New AU Leadership to Undermine Western Sahara’s UN-Led Process

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa

Rabat – South African President Cyril Ramaphosa will replace Guinea’s Alpha Conde in the African Union’s troika on the Western Sahara question. Morocco is already seeing the change as a potential threat to its continental diplomatic efforts on Western Sahara.

What is the AU troika?

Formed at the 31st AU summit for heads of states in July 2018 in Nouakchott, Mauritania, the AU troika came days after the continental organization pledged allegiance to the UN-led process in the Western Sahara territorial conflict.

At the Nouakchott summit, African leaders agreed that the troika, in its mission to “accompany” the UN Security Council’s Western Sahara agenda, would be composed of the AU president, together with his predecessor and successor. The AU commission’s chairperson is expected to support the three leaders in their mission.

At the time, Conde, who led the AU in 2017-2018, joined the Troika as the “predecessor.”

But the Guinean leader’s status changed at the 11 February AU summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where Egypt’s Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi took over as the new AU president. President Al-Sisi replaced Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, while South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa filled the rotary position for the 2020-2021 tenure.

The leadership reshuffling means the troika will now be composed of Kagame, Al-Sisi, and Ramaphosa.

Moussa Faki Mahamat, who is still the chairperson of the AU Commission, will support the three African leaders in their dealings with the UN Security Council on the sensitive Sahara dossier.

Read Also: Polisario ‘Ambassador’ Thanks Saudi Arabia for Western Sahara Position

Setback for Moroccan continental diplomacy?

In an interview with France’s RFI radio in early July 2018, shortly after the formation of the AU troika, Conde said that the AU would refrain from any moves that may undermine the UN-led process in the Western Sahara question.

“It is the African Union that transferred the Western Sahara dossier to the UN in the first place,” the Guinean president said. He added that the then newly-appointed troika’s role would only be to “follow the UN process and inform the AU thereon.”

There would be no “parallel AU agenda” for Western Sahara, Conde promised. He stressed that the troika’s role is to ensure “full support to the UN Security Council to attain a sustainable, peaceful, and mutually acceptable political solution.”

But it is uncertain whether the new troika will show the same spirit of uncompromising collaboration with the UN Security Council’s agenda on Western Sahara.

Morocco has not been on good terms with Al-Sisi’s Egypt, and the Egyptian leader has on occasions expressed sympathy for the Polisario Front, the separatist group claiming independence in Western Sahara.

President Ramaphosa, for his part, has made it crystal clear on numerous occasions that the “cause of Western Sahara is our cause.” In June 2018, the South African went as far as calling on Morocco to “decolonize” Western Sahara.

Most recently, when South Africa was elected to a two-year tenure as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, President Ramaphosa said that his country will use its mandate to advance the Sahrawi quest for self-determination.

Shortly after the new AU leadership was made public on Sunday evening, AU Commission Chairman Moussa Faki Mahamat tweeted that the continental organization will soon come up with a “new mechanism” and a new “roadmap” to allow for the AU to contribute “more significantly” to the UN process in Western Sahara.

Mahamat did not provide details, however. It remains to be seen whether South Africa’s well-established closeness to the “Sahrawi cause” will shape the organization’s new guidelines.