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King Mohammed VI
King Mohammed VI of Morocco

Mali’s fraught political environment continues to involve more international mediators, with Morocco the latest country to intercede between President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta and the Mouvement du 5 Juin–Rassemblement des Forces Patriotiques (M5–RFP). King Mohammed VI sent Moroccan foreign minister Nasser Bourita to Mali to mediate talks between Keïta and Imam Mahmoud Dicko, the de facto leader of the M5–RFP.

Arriving on July 11, a day after protests in Bamako escalated into deadly clashes with security forces, Bourita delegated Hassan Naciri, the Moroccan ambassador to Mali, to meet with Dicko at his home. Dicko listed his terms for resuming talks with the government, including the release of opposition leaders, and Naciri convinced him to make a public statement calling for calm and a cessation of protests while negotiations took place. Naciri then met with President Keïta to relay Dicko’s demands.


ECOWAS Proposals Rejected

This past weekend, a delegation of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) met with M5–RFP members to try to find a peaceful resolution to the crisis, but their proposals were dismissed.


Morocco, which maintained one of the strictest border lockdowns in response to COVID-19, will begin to reopen its borders in phases starting next week. Moroccan citizens and expatriates will be allowed to return in the first phase beginning July 14, but only after presenting results from both a PCR (polymerize chain reaction) test and an antibody test. Foreign citizens stuck in Morocco will now finally be able to return home as well.

The severe border closures imposed on March 15 left many Moroccans stuck in foreign countries, including 500 in Spain, some without resources to support themselves during this forced exile.


A Royal Air Maroc Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner lands at Morocco’s Ben Slimane Airport on February 2, 2020, reportedly carrying repatriated Moroccan citizens from Wuhan, China, after the city was locked down to contain the COVID-19 outbreak. (Fadel Senna/AFP)
A Royal Air Maroc Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner lands at Morocco’s Ben Slimane Airport on February 2, 2020, reportedly carrying repatriated Moroccan citizens from Wuhan, China, after the city was locked down to contain the COVID-19 outbreak. (Fadel Senna/AFP)


A resumption of travel may help Royal Air Maroc, Morocco’s state-owned national airline, alleviate some of the major losses it sustained after cancelling all routes due to the pandemic, though it is unlikely to return to its former fleet size as the pandemic persists.



Moroccan Police
The Moroccan authorities have stemmed the spread of COVID-19 by imposing a lockdown and requiring special authorization to travel.


The Kingdom of Morocco has turned towards the mass use of drones to help combat the spread of COVID-19, using them for public-service announcements, to disband illegal public gatherings, and to disperse sanitation sprays.

Drones have long been used in Morocco, but under strict regulations, allegedly for security purposes. DJI drones, manufactured in Shenzhen, China, have been the preferred model, but a domestic production of the devices has taken off to respond to the pandemic.

Using drones has the obvious benefit of helping the authorities to more easily monitor populations without putting people in direct physical contact, but this brings with it its own set of problems.


Big Brother is Watching

Morocco is not the only country in Africa or the world to employ drones as part of their COVID-19 policy; to the north, civil rights groups in France have expressed concerns over privacy rights as French police began using drones to enforce quarantine measures. The Electronic Freedom Foundation, a digital rights non-profit group based in San Francisco, California, issued a strongly worded column on the dangers that drones pose for people’s right to free speech, association, and assembly.

The longer governments rely on drones to deal with the current health crisis, the greater the potential that law enforcement would exploit them to infringe on protesters’ rights, especially when it comes to drones equipped with facial recognition and thermal imaging technology.


Tema to Tangier: Policy vs Practice
The Port of Tema handles 80 percent of Tema’s annual container volume.


In 1995, both Ghana and Morocco introduced programs to develop free zones (FZ), also called special economic zones (SEZ), as a part of their industrial strategies. Nearly twenty-five years later, Morocco’s industrial success has become a model for other emerging economies, whereas Ghana’s efforts have produced unremarkable results.

Ghana embraced the free-zone model to bolster its economic performance in the mid-nineties. The Ghana Free Zone Programme (FZP), introduced with the purpose of making Ghana a “Gateway to West Africa”, was designed to promote the processing and manufacturing of goods. Located along the coast of the Gulf of Guinea with two seaports, Ghana is strategically placed to serve the landlocked Sahel countries and serve up to 300 million people in the ECOWAS market.

Ghana’s FZP offers a range of incentives, including tax holidays (ten years) and tax exemptions (withholding, income, and direct and indirect import taxes and levies), as well as relief from double taxation. The nature of the program is unique because, unlike many others, it uses both an enclave and single-factory approach, which earned it “one of the best designed, most flexible, and most innovative” FZPs in Africa, according to the World Bank.

Among many development projects, the Tema Export Processing Zone (EPZ), the 500-hectare multipurpose industrial park east of Accra, is the country’s only well-functioning free zone enclave. Located in the heart of Ghana’s industrial city, Tema hosts various companies in cocoa processing, prefabricated housing materials, and plastic household products. The enclave’s proximity to the largest port terminal and quality road links makes it an ideal location. Yet, after decades in operation, the Tema EPZ, like Ghana’s FZPs, has yet to develop world-class status or demonstrate exponential growth in promoting economic growth.


Tanger Med
An aerial view of Tanger Med Port Logistics Free Zone, a cargo port on the Strait of Gibraltar, 40 km east of Tangier, Morocco. (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons)


The program has no doubt contributed to the Ghanaian economy, but it hasn’t lived up to its regional aspirations.


In 2017, up to US$172 million capital was invested in Ghana’s FZP. In the same year, Ghana’s FZP accounted for nearly 30,000 in employment, and yielded a total production value of US$1.3 billion, some 2.5 percent of GDP. Exports from the zones contributed some US$1.5 billion, an estimated 2.9 percent of the country’s GDP. The program has no doubt contributed to the Ghanaian economy, but it hasn’t lived up to its regional aspirations.

Morocco introduced legislation governing special economic zones (SEZ) in the same year Ghana launched its FZP. Morocco’s program made the zones exempt from customs regulations and foreign trade and exchange control restrictions, and provided a range of fiscal incentives in line with international best practices.

Morocco has a number of free zones across the country, but the Tanger Med Zones (TMZ), established in 2003, is often viewed as the jewel in its crown of SEZ success. Occupying 3,000 hectares, TMZ comprises a number of individual zones, including Tanger Med Port Logistics Free Zone, Tanger Free Zone, Tanger Automotive City, Renault Tanger Med, Tetouan Shore and Tetouan Park, and the Findeq Commercial Free Zone. The growth of the TMZ has been supported by the rapid development of the port to world-class standards as well as a complementary strategic infrastructure network that includes a large-scale container terminal, and high-quality roads and rail links to the rest of the country.


The success of Tanger Med Zones can be attributed to five pillars, one of which is clear political leadership.


Thus far, TMZ has attracted 750 companies, and created 65,000 direct jobs and an additional 30,000 indirect jobs through Renault Tanger Med alone. In 2016, the zone generated nearly US$6 billion, 25 percent of Morocco’s total exports. Since its inception, the zone has attracted US$3.8 billion worth of investments, totaling 8 percent of Morocco’s FDI inflows since 2003, with the majority of that investment through Renault’s establishment of its Melloussa factory in 2012. The ability of TMZ to secure a long-term contract with Renault has had a significant impact on the success of not only the zone but also the national economy and the country’s image as a global player in the automotive industry.



By 2018, TMZ was processing 3.5 million 20-foot equivalent units (TEU) of cargo capacity, whereas Tema was only processing 836,000. Both Ghana and Morocco introduced policies that conformed to international best practice on free zones in 1995, so why is Tema not Tangier?

In 2017, a comparative study of special economic zones by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation provided an interesting analysis as to why TMZ has been so successful. According to the study, its success can be attributed to five pillars: one, clear political leadership; two, infrastructure investment; three, one-stop shop and the reduction of red tape for investors; four, market access, through its geographical location and strategic free trade agreements with the European Union and the United States; and five, a trained labor force with priority for technical skills geared to the specific needs of the various industries. In addition to these pillars, TMZ was able to benefit from a favorable macroeconomic enabling environment

The success of TMZ serves to highlight Tema’s inability, so far, to meet the criteria articulated by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation in its assessment of the Moroccan port. Though both Tema EPZ and TMZ fall under the broad category of free zones, TMZ shows the modern trend of moving away from a single export processing zone toward a more multi-sectoral development approach.

In addition to differences in their policy thrust, Ghana faces a number of constraints to the successful implementation of its free zone program. The level of infrastructure to support the Tema EPZ is severely limited and part of the country’s larger infrastructure challenge. Ghana has experienced a prolonged energy crisis that has led to high energy tariffs and frequent power cuts, costing the nation an average of US$2.1 million in lost production daily. Even within the free zone, land rights and ownership remain an issue that has deterred investors and strained the development of industrial enclaves. Thus far, Ghana has been unable to create a competitive advantage, and many of the goods produced in Ghana face intense competition from less expensive imports. In addition to the more practical challenges of running a functional free zone program, there is little data on the specific EPZs’ operations, which makes it difficult to monitor and assess performance, and to present an updated source of information for potential investors.


“Investors are attracted by the integrity of government.” — Ngiam Tong Dow


As for the clear politics, Ghana’s FZPs have not always had the commitment of the highest level of political authority. As of late, things may be changing. The recent refocus on industrialization through the One District One Factory policy, which aims to generate some 350,000 jobs, for instance, presents a window of opportunity for Ghana to revamp its political will, and commitment, to ensuring the success of the FZPs as part of its industrialization efforts. Designating the Western region’s industrial park, The Westpark, to foreign investors for development and operation is likely an indication of more interest in this regard.

Similarly, the growing national consensus around the importance of technical and vocational education and training (TVET) may present opportunities for building a more trained and technically proficient labor force to serve the needs of FZPs.

Most importantly, as the renowned Singaporean top civil servant Ngiam Tong Dow noted, “Investors are attracted by the integrity of government.” Endemic corruption in Ghana at the state and private sector levels needs to be addressed. In addition, the cumbersome nature of state bureaucracies requires a major overhaul to allow for more efficient processes and procedures. Until addressed, the levels of investment needed to fill its enclaves and factories are unlikely to meet expectations.

Though initially lauded as an innovative policy, the Ghana experience shows that you need more than a sound plan to create large-scale change in the economic makeup of the economy. As seen in the Moroccan case, success is much more closely aligned with a coordinated effort to create a conducive environment that attracts and grows businesses, addressing the fundamentals of infrastructure, political leadership, and long-term strategy. With a solid implementation strategy, Ghana can narrow the gap between policy and practice, and clear the path from Tema to Tangier.


Marie-Noelle Nwokolo is a researcher at the Brenthurst Foundation. She writes in her capacity as an enthusiast and citizen of Ghana, a place she hopes to help create change for a better future.

Nchimunya Hamukoma is an Econonomist & Policy Strategist based in Johannesburg. She is passionate about African infrastructure investment and urban development and has worked in North, Southern and West Africa.



Ecowas family photo
A group photograph of heads of state at the fifty-sixth ordinary session of the Economic Community of West African States, held in Abuja, Nigeria, on December 21, 2019. (Kola Sulaimon/AFP)


Morocco has long been considered part of Northwest Africa, and is a member state—together with Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, and Tunisia—of the Arab Maghreb Union, formed in 1989 to promote economic and political integration in the Maghreb. But as the Arab Spring and Morocco’s strained relations with Algeria impeded this goal, Morocco began to look elsewhere.

After the 2008 recession, Morocco saw that its strategic and economic interests lay with the growth-driven subcontinent of West Africa. During the early 2010s, almost all the member countries of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) showed a growth rate of about 10 percent. This, along with a slowdown in Morocco’s exports to Europe, compelled the country to look south for new economic opportunities. To this end, King Mohammed VI led a proactive diplomacy to expand commercial and trade deals with ECOWAS members. Moroccan banking, mining, pharmaceutical, telecommunications, and insurance companies followed suit.


“Moroccan business and economic ties soon began to inform Moroccan strategic thinking about the region.”


At the same time, France was withdrawing from the subregion because of the negative impact of the global economic crisis on its own economy. Morocco stepped in to buy stakes in major companies in West Africa, especially in Senegal, Mali, and Côte d’Ivoire. Moroccan business and economic ties soon began to inform Moroccan strategic thinking about the region.

In short, this was the genesis of Morocco’s bid to join ECOWAS, a group of fifteen countries that in 1975 established a regional economic community—modelled on the European Union—in order to promote free trade, freedom of movement, and closer cooperation between francophone and anglophone countries in West Africa. Today, ECOWAS is one of the most robust regional institutions in Africa. 

The formal application to be upgraded from observer status to full membership of ECOWAS came only a month after Morocco rejoined the African Union (AU), after a 33-year absence, in January 2017. Morocco used the diplomatic momentum to push for deeper integration, not only on the continent but also in the subregion. Aside from boosting exports, it would give Morocco leverage in the Western Sahara conflict, which pits the Kingdom against the Polisario front and Algeria. 


Mixed Reactions to Morocco’s ECOWAS Membership Bid

Morocco’s traditional francophone allies welcomed the country’s application to join ECOWAS as a full member, given Morocco’s relatively strong and diversified economy, and its friendly relations with many of the member countries. Countries from the Anglophone bloc (also called the Monrovia bloc), however, showed resistance to the idea. The reasons were varied and complex, from local opposition by manufacturers in Nigeria, to diplomats in Ghana who opposed Morocco’s membership bid on the premise that it was antithetical to the ideological foundation of the organization. 


“Though the ECOWAS heads of state accepted Morocco’s bid ‘in principle’ at their summit in Monrovia, Liberia, in May 2017, the decision required final approval. Nigeria and others saw to it that this discussion never took place.”


Economic Considerations

Nigeria holds sway in the region. It has the largest economy in Africa, it contributes 40 percent of the bloc’s budget, and it is the largest contributor to the group’s peacekeeping and military operations. Though the ECOWAS heads of state accepted Morocco’s bid “in principle” at their summit in Monrovia, Liberia, in May 2017, the decision required final approval. Nigeria and others saw to it that this discussion never took place. Nigerian diplomats, the Manufacturers’ Association of Nigeria, and notable lawyers saw Morocco’s move as economically predatory. Industrialists in Nigeria reckoned that Moroccan goods, some of which are imported from Europe and the United States would flood the West African and Nigerian markets and compete unfairly against their local products, given Morocco’s free trade agreements with these two economic blocs. Some analysts even described Morocco’s bid as a European “Trojan horse” in West Africa. Some countries foresaw that Morocco’s membership would lead to a reduction in their revenue from customs tariffs, a significant portion of the income for some of the smaller economies in West Africa.


A Geopolitical Issue

Morocco’s bid was also considered a threat to Nigerian hegemony in West Africa. Morocco could join forces with the francophone countries (not incidentally known as the Casablanca bloc) to counter and challenge Nigeria’s prominence. As such, from a purely geopolitical perspective, Nigeria and other anglophone countries in the bloc saw Morocco’s move as an ostensible threat to their power within the bloc and specifically within the ECOWAS parliament. 


Democracy vs. Monarchy

ECOWAS was established in May 1975 with the signing of a treaty by the heads of state and government of the then sixteen member states in Lagos, Nigeria. With new developments and mandates, a revised treaty was signed in Cotonou, Benin, in July 1993 by fifteen member states, after Mauritania withdrew its membership.

Morocco being a monarchy -- does not fit in with the group of largely democratic or republican states, as described in the Cotonou Treaty. Some protocols of good governance that allow ECOWAS to intervene in the internal affairs of a member state in case of bad governance—as was the case when ECOWAS demanded the resignation of Gambian president Yahia Jammeh—would not be applicable to Morocco. Members argued that Morocco would have been privileged in legal terms thanks to its special monarchy status, and that they would have needed to redefine bad governance.


The Way Forward

As of 2020, Morocco’s membership bid has not been presented in the last few agendas of the ECOWAS summit. There is a sense that Morocco’s application has been stalled, if not shelved. The fact that there has been no outright refusal takes the pressure off Morocco, which can always say that it has an approval “in principle” and blame the rest on bureaucracy. This is also an opportunity for the kingdom to use the time of indecision to activate lobbying and dialogue with the different economic and political actors in the subregion, and to build on its existing religious ties and accumulated soft power. The membership decision will probably take a long time, long enough for Morocco to save face. As things stand, integration will only happen when there’s enough horizontal integration through culture, education, political rapprochement, and trade based on key products. This is Morocco’s best bet.

Imru Al Qays Talha Jebril is a political analyst, activist, and social entrepreneur. His areas of interest are public policy, education, and geopolitics. Twitter: @ImruuK

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