King Mohammed VI of Morocco has previously pledged to play a constructive role within the AU and pleaded for the revival of the struggling Arab Maghreb Union in North Africa. (Photo: EPA-EFE / ETIENNE LAURENT)
The AU and the AfCFTA secretariat are expected to facilitate talks on economic cooperation between the two North African countries.
First published by The ISS today
The announcement by the Algerian Minister of Foreign Affairs Ramtane Lamamra, on August 24, of a new rupture of diplomatic relations with Morocco is a new setback for free trade and free movement on the continent. The divide between the two countries widened last week with Algeria to prohibit on Moroccan civilian and military planes flying over its territory.
These developments dash plans for the African Union (AU) to see a regional economic community (REC) established in North Africa after Morocco joined the organization in 2017. At the time, the King of Morocco Mohammed VI pledged to play a constructive role within the AU and argued for the revival of the Arab Maghreb Union in difficulty in North Africa.
The AU has remained silent on renewed tensions. Lamamra, a former AU commissioner for peace and security, could use many mediation structures to bring his counterparts to the negotiating table. However, the long-standing divisions between the two countries – linked to territorial, political and economic rivalries – are said to be hard for the UA to disentangle.
Nonetheless, emphasizing the regional trade advantages of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) could convince the respective leaders to cooperate. The AU could rely on voice in Morocco and Algeria who maintain that the major development challenges of the countries cannot be solved without greater regional cooperation.
The current breakdown in diplomatic and trade relations follows a letter sent by the Moroccan ambassador to the United Nations (UN) showing the country’s support for independence movements in the Algerian region of Kabylia. The Movement for the Self-Determination of Kabylia is accused of having carried out the devastating fires in Kabylia from August 9 which left at least 69 dead.
This coincided with the so-called Pegasus scandal in which 6,000 leaked documents showed how Morocco was spying on Algeria. The latter was also upset by Morocco’s decision to rekindle relations with Israel after former US President Donald Trump recognized his claim to Western Sahara. Algeria is a staunch opponent of ties with Israel.
Some interpret the current situation as an attempt by Lamamra to show that “Algeria is back” on the international stage after a relatively dormant period, notably under former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. Meanwhile, Morocco accuses Algeria of supporting anti-monarchy protesters in the kingdom.
Much of the current tension is unfolding against a backdrop of unresolved independence claims from Western Sahara, which lies within the borders of Morocco. Algeria supports the Polisario Front, a movement representing Western Sahara and providing leadership for the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) of the territory. SADR is a member of the AU.
During the past year, sporadic incidents have erupted between Morocco and Sahrawi independence fighters in the buffer zones designated by the 1991 ceasefire negotiated by the UN.
Morocco insists on implementing its significant autonomy plan for Western Sahara, but Algeria and its allies have rejected it. The UN defines Western Sahara as a non-self-governing territory.
Since Morocco’s return to the AU, calls to resolve the dispute and discuss it within AU Peace and Security Council frameworks have fallen on deaf ears. Morocco insists it should be dealt with by the UN Security Council, where little progress has been made for years.
The clash between the two countries has plunged economic and trade relations to a new low. Over the past decades, tensions have caused several disruptions and trade levels well below expectations for savings of their size. Morocco’s exports to Algeria, for example, represent 0.48% of its total exports. Morocco imports most of its oil and gas from Algeria, but this only accounts for 0.79% of its imports.
The potential economic losses are enormous, in particular because Morocco has ample reserves of phosphate which it could export to Algeria, one of the main gas producers in Africa. Together they could produce much-needed fertilizers to boost agriculture on the continent and ‘transform the economies of African countries ”, according to an insider quoted by Young Africa.
The land borders between the two countries were closed between 1976 and 1988, then reopened after attempts to appease their leaders. They were closed in 1994 when Morocco accused Algeria of being behind the terrorist attacks in Marrakech. No direct sea route connects countries, making air transport vital. Intermediaries use these tensions and take advantage of extensive networks to move goods between countries.
This is where the benefits of increased intra-African trade should be highlighted. The potential of the AfCFTA is enormous for Africa’s most sophisticated markets, such as North Africa, which will benefit from greater duty-free exports to the rest of the continent.
ZLECAf Secretary General Wamkele Mene believe that millions of Africans can lift themselves out of poverty if the agreement is properly implemented. North Africa was not present at the meeting that Mene held with the Recs on the issue at the end of September. Out of the 39 ratify to date, Algeria and Tunisia are the only two in North Africa.
Morocco is a major investor in French-speaking West Africa and Central Africa, particularly in banking and finance, telecommunications, air transport and agricultural products. Along with Nigeria and South Africa, it is among the continent’s largest African investors, but Morocco has not joined the AfCFTA, fearing competition from other states in its economy. Morocco’s efforts to join the Economic Community of West African States have also failed.
So far, the arguments over the economic benefits of regional integration have not gone beyond the deep divisions between Morocco and Algeria. There is, however, a new opportunity for civil society and regional organizations to stress the need for talks and visionary leadership on both sides. A letter signed by 140 intellectuals from the two countries and the North African region calls for mediation to restore links.
Without a functional Rec for North Africa, the AU and the AfCFTA secretariat must play this role. Bringing Morocco and Algeria around the table to discuss economic cooperation – if not diplomatic and political ties – will be a giant leap for the continent and regional economic integration. DM
Through PSC report, ISS Addis Ababa.