Why Has Morocco Rejoined the African Union After 33 Years?

King Mohamed VI at AU summit
King of Morocco Mohammed VI (L) greets Rwanda's President Paul Kagame in the main plenary of the African Union (AU) in Addis Ababa, January 31. The AU voted to readmit Morocco to the bloc after a 33-year absence, but the status of Western Sahara remains a matter of dispute between Morocco and some AU members. ZACHARIAS ABUBEKER/AFP/Getty

"It is so good to be back home, after having been away for too long."

Those were the first words of Moroccan King Mohamed VI in a speech at the 28th African Union (AU) Summit Tuesday. The speech came after a vast majority of the AU's member states voted Monday to readmit Morocco to the continental bloc after a 33-year absence.

As the Moroccan king addressed the chamber in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, it felt like a defining moment, according to Liesl Louw-Vaudran, an analyst at the Institute of Security Studies in South Africa. "I've been following the AU for 20 years and I never thought I would see King Mohamed walk in and make a speech, it was quite historic," she said from Addis Ababa.

But why has the North African country decided that, after a three-decade absence, it needs to rejoin the AU? After all, the collective is often criticized for bureaucracy and failing to resolve crises on the continent. Take Burundi, as an example: the AU has been largely toothless in dealing with a civil conflict that broke out in April 2015, which has killed more than 400 people. It backed off from sending in a peacekeeping force after Burundi expressed its dissatisfaction.

According to analysts, two key benefits stick out in Morocco's reintegration in the AU: the opportunity for greater trade with African countries, many of which are growing much faster than European states; and a potential means of resolving the continent's last remaining colonial dispute— the status of Western Sahara, a territory Morocco claims as its own but that an independence movement says deserves autonomy.

On the economic front, Morocco's links with the rest of Africa are growing but still make up a small percentage of the country's overall trade. The European Union is Morocco's biggest trading partner, constituting 55.7 percent of its trade in 2015, with near neighbor Spain and former colonial power France being the biggest beneficiaries. Morocco has also been unable to benefit from intra-African trade regions to the same extent as other countries. It is a member of the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU), a five-country trade agreement with Algeria, Libya, Mauritania and Tunisia. But the AMU has made little progress in boosting trade on account of recurring disputes between Algeria and Morocco—including on Western Sahara, since Algeria supports its independence—and has not held a meeting since 2008.

Mohamed indicated in his speech that this was something he wanted to change, and that he has already been hard at work. The monarch said that Morocco had signed almost 1,000 agreements and treaties with various African countries since 2000, while he had made 46 visits to 25 countries on the continent in the same period. Moroccan banks have expanded throughout Africa, with a presence in more than 20 countries, and the country's state-run airline Royal Air Maroc is one of Africa's biggest airlines, with Casablanca used as a transit point for many sub-Saharan Africans traveling across the continent.

"Morocco has opened a number of interesting diplomatic and commercial interests with their nearest African neighbors," says Claire Spencer, a senior research fellow and North Africa expert at international affairs think tank Chatham House. "It's logical that if their sub-regional development [in the Maghreb] is not going to happen that this should take place within the African Union."

The Western Sahara dispute was the reason why Morocco left the AU's predecessor, the Organization of African Unity (OAU), in the first place. A desert area roughly the size of Colorado, Western Sahara has been at the center of a dispute between Morocco and the Polisario Front, an organization representing the indigenous Sahrawi people, since the 1970s. Morocco annexed the territory in 1975 after Spanish colonizers withdrew, prompting the Polisario Front to launch a guerrilla struggle that continued until 1991, when the United Nations brokered a ceasefire. An estimated 90,000 people are living in refugee camps near the Algerian desert town of Tindouf, according to the U.N., as a result of the conflict.

Ban Ki-moon meets with the Polisario Front in Western Sahara.
United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon, left, arrives for a meeting with the Polisario Front's representative at the U.N. in Bir-Lahlou, in the disputed territory of Western Sahara, March 5. The region has been mired in a protracted dispute between Morocco and the Polisario Front that is backed by Algeria. FAROUK BATICHE/AFP/Getty Images

Morocco left the OAU in 1984 when a majority of members voted to recognize the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, as the Polisario Front calls the territory. In Monday's vote, several countries—including Algeria, South Africa and Zimbabwe—reportedly wanted to make Morocco's readmission to the AU contingent on it recognizing Western Sahara's borders. But a top Western Sahara official, Sidi Mohammed, told the BBC that it welcomed Morocco's readmission, calling it "a chance to work together" on organizing a long-promised referendum on the territory's status.

According to Louw-Vaudran, however, Morocco's re-entry to the AU could simply offer the North African state an air of "legitimacy" in seeking its desired solution in Western Sahara. Morocco has offered limited autonomy to the territory, but is unwilling to counsel full independence.

"Morocco wants to work from the independence to get Western Sahara expelled from the AU and once and for all lay to rest the whole issue of Western Sahara and its claims to independence," says Louw-Vaudran. "I don't think there's anyone who thinks that total independence for Western Sahara is still on the cards."

In a veiled nod to the controversial issue, Mohamed said in his speech that he was aware some AU member states were suspicious of its intentions. "We have absolutely no intention of causing division, as some would like to insinuate," he said. Time will tell whether that proves to be the case.