The biggest African Elephant in the trans-Mediterranean room shared by Africa and Europe is the non-functioning of the African Union's northern pillar, the Arab Maghreb Union (UMA). It is little wonder then that it is nowhere when it is needed by all stakeholders with a security interest in trans-regional stability on both sides of the Mediterranean. Of course everyone knows why the UMA is the invisible regional economic community (REC) of the African Union (AU): the 'frozen conflict' of stalemate in the Western Sahara between Morocco, the Sahrawis and Algeria.
Complicity is shared by the US, France and the AU in what appears to be a virtual conspiracy of forgetfulness concerning the urgency of breaking the deadlock over the Western Sahara and, in the process, operationalizing the UMA as the AU's fifth pillar for North Africa. When placed in the context of the security vacuum currently existing in a region destabilized since the overthrow of Libyan strongman Muammar al-Qaddafi, who in and of himself was a major regional destabilizer, the heightened stake in the unresolved Western Sahara stalemate ought to be obvious.
Could it be that the Western Sahara is on the verge of receiving the urgent attention it deserves? Perhaps a hopeful media sign that this might be in the offing may be gleaned from a recent article appearing in The New York Times under the title: "Fighting Is Long Over, but Western Sahara Still Lacks Peace" (22/02/2015). If this report is to be believed, the ending of a nine month hiatus in negotiations wherein Rabat had barred United Nations special envoy Christopher Ross and UN mission head Kim Bolduc, has ended. The circumstances involved in breaking this negotiations logjam is unclear. Perhaps the circumstantial context of trans-Mediterranean insecurity and instability throughout northwest Africa, extending below the Sudano-Sahelian divide between North and sub-Saharan Africa, just may have caught someone's attention. If so, and another push toward a negotiated settlement is in the offing, where are we? How wide a gap is there to be bridged?
Rabat's idea of compromise is to offer Sahrawis a wide degree of 'autonomy' within Morocco, clearly a non-starter. The Sahrawi's governing Polisaro Front and its Algerian sponsor are sticking to the demand for the independence of the Western Sahara. With Morocco having withdrawn from the AU and its Organization of African Unity (OAU) predecessor, the Sahrawi's have pressed their agenda for AU recognition and gained important backing from key AU powers such as South Africa which is a close ally of Algeria. What is missing from anyone's calculus seriously contemplating a settlement is the possibility that a resolution just might gain traction were it tied to resuscitating the UMA as a functioning pillar of the AU – as opposed to an assumption that the UMA becomes a functioning REC only once the little more than 200,000 Sahrawis in the vastness of Western Sahara gain so-called sovereign 'flag independence' like other AU member states – like South Sudan which everyone fatalistically knew was a failed state in the making? (South Sudan should have been afforded regional autonomy with the East African Community.)
According to this logic, the Sahrawi republic gains independence within the AU, while Morocco re-joins the body and the UMA finally takes off with all its member state complement within the Maghreb region. The realization that this uncreatively self-determinative expectation only reinforces Africa's fragmentation within the ratified Berlin Partition that is the AU's inheritance from the OAU thereby further entrenching the Africanization of colonialism seems not to resonate. That such a conventional approach to settling Western Sahara would go against the grain of regional, subregional and continental integration by adding yet one more weak statelet that Africa does not need does not register on any side of this consundrum. Yet, the likelihood of this neatly conventional wisdom of Western Saharan sovereignty becoming a reality seems no more probable than the Polisaro accepting autonomy for Sahrawis within Morocco.
Meanwhile, the New York Times article raises the specter of renewed violence in the Western Sahara in the continued absence of a settlement, a prospect that would only compound the already violently destabilized post-Qaddafi regional security environment. This includes the jihadi terror threat that has only gained increasing momentum within the Libyan civil war crucible of an unending power-struggle with seemingly no end in sight. When, to these set of circumstances, is added the migratory invasion of Europe by the Afro-Arab destitute and how this contributes to Russian-backed political extremism in the European Union caused by a brutal austerity regime imposed by Germany, the trans-Mediterranean Eurafrican 'big picture' doesn't look pretty.
No one seems to connect these dots to the absence of a functioning UMA on the southern side of the Mediterranean and how this forms the other side of the coin of the Western Sahara-cum-Sahrawi stalemated 'frozen conflict.' Were these connections to begin to be made by all stakeholders with a view to fashioning a grand compromise for stabilizing the Maghreb through a credible Western Sahara settlement, the possibility of a more promising scenario gaining tractions on both sides of the Med might do wonders in altering the current grim circumstances. The goal should be to dovetail a Western Sahara settlement with UMA resuscitation.
The regional grand compromise might begin with the transferring of the non-starter of Sahrawi autonomy within Morocco to something more imaginative: Sahrawi autonomy as a UMA regional republic housing the secretariat of the UMA – the Arab Maghreb Union Sahrawi Republic with three-way shared sovereignty over Western Sahara by Sahrawis, Algeria and Morocco. Under this arrangement, the UMA's contribution to the AU's regional standby force architecture might center around transforming Polisario into the core of an all-Maghreb contingent to which Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and a stabilized Libya would contribute. Indeed, pending a settlement to Libya's anarchy, a Polisario-based AU stabilization force under UMA command might be deployed as part of a larger UN-AU stabilization mandate in Libya. There is no reason why a Sahrawi-UMA based regional standby force could not spin-off security benefits resonating on a number of fronts, including combating jihadi terrorism in northern Africa. It could also regulate trans-Med migration under an AU-EU permanent joint commission.
In spite of the unfortunate marginalization of the AU in the Libyan conflict that resulted in Qaddafi's overthrow, one might reflect on how Qaddafi himself contributed to the Western Sahara stalemate that has sidelined the UMA. After all, Brother Leader had a 'regional economic community' all his own in the amorphous Community of Sahel-Saharan States or CEN-SAD. He had no use for a normal Maghrebian REC, especially given his outlier status in inter-Arab politics. Thus did the Western Sahara stalemate play into Qaddafi's trans-regional politics of destabilization and distraction from a more constructively credible inter-African politics of integration. Indeed, the absence of a functioning UMA doomed a credible AU role in partnership with the Arab League in the Libyan crisis. Had the UMA existed as the AU's pillar in the Maghreb, there is no way the AU would have been sidelined in the crisis diplomacy surrounding Libya. The AU would have actually been in the lead. This, in turn, would have made untenable Washington's regional area policy partitioning of North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa. As it is, the absence of the UMA as a functioning pillar of the AU represents the de facto partitioning of Africa above and below the Sahara. Only a creative solution to the Western Sahara conundrum that does not result in yet another mini-state the continent does not need but furthers regional and continental integration will make Africa whole. We will then know where the Arab Maghreb Union is when we need it!
Francis A. Kornegay, Jr. is the senior research fellow at the Institute for Global Dialogue associated with UNISA and Global Fellow of The Wilson Centre in Washington is co-editor of Laying the BRICS of a New Global Order (AISA).