A tradition of centralised rule has typically limited the autonomy of the different administrative subdivisions in Morocco. However, the idea of greater devolution of power to local and regional authorities – to increase local participation in the governance process, to reduce development disparities and to improve transparency – has been gaining traction for decades, and a number of reforms are currently under way that seek to build upon some of the initial steps taken previously.
The idea is not new, and has regularly been part of the political debate in Morocco since the 1970s and 1980s. In 1984, for example, King Hassan II even raised the possibility of regional parliaments and governments to better address local specificities in both revenue and land management.
However, the process is set to be accelerated in 2015. In a speech in November 2014 King Mohammed VI announced that further efforts at decentralisation, or regionalisation, within the country would proceed with renewed momentum in 2015, starting in the southern provinces, where authorities are aiming to allow for greater local participation in terms of administration and governance.
Stronger local administration will ensure that public service delivery in areas such as education and health care are more robust. Under the centralised model of administration, for example, students and workers must frequently migrate to larger urban centres such as Rabat, Casablanca or Marrakech in order to receive an education or find work.
The current monarch had already made clear that he intends to make devolution a key element of his reign. A successful transfer of power to regional communities will impact not only the way that public services are designed and distributed, but also improve accountability of the kingdom’s administration structure. “To be able to organise the country under a number of important centres distributed geographically, and not only within the Rabat-Casablanca axis is one of the main levers for development of the country in the near future,” Talal Salahdine, strategic director at Morocco-based think tank Institut Amadeus, told OBG.
The immediate gain of an effective regionalisation process would be the reduction of the regional disparities that still affect the country both socially and economically. But to achieve this, a rethink of how the state is run will be needed. Small but important measures have already been implemented.
Changing the Structure
The Moroccan territory was until recently administered through 16 regions, headed by governors known as walis. The regions were divided into 42 provinces and 28 prefectures overseen by governors. Most levels of local government also have directly elected councils. The wali in charge of each region, however, was previously directly appointed by the king. Reforms will include making Regional Council’s elected officials through universal suffrage. Regional authority was mostly limited to the planning and zoning matters, but a movement to establish regionally localised health authorities in 2006 has seen the improvement of medical care in the regions, as well as increased powers for local authorities to manage their specific health facilities and resources.
Greater autonomy and distribution of governing responsibilities throughout the regions was furthered in 2008, when the king proposed a roadmap to accelerate the process of devolution. Under the devolution plan, particular attention was given to redrawing administrative subdivisions as a means of addressing regional disparities more effectively, as well as improving accountability of public administration. In 2010 an advisory regionalisation committee was appointed to establish the form in which the devolution process will advance.
Following the initial work, resulting in a draft structuring of the country’s territorial administration, political parties were also invited to contribute with potential changes. Another big step for the move was given in the amended constitution of 2011, which states within its first article that the “territorial organisation of the kingdom is decentralised, based on an advanced regionalisation.” Also included in the new constitution was a section about regional government, with new measures to guarantee the local political involvement of citizens.
The government also adopted three draft laws, which include several new features, such as the adoption of a public vote in the election of regional councils, provinces, prefectures and regions, a wider mandate for decision-making and promotion of the participation of women, among other things. As a result only a court of law has the power to dismiss locally elected officials or nullify a decision made by local government. The president of a regional council is also considered to be the budget officer. Furthermore, the establishment of a Social Qualification Fund and Solidarity Fund will also help to reduce regional disparity in terms of finances.
Participation & Accountability
One of the recent changes was a reduction in the number of regions from 16 to 12. The establishment of new regional divisions was based on factors such as resources, population density and geographic conditions, as well as pre-existing economic links. Regions have been structured in order to take advantage of these factors to establish economic centres. But another element that has been taken into account is existent socioeconomic relationships between different areas. For areas with lower population densities and larger expanses of desert, the authorities have established larger administrative regions in order to better pool resources.
The law on the newly configured regions was adopted by the government in February 2015, and the new delimitation of territory involved a degree of political tensions, with some opposition parties contesting the inclusion of the Al Hoceima prefecture, in the north of the country, within the Tangier-Tetouan, as opposed to the Oriental region, like the rest of the Riff area. Another contentious issue was the grouping of the imperial cities of Fez and Méknes, which used to be part of different regions, within the same one. Some other administrative areas were enlarged, such as the greater Casablanca region, which will from now on also include new prefectures and provinces, such as Sidi Bennour, El Jadida or Berrechid. An enlarged capital region of Rabat-Salé will now also include the urban centres of Kenitra, Sidi Khacem, Sidi Slimane and Khemisset.
In terms of political participation, the new administrative design will also involve an improvement of popular participation in local affairs, with directly elected regional leaders serving alongside appointed walis. This will allow local populations to better manage their specific affairs and, in terms of governance, promote accountability. Government officials are hoping that locally elected governments will improve the relationship between the citizen and the state, as well as promote more transparency.
While a well-crafted devolution process should help to improve resource allocation throughout the country, have a real impact on citizens’ lives and address regional disparities, effective implementation still faces challenges. One of the biggest issues will be changing an administrative mindset that is currently based on centralised control. With a considerable amount of infrastructure planned for the coming years, devolution will allow for projects such as roads, airports and ports to originate from genuine local needs. There will also need to be a balance of power between the wali and regional council presidents, as they will be responsible for translating government authority into local regulations. As changes are implemented across the country, Moroccans will be taking stock of how devolution impacts management of public resources.