Morocco’s role in Africa: Making more of it

The Economist

Morocco is vying with Algeria for more influence in the region

KING Muhammad VI of Morocco’s trip to Mali could not have gone better. Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, Mali’s president, and his entire cabinet were waiting on the tarmac to welcome the monarch off his jet on February 18th. When the king bestowed Morocco’s highest honour on Mr Keita, he promptly renamed a boulevard in Bamako after him (Muhammad’s name is emblazoned on a red and green billboard). Over five days of pomp, pageantry and public displays of affection, Muhammad signed 18 agreements, covering microfinance to defence and energy. He is hoping to do the same in Ivory Coast, Guinea and Gabon, the remaining stops on his tour.

Algeria has long been the dominant north African power in west Africa, but Morocco is now vying for clout. Over the past year, it has engaged with Africa more than anytime since 1984 when it quit the Organisation of African Unity—the forerunner of the African Union—after the organisation recognised the Polisario Front, a nationalist movement, as the government of Western Sahara. Morocco claims the territory for itself.

An objective of the visit to Mali, Ismaïl Régragui, a political scientist, recently told France 24, is to persuade Bamako to withdraw its support for an independent Western Sahara. This appears to have been successful. The Malian government says that Mr Keita called for a UN-backed solution in private discussions with the king, thereby tacitly retracting Bamako’s recognition of an independent Sahrawi state.

Morocco also hopes to make money from its neighbours. Over 100 Moroccan businessmen are accompanying Muhammad. Mali’s population is expected to triple within the next 35 years and donors have pledged billions of dollars to help reconstruct the country after the French military action last year to oust an Islamist takeover. That means opportunities, says Adam Thiam, a commentator for Le Républicain, a Malian newspaper. Morocco is already the country’s largest African investor, especially in banking and telecoms through companies such as Attijariwafa Bank and Maroc Telecom, and could expand into agriculture, infrastructure, mining and energy.

Morocco’s king is offering a third area for cooperation. After suicide bombings in Casablanca in 2003, the country increased the regulation of its mosques and started to train imams and preachers not just in Islam, but in subjects such as science and history. Trading on the monarchy’s religious clout—Morocco’s kings claim descent from Prophet Muhammad—it promotes itself as a beacon of the moderate, Malikite strain of Islam. Moroccan imams have inveighed against fanaticism in European cities with Muslim populations and as extremism grows in the region, countries are turning to Rabat. Last year, Mali sent the first of 500 imams to Morocco for religious training to counter hardline preachers proselytising and funding new mosques and madrassas across Mali. Tunisian, Libyan and Guinean imams are interested in following suit.

Morocco risks causing further deterioration to already bad relations with Algeria. “This a chess game” says Mr Régragui, the political scientist, pointing to cold war lines with America and France supporting Morocco and Russia, China and Iran backing Algeria. But with Algeria facing uncertain elections in April and security challenges on its borders, Morocco may be able to profit.

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