The African Union (AU) recently admitted Morocco as its 55th member. This was a controversial decision because of the Western Sahara issue. This conflict is still unresolved, but from now on the Moroccan and the Sahrawi flags will fly together at AU meetings.
The Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic is a disputed state claiming the territory of the former Spanish Sahara, a sparsely populated area on the Atlantic coast of West Africa. Today, the area is known internationally as Western Sahara. The Sahrawi Republic was established in 1976 by the Polisario Front. However, the Polisario government only controls a small portion of Western Sahara.
Spanish Sahara was claimed by Morocco and Mauritania, too. During the “Green March” in November 1975 hundreds of thousands of unarmed Moroccan civilians and Moroccan Army units entered the territory and a treaty was signed with Spain. The Kingdom of Morocco now controls most of Western Sahara and governs the area as its Southern Provinces.
The Polisario Front, then a Communist liberation force backed by Eastern Bloc states, protested the agreement between Spain and Morocco. In the summer of 1975 the International Court of Justice, in a so-called advisory opinion, recognised the right of the Sahrawi people to self-determination.
Since 1991 a UN peacekeeping mission oversees the cease-fire between Morocco and the Polisario Front. But a definate end to the conflict is nowhere in sight. A referendum on the future of Western Sahara is blocked by the difficult question of voter rights for settlers and refugees. Morocco has established a 2,700 km line of sand walls and fences between the Moroccan and Polisario controlled territories.
Use of the Sahrawi flag is prohibited in Moroccan controlled territories. The flag of both the Sahrawi Republic and the Polisario Front is a horisontal tricolour of black, white and green with a red triangle and a red crescent and star. This design resembles those of other pan-arab flags.
The Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic is neither a member of the Arab League which backs the Moroccan claim to Western Sahara, nor is it a member of the UN. But the UN officially accepts the Polisario Front as a legitimate representative of the Sahrawis and around 40 UN member states have diplomatic relations with the Polisario government. The Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic is a member of the African Union (AU).
The decision to admit the Sahrawi Republic as a member of the AU predecessor, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), led Morocco to leave the OAU in 1984. However, on 30 January 2017, at the 28th AU Summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the Kingdom of Morocco was welcomed back as a full member of the AU. African leaders were deeply divided before the vote in the AU Assembly which ended 39-9 in favour of Morocco.
The Polisario Front is traditionally supported by Algeria and South Africa. Other African leaders have expressed satisfaction with the fact that the Sahrawi Republic remains a member of the AU at the same time as the economically strong Morocco, the last remaining non-AU member on the African continent, rejoins the union.
“It is better to have Morocco inside the house, inside the family, and to try to reach African solutions to African problems,” one diplomat explained.