Misanet.com / IPS, 27 February - The Arab Maghreb Union (UMA), a North African regional grouping, has just marked its 12th anniversary, but political divergences among its members have frustrated the political and economic integration promised when the union was established on February 17, 1989 by Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia.
Envisioned initially by Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi as an Arab super-state, the organisation was expected eventually to function as a North African common market. But political unrest in Algeria and the continuing dispute between Morocco and Algeria over the Western Sahara have hampered progress on the Union's joint goals.
The Union's viability is also undermined by another emerging African regional grouping, the Community of Sahel-Saharan States (COMESSA), founded in 1998 by Libya's Gaddafi. COMESSA, which held its third summit last week in Sudan, musters 16 countries, namely Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Chad, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Gambia, Libya, Mali, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Somalia, Sudan and Tunisia.
It seeks to consolidate economic and commercial integration among member states and co-ordinate their political stands. "Morocco's and Tunisia's decision to join COMESSA is a step that further weakens the UMA," commented Ahmed Baji, a Tunisian journalist, adding; "The two countries are major nations in the Maghreb and their joining COMESSA will sap any hope to see UMA ever revived."
For Abdelmounim Dailami, director of the Moroccan daily, "Assabah", Morocco joined COMESSA, because it lost all hope to see UMA revived. "Had UMA been feasible, Morocco would not have adhered to another grouping," he says. Similarly, Abdelaali Mekassi, a Moroccan economist, says the decision by Rabat and Tunis to join COMESSA was a practical recognition that UMA had failed.
Gaddafi, who tried and failed last year to resolve the Western Sahara issue between Algeria against Morocco conceded that the dispute was "blocking the process of Maghreb integration."
Algeria provides political and logistical backing for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Western Sahara, known by its Spanish acronym, the Polisario Front, which has been waging a low intensity guerrilla campaign for the independence of the former mineral-rich Spanish colony that was occupied and annexed by Morocco in 1975.
The issue has long been on the United Nations agenda which has been trying to settle the issue through a self-determination referendum, but to no avail. Morocco and Polisario disagree on who should be allowed to vote in the consultation which gives Sahrawis a choice between independence and integration within Morocco.
United Nations Secretary-General, Kofi Annan said in a report last week to the U.N Security Council that "relations between the parties to the dispute over Western Sahara are deteriorating, and there has been no progress in the implementation of the settlement plan."
- Regrettably, I cannot report any progress towards overcoming the obstacles to the implementation of the settlement plan, or towards determining whether the Government of Morocco, as administrative Power in Western Sahara, is prepared to offer or support some devolution of authority for all inhabitants, he said.
Algiers' unshakeable support for the Polisario, was made clear by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika of Algeria in a message to King Mohammed VI of Morocco on the occasion of UMA's 12th anniversary. "Algeria, which has always believed in Maghreban ideals and values, will remain attached to the principles of freedom and independence, for which Algerians sacrificed their lives," he said.
Since King Mohammed VI took power in Morocco in 1999, Morocco has been building a new strategy regarding its dispute with Algeria The strategy seeks to persuade African nations, that recognised the Polisario as a state, reconsider their position, through luring them with economic and political aid.
The tactic proved fruitful, as Morocco managed to exclude the Polisario from the Africa-Europe summit, held last year in Egypt and from the France-Africa Conference, convened last January in Cameroon. During the Cairo summit, the Moroccan King announced that he cancelled all tariff duties to African nations' exports to his country.
By attending the two major gatherings and joining COMESSA, Morocco also intends to make up for its withdrawal from the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) which it quit in 1982, when the Nairobi summit of African leaders admitted the membership of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic republic (SADR/proclaimed by the Polisario).
Several African nations, such as Sudan and Senegal, now back Morocco's claims over the Western Sahara and call for its return to OAU and the expulsion of the Polisario. Senegal's President Abdoulaye Wade said recently in an interview with a Moroccan TV channel, "Africa should shelve the Polisario file and it should be clear that I back Morocco in this issue."
The most salient backing Morocco has gotten in this connection, so far, came from India, which cancelled last year its recognition of the Polisario republic. But the Indian decision has an economic motivation, as New Delhi keeps an eye on Morocco's phosphates and tourism.
India's Chambal Fertilisers and Chemicals company already runs a US$ 230-million venture with Morocco's phosphates corporation (OCP) to produce phosphoric acid, and the Indian tourism group Oberoi Hotels is investing US$ 100 million for the construction of luxury hotels in the North African country.
Moroccan Interior Minister, Ahmed Midawi, made it clear last week that "there will be no normalization between Morocco and Algeria, as long as the Sahara issue is not settled."
- In this case, the Maghreban integration will remain a far-fetched dream, says Ahmed Mandour, wondering "how can two nations, that do not get on bilaterally, work together in a grouping."
By Nizar Al-Aly, IPS