The AU has re-admitted Morocco despite the kingdom refusing to cede its claim to occupied Western Sahara. Officials from the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic hope to push Morocco into allowing an independence referendum.
Morocco was on Monday readmitted into the African Union after a 33-year absence, despite resistance from several member states over the status of Western Sahara.
Following an emotional debate at the 28th African leaders summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, member states decided to resolve the question of the disputed Western Sahara territory with Morocco "back in the family."
Morocco, which maintains that the former Spanish colony is an integral part of its Kingdom, quit the AU in 1984 after the bloc recognized the independence of Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara. However, as the only African country not in the union, Morocco had been angling to rejoin the 54-nation bloc for several years and formally submitted its membership bid last year.
Following Monday's debate, 39 states approved Morocco's re-entry, although key members including Algeria and South Africa voted against the motion.
Western Sahara question remains open
Ahead of Monday's summit, some leaders had feared that Morocco would demand the expulsion of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), which claims sovereignty over the entire disputed territory, as a precondition for rejoining the union. However, SADR foreign minister Mohamed Salem Ould Salek said that "from the moment that Morocco did not impose conditions ... we take their word for it and accept that Morocco be admitted to the African Union."
Some reports suggested that Morocco had sought to rejoin the AU to seek diplomatic gains against Western Sahara's independence movement, the Polisario Front.
However, Salek remained buoyant, saying that having Morocco at the table would allow the SADR to pressure them to fulfill their obligations and allow a referendum on independence, a ruling granted by the International Court of Justice in 1975 that Morocco has since defied.
"Now (if) Morocco is blocking (it) will be questioned by the head of states: why are you afraid of a referendum?" Salek said. "Why don't you allow the Sahrawi to choose their future freely?"
Another key reason for Morocco seeking to rejoin the AU is its aim to drive the continent's economic agenda. Morocco is Africa's sixth largest economy and has been looking increasingly southwards for growth prospects. Observers had long maintained that Morocco could only realize its economic ambitions from the within the AU.
Its membership could also be a boon for the bloc, which has been criticized for being overly dependent on donor funding. The AU lost a key financier in 2011, with the overthrow of Libya's later dictator, Moammar Gadhafi.
It has since said it is working on becoming more financially independent.
Leaders also on Monday elected Chad's foreign Minister Moussa Faki Mahamat to chair the AU Commission.
Faki, a former prime minister, vowed to bolster "development and security" across the bloc, saying he dreamt of an Africa where the "sound of guns will be drowned out by cultural songs and rumbling factories."
He is to face an uphill battle to realize those ambitions, however, with the bloc appearing more divided than ever over issues such as Morocco, regional divisions and the jurisdiction of the ICC.
dm/jr (AP, AFP, dpa)