Morocco Seeks African Union Reinstatement, Settlement Of Unresolved Western Sahara Issue
From the U.N. magazine, Africa Renewal. Story by Franck Kuwonu.
Slowly and steadily, Morocco has been establishing itself as a major economic force in sub-Saharan Africa, even as it eyes gaining readmission into the African Union (A.U.), which it left decades ago.
In July, King Mohammed VI of Morocco informed African leaders attending the A.U. summit in Kigali, Rwanda, of his country’s wish to return to the fold, saying, “Morocco should not remain outside its African institutional family, and it should regain its natural, rightful place within the A.U. ”
Two months later the kingdom formally submitted a request to re-join the continental body, thus starting a process that may lead to its readmission at the next A.U. summit in Addis Ababa (scheduled for Jan. 22-31, 2017.)
Morocco left the former Organisation of African Unity (A.U.’s predecessor) in 1984, to protest the seating of the Polisario Front as representatives of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), a former Spanish colony west of the Sahara that Morocco considers part of its territory. SADR disputes Morocco’s position, and 30 years later the dispute remains unresolved.
In explaining Morocco’s current decision to join the A.U., the king said, “When a body is sick, it is treated more effectively from the inside than from the outside.”
The kingdom has expanded its economic ties with many countries on the continent, mainly through trade and investments since it left the A.U. It now seeks to return to the fold, boost these ties and settle the unresolved Western Sahara matter.
“We are Arabs, but we are also Berbers and Maghrebi,”said Brahim Fassi Fihri, president and founder of Institut Amadeus, a Morocco-based think tank, in an Africa Renewal interview.
He was referring to the multicultural identity of his country, which is made up of mostly Berber and Maghrebi ethnic groups. He maintains that the decision by Morocco to leave the regional body three decades ago was a “strategic mistake.” Still, “Africa is our natural home,” he said. “We may have left an organization, but we could never have left the continent.”
As a sign of its political solidarity with Africa, Morocco’s national carrier, Royal Air Maroc, maintained its regular schedule to West Africa at the height of the Ebola epidemic two years ago, when all international air carriers, with the exception of Belgium-based SN Brussels, suspended flights to the affected countries of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone over contagion fears.
The decision was based on humanitarian grounds, not commercial—out of brotherly solidarity “reflecting the kingdom’s constant commitment to Africa,” the airline’s spokesman told Agence France-presse (AFP) at that time.
The airline has expanded its network across the continent. Over the past decade, it has increased its flights to African destinations from 14 in 2007 to 32 in 2016.
To some extent the story of the national carrier is a telling testament to its expansive economic ambition on the continent.
Over the 10-year period starting in 2004, Morocco’s trade with the rest of the continent grew by an annual average of 13 percent ($3.7 billion) in 2014, 42 percent of which was with sub-Saharan Africa. This represented just 6.4 percent of the kingdom’s overall trade globally during the same period, according to a government report titled Morocco-Africa Relationship: Ambition for a New Frontier.
First investor in West Africa
Yet the most remarkable change was Morocco’s direct investments in the continent. In 2015 it invested $600 million, with neighboring Mali getting the lion’s share, followed by Côte d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Senegal and Gabon, according to the World Investment Report 2016, a publication of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).
Over the decade ending in 2016, Morocco’s investment in sub-Saharan Africa represented 85 percent of its overall foreign direct investment (FDI) stocks, according to data from the country’s finance ministry and the African Development Bank.
“Moroccans became a more prominent investor on the continent, initiating 13 intra-African investments—its highest in over a decade,” reckoned a 2015 survey report by Ernst & Young, a global financial consultancy firm.
The reason behind the growing interest in sub-Saharan Africa, says Ernst & Young, was that “Moroccan companies are looking towards sub-Saharan Africa as their country becomes a platform for exporting to other African countries.”
Morocco’s investments are mostly concentrated in banking and telecommunications sectors, which in 2013 accounted for 88 percent of its FDI stocks in sub-Saharan Africa. Beyond these traditional sectors, Moroccan companies have also ventured into insurance.
For many years West African countries and to some extent Central African countries were the preferred destinations of Morocco’s investment in sub-Saharan Africa. In his letter to the A.U., the king explained that “the important involvement of Moroccan operators and their strong engagement in the areas of banking, insurance, air transport, telecommunications and housing are such that the kingdom is now the No. 1 investor in West Africa.” He added, “My country is already the second largest investor on the continent and our ambition is to be ranked first.”
To some observers the reasons behind Morocco’s foray into the continent are purely economic. However, other analysts like Amine Dafir argue that Morocco’s growing economic interest on the continent was designed to shore up influence it may have lost by withdrawing from the A.U.
Supporting Morocco in its application to rejoin the A.U. is a group of 28 African countries, representing more than the half of the votes (27) required for admission.
Read more at Africa Renewal.
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