Morocco: The Rif – The paradox of the north
The Rif has two sides. One, on the west, is symbolised by its capital, Tangier. It is a city both modern and steeped in myth. Its past has given it a rich reputation: international, cosmopolitan, intellectual, with the whiff of sulphur in the air.
It has a jet set that is less bling and more arty than its Marrakech counterpart. Writers and jazz musicians still fantasise about the Tangier of the Beat Generation. But Tangier is now focused on the future. After its reconciliation with the palace under King Mohammed VI, the northern metropole has become an industrial lung of the country, second only to Casablanca.
Since 2000, the state has poured big money into the region. Between 2013 and 2017, it invested some €660m ($768m) in an ‘integrated, balanced and inclusive’ development plan. The metamorphosis has been impressive.
New infrastructure is bringing more life to the area. The region now hosts the bustling Tanger Med free trade zone. It is home to the largest car production line on the continent – Renault’s – and the largest wind farm. The Tangier port has become a direct rival to Spain’s Algeciras, while next door a luxury marina hosts the yachts of the elite. A new high-speed rail line is due to be launched in June. It will link Tangier to Casablanca, with trains due to make the trip in about two hours and 20 minutes.
Nevertheless, with unemployment in Tangier at 11% and massive arrivals from rural areas, the city is struggling to profit from this economic activity. That is why interior minister Abdelouafi Laftit has launched a new plan to integrate Tangier into its rural hinterland. In reality, the success of Tangier obscures the problems of the wider, impoverished region.
On the other side of the mountainous Rif region is the city of Al Hoceima. The area around this city of the central Rif is starved of resources. The people of Al Hoceima made their anger about that known in two years of restive protests, known as the ‘Hirak’, in 2016 and 2017. The death of a fish seller sparked huge demonstrations, with riot police barely able to maintain order.
Al Hoceima’s nearly 400,000 inhabitants have about 40 schools, just 400 hospital beds and no university. Unemployment there is approaching 22%, and less than two out of three people in Al Hoceima are literate.
Although the government launched a development plan – known as ‘Lighthouse of the Mediterranean’ – for that part of the region in October 2015, it has made little progress. Critics say the 2016 legislative elections meant politicians did not want to move on the project.
Whatever the reason, it provoked a right royal outburst when King Mohammed VI received a report on the delays: he sacked officials and promised that the programme would restart.
“Despite the delay, the plan will be finished on schedule, that is to say in 2019,” says Mounir El Bouyoussfi, the director of the Agence pour la Promotion et le Développement du Nord. The flexible nature of the agency – a far cry from the creaking bureaucracy that characterises much of Morocco’s government – and its healthy budget of more than €400m have helped it to catch up somewhat. Of the 580 projects in the development plan, some 30% are now complete.
New clinics and sports installations were the first to arrive. The government has inaugurated a new marina in El Hoceima and upgraded rural roads. Contractors rebuilt the market place of the village of Imzouren, which had been the site of clashes between locals and security services.
To improve governance, local officials now have to work with the cour des comptes, the central accounting administration that wrote the initial, damning report on the region’s development projects.
Port rival for Tangier
An obstacle to economic development is that the central Rif is circled by mountains, with higher logistics costs making it harder to attract industry. Local businesses await the arrival of the D10bn ($1.1bn) Nador West Med port complex, which seeks to rival Tangier when it is finally operational in 2021. It will sit in front of the major east-west transport axes roughly two hours’ drive from Al Hoceima. That should stimulate the kind of economic activity that could begin to shift the region away from its dependence on drug money.
But work of a much more profound kind also needs to be done: reconciling the region’s people with its history. The central Rif first sought independence from the Spanish, to much national acclaim, in the 1920s. It was the victim of chemical weapon attacks in this liberation war, and to this day has the highest rates of cancer in the country.
It then sought independence from Morocco in the 1950s. That earned it the wrath of King Hassan II. The region was starved of cash and left to its own devices – essentially abandoned to the gangs who manage cannabis production.
The government’s new plan is to integrate the Al Hoceima region with its western neighbours, Tétouan and Tangier. The new Agence Régionale d’Exécution des Projets is in charge of this, with its budget of D580m. A greater focus on regional development is part of the new territorial administration plan that King Mohammed VI launched in February, which reduced the number of regions from 16 down to 12.
This article first appeared in the July/August 2018 print edition of The Africa Report magazine