A Crowning Achievement for a Continent on the Rise

On February 21, Moroccan king Mohammed VI capped his third visit to Mali in the past year in a dramatic week-long tour, culminating in the signing of 17 bilateral cooperation agreements. It was the first stop in a multi-leg visit to Africa south of the Sahara that also included Guinea, Gabon, and Cote D'Ivoire. Beyond its immediate success, the visit garnered a warm response elsewhere on the continent too -- a clear indication that the King's message and approach to development in Africa resonates among the people who stand to be affected most. This new dynamic, in turn, carries significant implications for Morocco's Western allies.

The king capped his four-leg visit in Abidjan, the capital of Cote d'Ivoire, with a dramatic speech in which he laid out his vision for development in Africa. "If the last century was that of the independence of African states," he said, "the 21st century should mark the victory of the people against the ravages of underdevelopment, poverty, and exclusion. ... Africa should not remain hostage to its past or its current political, economic, and social problems."

"Sub-Saharan Africa" -- "Africa below the Sahara" -- both are unfortunate coinages in the view of Africa which they seem to advance. Though the area lies "south" of the Sahara, it should not be viewed as "sub-" anything. It is a region of 800 million people, home to some of the fastest-growing economies in the world today. Rich in history and culture, it is also home to a breathtaking tapestry of religious syncretism -- monotheistic and shaman; Christian and Muslim. Once there was indeed a Saharan desert divide separating what was then called an "Arab" north and a "black south." But modern transportation and new media technologies long ago transformed that border into a network of easily-breached roads and communications conduits. We see migrant workers from Africa in Moroccan cities like Casablanca, where I live, and refer to them as "Abna' al-Sabil" -- wayfarers. Many want to make their way through Morocco into Europe, hoping for a better life. But King Muhammad VI would like to see more of them return to their home countries in order to make life better for all Africans. Efforts to do so are challenged, alas, by the fact that some of what travels between the "north" and "south" is jihadist ideologies and deadline weapons. Accordingly, the king has been working to ensure that what flows from Morocco to its southern neighbors is the economic, political, and spiritual expertise necessary to counter those negative trends.

Americans will recall that in January 2012, war broke out in the north of Mali: An alliance of ethnic separatists and a pro-Al-Qaeda group jointly took hold of a piece of territory roughly the size of France. It was an unprecedented victory for Al-Qaeda, and a blow to Mali's distinguished tradition of tolerance. France took the lead in mustering an international force, with American support, to rout the secessionists. But Western powers knew all too well that in the long run, a holistic approach grounded in local solutions was necessary to prevent future jihadist putsches in Mali, the Central African Republic, and elsewhere in the Sahel and African south. It would involve training and equipping African forces; human and economic development; and a new, sustained effort to teach tolerance in areas where extremist interpretations of Islam had come to hold sway.

In order to fill this void, Moroccan King Mohammed VI came through with a multifaceted package of aid and support. Building on the monarchy's military capacity, he invited Malian troops to train with their Moroccan counterparts on Moroccan soil. Building on Morocco's humanitarian and business networks in Mali and neighboring countries, he established new partnerships ranging from pharmaceuticals to rural electrification to civil society development throughout the country. And building on Morocco's distinguished tradition of Islamic tolerance, he invited 500 Malian imams to train with their Moroccan counterparts to fight extremism back home through mosque sermons and education. When democratic elections brought a new Malian president to power -- Ibrahim Boubacar Keira -- the king met with him repeatedly, both in Mali and in the kingdom, to establish a close relationship both personal and professional. Speeches and actions by both in recent months indicate that this may be one of the closest working relationships between any two heads of state in Africa at the present time.

Many of the problems facing Mali are also present in northern as well as southern Africa. One indication of the success of the king's remedies for Mali is that Morocco has subsequently received requests from three other countries -- Tunisia, Guinea, and Libya -- for a similar program to train local Imams in the ways of Moroccan Islamic moderation and tolerance. Tunisia -- a post-revolution country of Salafi ascendance; Libya, a highly unstable state torn by civil strife and dominated by private militias -- some ideological and extremist, others merely criminal; and Guinea, a West African nation torn by a wave of political violence since February 2013.

Word gets around in Africa: In this video of the king's reception in Cote D'Ivoire, masses of people are seen cheering the Moroccan monarch in what may be described as the most enthusiastic reception for a foreign head of state in the country's history. In Guinea, where a Moroccan company had rebuilt a palace which had been destroyed in 1996, President Alpha Conde rededicated the building in the name of the monarch's grandfather, King Mohammed V. He told his Moroccan guest yesterday, "Your Majesty, you are not a guest so long as you stay in your grandfather's house."

The king's emotional, political, economic, and spiritual ties with a growing number of countries in the Sahel and Africa's southwest is an opportunity for Morocco's Western allies to grow their relations on the continent themselves. Through trilateral economic agreements, support for the exportation of "Moroccan Islam," tripartite military partnerships, and joint civil society development initiatives, Westerners can more effectively participate in Africa's development as well as advance their own interests -- thanks to an ancient monarchy whose ties to the continent go back centuries and promise to go forward indefinitely.

 Ahmed Charai Headshot

 Ahmed Charai

Moroccan media CEO and Mid-East policy advisor in Washington