Morocco's Return to the African Union: Strengthening the Continent's Future
From a strategic perspective, Morocco’s decision to join the African Union (AU) 33 years after quitting the bloc illustrates King Mohammed VI’s vision of his country’s role on the continent as a platform for regional economic, political and security cooperation. It followed almost two decades of personal diplomatic efforts by the king to further Morocco’s goal of supporting greater regional and continental stability through common economic and political interests.
Although some observers in the United States may have been surprised, the move—announced by King Mohammed VI in the summer of 2016—is a natural next step in his South-South economic diplomacy. Because of that diplomacy, at the African Heads of State Summit in Addis Ababa this past January, Morocco not only gained admission to the African Union, but it did so with the support of an overwhelming majority—39 of 54— member states. Morocco’s desire to play a stronger leadership role is seen by the king as rooted in the country’s historic ties throughout the region, as well as its long-standing outreach to build ties beyond its existing network in francophone and African countries on the Atlantic. For him, the move has a cultural and economic logic, as well as a strategic one.
The AU decision also comes at a time when the United States is, according to various news reports, considering repositioning North African countries (except Egypt), as part of the Africa division at the National Security Council and the Africa bureau of the State Department, rather than as part of the Middle East departments. In the Near Eastern Affairs bureau, Morocco policy was not a high priority, mainly because it was a non-problem in a very troubled region. With the new configuration, I hope attention to Morocco will better reflect its role as one of Africa’s top economic and security powerhouses, with one of the continent’s most democratic governance structures and most liberal economies, as well as its potential position as the preferred economic gateway to Africa for the United States and other world powers. This could have a profound impact on Morocco’s importance to U.S. policy and raise the value of our longstanding partnership with this key African nation.
Years in the Making
The turn toward Africa has been a priority for Morocco since King Mohammed VI assumed the throne in 1999, even though the kingdom’s primary ties were with Europe and the United States. The political and economic priorities of African countries had been evolving in the 1980s and 1990s, as more countries pursued greater control over their economies and development priorities and as the potential for significant economic growth became increasingly evident. Their new leaders and shifting priorities very much reflected King Mohammed VI’s assessment that Africa must take more initiative on its own development. His speeches to African leaders, including at the African Heads of State Summit in Addis Ababa, unfailingly reinforced this theme of Africa rising beyond its colonial past to assert the power of its human and natural resources.
Morocco’s African identity was reflected in its diplomatic efforts as well, through its leadership with francophone countries; observer status with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS); role in the Global Counterterrorism Forum and Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership; and extensive cultural, social and diplomatic programs. In 2011, Morocco enshrined these strong ties in its new constitution, which states that Morocco’s unity “is forged by the convergence of its Arab-Islamist, Amazigh, and Saharan-Hassane components, nourished and enriched by its African, Andalusian, Hebraic and Mediterranean influences.” Several of the statements of purpose in the preamble to the new constitution specifically highlight Morocco’s ties to Africa, stressing its commitments to the Arab Maghreb Union, Islamic solidarity, South-South cooperation and solidarity with sub-Saharan Africa. Joining the African Union is the natural outcome, then, of Morocco’s historic identity in the eyes of the king and the country.
In the span of 17 years, King Mohammed VI has made 50 visits to over 25 African countries, resulting in nearly a thousand agreements being signed with various African states since 2000. At the African Union, he reiterated this priority, stating, “In fact, despite having been absent from the AU institutions for so many years, our links, which have never been severed, have remained strong and African sister nations have always been able to rely on us.”
Accomplishments to Date and Beyond
Morocco’s economic involvement in Africa is already bearing fruit in diverse and complementary sectors. Morocco is the second-largest African investor on the continent, and its soft power efforts are aimed at building up the knowledge and capabilities of the private and public sectors in the host countries. Its expertise in areas such as social housing, agriculture, agro-industry, finance and banking, insurance, pharmaceuticals, renewable energies and tourism is shared through business partnerships, MOUs, bilateral business councils, access to Moroccan financial institutions and logistics networks and training programs.
Beyond economic considerations, Morocco knows it cannot have peace and prosperity without strong people-to-people ties to support regional stability, security and economic integration. To this end, it provides thousands of scholarships to sub-Saharan university students annually and, through multiple technical assistance agreements and training programs, shares lessons learned in rural electrification, sustainable agriculture, eradicating poverty, health services and other areas of human development. Morocco has also pioneered an unprecedented migrant integration program in the kingdom to enable sub-Saharan immigrants to build normal productive lives in the kingdom. To date, more than 20,000 have regularized their status in Morocco and are fast becoming a visible and productive element of the Moroccan culture.
On the security side, Morocco continues to provide its vast experience in counterterrorism to regional and international groups and to participate in peacekeeping missions. The country works to diminish the effects of marginalization and poverty and provides training and expertise to counterparts in West and Central Africa. Importantly, Morocco has provided comprehensive training programs in the Maliki school of Islam based on tolerance, interfaith dialogue and respect for other faiths, expanding its schools for imams and women religious counselors to admit candidates from Africa and Europe. While this essential effort will take time to bear fruit, the end goal is to limit the spread of the Islamist threat and Islamic extremism (ISIS, AQAP, and others), as well as to demonstrate how “soft power” can be used effectively in schools, communities and social service organizations to fight threatening ideologies. So far, more than ten African countries and a number of Arab and European countries are sending imams to Morocco for training.
Equally important, Morocco has matured domestically. Reforms that were part of the country’s 2011 constitution have expanded the space for public discussions of the country’s priorities. Morocco’s role in Africa is a common topic engaging the government, the media and civil society.
Shared Interests with the United States
Morocco’s interests in Africa are broadly shared with any U.S. administration. As a recent Carnegie Endowment for International Peace report noted, “In the last two decades, spanning presidents from both political parties, the United States has increased its investment in and engagement with Africa. These commitments reflect the range of economic interests and security priorities the United States has built in the region.”
Morocco and the United States have together carved out a path to sustain positive and enduring progress on the continent. Morocco’s geographic location is critical; it has long-standing military and intelligence-sharing agreements with the United States and European nations, and it hosts the annual African Lion joint and multilateral military exercises (the largest in Africa). Morocco is a non-NATO ally; participates in a bilateral strategic military dialogue, the Defense Consultative Committee; and has signed a Free Trade Agreement and two Millennium Challenge Compacts with the United States. It also was the first African or Arab country with which the United States has an ongoing, bilateral Strategic Dialogue. As part of this dialogue process, Morocco is sharing its own experience with African countries through trilateral agreements involving the United States and selected African countries. Greater assistance from the United States would be very helpful to further the agendas set by both countries to enable effective efforts at providing human development and supporting the growth of local economies. Rejoining the African Union is the perfect tool for achieving those objectives, supporting both Moroccan and U.S. interests.
Bolstering the AU Agenda
It will be worth watching how Morocco pursues its larger geopolitical interests within the context of the African Union, most notably its concern with the Western Sahara. King Mohammed VI has made it clear that the Sahara is an existential component of Morocco’s identity and that its sovereignty over this region is non-negotiable. However, his decision not to raise this issue in his acceptance speech to the African heads of state appears to be a signal that it is time for AU member countries to look beyond the conflict and work closely with Morocco to build a new and prosperous Africa. As the king said, “You will see: as soon as the Kingdom becomes a member and is able to contribute to the agenda of activities, its action will…help bring about unity and progress.”
To broaden support for his mission in Africa, the king is already moving beyond Morocco’s traditional relationships, as shown by his visits to countries in East and Southern Africa, such as Zambia, Ethiopia and South Sudan. Bilateral agreements with host governments and MOUs signed between private-sector entities follow the pattern of previous efforts in Central and West Africa—relying on the success Morocco has achieved in human, social, security and economic development.
The early read is that African countries realized that it would have been counterproductive not to readmit Morocco, as the kingdom has achieved important successes under challenging conditions. They saw that these accomplishments, still ongoing and gathering momentum, can benefit them by utilizing emerging partnerships to promote exports and more rational investment policies, while helping to advance economic growth, job creation and employment of women and youth, as well as to reduce income inequality.
It is, in any assessment, a win-win-win: for Morocco, to be back in the fold, where it can exercise its geopolitical, economic and reform-minded influence in multiple sectors; for Africa, to be able to draw on Morocco’s expertise, capabilities and willingness to share a common vision for Africa’s future; and for the United States, to have yet another opportunity to benefit from our shared interests in and commitment to effectively addressing security and stability challenges, regionally and on the continent.*
United States Ambassador to Morocco, 1997-2001