Moroccan ship seizure triggers crisis between Rabat and Pretoria

Sunday 14/05/2017
Diplomatic tussle. Mustapha el-Khalfi, the Moroccan government spokesman,talking to journalists during a news conference. (AFP)

Casablanca- The seizure of the Moroc­can ship loaded with phosphate in a South African port may be part of an effort by South Af­rica’s scandal-hit President Jacob Zuma to save his political career, analysts said.
South Africa confiscated the ship carrying 50,000 tonnes of phosphate bound for New Zea­land following a complaint from the Polisario Front that the vessel unlawfully transported cargo from the disputed territory of Western Sahara in the latest diplomatic tus­sle between the Algerian-backed Sahrawi separatist movement and Rabat.
Morocco’s OCP Group — the Of­fice Chérifien des Phosphates — the world’s largest phosphate ex­porter, said a civil maritime court order caused the Marshall Islands-flagged vessel NM Cherry Blos­som, carrying phosphate from the south-western city of Laayoune in Western Sahara, to be held up in Port Elizabeth, South Africa.
Andre Bowley, Polisario’s lawyer, told Reuters: “We will be seeking a final order saying that the cargo will remain interdicted from leav­ing the jurisdiction of the court until such time as my client’s court case for the return of the property is heard.”
Rabat said it did not expect the Polisario’s legal challenge to succeed.
“There have been failed attempts to undermine Morocco’s territorial integrity in the past and future at­tempts will fail again,” said gov­ernment spokesman Mustapha el- Khalfi.
Morocco annexed Western Saha­ra, a former Spanish colony, in 1975 and maintains that it is an integral part of the kingdom. The Polisario Front started an armed conflict with Morocco for an independent state that lasted until a UN-bro­kered ceasefire in 1991.
Tensions flared in April in the buffer zone near the Mauritania border, prompting the United Na­tions to demand the Polisario forc­es’ immediate withdrawal from the Guerguerat area.
Analysts said South Africa’s stance in the dispute was more po­litical than legal.
Political analyst Lahcen Laassibi blamed Zuma for trying to draw South Africans’ attention from the political crisis that has gripped the country by responding to Polisa­rio’s complaint.
Zuma has repeatedly been ac­cused of corruption by the oppo­sition, which has called for him to resign well before the next election in 2019. Zuma is expected to step down as leader of the African Na­tional Congress party (ANC) in De­cember and as South Africa’s presi­dent in two years.
Last year, a court ruled that Zuma should face corruption charges over a 1999 arms procure­ment deal. He is challenging the ruling.
Mountacir Zian, director-general of the Mediterranean Company of Analysis and Strategic Intelligence in Rabat, said Zuma was playing his “last card to show that he’s still a strong leader despite the political crisis gripping his nation.”
Laassibi said South Africa was the “only country” that answered the Polisario’s call to stop products and goods originating from the dis­puted territory.
“Zuma’s South Africa is well aware that Morocco is now pene­trating many countries in the world diplomatically and economically, especially the Anglophone African countries. It seized the cargo to curb Morocco’s diplomatic push in the African continent and trigger a crisis with Rabat,” Laassibi added.
Morocco joined the African Un­ion in January, despite strong re­sistance from Algeria and South Africa, after a 33-year absence from the regional body, which had recognised the self-proclaimed Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR).
Morocco has also signed a series of bilateral agreements with many African countries in the last year, including with countries that sup­port SADR.
OCP legal counsel Othmane Ben­nani Smires told Reuters: “The or­der issued in South Africa regarding the cargo of the NM Cherry Blossom is a standard temporary measure made on the basis of only one party’s allegations.” He ex­pressed confidence that a favour­able resolution would be reached once the facts of the case are pre­sented to the South African court.
Bennani Smires said OCP’s Phos­boucraa subsidiary and its activi­ties are in full compliance with the UN framework and relevant inter­national legal norms and standards.