African Union mulls Morocco membership, Trump fallout

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African Union leaders grappled with Morocco’s divisive bid to rejoin the bloc at a summit Monday and sounded alarm for the continent over US President Donald Trump’s immigration ban.

“The very country (where) our people were taken as slaves… has now decided to ban refugees from some of our countries,” outgoing AU Commission chair Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma told some 37 heads of state and leaders from across the continent.

“It is clear that globally we are entering very turbulent times,” she added.

The leaders have a packed agenda for the two-day meeting in the Ethiopian capital where they will also have to bridge divisions to elect a new chairperson.

The 54-nation bloc often struggles with competing regional interests, and issues such as Morocco’s bid to rejoin the bloc and differing views on membership of the International Criminal Court (ICC) are expected to shape the election of the AU’s top executive.

But the meeting is the first since Trump’s election and anger over a ban on citizens from three African nations marked the summit opening.

“What do we do about this? Indeed this is one of the greatest challenges and tests to our unity and solidarity,” Dlamini-Zuma said.

Trump’s administration has faced outrage and widespread protests over the move to ban citizens from seven countries including Libya, Somalia and Sudan in Africa.

In his opening address at the summit, new UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres didn’t mention Trump’s refugee and travel ban specifically, but criticised the closure of borders “even in the most developed countries in the world.”

At the start of the summit leaders heaped praise on west African grouping ECOWAS for its decisive role in dealing with the Gambian crisis, and welcomed new President Adama Barrow — who could not attend the meeting.

They then retreated behind closed doors to weigh Morocco’s bid to return to the fold 33 years after it quit in protest against the AU’s decision to accept Western Sahara as a member.

– Facing resistance –

The membership of affluent Morocco could be a boon for the AU, which lost a key financier in late Libyan dictator Moamer Kadhafi and is working on ways to become financially independent.

Currently foreign donors account for some 70 percent of its budget, according to the Institute for Security Studies.

A Moroccan diplomat said Sunday the country had the “unconditional support” of 42 members of the bloc.

However in a sign of the resistance Morocco is facing, 12 countries including heavyweights Nigeria, South Africa, Algeria, Kenya and Angola, requested a legal opinion from the AU on whether the bloc could accept a member that is “occupying parts of the territory” of another member.

These nations have long supported the campaign for self-determination by Western Sahara’s Polisario movement.

Morocco maintains that the former Spanish colony under its control is an integral part of the kingdom, while the Polisario Front, which campaigns for the territory’s independence, demands a referendum on self-determination.

The AU’s legal counsel, in a document seen by AFP, said the nations raised “fundamental concerns that have to be taken into account”. However the decison to weigh Morocco’s request ultimately rests with heads of state.

– Regional interests –

Also on Monday, leaders will vote for a new chairperson six months after failing to decide on a replacement for South Africa’s Dlamini-Zuma.

One of five candidates from Kenya, Senegal, Chad, Botswana and Equatorial Guinea will have to unite different regions to win a two-thirds majority.

Kenya’s foreign minister Amina Mohamed, Chad’s former prime minister Moussa Faki Mahamat and Senegal’s veteran diplomat Abdoulaye Bathily are frontrunners in the race.

The choice of a new leader is crucial for the future of a bloc which is undergoing deep introspection on how to reform to become more relevant and better respond to crises on the continent.

Tasked with leading the reforms, Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame delivered a “biting” report to heads of state on Sunday, according to a statement from the Kenyan government.

He criticised “chronic failure to see through African Union decisions (which) had resulted in a crisis of implementation and a perception that the AU was not relevant to Africans”.