As Morocco waits to be readmitted to the African Union, it is pushing for the suspension of Western Sahara from the continental body, placing the AU in a difficult position.
The AU has long backed the autonomy of the contested territory known as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR).
The Moroccan parliament ratified the Constitutive Act of the AU ahead of the 28th AU Summit to be held in Addis Ababa on January 30-31, as this is a key prerequisite for AU membership.
The ratification is a major step that all but finalises requirements for Morocco's return, which was first formally communicated at the 27th AU Summit in Rwanda in July 2016. The communication was followed up with an official request to accede to the Act in September.
Rabat already has the backing of a simple majority following its mobilisation of 28 countries -- nearly 52 per cent of the AU membership -- even though it has reportedly ramped up its diplomatic offensive to have an even stronger showing when its admission is tabled.
The majority of the country's support is from West African nations who presented a motion in Rwanda at the same time as Morocco's formal communication in which they welcomed Rabat's decision to return to the AU. They also signalled their intention to work towards the suspension of SADR. This, they claim, will enable the AU to be more constructive in its support for UN efforts to permanently resolve the dispute over Western Sahara.
Morocco withdrew from the Organisation of African Unity, the precursor to the AU, in 1984 when the OAU admitted Western Sahara -- a region on the Atlantic coastline bordering Morocco to the north, Algeria to the east and Mauritania to the south.
Rabat laid claim to this phosphates-rich territory in 1975 following the withdrawal of Spain, which had colonised it for 90 years. Internecine conflict forced a UN peace settlement in 1990, with a promise of a referendum over its right to self-determination.
'A historical error'
Morocco argues that the Western Sahara is an integral part of its kingdom, while the Polisario Front, which is campaigning for the territory's independence, demands a referendum on self-determination. But Rabat has repeatedly failed to hold this vote.
According to King Mohammed VI's letter to the AU notifying it of his country's intention to return: "The challenge for our continent, more than a decade after the birth of the African Union, is the unity and cohesion of our great family. To realise it, we will have to take the path of lucidity and courage, which our elders, the first pan-Africans, had privileged... That is why, on the question of the Sahara, institutional Africa can no longer endure the burdens of a historical error and a cumbersome legacy," reads the letter, addressed to the Summit through Chadian President Idriss Deby, the current chair of the AU.
"Is the African Union not in clear contradiction with international legality? Since this so-called state is not a member of the United Nations, the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation, the League of Arab States or any other sub-regional, regional or international institution?
"But what interests me more particularly is the position of our continent. Is the AU still out of step with the national position of its own member states, since at least 34 countries do not recognise this entity? Even among the 26 countries that had settled in the division camp in 1984, only a tiny minority of about 10 countries remained... The AU cannot, therefore, alone prejudge the outcome of this process. By its neutrality, it could, on the other hand, contribute constructively to the emergence of a solution," the letter adds.
According to some analysts, Rabat's decision to fight for Western Sahara from within the AU is informed by shifting political dynamics in the continent's highest body.
Not least is the impending departure of the Commission's Chair Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, who Morocco's power brokers reportedly felt was against their aspirations.
But the successor to Ms Zuma, whose South African government strongly backs SADR, may come from a country that does not recognise it, a factor Rabat is banking on. Three such countries -- Equatorial Guinea, Senegal and Chad -- have candidates in the race. Equatorial Guinea and Senegal even signed the motion to suspend SADR.
To kick out Western Sahara, Morocco will need a two-thirds majority -- 36 countries -- to change the AU Act, which does not provide for the expulsion of any member.
"AU watchers in Addis Ababa predict an immense and divisive fight in the Union if Morocco's plan goes through, with Algeria, Nigeria, South Africa and most of SADC leading a fierce resistance," says an analysis by Johannesburg-based Institute for Security Studies (ISS).
"If Morocco were to succeed in commanding enough support in the AU to suspend SADR, it would also presumably then command enough support to determine the AU's position on the eligibility issue too. And that would greatly amplify its voice in the Security Council where Western Sahara's future will be decided. An ugly battle looms," adds the ISS.