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Morocco dabbles with devolution as means to quell discontent

By Alae Eddin Serar
evolution in Moroco is the focus of a momentous
national debate that if successful, could result in
bringing government services much closer to this
restive people.
The focus of the debate is aimed at amending
the law governing municipalities. With many social
and political actors involved in the discussions, including ordinary
citizens, elected officials, government and civil society
and none other than King Mohammed VI himself, changes to
the law could come soon. Others could follow.
When King Mohammed succeeded his father to the throne
in July 1999, there was an atmosphere of optimism and the process
of democratization began. But the pace of the
democratization and decentralization has not always kept up
with people’s expectations.
The benefits of the reforms of 1999 and the impending
changes in governance and services for poorer citizens did not,
nor could they possibly, change Morocco’s social conditions
overnight. More than 4.2 million of the country’s 34 million
people live on less than $1 per person a day. As well, 38 per cent
of the population is illiterate, 1.7 million people live in shanty
towns and 11 per cent of working-age young people are
Terrorists attack
Little more than five years ago, with these alarming social indicators
as a backdrop, several radical Islamist groups were
successfully recruiting underprivileged youth in Morocco. In
May 2003, the deadliest terrorist attacks in the country’s history
conflagrated in Casablanca. A total of 12 suicide bombers died,
along with 33 civilians, and 100 were injured. Another seven
suicide bombers blew themselves up in Casablanca in March
and April 2007. In both cases, most of the bombers were from
the shanty towns of Sidi Moumen in the suburbs of Casablanca.
Response to roots of the attacks
The king stepped in. In Morocco, the king’s support is often crucial
to whether a reform project goes through or not. In formal
politics, under the constitution of Morocco, the king can
appoint the prime minister and the cabinet after a democratic
election, and can dismiss any cabinet minister. In informal politics,
the involvement of the monarch can launch a political
project on its way to success.
After the first attacks, the king launched the National
Initiative for Human Development to place social issues at the
top of the country’s priorities. This initiative was aimed at
empowering citizens to participate in decision-making at the
local level.
In a speech in July 2006, the monarch said there was a strategic
need to evaluate Morocco’s “experience in local democracy,
and to explore possibilities to enlarge the space for democratic
Morocco dabbles with
devolution as means to quell
Cities to gain powers, regions next
Alae Eddin Serrar is program manager at the USAID/State University
of New York Parliament Support Project in Morocco. He graduated
from Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane with a Master of Arts in
International Studies and Diplomacy.
JUNE | JULY 2008 Federations
REUTERS/Aladin Abde l Nab y
King Mohammed VI of Morocco makes a point at a recent Arab League
summit in Tunisia. The King’s participation is often the key to the
success of a project in Morocco.
SPECIAL SECTION : Decentra lizati on and Dev oluti on in non-federa l countries
practice, (and) to give a new impulse to decentralization and
regionalization dynamics so that decentralized management of
public services becomes a basic rule.”
In layman’s terms, the king was calling for broadening of
democracy in his country and for decentralization.
In light of this speech, and with municipal elections coming
in 2009, the Ministry of the Interior launched a national debate
to reform the law governing municipalities in Morocco, known
as the Communal Charter.
This was to be an important step toward enabling local governments
to improve delivery of services to citizens and create
a more inclusive and transparent management style at the local
level. Since then, more than 20 legal experts have fanned out,
holding workshops in the country’s 16 regions, involving the
leaders and members of local communes, members of civil
society groups and citizens.
The discussions and the debate centre on one topic: reforming
the Communal Charter. These consultations are focusing
on clearly defining powers at the subnational level; protecting
local autonomy; and providing the necessary funding and
trained staff for
m u n i c i p a l
Clearer powers
Subnational gove
r n m e n t s i n
Morocco come in
three forms:
• the municipality
(led by a mayor
elected for a six–
year term),
• the province (led
by an appointed
• the region (led
by a regional
g o v e r n o r
appointed by
the king).
While the regions have been given significant responsibilities
in social assistance and economic development matters,
municipalities have been granted similar responsibility over
socio-economic development through the 2002 Communal
Charter. Yet, this law did not specify how overlapping responsibilities
in socio-economic matters are to be shared.
Nor did the Communal Charter specify functions or relations
within the locally elected councils in major cities like
Casablanca, Rabat, Marrakech and Tangiers. In these four cities,
there is a single municipal council – headed by an elected
mayor with exclusive fiscal authority – which sits atop several
local municipalities.
In Morocco, a local municipality (commune in Moroccan
French) can be either an independent municipality in the
countryside or a municipal district within a large metropolis.
The resulting ambiguity between the city and the municipalities
has been a key obstacle confounding efficient and
democratic decentralized management.
Protecting local autonomy
Morocco’s urban and rural municipal governments are governed
primarily by Article 69 of the Communal Charter which
contains a long list of municipal council decisions that require
pre-approval by the Ministries of Finance and the Interior, in
the case of urban communes; and of the regional governor or
the governor in the case of rural communes. This mandatory
pre-approval covers almost every expenditure line item. It even
extends to the naming of city streets. The law defines the precise
procedures that need to be followed for such pre-approval
and stipulates sanctions for any violation of the procedures by
the local communes.
During one confrontation in 2006, the governor of the city of
Meknes rejected the program that the elected municipal council
had developed to reflect local citizens’ priorities, which
council members had promised to address during the election
campaign. Instead, the governor used the nationally determined
plan, as set
by the cent ral
author i t ies, t o
design and implem
e n t l o c a l
d e v e l o pme n t
Prof. El Manar
E s s l i m i o f
Mo h amme d V
University in Rabat,
one of the specialists
working on the
reforms of the
C o m m u n a l
Charter, said the
coming reforms
will have the effect
of pressuring central
authorities for
“less concern about
legal compliance
with formal rules at
the local level, and a more strategic role in monitoring and evaluating
local performance in delivering services.” He added that
there will also be provisions to encourage citizens’ involvement
as the most efficient mechanism for accountability and
Saad Guerrouani, the youngest member of the municipal
council of Martil, a town in northern Morocco, stated in an
interview that “the new reforms should necessarily reflect the
trust that citizens have expressed when they voted for us.”
“Heavy control hinders our capacity to program and execute
investments in a timely and effective manner.”
“Our hands are now handcuffed … they should be released
so that we can serve our communes better,” Guerrouani added.
Continued on page 32
JUNE | JULY 2008 Federations
A victim of the May 2003 suicide bombing in Casablanca is carried to an awaiting hearse.
Thirty-nine people were killed and scores injured in the bombings.
REUTERS/Joelle Vass ort
SPECIAL SECTION : Decentra lizati on and Dev oluti on in non-federa l countries
JUNE | JULY 2008 32
Moroco [from pa ge 18]
Empowering local governments to
deliver better services leads to one
important question: are the financial and
human resource capabilities sufficient to
meet the challenges that the country is
facing? Morocco’s rapid urbanization is
accompanied by an increasing need for
municipal investment in the areas of
infrastructure, sanitation, water and
electricity services, transportation and
urban development.
“The investment needed to meet
increasing demand would require not
only an increase in (its) own (internally
generated) revenues, but improved ability
to borrow and attract private
investment,” said Mostapha El Haya, a
member of the major i ty in the
Casablanca City Council, in an interview
with the Casablanca newspaper Al
Masae on March 15. “It would also require
stronger municipal human resources
capability,” said Said Essaadi, an opposition
member of the city’s council, in an
interview with Al Masae on the same day.
Prospects for regional autonomy
With moves to amend the urban laws and
to provide f inancial and human
resources for cities and towns, municipal
government reform is off to a good start
in Morocco. The next area for the legislature
to take on will most likely be regional
government, a reform that might possibly
begin in the unlikely location of
Western Sahara.
However, any effort to accelerate
decentralization or regional autonomy
in Morocco through reforming decentralization
laws will not be sufficient if
accompanying measures are not implemented.
Other legislation, such as the
law governing political parties and the
electoral law need to be reviewed to
include more democratic practices and
procedures inside political parties and to
reduce corrupt practices during elections.
Such a review should not only
reduce vote buying and corruption during
elections, but should also contribute
to improved democratic and transparent
procedures inside political parties, which
would encourage more qualified candidates
to run for municipal seats.