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African Leaders Preach Unity in Readmitting Morocco into AU

King Mohammed VI of Morocco (R) is escorted as he arrives at the 28th Ordinary Session of the Assembly of the Heads of State and the Government of the African Union in Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa, Jan. 31, 2017.

The African Union has welcomed Morocco back into the continental body after more than three decades away. Even though the transition may not be smooth, African leaders say a united Africa is more important than ever in an increasingly complex and fast-changing world.

That’s because the dispute that led Morocco to leave the AU decades ago has yet to be resolved. Morocco quit in 1984 because the AU recognized the independence of the disputed Western Sahara territory. Morocco continues to claim Western Sahara, and Western Sahara remains an AU member.

Leaders brushed off concerns that this would lead to fissures in the now 55-member body.

“If the family grows bigger, we can find solutions as a family," Senegal's President Macky Sall said after the decision was announced late Monday. Morocco’s decision to return to the union without imposing preconditions, such as the return of Western Sahara, could signal that Morocco’s government would like a smooth return.

African leaders say in the end, the decision to allow Morocco back was a choice between unity and harmony.

Unity won, when 39 of 54 AU members supported the move for Morocco to return. The nation’s king warmly accepted the decision, and addressed the body at the closing ceremony.

"It is a beautiful day when one returns home after too long of an absence, said King Mohammed VI. “Africa is my continent and my home.”

Egypt’s assistant foreign minister for African affairs, Mohamed Edrees, told VOA the move is about strengthening the continent as a whole and stressing common interests to find a way through the impasse.

“The general conviction within the union, and this was Egypt’s position as well, is that at the end, we have to have the African house together,” he said. “So it is important to find a way forward, not a divisive way forward, but to move forward on our common African interest, common African spirit so that we, like many other sister African countries, welcome the comeback of Morocco and we look forward that this comeback will be a step forward to find a smooth navigation on these problematic issues which have been lingering for quite some time.”

Participants gather for a group photo for the 28th Ordinary Session of the Assembly of the African Union, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Jan. 30, 2017.
Participants gather for a group photo for the 28th Ordinary Session of the Assembly of the African Union, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Jan. 30, 2017.

Western Sahara opposed

Western Sahara’s delegation disagrees, and accuses Morocco of “colonizing” the large seaside territory.

Ambassador-at-large Sidi Omar says allowing Morocco to enter without settling the Western Sahara dispute violates the AU’s strong stance against colonialism. The delegation wants a clear commitment from Morocco that it will abandon its claim to the territory. He says Western Sahara won’t leave the AU, though.

He says the AU decision has wider consequences.

“It does not only concern Western Sahara or the Sahara Republic, it does concern Africa as a whole,” he said. “If this principle of borders is not respected, Africa will be doomed to chaos and back to ages which were rife, fraught with conflicts.”

Delegates and diplomats told VOA on the summit sidelines that there may be something to the idea that Africa needs to stick together. A number of summit delegates publicly and, more forcefully privately, aired concerns about recent, sudden changes in U.S. policies, not just on immigration, but also on foreign relations and climate change.

Kenya’s Cabinet secretary for Environment Judi Wakhungu told VOA the AU conversations about sticking to the Paris Agreement on climate change were overshadowed by the U.S. administration’s recent indication that it would pull out of the deal. She then praised China for adhering to its climate change commitments.

“It affects all of us,” she said after emerging from a meeting with about a dozen African heads of state. “The largest committers, of course are the United States and China. Those are the largest committers. So we’re seeing on the one hand that China is trying to reduce its carbon footprint, that China is committing to its national determined contribution, showing leadership in solar energy commitments for example. But then on the other hand, we are then seeing pronunciations that the new U.S. administration is going to actually roll back on the commitments that have been made. As I said, it’s only January, and we hope that reason will prevail, because we're all in the same boat.”