship. The second phase envisaged under Article 7 of the Constitutive Act involves the presentation by the Chairperson of the AUC to the AU Assembly of the request and the number of support from AU member states for the request.

The final stage of the process involves the consideration and deliberation by the AU Assembly of the request. In a communiqué it issued following the Prof Nmehielle’s briefing, the PSC stressed the need for the state requesting admission to the AU ‘to commit itself fully to upholding and respecting the principles of the Union as outlined in Article 4 of the Constitutive Act’. The PSC communiqué further urged member states to comply with the provisions of the AU Constitutive Act as the only legal framework that should guide the accession of any state to the AU.

Impending showdown

AU is clearly poised to have one of the most unprecedented showdowns between states supporting Morocco and those upholding the 1984 decision admitting SADR, currently the last African territory falling under the 1960 UN Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples as the International Court of Justice held in its Western Sahara, Advisory Opinion, I.C.J. Reports 1975. While there are those calling for Morocco’s admission without any conditions, for others Morocco’s admission without accepting the right of Western Sahara for self-determination is an abomination to the liberation ideals of the continental body. There are also those who, short of insisting Morocco’s acceptance of SADR’s self-determination, demand that Morocco gives guarantee that it does not dispute SADR’s membership in the AU.

As the recent walkout of Morocco from the Africa-Arab summit held in Malabo in protest of the presence of SADR shows, the indication is that Morocco, if admitted, is unlikely to coexist within the AU on an equal status with SADR.

AU  Shakespearean Morocco dilemma of admitting or not admitting Morocco is unlike any similar dilemma before. Nothing less than the very fate of the Union is on the line. As one diplomat from an East African country put it to me, the AU is corned into ‘dropping its policy position on SADR or Morocco will return to break it from within.’ It is no wonder that Dr Dlamini-Zuma, in one of her tweets on 25 January 2017, cautioned that ‘Whatever we do at this (28th) Summit, we must ensure that we preserve the precious and principled unity of this continent and our Union’.