Kenya's new President Ruto upends decades-old policy on Sahrawi

Wednesday September 14 2022

Kenya's President William Ruto with Morrocan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita at State House Nairobi on September 14, 2022. PHOTO | PSCU


Kenya on Wednesday revoked the recognition of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), the breakaway region south of Morocco, in what is President William Ruto’s first upending on foreign policy hours after he took power a day earlier.

Instead, President Ruto said Kenya would wind down the mission of the SADR in Nairobi and back Morocco, a first for a member of the African Union.

Dr Ruto announced the radical measure after meeting with Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita, who delivered a congratulatory message to Dr Ruto in Nairobi at State House.

“At State House in Nairobi, [I] received congratulatory message from His Majesty King Mohammed VI. Kenya rescinds its recognition of the SADR and initiates steps to wind down the entity’s presence in the country,” Dr Ruto said.

“Kenya supports the United Nations framework as the exclusive mechanism to find a lasting solution of the dispute over Western Sahara,” he said, referring to the entire region claimed by Morocco but contested by the Polisario Front, the movement of the exiled government that runs the SADR from Algerian refugee camps.

Dr Ruto later removed the tweet without giving an explanation, causing confusion about Nairobi's policy on the Morocco-Sahrawi stalemate.


Fertiliser diplomacy?

The announcement came a day after Sahrawi President Brahim Ghali attended Ruto’s inauguration at Kasarani and whose presence, not the Morrocan Foreign Minister’s, was recognised by Dr Ruto before he gave his speech to a gathering. It may suggest a new focus on business ties as Morocco is seen as a key source of the much-needed fertiliser for Kenyan farmers. The President had earlier announced cheaper fertiliser would be arriving on the shores before the end of September.

But the declaration upends a decades-old policy by Nairobi, which aligned with the African Union, to have Sahrawi pursue its self-determination through a referendum. The SADR has had a seat at the AU since 1982, which caused Morocco’s withdrawal from the continental bloc, then known as the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), until 2017 when it returned.

Kenya now joins the US in recognising Morocco against SADR, but it is the only African country to do so publicly.

Read: AU sides with Western Sahara on autonomy despite US decision

It also turns on its head his predecessor Uhuru Kenyatta’s policy on the SADR. When then Foreign Affairs Cabinet Secretary Amina Mohamed ran for the chairperson of the African Union Commission in 2017, she visited the SADR government in Algeria. That decision is said to have dug her heels as Morocco mounted lobbying against her.

During Kenyatta’s presidency, Kenya chose to strengthen its embassy in Algeria, siding with SADR, while it retained only a consul in Rabat. The move now suggests Kenya could establish a full mission in Rabat, although Dr Ruto did not clarify.

Push for independence

Under Mr Kenyatta, Kenya pushed for the independence of Western Sahara from Morocco, even as Rabat protested.

Morocco in the past sought support for a UN-led solution “to vacate the AU against any improper attempt to divert the path of unity and fellowship.”

But South Africa and Kenya pushed for an auxiliary process to complement the UN, through the first declaration of Western Sahara.

Read: Kenya pushes Western Sahara issue back on AU agenda

The territory has been claimed by Morocco since 1975. And Kenya had argued the boundaries of Western Sahara as vacated by the Spanish colonialists should be left unchanged.

Initially occupied by the Spanish, Western Sahara was claimed by both Mauritania and Morocco. Mauritania later left, leaving Rabat to call the region its Southern Provinces of territory.

In 1979, the UN General Assembly passed Resolution A / RES / 34/37, which provided “the unequal rights of Western Sahara people in their own discretion and liberty, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations, the Charter of the Organisation of the African Unity and the purposes of the General Assembly.”

The dispute between the two sides had been floated in the UN organs, including at the International Court of Justice. But a referendum meant to determine the future of the region was yet to be organised as both sides disagreed on who should participate.