Kenya walks back on controversial stance on Sahrawi

Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic President Brahim Ghali.

Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic President Brahim Ghali during President William Ruto’s swearing-in at Kasarani Stadium, Nairobi, on September 13, 2022.

Photo credit: Jeff Angote | Nation Media Group

Kenya says it has not abandoned a decades-old policy in which it supported the African Union’s call for free self-determination of the Sahrawi people.

In a diplomatic note sent to embassies and representatives offices of international organisations in Nairobi, Kenya walked back on a controversial tweet last week in which President William Ruto appeared to end recognition of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), in favour of an autonomy offer by Morocco.

Instead, Foreign Affairs Principal Secretary Macharia Kamau said Nairobi has not departed from supporting the African Union call, as well as a mediation programmes under the UN, to have the people of Western Sahara decide their future.

“Kenya’s position on the Sahrawi Arab Democractic Republic is fully aligned with; the decision of the Organization of African Unity (now African Union) to admit SADR to its membership on 22nd August 1982, and the AU Charter which calls for the unquestionable and inalienable right of a people to self-determination.

“Further, the country aligns itself with decisions of subsequent AU Assemblies of Heads of State and Government on SADR,” Mr Kamau said in the note dated September 16, and seen by the Nation.

The note may clarify Kenya’s position after initially deleting without explanation the declaration to end formal ties with SADR.

Last week, a day after President Ruto took office, he tweeted:

“Kenya rescinds its recognition of the SADR and initiates steps to wind down the entity’s presence in the country.” This bit was later deleted but it came after Dr Ruto had earlier met with Sahrawi President Brahim Ghali who attended his inauguration at Kasarani, and later Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita.

However, the President also did say that Kenya supports the United Nations framework “as the exclusive mechanism to find a lasting solution of the dispute over Western Sahara.

The Foreign Ministry in Kenya told embassies all formal declarations will, in future, be made only through formal diplomatic documents, not social media, in an apparent move to prevent another gaffe.

The President indicated that relations with Morocco will, nonetheless, be speeded up “in areas of trade, agriculture, health, tourism, energy, among others, for the mutual benefit of our countries.”

The announcement would have upended a decades-old policy in which African countries generally support the call for a referendum for the region claimed by Morocco as part of its territory.

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The SADR has had a seat at the African Union since 1982 and had a for a longtime caused Morocco’s withdrawal from the AU, then known as the Organization of African Unity (OAU) until 2017 when Rabat returned.

The decision means Kenya has joined the US in recognising Morocco against SADR but it is the only African country to do so publicly.

It also turns on its head President Kenyatta’s policy on the SADR. When then Foreign Affairs Cabinet Secretary Amina Mohamed ran for the Chairperson of the African Union Commission in 2017, she visited the SADR government in Algeria. That decision is said to have dug her heels as Morocco mounted a lobbying against her.

During Uhuru Kenyatta’s presidency, Kenya chose to strengthen embassy in Algeria, sided with SADR while it retained only a consul in Rabat.

Western Sahara has been claimed by Morocco since 1975. And Kenya had argued the boundaries of Western Sahara as vacated by the Spanish colonialists should be left unchanged.

Initially occupied by the Spanish, the Western Sahara was claimed by both Mauritania and Morocco. Mauritania later left leaving Rabat to call the region as its Southern Provinces of territory.

In 1979, the UN General Assembly passed Resolution A / RES / 34/37 which provided "the unequal rights of Western Sahara people in their own discretion and liberty, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations, the Charter of the Organization of the African Unity and the purposes of the General Assembly.”

The dispute between the two sides had been floated in the UN systems, including at the International Court of Justice. But a referendum meant to determine the future of the region was yet to be organised as both sides disagree on who should participate.

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