Southern Africa's former liberation movements have symbolically donned their old camouflage uniforms and are resuming the decolonisation struggle. This time though, the colonising power in their sights is a fellow African country, Morocco. Nostalgia for their own liberation struggles against European colonial powers a few decades ago was palpable at the Southern African Development Community (SADC) solidarity conference for Western Sahara in Pretoria this week.
'We're talking like the olden days. I'm very happy,' Namibian President Hage Geingob enthused, drawing parallels with his party - the South West African People's Organisation's - own liberation struggle. The old Frontline States were also frequently invoked.
The Former Liberation Movements of Southern Africa (FLMSAs) were the dominant force at the Western Sahara conference and they were in fighting spirits. They came out with a declaration demanding that Morocco and its allies move swiftly to enable the UN referendum, decided on 28 years ago, to be held. That would allow the Sahrawi people to decide their own future - whether to remain part of Morocco or become an independent state, or somewhere in between.
Apart from Geingob, other FLMSA leaders present included Zimbabwe's Emmerson Mnangagwa and of course South Africa's Cyril Ramaphosa, president of the host country. Non-SADC Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni, also a former liberation warrior, was present and vocal. Angola and Mozambique's former liberation parties were represented themselves and through senior government officials. The only Southern African FLMSA missing was Tanzania's ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi.
Beyond that, SADC support was a little more tepid. Of the 16 SADC member states, two were absent - the newest member Comoros, probably because of elections, but also Madagascar which, under its recently re-elected President Andry Rajoelina, is unenthusiastic about SADC. He sent his foreign minister to a rival conference in Marrakech instead.
That event was titled 'African ministerial conference on the AU support of the UN political process on the regional dispute over the Sahara'. Its clear purpose was to upstage Pretoria by demonstrating greater African support for Morocco's position. This position is that the Western Sahara issue should be left to the UN, and that the Pretoria conference was interfering by establishing a parallel process.
Madagascar's defection prompted a South African official to warn that Pretoria could cut off aid to the Indian Ocean island state. Comoros and Madagascar are both Francophone and Morocco has traditionally enjoyed support from Francophone Africa within the AU. This is mainly thanks to their close historical and cultural ties with Morocco, as well as France's strong backing of Morocco in the Western Sahara dispute.
In total 20 African countries attended the Pretoria conference, including of course the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), the AU-recognised government-in-exile of Western Sahara. It was represented by its president, Polisario Front leader Brahim Ghali, and heavyweights Nigeria, Algeria and Kenya. There were also like-minded 'progressive' governments from further afield - Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Timor-Leste.
Unfortunately for SADC, the Marrakech meeting got a bigger turnout - 36 African countries, Morocco claimed. This wasn't surprising since only 21 of the AU's 55 members recognise the SADR. Even the AU didn't attend the Pretoria conference, despite AU Commission chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat being personally invited.
Among those who attended the Marrakech event were seven SADC members - Angola, Madagascar, Zambia, Malawi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Tanzania and eSwatini. Most of these attended both conferences, perhaps to remain even-handed. But some, like eSwatini's public works minister and delegation head Christian Ntshangase, argued that Morocco's meeting was more helpful than Pretoria's. 'We believe that this is the conference that would assist the UN to find a lasting and peaceful solution to this region,' he said.
The Marrakech meeting insisted that the AU had already ceded the responsibility for resolving the Western Sahara dispute to the UN. But the AU decision in question is not quite as clear-cut as that. Decision 693 appeals to the parties to the Western Saharan conflict to urgently resume negotiations through the UN (under its special envoy Horst Köhler) and agrees on the need for the AU to support Köhler's work.
That would happen through a mechanism comprising the AU Troika, namely the outgoing, the current and the incoming AU chairpersons, and the AU Commission chairperson. The Western Sahara issue would only be raised within this framework and at heads of state level.
Was this all just struggle rhetoric or will SADC really take on Morocco in the AU and elsewhere?
The Institute for Security Studies' PSC Report expressed concern last August that Decision 693 had effectively sidelined the AU's Peace and Security Council, the body dedicated to addressing disputes like the one over Western Sahara. It rarely meets at heads of state level.
'The move is a big win for Morocco, which believes the AU-led efforts are biased,' the ISS report concluded. Morocco prefers the UN as a forum for addressing Western Sahara as there it has important allies, not least UN Security Council permanent members France and the United States. On paper, then, the Marrakech meeting may have a case - if only because the AU Assembly was perhaps asleep at the wheel when Decision 693 was taken last July.
The FLMSAs were having none of it though. The conference declaration commended UN envoy Köhler's efforts, which have already achieved two face-to-face meetings of Morocco and the Polisario, plus Algeria and Mauritania. But Geingob stressed that the mediation should be two-pronged, with a significant role for the AU and Africa. And Mnangagwa thundered, 'We completely reject in total the notion that the African Union has no locus standi in the dispute over Western Sahara.'
So, was this all just struggle rhetoric or will SADC really take on Morocco in the AU and elsewhere? And if so, will it be effective? A former South African diplomat thought the Pretoria meeting further polarised the issue and complicated Köhler's task.
But with Morocco back in the AU and brandishing big resources to increase its support, the SADR probably does need reinforcements. And the FLMSAs certainly seem ready for a fight. This could get messy, especially if Morocco launches a campaign to get SADR kicked out of the AU.
Peter Fabricius, ISS Consultant