Morocco rejoins African Union after more than 30 years

Main plenary hall at AU headquarters

ADDIS ABABA - Morocco's King Mohammed VI took a seat at the African Union headquarters Tuesday for the first time in 33 years since it quit the bloc.
"It is a beautiful day when one returns home after too long an absence. Africa is my continent and my home. I am finally home and I am happy to see you. I missed you all," the monarch told the closing ceremony of the AU summit in Ethiopia.
His speech came after a long day of feverish speculation in the halls of the AU headquarters over whether he would indeed show up, and protocol confusion which saw his foreign minister given a talking to in front of some media after he tried to enter the main plenary hall during a heads of state meeting.
The African Union agreed Monday to readmit Morocco following a difficult debate over the status of Western Sahara, according to presidents attending the summit.
"Morocco is now a full member of the African Union. There was a very long debate but 39 of our 54 states approved the return of Morocco, even if the Western Sahara question remains," Senegalese President Macky Sall told journalists.
"As we have said, if the family grows bigger, we can find solutions as a family," he added.
Liberia's President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf confirmed that "the majority of the member states have accepted Morocco's application to rejoin the African Union."
"Africa wants to speak in one voice. We need all African countries to be a part of that voice."
Delegates attending the debate described an emotional and tense discussion, with heavyweights like Algeria and South Africa against the re-admission of Morocco.
These nations have long supported the campaign for self-determination by Western Sahara's Polisario movement.
Morocco quit the then Organisation of African Unity (OAU) in 1984 after the bloc admitted the former Western Sahara as a separate member.
Morocco maintains that the former Spanish colony under its control is an integral part of the kingdom, while the Polisario Front, which campaigns for the territory's independence, demands a referendum on self-determination.
Some nations find it unthinkable that Morocco should sit in the same room as Western Sahara and the debate has been "an emotional call for the fight against colonisation," according to Institute for Security Studies analyst Liesl Louw-Vaudran.
King Mohammed did not raise the issue of Western Sahara in his speech, choosing instead to highlight how Morocco as "one of the most developed African nations", could be a boon to the continent.
"We do not ignore the fact that we do not have unanimity in this noble assembly. We do not want to create divisions as some have insinuated," he said.
"My vision of South-South cooperation is clear and constant. Morocco ... will be a motor for common economic growth.
"It is time that Africa's riches benefit Africa. For too long we have looked elsewhere to make decisions, commitments. Is it not time to turn towards our own continent?"
The AU seems to have decided to leave the resolution of the Western Sahara question for another day, hoping that with Morocco back in the fold they can better advance the dossier.
Some had feared Morocco would demand the expulsion of the SADR as a precondition for its own return to the AU, however the country agreed to return without conditions.
Faced with the AU's decision, Western Sahara officials appeared to accept the new reality and cast it in a positive light, saying AU membership might help speed up efforts to end a protracted conflict.
"From the moment that Morocco did not impose conditions ... we take their word for it and accept that Morocco be admitted to the African Union," said Mohamed Salem Ould Salek, foreign minister of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), which claims sovereignty over the entire territory of Western Sahara.
Salek said Monday that having Morocco in the same room would allow the SADR to pressure them into fulfilling their obligations and allowing a referendum in accordance with a 1975 decision by the International Court of Justice.
"Now (if) Morocco is blocking (it) will be questioned by the head of states: why are you afraid of a referendum? "Why don't you allow the Sahrawi to choose their future freely?"
"I think that one we're going to leave that until we have more chance to discuss it," said Johnson-Sirleaf.
- Pan-African splendour -
The busy AU summit also saw Chadian foreign minister Moussa Faki Mahamat take over from South Africa's Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma as AU commission chief after a fierce election battle that eliminated four other candidates.
Guinea's Alpha Conde took over the rotating presidency of the bloc, and called for the continent to express solidarity with Somalia, Libya and Sudan, which have been targeted by a United States travel ban.
The decision to re-admit Morocco, and election of a new chairperson, took place despite regional divisions that observers feared could lead to delay or deadlock on both issues.
"We hope that this summit will show the world that the spirit ... of pan-Africanism is born again in all its splendour," said Guinea's Conde, who took over the AU's rotating presidency from Chad.
"Many around the world ... thought we would be divided and the summit would come to an abrupt end. But we decided to take responsibility."
- UN peacekeeper scrutiny -
A combative Conde also called for more urgency in reforming the United Nations so that Africa could get a permanent seat on the Security Council -- a long-running demand from the continent.
He appointed South African President Jacob Zuma to lead negotiations with the UN, and also look into the effectiveness of peacekeeping operations on the continent.
"What is the role of the blue helmets? What purpose does this army serve?" Conde asked, pointing to ongoing violence in places like South Sudan and Democratic Republic of Congo.
He also appointed Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni to negotiate on behalf of the continent with the European Union on the issue of migrants.
"On the migration problem we need to speak with one voice."