This summer I visited Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to research Saharawi diplomacy. Here representatives of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic—the government-in-exile of Western Sahara—operate as full members in continental institutions, despite partial international recognition and territorial occupation. Through archival material offered by the African Union Commission Archives and interviews granted with the Saharawi diaspora, I set out to understand the political complexities that emerge while practicing diplomacy-in-exile. My research was advised by Dr. Heather Sharkey and funded by the Gelfman International Summer Fund.
Western Sahara has long been what the UN classifies as a “non self-governing territory.” Since King Hassan II of Morocco ordered 350,000 unarmed civilians to cross into what was then a Spanish colony, a majority of the territory has been occupied and claimed as part of “Greater Morocco.” The Moroccan government has continually denied the right of self-determination for the citizens of Western Sahara. Despite this, the indigenous Saharawi people have built a government structure—the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). A majority of states have varying levels of relations with the SADR, ranging from liaison representatives to full diplomatic status. 17 nations in Africa fully recognize the SADR including Ethiopia. The SADR became a full member state of the African Union predecessor, the Organization of African Unity (OAU), in 1983.
Addis Ababa, as the capital of the African Union (AU), is a frontline in the battle to control the continental narrative of Western Sahara. Here, officials of the Saharawi Republic Permanent Mission to the AU and the Embassy to Ethiopia find themselves pushing back against increasing opposition to the Saharawi cause. Since Morocco was admitted to join the AU in 2017, it is clear that the “Western Sahara question” is a prominent and polarizing issue. This year, a coalition led by Morocco even proposed a membership suspension of the SADR. This diplomatic conflict continues today, despite the fact that the AU, and its predecessor the OAU, recognize Western Sahara as the last remaining colonial dispute of the continent.
My interviews with Saharawi diplomats and employees of the AU and UN allowed me to analyze the complex political identity and advocacy that exists in this space of conflict. Through this, I have also gathered information on how the Saharawi diplomatic situation has changed during Morocco’s first year as a member of the AU. Archival work added detail to my historical understanding of SADR’s continental relationship. Through unpublished rulings, I have traced the history of OAU/AU rhetorical support for Saharawi self-determination dating from 1973-2018. My research has allowed me to continue my studies of Western Sahara, post-colonial conflict, Spanish language, and international human rights. I plan to use this research in my senior thesis for the International Relations program.