The African Lion 2021 military exercises, in which Morocco, the United States and seven other countries are set to participate, will not be held in Western Sahara after all, according to to El Periódico de Catalunya news portal, who contacted US Military Command Africa (Africom) for comment and to clarify speculations over recent days, fuelled by the Moroccan president, Saadedín Otmani, who said this week that part of the exercises would be held in the former Spanish colony, suggesting that this would mean “the culmination of American recognition for the Marroquidad del Sahara.” However this statement has been categorically denied by Africom. “What has been published in the media is not correct,” said the press officer of the Africa Command, Bardha Azari.
African Lion is the name of the largest military exercises carried out by the Pentagon annually on the African continent. This year the deployment is scheduled to take place between June 7 and 18 alongside Morocco, Tunisia and Senegal, with a total of 7,800 soldiers participating from nine countries, mostly US, added to which will be 67 combat and support aircraft, as well as two naval components. Within the Alawite Kingdom, several locations have been selected, including Kenitra air base, in the north of the country, Tantan and Guerir Labouhi, in the south, both located north of the Western Sahara border, according to Africom.
Decision taken before previous US president’s recognition by tweet
“The US and Moroccan military commanders considered numerous locations and worked very closely to try to choose the best ones in order to ensure the success of African Lion 2021,” Azari told Spanish language daily La Provincia. “In the end they opted for the sites proposed at the beginning of the planning process in the summer of 2020”. Or in other words, the places to carry out the training exercises were decided before the outgoing US president “recognised”, in exchange for “normalisation” of relations with Israel, Moroccan sovereignty in the disputed territory of Western Sahara back in December 2020, a position that is diametrically Opposed to that of the existing United Nations resolutions and the majority consensus of the international community. African Lion 2020 had been canceled due to the pandemic.
“The locations have not changed over time, they have remained the same,” emphasised the spokeswoman. “Those sites were chosen based on one criterion: to ensure that the largest military training exercise in Africa continues to strengthen the security alliance between the United States and Morocco, as well as our relationship with other participating nations, as we work together to ensure regional stability”. Azari maintains that in addition to the places mentioned, the exercises will also be held in the vicinity of Agadir and in two maritime locations, but in no case will they enter Western Sahara.
Spain will not participate
The issue has acquired special relevance after Spanish national daily ‘El País‘ published that Spain refused to participate this year in the African manoeuvres organised by the Pentagon, in which it has previously taken part. The Defence Ministry are likely to have used budgetary reasons, although according to government sources cited by the Madrid newspaper the underlying reason could have been the supposed inclusion of Western Sahara among the proposed training camps.
Africom did not want to discuss the Spanish decision, but they pointed out that it is far from exceptional. “We know that they will not participate. It is not entirely unusual. When planning begins with many participating allies and countries, it is common for some to go off the hook for different reasons, sometimes for internal reasons that we do not know about” Azari said.