By Ranga Mataire in Harare and Colleta Dewa in Johannesburg
President of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) Brahim Ghali recently embarked on a charm-offensive tour of Southern African nations ahead of the 31st Ordinary Session of the African Union summit scheduled at the end of this month in Nouakchott, Mauritania.
His tour coincided with Zimbabwe’s support for a joint United States, Mexico and Canada’s bid to host the 2026 FIFA World Cup soccer tournament, snubbing Morocco which has been occupying Sahrawi for 43 years since its independence in 1975. ZIFA president Phillip Chiyangwa on Wednesday announced that Zimbabwe supports the bid by the Confederation of North, Central and Caribbean Association Football countries (CONCACAF).
A few weeks ago, Morocco dispatched its World Cup bidding team to the Southern African region, but it appears this will come to naught due to political differences with a number of countries in the region over its occupation of Sahrawi.
President Ghali was this week in Zimbabwe for a two-day official visit where he held talks with President Emmerson Mnangagwa and discussed several issues, including strengthening bilateral relations between the two countries.
Prior to his visit to Zimbabwe, President Ghali had been to Botswana, Namibia and South Africa where he put across his country’s plight of still being under colonial occupation by Morocco.
In an interview after meeting President Ghali, President Mnangagwa said; “There has been a long-standing revolutionary relationship between the Zimbabwean revolution and theirs during our armed struggle until we became independent.”
President Mnangagwa said Zimbabwe recognised the independence of SADR and was among a horde of countries that pushed for the country’s membership in the AU.
In South Africa, President Ghali met President Cyril Ramaphosa who reiterated his country’s commitment to supporting the people of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic until they gain independence.
“We would like to assure you of South Africa’s continued support for, and solidarity with, the Sahrawi people. We do so not only because of our shared history of struggle but because of our shared commitment to a better Africa and a better world and our shared hope for a just and prosperous future,” Ramaphosa said.
On his part, President Ghali expressed gratitude for South Africa’s support, saying the two countries share a common history of the struggle for freedom and justice.
“In 1994, South Africa achieved a democratic breakthrough, the people’s victory over the heinous system of apartheid,” said Ghali.
On September 15, 2004, South Africa formally recognised the SADR and continues to support the inalienable right of the people of that country to self-determination and independence.
Morocco occupies the SADR and does not recognise its independence while the international community is divided over recognition of what has been described as Africa’s last colonised state.
South Africa has extended material and technical support to the cause of the people of the SADR over the years.
The two countries have thus far concluded agreements in the fields of diplomacy, sports development, technical cooperation, and humanitarian assistance.
Zimbabwe and other like-minded countries like Namibia were vigorously opposed to Morocco’s admission into the African Union last year because of its continued colonial occupation of the SADR.
Morocco colonised the SADR - which it calls Western Sahara - in 1975 soon after that country gained independence from Spain.
Since then, Morocco has claimed ownership of the territory, suppressing the Polisario Front and marginalising the general citizenry of the SADR.
The then OAU recognised the SADR as a sovereign territory in 1982, prompting Morocco to pull out of the bloc two years later. At the AU’s mid-term summit in Kigali, Rwanda, in 2016 Morocco’s King Mohammed VI formally asked for readmission.
However, the kingdom maintains it has a right to occupy the SADR and will not allow decolonisation even if was readmitted into the continental fold.
Senior diplomats from Zimbabwe, Algeria, Uganda, South Africa, Namibia and other countries were adamant that nothing had changed since 1982 when the bloc accepted the SADR and in 1984 when Morocco left the OAU in a huff, and today.
The SADR was proclaimed by the Polisario Front on 27 February in 1976, in Bir Lehlu. SADR claims sovereignty over the entire territory of Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony. However, at present, the SADR government only controls 20-25 percent of the territory it claims.
As of 2017, the SADR had been recognised by 84 United Nations member states. Of these, 39 have since “frozen” or “withdrawn” recognition. SADR has, at some point been recognised by 43.5% of UN member states, 38 out of 54 (70%) of the AU member states, 18 out of 57 members of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and five out of 22 of the Arab League member states.
Other states that do not recognize the SADR nonetheless recognise the Polisario Front as the legitimate representative of the population of the territory but not as the government-in-exile of a sovereign state.
The SADR has been a member of the AU, formerly the OAU since 1984, which led Morocco to withdraw in protest until re-joining in 2017.
SADR participates as a guest at Non-Aligned Movement meetings or the New Asian-African Strategic Partnership, despite Moroccan objections to SADR participation.
The Arab League simply supports “Moroccan territorial integrity”, without specification. No other country has ever recognized Morocco’s unilateral annexation of SADR. The majority of countries have expressed their support for a future status of the country as an autonomous part of Morocco.
Major countries that have recognised SADR include Mexico, Algeria, Iran, Venezuela, Vietnam, Nigeria, South Africa and India. India was to later withdraw its recognition in 2000.
SADR's decades-old dispute with Morocco remains atop the agenda at the AU, after reinstating Morocco as a member nation, and has upheld a resolution supporting the United Nations peace process between the two. A report on the resolution is expected to be tabled in Nouakchott.