Kenya steps on Morocco’s toes in renewed attempt to solve Sahrawi problem

Sahrawi people during a past protest.

Sahrawi people during a past protest.

Photo credit: File | AFP

Kenya’s renewed bid to have the African Union take a leading role in resolving the Western Sahara dispute is angering Morocco.

On Tuesday, President Uhuru Kenyatta Chaired the African Union High-Level Meeting of the Peace and Security Council on ‘sustainable peace in Africa.’ But its preparations, the Nation learnt, had been subject to Morocco’s intensive lobbying to have it cancelled or delayed to allow Algerian diplomat Smail Chergui to complete his term next week as the AU Commissioner for Peace and Security.

A communique released by the 15-member Peace and Security Council called for “immediate ceasefire” in the Western Sahara and requested the African Union troika and the AU Special Envoy for Western Sahara [Joachim Chissano] to “reinvigorate support to the UN-led mediation.” It urged UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to make the pending appointment of a Special Envoy to the MINURSO [the UN Mission to Western Sahara] to support peace efforts there.

The Council said the conflict in Western Sahara had delayed regional integration efforts in the Maghreb region, calling on the UN Secretary-General to speed up appointment of a special envoy to facilitate mediation.

Kenya had called the meeting as the March chair of the AU Peace and Security Council where it intended to discuss peace and security as well as climate change. But Morocco is accusing Algeria of prevailing on Kenya to place the Sahrawi issue for Algiers’ own political gains.

Nairobi, however, argues Sahrawi issue was always part of a series of issues central to its running theme of peace and security in Africa, alongside South Sudan, the situation in Tigray and other hotspots on the continent.

Morocco’s had requested Kenya to delay the meeting, warning that Mr Chergui was using his final days in office to “serve his native country’s suspicious agenda and risks to compromise Kenya’s neutral position regarding the Sahara Issue as well as its commitment to promote peace and stability in Africa.”

Moroccan Minister of Foreign Affairs Nasser Bourita had written to Kenyan counterpart Raychelle Omamo saying there was no consensus on discussing Sahrawi.

“The theme of the discussions risks provoking severe divisions among the PSC members who would be more comfortable to examine unifying and priority issues, over which there is basic consensus especially during the challenging period of Covid-19 pandemic,” Bourita argued in a March 1 letter to Nairobi.

“The Troika should be the sole mechanism of Africa’s bid to resolve the issue, and which affirms exclusivity of the UN Security Council on this matter,” he said referring to the three-member group of former, current and future Chairpersons of the African Union normally known as the Troika on the Saharawi question. At the moment, that includes South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, DRC’s Felix Tshisekedi and Senegal’s Macky Sall.

Morocco had lobbied so hard ahead of the meeting, they contacted ODM leader Raila Odinga, the African Union High Representative for Infrastructure Development to help pass the message.

Western Sahara, a region in the north-west of Africa was initially a Spanish colony but was taken over by Morocco which now considers it its territory, although a part of it is administered by the government of the Polisario Front, running the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, exiled in Algeria.

A United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution proposed a referendum voted for by natives of the region, to decide between independence and integration into Morocco. The Polisario Front favoured separation while the Kingdom of Morocco favoured integration. The referendum has never been held despite the AU's endorsement, however.

Mokhtar Ghambou, Morocco’s Ambassador to Kenya accused Algeria of trying to sabotage the UN-led mediation by forcing a parallel process through the African Union Peace and Security Council.

“It is obvious that the former PSC Commissioner [Chergui] whose term ends on March 15, 2021, desperately seeks to take advantage of the Heads of State decision through a ‘pick and choose policy’, to both contradict and undermine the institutional reforms initiated within the AU,” he told the Nation on Wednesday, saying the meeting had been “inopportune.” Mr Chergui is supposed to be replaced next month by Nigeria’s Bankole Adeoye elected recently to head the expanded Political Affairs, Peace and Security department.

 “Algeria is not interested in in defending the cause of Polisario separatists, rather they want to prevent Morocco, the first African investor from North Africa from having a presence in Kenya and the East African region.”

Last year in December, then US President Donald Trump recognised Morocco’s rule over Western Sahara, something the African Union promptly opposed and saying the matter has to be resolved through the referendum as ordered by the UNSC. The US is a permanent member of the UNSC had earlier in October voted for the extension of the UN Mission in Western Sahara to October 31, 2021.

UNSC Resolution 2548 last October had also called for resumption of negotiations without preconditions and noted “need for a realistic, practicable and enduring solution to the Western Sahara question based on compromise.”