Why Morocco must not be allowed to join the African Union

The country's occupation of Western Sahara is one of international diplomacy’s greatest failures.

“What does Morocco mean to an Englishman?” George Orwell asked in one of his finer essays. “Camels, castles, palm-trees, Foreign Legionnaires, brass trays and bandits.” That was 1939. But whatever Morocco means to an Englishman today it probably isn’t "occupation, refugees, and landmines".

Morocco is a standard tourist destination and is held up as a model for Arab and African development alike. It may, therefore, come as something of a shock to hear that Morocco is the only African country excluded from membership of the African Union (Madagascar, Mali, and Guinea-Bissau have all been "suspended" since 2009 and 2012 respectively).

This is not something that sits well with King Mohammed VI or his new Government, and on Wednesday a diplomatic team in Rabat started Morocco’s latest push for membership. Kindly voices from the AU have also started to exercise their larynxes on the matter, such as prominent Tanzanian MP, Edward Lowassa Ngayai, who backed bringing Morocco into the AU fold last month.

Morocco was elbowed out of the AU’s predecessor, the Organization of African Unity (OAU) in 1984 after the organization finally recognised the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, the exiled government of Western Sahara, which Morocco invaded and occupied in 1976 and has held by force ever since.

Western Sahara represents one of international diplomacy’s greatest failures. When the Spanish left in 1975, Sahara was to be the last country on the continent to go through decolonisation; it would forever mark the end of the sanguinary history of empire in Africa. Instead it is Africa’s last colony.

The occupation has left hundreds of thousands of Sahrawi disenfranchised, and somewhere between 90,000 and 200,000 have fled as refugees, most of whom currently live in the Tindouf refugee camp in Southern Algeria, and in similar camps in Mauritania. The Moroccan army has established a segregation wall over 2000km long and surrounded by landmines, going through Western Sahara. Sahara’s resources are plundered, and its people continue to suffer.

The United Nations response to the occupation has been nothing short of a disgrace. Though the UN recognises the occupation is illegal, it has utterly failed to do anything about it. The UN has maintained a peacekeeping mission meant to hold a referendum on autonomy in Sahara (MINURSO) since 1991, but it has no mandate to monitor human rights abuses, a skeleton staff, and thanks to France’s Security Council veto has failed to produce a referendum for 21 years.

In spite of all this, it was in Western Sahara’s Gdeim Izik camp that the political protest movements in North Africa began, two months before the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi. The Western Sahara protests received little recognition, let alone backing, in national newspapers, nor did anyone call for the end of the authoritarian regime that was its target. Moroccan security forces dismantled the 6000 tent camp, and the movement, by force.

The African Union is undoubtedly a corrupt and weak institution, and includes countries with even worse human rights records than Morocco. But the one break in over 35 years of international inertia on the occupation of Western Sahara has been the AU’s stand for independence, and refusal to admit the membership of Morocco.

If regional institutions are capable of having any impact at all on global justice (a question to which the answer may well be no), then it can only be by making membership for countries on the peripheries of regional blocks conditional on ending their abuses of human rights, something which has arguably been achieved to some extent with the European Union.

A Chatham House report once compared an AU human rights court to “whistling in the wind”, but its policy on Western Sahara and Moroccan membership is one success in a list so short that it could be inscribed on one of Orwell’s brass trays. If it abandons that stance now, the AU will have to say it is happy living with a colonial Africa.

A Sahrawi refugee walks in a Western Sahara refugee camp. Photograph: Getty Images
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The lute master and the siege of Aleppo

Luthier Ibrahim al-Sukkar's shop was bombed; when he moved, militants came for him. Over WhatsApp, he told me what's next.

Aleppo was once a city of music, but this year the 400,000 residents who inhabit its eastern suburbs can hear nothing but the roar of Russian warplanes, and ear-shattering blasts from the bombs they drop. To the north, west and south, the city is encircled by ground troops from the Syrian armed forces, Hezbollah and Iran. Most residents are afraid to flee, but soon, now that supply lines to the city have been cut off, many will begin to starve. We have reached the crescendo of Aleppo’s suffering in year five of the Syrian civil war.

One clear August morning in 2012, in the early weeks of the battle for the city, a man approached a street corner shop and found a hundred shattered lutes scattered across the floor. Ibrahim al-Sukkar, the engineer who had made the lutes (Arabs know the instrument as the oud), was overwhelmed. He wandered between the tables of his workshop and peered up at the sky, suddenly visible through holes in the roof. He wept on the floor, amid the dust and ash.

Some of the wooden shards that lay around him had been lutes commissioned by musicians in Europe and America. Others were to be used by students in Damascus and Amman. Each oud was built for a specific purpose. In every shard Ibrahim saw a piece of himself, a memory scattered and charred by government bombs. He packed his bags and headed for Idlib, a few hours to the west, where he set up shop a second time. A year later, his workshop was destroyed again, this time by Islamist militants.

It was at this point that Ibrahim came to a stark realisation – he was a target. If barrel bombs from government helicopters could not succeed in destroying him, the Islamists would. The cost of sourcing materials and getting goods to market had become unmanageable. The society that had inspired his desire to make musical instruments was now trying to lynch him for it.

The 11 string courses of an oud, when plucked, lend the air that passes through its bowl the sounds of Arabic modes known as maqamat. Each one evokes an emotion. Hijaz suggests loneliness and melancholy. Ajam elicits light-heartedness and cheer. An oud player’s competence is judged by his or her ability to improvise using these modes, modulating between them to manipulate the listener’s mood. The luthier, the architect of the oud system, must be equal parts artist and scientist.

This is how Ibrahim al-Sukkar views himself. He is a trained mechanical engineer, but before that he was a lover of classical Arabic music. As a young man in the Syrian countryside, he developed a talent for playing the oud but his mathematical mind demanded that he should study the mechanics behind the music. Long hours in the workshop taking instruments apart led him to spend 25 years putting them together. Ibrahim’s ouds are known for their solid construction and, thanks to his obsessive experimentation with acoustics, the unparalleled volume they produce.

Ibrahim and I recently spoke using WhatsApp messenger. Today, he is lying low in the village where he was born in Idlib province, close to the Turkish border. Every so often, when he can, he sends some of his equipment through to Turkey. It will wait there in storage until he, too, can make the crossing. I asked him if he still felt that his life was in danger. “All musicians and artists in Syria are in danger now, but it’s a sensitive topic,” he wrote, afraid to say more. “I expect to be in Turkey some time in February. God willing, we will speak then.”

Ibrahim’s crossing is now more perilous than ever. Residents of Idlib are watching the developing siege of Aleppo with a sense of foreboding. Government forces are primed to besiege Idlib next, now that the flow of traffic and supplies between Aleppo and the Turkish border has been intercepted. And yet, to Ibrahim, the reward – the next oud – is worth the risk.

I bought my first oud from a Tunisian student in London in autumn 2014. It is a humble, unobtrusive instrument, with a gentle, wheat-coloured soundboard covering a cavernous, almond-shaped bowl. Some ouds are decorated with rosettes, wooden discs carved with dazzling patterns of Islamic geometry. Others are inlaid with mother-of-pearl. My instrument, however, is far simpler in design, decorated only with a smattering of nicks and scratches inflicted by the nails of impatient players, and the creeping patina imprinted by the oils of their fingers on its neck.

My instructor once told me that this oud was “built to last for ever”. Only recently did I discover the sticker hidden inside the body which reads: “Made in 2006 by Engineer Ibrahim al-Sukkar, Aleppo.” 

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle