King Mohammed did not raise the issue of Western Sahara. He highlighted how Morocco, 'one of the most developed African nations', could be a boon to the continent. (In photo: French President Francois Hollande with Morocco's King Mohammed VI) Photograph:( Getty )
"I am finally home," King Mohammed VI said Tuesday as the African Union readmitted Morocco after a 33-year absence, deferring the issue of Western Sahara for another day.
Morocco's return came a day after 39 of the AU's 54 member states agreed to allow it back in the fold, despite stiff resistance from countries such as South Africa and Algeria over the status of the disputed former Spanish colony.
Faced with the AU's decision, Western Sahara officials appeared to accept the new reality, saying AU membership might help speed up efforts to end a protracted conflict.
"It is a beautiful day when one returns home after too long an absence," Mohammed VI told the closing ceremony of the AU summit in Ethiopia.
His speech came after a long day of feverish speculation in the halls of the AU headquarters over whether he would indeed show up. Morocco quit the then Organisation of African Unity (OAU) in 1984 after the bloc admitted the former Western Sahara as a separate member.
Morocco maintains that the territory under its control -- which is home to large reserves of phosphate, a key ingredient in fertilisers, as well as rich fish stocks off its coast -- is an integral part of the kingdom.
But the Polisario Front, which campaigns for independence, demands a referendum on self-determination for the territory of half a million residents.
Some had feared Morocco would seek the expulsion of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) as a precondition for its return to the AU, but the country agreed to return without conditions.
"From the moment that Morocco did not impose conditions ... we take their word for it and accept that Morocco be admitted to the African Union," said Mohamed Salem Ould Salek, foreign minister of the SADR, which claims sovereignty over the entire territory of Western Sahara.
Salek said Monday that having Morocco in the same room would allow the SADR to pressure them into fulfilling their obligations and hold a long-sought referendum.
The European Union has welcomed the move, saying: "Cooperation and regional integration are essential for prosperity, stability and peace."
King Mohammed did not raise the issue of Western Sahara in his speech, choosing instead to highlight how Morocco, "one of the most developed African nations", could be a boon to the continent.
"We do not ignore the fact that we do not have unanimity in this noble assembly. We do not want to create divisions as some have insinuated," he said.
Morocco will be "a motor for common economic growth", he vowed.
"It is time that Africa's riches benefit Africa. For too long we have looked elsewhere to make decisions, commitments."
The busy summit also saw Chadian foreign minister Moussa Faki Mahamat take over from South Africa`s Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma as AU commission chief after a fierce election battle that eliminated four other candidates.
Guinea's Alpha Conde took over the rotating presidency of the bloc, and called for the continent to express solidarity with Somalia, Libya and Sudan, which have been targeted US President Donald Trump's travel ban.
The decision to re-admit Morocco, and election of a new chairman, took place despite regional divisions that observers feared could lead to delay or deadlock on both issues.
Morocco's press on Tuesday hailed the kingdom's return to the bloc, with headlines including "Victorious return" and "Thank you your Majesty".
"The country will now revert to its role as a political and economic leader and correct its previous errors," Mohamed Alaoui, a pensioner in Rabat, told AFP. A combative Conde also called for more urgency in reforming the United Nations so that Africa could get a permanent seat on the Security Council -- a long-running demand from the continent.
He appointed South African President Jacob Zuma to lead negotiations with the UN, and also look into the effectiveness of peacekeeping operations on the continent.
"What is the role of the blue helmets? What purpose does this army serve?" Conde asked, pointing to violence in places like South Sudan and Democratic Republic of Congo.
He also appointed Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni to negotiate on behalf of the continent with the European Union on the issue of migrants.
"On the migration problem we need to speak with one voice," Conde said.