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DEVELOPMENT-MOROCCO: From Shantytowns to ‘Cement-Ghettos’

Abderrahim El Ouali

CASABLANCA, Apr 27 2005 (IPS) - Tragedies have served as reminders of the problems associated with Morocco’s slums, but planning remains inadequate, say experts. Moving impoverished families en masse from shanties to new but poorly constructed buildings won’t resolve the tensions.

Some six months after the May 16, 2003 suicide bombings in the financial district of Casablanca, in which terrorists believed to have ties to Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda network killed more than 40 people and injured a hundred more, Moroccan Prime Minister Driss Jettou said the government aimed to build 100,000 homes each year for low-income families.

At the same time, Toufiq Hjira, minister-delegate of Housing and Urbanism, said the state would give financing priority to cities with feasible plans for eradicating shantytowns, widely seen as hotbeds for unrest – and in the case of Casablanca, the launchpads for the suicide bombers.

The May 16 attacks likely served as a reminder to the Moroccan government that around 1.5 million people were living in slums. But that did not necessarily lead to planning. Moving families from precarious shacks into apartment buildings has not led to social integration, nor has it fomented a social development process.

Azdine Nekmouche, former president of the Architects Order in Casablanca, and member of the scientific committee of the International Union of Architects, says, ”There is a real problem” with the slum eradication programmes. ”Residents are moved from shantytowns to cement- towns.”

The buildings constructed for the former slum inhabitants are ”vertical ghettos”, says Nekmouche, because they do not incorporate the concept of ”urban mixture”. When citizens of a similar socioeconomic level are packed in to a small area, ”we are creating ghettos because there is no one with a higher level who can lead and serve as an example. There is nobody who would motivate the others,” explains the expert.

One would never guess that behind the modern buildings standing along Casablanca’s Boulevard Idriss el Harti is hidden a low-income apartment complex built just 22 years ago.

The Moulay Rachid district was built for the former residents of Ben M’sik shantytown. The families were moved during the winter of 1984. Their new “homes” were not yet finished: a nine-square-metre room, with a sink serving as the ”kitchen”, and exposed walls and floors. It was up to the new tenants to complete the construction.

Mohamed K. was 15 years old when his family was moved. Twenty-one years later, he recalls that he had to walk more than 10 km every day to reach his school.

“There was not even a bus stop in Moulay Rachid area at that time,” he said, and remembers that each block of the area was surrounded by chain-link fencing.

“I felt that we were far from being treated like human beings. When they removed the fencing one of my friends commented, ‘now they are convinced that we have been domesticated’,” Mohamed said.

Three years before the move from Ben M’sik, on June 20, 1981, dozens of soldiers and police invaded the shantytown to put down angry demonstrators who were demanding one thing: bread. That popular revolt was a protest against the price hike on basic products, but it degenerated into acts of sabotage and bloody clashes in Casablanca’s poorest districts.

The army and police forces used real bullets were and thousands of atrocities were reported. Victims were buried in mass graves. In the aftermath, the Moroccan government had to deal with “tension zones”, among them the Ben M’sik slum.

Like the May 2003 bombings, the popular revolt should have been a reminder to the Moroccan government that the shantytowns were a pending problem.

Casablanca, the largest city and economic capital of the kingdom of Morocco, is home to 50 percent of the nation’s slums. After clearing most of the Ben M’sik slum, authorities found that the new Moulay Rachid district was near another huge slum, Almassira.

The Almassira shantytown was created in 1976 when the authorities had to relocate hundreds from the Ben M’sik slum to build the Casablanca-Rabat toll motorway. As there had been no history of social tensions, inhabitants were simply moved to another shantytown instead of apartment structures.

On May 16, 2003, the suicide bombers emerged from the Almassira area to attack the Casablanca financial district.

Extremist movements, like those associated with Al-Qaeda, find a fertile environment in both Moulay Rachid and Almassira, say experts, because of the frustrations arising from high demographic density, unemployment, illiteracy, and cost of living.

“Moulay Rachid and Almassira are the main suppliers of criminals to the Moroccan courts,” Mohamed Chemsy, a member of the Casablanca Bar, told IPS. “Because of their despair at ever improving their living conditions, adolescents turn to crime,” he explained. And the desperate easily become the targets for recruitment by extremist movements.

Despite the Moroccan government’s effort over a decade ago to give Moulay Rachid the status of a ”municipality”, it has not improved the district’s social and cultural infrastructure. Instead, it seems the municipality’s leaders are abusing their authority.

Stadiums are completely abandoned and provide convenient refuge to criminals. The tennis club “La Raquette D’or” has been illegally changed into a sort of town hall, which residents say a parliament member, a relative of the municipality president, is exploiting.

“Development in the municipality of Moulay Rachid is only a fantasy,” commented attorney Chemsy.

The Moulay Rachid Municipality has an extensive industrial park, but “it is more like a graveyard where working women and girls bury their youth,” says Chemsy. “They enter young and motivated, and they come out with hunched backs.”

Most of firms in the industrial park are facing bankruptcy, and may have to close shop, he said, due to “illegal competition of smuggled goods invading the Moroccan market from Spain, Algeria and China, higher taxes and the lack of (government) support.”

Residents of Moulay Rachid and Almassira do not have enough development opportunities. Private initiative must be encouraged, he said, but that brings its own complications.

Paradoxically, “attempting a private initiative in Moulay Rachid Municipality is like exploring a cavern of an unknown depth. The first obstacle you run into is the complicated administrative procedures,” Chemsy said in an IPS interview.

”A simple authorisation to open a new shop requires a long bureaucratic journey. You only know the date of beginning. Only God knows the end date.”

Corruption is rampant in Moulay Rachid, yet another hindrance to private initiative. Chemsy says that future investors soon fall to ”the whims of venal civil servants and local authority officials and agents.”

Moroccan government policy on slum eradication has been mostly sporadic and reactive, responding to events like the 1981 popular revolt and the May 2003 suicide bombings.

Nevertheless, some Moroccan cities will be declared ”slum free” in 2007, and others are to achieve that status in 2010. However, observers seem to agree that a programme aiming for “ghetto-free” cities would be more profitable.

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