Morocco's poor left behind by development boom
By Ahmed Eljechtimi and Angus McDowall
AZROU, Morocco (Reuters) - Mohammed Akki left his home in Morocco's Middle Atlas mountains to seek regular work and a better life in the town of Azrou, but he still lives on the margins in a country enjoying an investment boom.
Every morning, Akki walks miles into Azrou, where he may or may not find work as a day labourer. His ramshackle house down a muddy lane has no electricity or running water and his school-age daughter has to study by candlelight.
He is part of a large class of impoverished Moroccans left behind by the rapid development that has transformed much of the northwestern coastline with multi-billion-dollar infrastructure projects.
"It is inconceivable. How can we live in a city but we still need candles? We hear slogans but there is no transparency. We never get any help," said Akki, standing in his dark kitchen, where a storm lamp lit a few pans hanging from nails on the wall.
Morocco's rampant inequality is stirring some unease in the country's political class, particularly after protests in the northern Rif mountain region in 2017-18 and the mass demonstrations in neighbouring Algeria this year.
Signs of public frustration include political chanting by football fans in Casablanca and a popular rap song that decried inequality and castigated Morocco's rulers.
"More than poverty, social disparities create frustrations that may trigger protests. These disparities are often viewed as a result of an illegitimate accumulation of wealth," said Ahmed Lahlimi, head of Morocco's official statistics agency.
The government said this month it had allocated 7.4 billion dirhams ($770 million) to combating social and regional disparities this year as part of a longer programme.
King Mohammed VI, who sets the policy direction in Morocco, though it is implemented by an elected government, is appointing a commission to oversee a new phase of development aimed at tackling such disparities.
Mohammed's two-decade reign has mostly focused on upgrading infrastructure needed for business, such as a high-speed rail link connecting Casablanca to Tangier, now transformed into Africa's busiest port.
Economic growth averaged 4.5% from 2000-2012, but only 3% since then, a relatively low figure for an emerging market. A quarter of Moroccans are either poor or at risk of poverty, a recent World Bank report said, and the kingdom ranks 123rd in the U.N.'s human development index.
However, investment has helped strengthen a business class that buys its furniture at the Casablanca IKEA and stops for sandwiches on the highway into Rabat at the nearest branch of the French patisserie chain Paul.
'I AM OPPRESSED'
In Azrou, located in the Middle Atlas mountains east of Rabat, Akki and his family spend their evenings in the dark. He and his neighbours have to collect drinking water by donkey from a well a mile away.
The land he bought a decade ago to build his house cost about the same amount as one of the sofas on offer in the Casablanca IKEA.
Their community, Ait Hammou Ouhmad, is entirely populated by people who have left the mountains to settle near Azrou. They have built their homes cheaply without official permits and are unable to gain access to government utility services.
Country folk fleeing the poverty and uncertainty of an agricultural sector utterly dependent on variable rainfall have swelled the poor districts of Moroccan cities.
For the urban poor, football stadiums have offered an outlet to vent anger. "In my country, I am oppressed," sang fans of the Casablanca team RCA last year.
Music is another outlet. A rap song, "Long live the people", a play on the phrase "Long live the king", has gained 15 million views on YouTube and includes the line: "Don't ask me about the wealth. You know who took it."
One of the singers was later detained and sentenced to a year in prison for insulting the police on social media, though his lawyer said he believed the song may have prompted his arrest.
Agriculture employs about 40% of Moroccan workers but a dry year can cut overall economic growth by more than a percentage point and leave many without work, statistics chief Lahlimi said.
The austere circumstances of Akki and his neighbours point to the even harsher conditions endured by those they left behind in the remote mountain regions, many working as shepherds, often tending flocks that belong to absentee owners.
In the high cedar forests of the Middle Atlas, where troupes of macaques lurk along the gloomy treeline, some former nomads still live in tents roofed with plastic sheeting on a barren plateau far from the nearest school or hospital.
Fadma Safsaf, whose tent and thorn animal enclosure lie in a wide meadow ringed with cedar forest, looks after two daughters and a son while her husband grazes the flock in the high pastures.
Most of the sheep and the tent they live in are owned by a landlord in France. Their annual payment is a quarter of the lambs born to the flock each year, Safsaf said.
"We lack water and electricity and suffer from snow and extreme cold. We lack clothes and shoes," she said.
"We often have access only to muddy water. I want to go to the city, but my husband does not have a job. What could we do there? My husband has no skills,” she said.
(Reporting By Ahmed El Jechtimi and Angus McDowall; Editing by Giles Elgood)