Morocco’s state media say King Mohammed has asked Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe to help mediate in the dispute over Western Sahara.

Morocco annexed the phosphate-rich desert territory 30 years ago after colonial power Spain pulled out.  Morocco took the action despite a World Court ruling in favor of autonomy for Western Sahara. 

Fighting Morocco for independence for the region is the Polisario Front, backed by neighboring Algeria.  Morocco has rejected a UN-backed peace plan, which would allow the people of Western Sahara determine its future in a referendum. 

The former mediator, US diplomat James Baker, resigned in June, and his successor has said he would support the UN plan. 

Suliman Nyang is the director of African Studies at Howard University in Washington, DC.  He says the move improves Morocco’s standing in Africa because President Mugabe has the credentials within Africa of being a former liberation leader. 

Rabat withdrew from the Organization of African Unity several years ago when the organization came out in support of the Algeria-backed Polisario and the plan for a referendum.  South Africa also came out in support of the plan, which led Morocco to recall its ambassador to Pretoria for consultations. 

In the past, Morocco has opposed a referendum, but Professor Nyang says it may be willing to support one this time, even if it leads to independence for Western Sahara under a Polisario-led government.  He says that’s because the new state would likely be what he calls an economic “satellite” of Morocco. 

Professor Nyang adds that as mediator, President Mugabe would improve his reputation, which has been tarnished by years of criticism by the West for his poor human rights record and land policies that have led to state takeovers of white-owned farms. 

On the other hand, the Howard University analyst says successful mediation could lead other African countries to press President Mugabe for a referendum in his own country on his leadership – and an opening for his own domestic opposition to press its agenda.