Morocco’s Nigerian Snub Reveals Complex West African Ambitions

Poster of Moroccan King Mohammed VI (Flickr/mhobl)

Moroccan King Mohammed VI’s diplomatic snub of Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan ahead of the Nigerian election came in stark contrast to the North African ruler’s recent efforts to reach out to other West African leaders. What then does the king’s chilly relationship with Nigeria suggest about his foreign policy? And what role does religion play in shaping the kingdom’s diplomatic relations?

On March 6, Nigerian authorities requested a phone call with Mohammed VI. According to the Moroccan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the request was denied for three reasons. First, the king viewed the call as an attempt by Jonathan to gain an electoral advantage in the upcoming Nigerian presidential elections scheduled for March 28. Presumably, the Ministry expected that a call with the Moroccan monarch might curry favor among Muslim voters in the country’s north, who are expected to vote for opposition candidate Muhammadu Buhari.

Second, the king felt the call may have suggested a warming of relations between the two countries, a sign that he apparently did not want to send. Third, and relatedly, the king regarded Nigeria’s position vis-à-vis “sacred national and Arab-Muslim causes”—namely, Morocco’s territorial dispute with the Polisario Front independence movement in the Western Sahara—to be untenable. Nigeria is aligned with Algeria and South Africa, which support the Polisario cause. Nigeria is also a major player in the African Union, an organization of which Morocco is not a member, having left the AU’s predecessor, the Organization of African Unity, in 1984 after it also recognized the Polisario. Morocco is unlikely to strengthen relations with the “Giant of Africa” in the absence of a reversal of its positions in these two areas.

Despite Mohammed VI’s refusal to speak with Jonathan, the Nigerian foreign ministry claimed the phone call took place. In response, its Moroccan counterpart reiterated that the king had declined to accept the invitation and had in fact never had a telephone conversation with President Jonathan during his entire tenure. Morocco also recalled its ambassador to Nigeria for consultations. President Jonathan responded that he was “shocked, surprised and very embarrassed” [link in French] by the situation and called for an investigation.

Mohammed VI’s refusal to communicate with the Nigerian president is noteworthy given his otherwise robust outreach to West African leaders. About two years ago, the country began a substantial turn to the south. In February and March of 2014, the king visited Mali, Ivory Coast, Guinea, and Gabon, signing tens of security and economic agreements. He has been particularly involved in Mali, where he signed 18 agreements, offered to train Malian imams in Morocco’s “tolerant” brand of Islam, and assisted the country in its negotiations with Tuareg separatists. Morocco’s primary strategy in the so-called Global War on Terror has been to present itself to the international community as a source of moderate Islam in this way.

After signing the agreement with Mali, a number of other countries requested that Morocco train its imams, including Libya, Tunisia, Cote d’Ivoire, Gabon, Guinea, Kenya, France, and the Maldives. Earlier this month, Senegal also requested that Morocco train its imams, further solidifying the kingdom’s influence on religious matters in the region. From the Moroccan point of view, many have seen this cooperation as a means to take advantage of the king’s religious prestige in the region, while building support for the territorial dispute on its southern border.

While Morocco employs its religious leadership to build support for its political causes, the king’s refusal to speak with President Jonathan may signal that it also restricts the ability of other actors to make use of that prestige. This policy would make sense, as it echoes domestic religious policy in Morocco, where only the monarchy is allowed to use religion as a political resource. Moroccan political parties are barred from forming on the basis of religion, and Moroccan imams are not allowed to run for office. Meanwhile, the king frequently invokes his religious authority when it is expedient to do so.

Morocco’s stonewalling of Jonathan will reverberate beyond Nigeria. By clearly differentiating, for a global audience, with whom the kingdom is willing to collaborate or not, Morocco has increased the value of its other relationships in the region. Meanwhile, by refusing to involve the king’s religious authority in a foreign electoral contest, Morocco has reinforced the king’s possession of that authority; it is the monarch’s to give, to whom he wills. Conversely, the monarchy’s decision to take such a public stance about the phone call is, in effect, involving itself in Nigerian domestic politics, by demonstrating that Jonathan’s team is at best clumsy, and at worst unethical.

Morocco did have the choice to stay silent about the misinformation. Its choice to get involved suggests it may actually be quite interested in the 2015 Nigerian election, and there may be opportunities for strengthening the relationship with Nigeria in the future, but only if Jonathan loses. If Morocco does take steps toward Buhari after a successful electoral campaign, it seems likely that cooperation on religious matters will precede cooperation on security, as has been the rule in its relations with other West African countries.

Ann Marie Wainscott is Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at St. Louis University.