At its 31st summit in Nouakchott, Mauritania the African Union (AU) decided to limit its own peace efforts in the Western Sahara in order to support the process led by the United Nations (UN). This support will be through a troika of heads of state, together with the AU Commission (AUC) chairperson. The move is a big win for Morocco, which believes the AU-led efforts are biased. However, it could set a precedent for other AU member states that disapprove of AU interventions.
Morocco’s return to the AU and subsequent election to the Peace and Security Council (PSC) in January 2018 has brought a new dimension to the AU’s approach to the crisis in Western Sahara. In the past, the AU usually described this as a ‘decolonisation’ issue and accepted the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) as a member. This membership is still seen by Morocco as proof that the organisation is not impartial.
Morocco has often objected to the way the PSC – at the level of ambassadors in Addis Ababa – continues to call for the territory’s independence.
The AU’s decision in July 2018 to fully support the UN process in order to resolve tensions between member states could therefore be seen as a victory for Morocco. The assembly appealed to the parties in the conflict ‘to urgently resume negotiations without pre-conditions and in good faith under the auspices of the Secretary-General of the UN, whose Security Council is seized of the matter’.
This decision is also in line with the outcome of the UN meeting in April 2018 that urged member states to support the UN peace process, which involves negotiations between the parties.
Some view the 31st summit decision on Western Sahara as a compromise to prevent the deterioration of the relationship between Morocco’s allies and staunch supporters of Western Sahara such as Algeria, South Africa and other countries in Southern Africa. Keeping the discussions out of the PSC could be a way to avoid confrontation.
However, the decision has serious implications for the PSC, owing to the precedent it sets for other member states.
Reversal of prior AU decisions
The latest decision to provide decisive support to the UN process is a reversal of the AU’s January 2018 decision, which called for ‘joint AU and UN facilitated talks for a free and fair referendum for the people of Western Sahara’.
The new decision also states that the AU will engage the issue mainly at the level of the newly established troika, which is made up of the outgoing, current and incoming AU chairpersons and the AUC chairperson. The troika will provide support to the UN process and report directly to the AU Assembly and, if need be, the PSC, but only at the level of heads of state.
The decision nullifies the ad hoc committee of heads of state on Western Sahara that was established in 1978, during the early years of the violent confrontations. The Nouakchott decision also makes no mention of the AU high representative for Western Sahara, currently the former president of Mozambique, Joaquim Chissano.
Precedent for other member states
This latest Western Sahara decision is crucial for the AU and the PSC because, for the first time, the AU has taken a formal decision to limit the PSC’s involvement in a crisis in Africa. Since the re-launch of the continental body as the AU in 2002 and the operationalisation of the PSC in 2004, the PSC has seen itself as a major player in every security issue on the continent.
In line with the PSC Protocol, conflict situations on the continent are discussed by the 15-member PSC at all levels. Most of the time it is at the level of the Addis Ababa-based permanent representatives, who meet regularly on security issues irrespective of whether the peace processes are led by other intergovernmental organisations.
For instance, the PSC has engaged on several issues, including the situations in Libya, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and South Sudan, where the UN and sub-regional actors play dominant roles. While the AU may play a minimal role in a peace process, the PSC’s discussions complement mainstream processes, thereby enabling the AU to fulfil its day-to-day conflict management role.
While the PSC has shied away from discussing certain emerging security threats such as Cameroon and Zimbabwe owing to political pressure from member states, no formal decision was ever made in this regard. As a result, nothing prevents the PSC from putting it on the agenda of its deliberations at ambassadorial level in future.
Impact on the PSC working methods
The assembly’s decision to limit the PSC’s role in Western Sahara to heads of state could negatively impact the council’s working methods. PSC summits at the level of heads of state take place only once or twice a year and are usually scheduled to discuss a burning crisis situation. The past few summits since 2016 have been devoted to the situation in South Sudan.
This means that the Western Sahara issue may not make it to the PSC summits and, even if it does, there may not be binding decisions, given that the AU is meant to support the UN process.
The implications for other issues are evident. In future, member states that disagree with the PSC’s involvement could insist on a UN process with the support of heads of state. This not only affects the working methods of the PSC but could also undermine its relevance in addressing certain security threats on the continent.
Limits of the AU troika
Experience also shows that committees of heads of state often lack the political will to deal with crises. Besides, the troika of former, current and future AU chairs is a notion that is not inscribed in the AU Constitutive Act and it has no real powers outside the AU Assembly. Similar high-level committees were set up in the past to address conflicts in Libya, Burundi and South Sudan, but failed to record any major milestones in either setting the agenda for peace or effectively resolving the crises in those countries.
Going forward, the AUC chairperson has a responsibility to include the issue of Western Sahara on the agenda of the AU Assembly and PSC summits of heads of state. This includes developing a roadmap for the AU troika to meet regularly to urge the UN to accelerate efforts to resolve one of Africa’s long-running crises.