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Coming in from the cold: Morocco returns to Africa

Two countries are making determined efforts to return to Africa. One is, in fact, an African country. Morocco left the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) 32 years ago over the admission of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) to the continental body.

Two countries are making determined efforts to return to Africa. One is, in fact, an African country. Morocco left the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) 32 years ago over the admission of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) to the continental body.

Morocco considers SADR (Western Sahara), until 1976 a Spanish colony, one of its provinces.

 

That quarrel has not ended, but it appears Morocco sees it in its best interest to return to the fold. There are several probable reasons for this change.

 

Although the African Union (AU) and some other countries recognise SADR, the reality on the ground has remained unchanged for the past three decades. SADR controls about 25% of the territory while Morocco controls the rest.

 

The political and diplomatic situation is a stalemate, but one in which Morocco has a stronger hand. So there is probably no strong reason for Morocco to remain in the cold.

Besides, staying out of the African Union isolates Morocco from a growing market. Africa’s economies are growing and its people are increasingly earning higher incomes.

And with this comes a more visible and bigger role in international affairs. So there are economic and diplomatic benefits to be gained from closer engagement.

To show that they mean business and want to be actively involved with the rest of Africa, Morocco is not going about its return the old-fashioned way – sending diplomatic feelers or envoys to make its case. They are going about it in a businesslike manner, with business proposals and economic projects.

The king, no less, is visiting East Africa, a region of the continent where Morocco hardly has a presence. But he is not calling on the leaders and making the usual nice statements about cherished ties and brotherhood, and so on.

In fact on his just ended visit to Rwanda, he made no speeches. Perhaps that is royal protocol. Or it was not necessary because he came armed with many agreements that made a loud enough statement.

It is not the number of agreements alone that is significant, but the type as well. On such state visits, it is common for agreements to be signed between states. They are usually of a general nature about cooperation and are rarely implemented.

This time they are more specific and wide ranging, covering agriculture, finance, housing, manufacturing, energy, health and education, among others.

It is likely similar agreements will be signed in Tanzania and Ethiopia where the king and his large delegation will be next.

The Moroccans’ current visit to East Africa marks a serious intent to enter the region and widen their interests in Africa. Until recently the Arab north of Africa has had very little to do in this region.

Their interests have been mainly in West Africa. Only Gadaffi’s Libya, perhaps because of its leader’s interest in becoming the de facto leader of Africa, had financial and commercial interests in the region. Lately Egypt has been making trade inroads. Now Morocco is following suit.

From all this, it is clear is that Morocco is determined to return, and indeed has already made the necessary requests to do so.

The other country making a diplomatic comeback in Africa is Israel. The majority of African countries broke relations with Israel in 1973 following the Yom Kippur war. For many it was an expression of solidarity with Egypt and the Palestinians.

What did Africa reap from severing ties with Israel? Not much. In fact the continent suffered heavily from a petrol crisis fuelled by OPEC immediately after the 1973 war.

In terms of development cooperation, the Arabs did not fill the gap left by the Israelis. Yes, there were some loans and grants from a number of Arab Development Banks, but little else.

Instead there was a proliferation of Islamic NGOs and missionary organisations in much of Africa. Because these groups represented different factions within Islam, they brought their differences and created divisions within African Muslims. A more dangerous result was radicalisation of Muslims which has led many of them into joining terrorist organisations.

All along, however, discreet relations between some African countries and Israel remained. In recent times Israel and African countries have been slowly re-engaging. It is perhaps time these contacts came into the open.

Why now and what benefits are there for Africans? Israel continues to be a leader in matters of security, technology and agriculture. Africa needs this expertise.

For the Israelis too, improved relations with Africa are beneficial both economically and diplomatically. In any case, with the political mess in the Middle East, particularly the weakening of Syria and Iraq, the threat to Israel will likely take on another form that requires a different kind of response. Yes, the existential threat remains, but in different configurations.

So two countries are returning to Africa, and this is a reflection of the changing times. Solutions to many conflicts are increasingly to be found in establishing common ground than in maintaining a stand-off.

Collaboration is crucial because the alternative leads only to division and instability. Finally realpolitik and not sentiment is informing diplomatic decisions.

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