More than 30 years after walking out on the continent-wide organization, Morocco has rejoined the African Union, becoming the final African nation to do so.
Moroccan and AU officials announced the decision Tuesday from the African leaders summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. With its readmission, Morocco becomes the continental organization's 55th member state.
Morocco split from the AU in 1984, when it was known as the Organization of African Unity (OAU), after the group recognized the disputed Western Sahara territories as the independent Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. Morocco has long considered those areas to fall under its rule.
Western Sahara leaders applauded Morocco's return to the AU, calling it a “positive step” and noting that Morocco will now receive equal treatment with the disputed territory, forcing leaders to acknowledge its sovereignty to some degree.
“During this 33 years Morocco has been fighting militarily ... and the whole international community didn't recognize any sovereignty of Morocco for Western Sahara," said Western Sahara's Foreign Minister Mohamed Salem Ould Salek.
"And now Morocco is realizing that it has to sit with the Sahrawi Republic," he continued.
The region has fought for its independence from Morocco for decades, using guerrilla warfare tactics and eventually resulting to political means after a declaring a ceasefire more than two decades ago.
Morocco decried the AU’s decision to appoint an envoy for Western Sahara in 2014, arguing that the organization lacked proper legal authority to intrude. Since then, Morocco's King Mohammed VI has increased his diplomatic efforts in an attempt to regain admission.
Morocco, the northwest corner of the African continent, has long prioritized its cultural ties with Middle Eastern and European nations over its geographical connection to Africa. Still, Morocco’s economy could make significant gains by exploring connections in Africa’s mining, construction, medical, insurance, and banking sectors.
Some hope that the sovereignty dispute will become easier to resolve once both Morocco and Western Sahara can debate and work together within the AU, but Morocco’s admission was not based on any condition to recognize Western Sahara as sovereign.
"As we have said, if the family grows bigger, we can find solutions as a family," Senegalese President Macky Sall told reporters after Tuesday’s vote.
Thirty-nine AU members voted to confirm Morocco’s readmission. Nine others voted against the move, all citing concerns about the northern African nation’s continued debate over its border with Western Sahara.
While leaders recognize the continent’s diverse cultures, religions, and economic interests, they hope that the now full unity in the AU can benefit the continent as a whole
“Africa wants to speak in one voice,” said Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, president of Liberia. “We need all African countries to be a part of that voice.”
This report contains material from Reuters and the Associated Press.