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On June 26, 2018, a court in Casablanca sentenced Nasser Zefzafi to twenty years in prison, on charges of undermining public order and threatening national unity. Zefzafi was involved in organizing weekly protests in Morocco’s northern Rif region until his arrest in May 2017. Those protests erupted after the death of Mouhcine Fikri, a fishmonger in the coastal town of Al-Hoceima in October 2016. Fikri was crushed by a garbage truck compactor while trying to retrieve his catch, which the local police had confiscated on the grounds of illegal fishing.

What started as a reaction to Fikri’s death quickly evolved into popular protests over economic deprivation and a lack of public investment in the Rif. Together with a similar incident in the mining town of Jerada in December 2017, where the death of two mine workers led to demands for ‘economic alternatives,’ the protests point to continuing regional disparities between Morocco’s economic centers and backwater. To address the issue, the Moroccan government has implemented several reforms aimed at decentralizing power and strengthening subnational authorities to achieve more balanced development across regions. While hailed by development experts as a way of improving local development and democratic accountability, decentralization in Morocco has yet to deliver on these promises.

Morocco has a long history of decentralization. Starting under late King Hassan II, with the creation of subnational authorities at the communal, provincial, and regional level, decentralization has accelerated under his son and heir King Mohammed VI. Under the banner of the Advanced Regionalization Initiative, decentralization under the new king has aimed to expand accountability and responsibilities of subnational authorities. Today, municipal, provincial, and regional assemblies are elected by popular vote, with subnational governments assuming a wide range of responsibilities. Municipalities are tasked with providing infrastructure and basic services. Regional authorities play a key role in local development and are in charge of planning and overseeing large-scale infrastructure projects. Provincial authorities assume an intermediary function between the municipalities and regional governments and facilitate coordination between the two In the spirit of decentralization, these subnational authorities are meant, together, to contribute to balanced and sustained development across Morocco.

Despite these advancements, insufficient financial resources and limited political autonomy for subnational authorities have preempted more substantive decentralization in Morocco. On the one hand, subnational authorities lack the fiscal and spending autonomy needed to realize development projects independently. With the bulk of financing coming from national tax revenues, subnational authorities depend to a large degree on central government funding for investments in basic infrastructure, as well as the health and education sectors. Compounding the problem are high operational costs at all levels; public salaries consume almost the entire budget and leave little room for public investment.

The King’s continuing influence over decision-making at the subnational level has also undermined effective decentralization. Parallel to the elected institutions, the King, through the interior minister, appoints key executives at the regional and provincial levels. These governors and walis (governors of a province or region)  have considerable decision-making power vis-a-vis regional and provincial governments. Through these appointments, the King and his court, the Makhzen, retain political control over decision-making at the subnational level too. In this regard, investment decisions that supposedly enhance local development are, in reality, likely to reflect the interest of the King and the Makhzen, rather than the will of local populations and elected institutions. Without sufficient funding and autonomy to cater to the demands of their constituencies, sub-national authorities in Morocco cannot fulfill their role as motors of local development.

With decentralization failing to achieve its ostensible benefits, socioeconomic problems in Morocco’s backwater are likely to continue. The Rif is emblematic of this situation. Despite popular demands for job creation and investments in education and health, conditions for the local population have not improved under Morocco’s decentralization program. In Al-Hoceima, plans for a new hospital have not materialized because of funding issues. Meanwhile, patients who need cancer treatment have to make a twelve-hour journey to Casablanca. Similarly, the nearest university for students from Al-Hoceima is in Oujda, about 160 miles away at the border with Algeria. The situation is not much different in Jereda, where insufficient public investment and corrupt local authorities have aggravated deteriorating living conditions in the province, which began with the demise of the mining industry in 1998.

The Moroccan government is at crossroads: it can either continue to suppress popular protests and incarcerate leaders, like Nasser Zefzafi or his counterparts from Jerada, or it can reignite the stalled decentralization process. The first option will undoubtedly further alienate local populations from the political establishment. The second would be a more inclusive approach and give subnational authorities the financial means and political power needed to achieve sustained socioeconomic development. Whatever options are chosen, however, attention should be paid on places, like the Rif, in order to assess outcomes.

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