There is a dearth of revolutionary spirit and ideology on the African continent. If one doubts that, then analyse the attitude of many African countries towards supporting the SADC Solidarity Conference on Western Sahara which South Africa hosted this week in Tshwane.
This conference was the type of expression of political solidarity that many African countries relied on in their own struggles against colonial occupation. But now that they are free, and new colonial occupiers have emerged with lots of money to throw around, it is no longer fashionable to remain steadfast to principles and defend the right of the last colony in Africa to be free. Cheque book diplomacy has become the order of the day, and the human rights of those who have languished for over three decades in the refugee camps of the Algerian desert are too easily forgotten.
What was most disappointing was that there were SADC states who turned against the unanimous decision taken by the SADC Council of Ministers in 2017 to hold such a conference, and the decision was binding on all SADC states. The fact the Zambia, Madagascar, and Malawi could have sent their foreign ministers to Morocco, and eSwatini a Minister to participate in a rival conference organised at the 11th hour by the very country which is illegally occupying Western Sahara was truly disappointing.
At first Morocco seemed to be hoping that the Pope’s visit to Morocco on Wednesday would overshadow the SADC Solidarity Conference in South Africa taking place on Monday and Tuesday. But when it became evident that was unlikely to be the case, and that SADC was going to succeed in elevating the issue of self-determination for the people of Western Sahara, arguing that the AU should play a central role in pushing for a UN referendum, the Moroccans likely panicked.
SADC had spent months preparing for the solidarity conference, but just 10 days before it was to be held, Morocco kicked its diplomatic machinery into action and started issuing letters of invitation to African foreign ministers across the continent to come to their own conference on Western Sahara. They offered to pay for them to travel to Morocco if they would agree to attend. There is no doubt it was a ploy to sabotage the SADC conference.
What else is disturbing is the number of foreign ministers from West and Central Africa that agreed to attend the Morocco conference. As Former President Olusegun Obasanjo said at the SADC conference, the Moroccans clearly took the SADC Solidarity Conference seriously for them to go to the extent of organising a rival conference in an attempt to weaken the potency of the conference in South Africa. That suggests that solidarity efforts are indeed a threat, just as they were to the apartheid government in the 1980s. As was said by one speaker after the other at the SADC conference, it was the international solidarity with the struggle for freedom in South Africa that played a major role in bringing the apartheid government to its knees.
The line that Morocco has been trying to push is that the AU must not involve itself in the Western Sahara issue when there is a UN process underway, under the auspices of the UN Special Envoy Horst Kohler. But the intention of the AU has never been to create a parallel peace process or subvert the course of the UN process. On the contrary, the AU intends to give impetus to the UN process and heighten awareness of the urgency of the situation. As our President said, the conditions the Saharawi refugees have been living under are terrible, and it is “a blight on the human conscience.” The SADC conference has resolved that the issue of Western Sahara must be an agenda item at every AU Summit henceforth, and that regular solidarity conferences must be organised until the Saharwis are able to determine their future.
Given that South Africa will Chair the AU in 2020, and forms part of the current Troika to deal with the Sahara issue, there is no doubt that the push for a referendum to be held on self-determination will gain momentum. The challenge now will be to remind our African brothers and sisters that Africa will never truly be free without the freedom of the Saharawis, and they can no longer place their national interests above that of the human rights of those in Africa’s last colony.
In the words of the South African activist Catherine Constantinides, who regularly spends time in the Saharawi refugee camps, “Morocco must be held accountable. The sickening impact and ramifications of the illegal occupation of Western Sahara has been condoned for too long. Enough is enough. Not only do human rights violations occur daily in the occupied territory, but also the plunder of natural resources.
Shannon Ebrahim is the Foreign Editor for the Independent Media Group.