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Morocco’s readmission to the African Union in January 2017 was widely welcomed, ending a boycott called by the late King Hassan II in 1984 after the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) was admitted as a full member of the then Organisation of African Unity. Morocco sees its future security and prosperity in an energetic drive to build business, political and cultural relations across Africa (AE 343/20) and King Mohammed VI received a standing ovation when he addressed the 2017 African Union summit. Other initiatives have followed, including an application to join the Economic Community of West African States (AE 359/1).

This energetic campaign to forge a more dynamic modern Morocco in the crucible of Africa has included efforts to wean states away from diplomatic recognition of the SADR, the Polisario Front independence movement’s government in exile. Some, such as Zambia, have promised repeatedly to follow this line, but the SADR – which claims to represent the legitimate aspirations for independence of the former Spanish colony’s population, in line with internationally established decolonisation procedures – will not go away. Since its formation in 1973, the Polisario Front has been strongly supported by Algeria; the dispute remains a central plank in the Maghreb’s cold war, which has closed the Algerian-Moroccan land border since 1994 (AE 336/18). Polisario allies remain apparently solid, led by South Africa (AE 325/20). Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has planned joint projects with King Mohammed, but Abuja has yet to drop the SADR.

The Maghreb tensions have implications for the continent. A senior African Union Commission official told African Energy: “Morocco has been a very positive influence since its return, but there is a negative side: in every issue we find the Algerians and Moroccans briefing against each other and rallying their allies. It’s all rather poisonous.”

Moroccans generally believe the ‘developmental state’ policies encouraged by King Mohammed can succeed in overcoming the kingdom’s disparities of wealth and regional development, as well as creating major new opportunities in Africa. But events in late February pointed to fragilities in Rabat’s position.

UN decolonisation procedures have yet to be implemented 42 years after the Spanish withdrawal; for all the intensity of Morocco’s occupation and redevelopment of its ‘southern provinces’ (whose per capita income is now second in the kingdom only to the Casablanca-Rabat-Kenitra axis), the central legal question remains to be resolved.

Rabat played down a ruling that a 55,000t cargo of phosphate, impounded last May when bulk carrier MV Cherry Blossom visited Port Elizabeth for refuelling en route from Laayoun for New Zealand, belonged to the SADR, not Morocco. The shipment was put up for sale – without immediate buyers – to pay berthage fees, with the rest going to Polisario.

Then, the European Court of Justice on 27 February ruled that the current fisheries agreement should not include the Western Sahara. Foreign minister Nasser Bourita denied the ruling undermined Rabat’s position, while Polisario claimed the reverse. The Sahrawis now plan to sell fishing rights to European ships off the disputed territory, just as a decade ago they auctioned oil blocks. Moroccan gunboats will patrol Saharan waters to deter interlopers.

A third blow came with the announcement that King Mohammed had undergone routine heart surgery in Paris. A speedy recovery was forecast, but concerns persist, given the leading role he has come to play in critical areas of Moroccan policy, after a period of relative withdrawal following the 2011 Arab Spring.

The new UN envoy to the Western Sahara, former German president Horst Köhler, is charged with reviving the peace process. But both sides are seeking to apply the maximum pressure, in diplomatic circles and courts of law, to gain an advantage that has proved elusive over more than four decades. In Morocco’s pivot to Africa, one old issue of decolonisation just will not go away.