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The Mauritania/China fisheries deal: My Moroccan viewpoint

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Re-socialization the Arab Spring

The Arab Spring did not start with political claims. The Sidi Bouzid events were sparked by socio-economic factors, and it was only when Ben Ali killed many protestors[1] that the social uprising took on a regime-change objective. With hindsight, however, all the other events of the Arab Spring appear to have started with political objectives: ousting regimes or wanting radical reforms. Very few focused on socio-economic arguments, the majority put political reform as a first priority.

In early June 2011, the Mauritanian parliament voted to grant a 25-year offshore fishing license to a Chinese firm. This vote fueled the pro-democracy movement in Mauritania with new arguments, encouraging those people to protest who were not necessarily receptive to political arguments but who would make a move when it came to natural resource and the economic issue of fisheries.

Up to now, the effect of this agreement on the uprising has not been significant, but unlike other neighboring countries where protests are focused more on themes like “the constitution” (Morocco) “electoral rules” (Algeria) “changing the regime”(Libya) or “presidential succession” (Senegal), the Mauritanian pro-democracy movement is now organizing a campaign against the fisheries deal. The campaign’s website includes information on protests, the Chinese fishing deal, the Mauritanian fishing industry and other related issues Here is a Facebook page for the campaign. Blogger The Moor Next Door predicts “more ruckus over Sino-Mauritanian relations in the near future:

”Expect more ruckus over Sino-Mauritanian relations in the near future: the drama caused by the fisheries deal caused the Chinese embassy to comment on the controversy and take unusual efforts to manage its image in Mauritania. Even opposition figures who used to be seen as sympathetic to China -Mohamed Mustafa Ould Badreddine, for example, though such perceptions are a leftover from the 1970s, before China’s current economic strategy in Africa- have shown up at protests against the deal and been vocal in their opposition to its lengthy term. The whole tone of conversations about relations with China has changed among many young people as a result of the deal. The opposition and youth movement may try to capitalize on the uproar to gain concessions from the ruling party or the president.”

With its very modest agriculture and its desert landscape, Mauritania has some of West Africa’s richest fishing waters. Fishing accounts for about 10 percent of its gross domestic product and for up to 50 percent of its export earnings. This explains the explosive potential of this theme in Mauritania.

In the second half of the XXth century, Françafrique was a recurrent term in the literature of the opposition in former French colonies. It referred to the predominant role played by France in the African economy, often through collusion with dictators. The case of  Mauritania can now be listed among aspects of what some are calling Chinafrique[2]. So much so in fact that some Mauritanians are accusing the deputies who voted for the agreement of receiving bribes from the Chinese company.

As a Moroccan, I cannot comment on this without thinking about the Morocco-EU fisheries deals, not only the one renewed last week after the decision made in February, but also the ones that went before. Apart from fisheries, there are other major economic deals between the Moroccan government and private companies that need to be considered. If these are properly explained to the public by the February 20th Movement in Morocco, they can help in gaining the sympathy of the street. However, the pro-democracy movement is losing this sympathy after the referendum organized on July the 1st on the constitution. Actually, instead of being voiced by the pro-democracy movement, such arguments are used only by the separatist movement in southern Morocco.

Previous Morocco-EU fisheries deals:

From October 1995 to November 1999: Morocco allowed the presence of 600 mainly Spanish fishing boats in its territorial waters. In return, the European Union paid Morocco 125 million Euros yearly. At that time, fisheries represented 15% of Moroccan exports.

1999-2005: No renewing of agreements – in order to permit fish stocks to recover, Morocco did not renew the agreements with Spain and the EU. Nevertheless, some European companies did succeed in negotiating contracts with Morocco to fish off the southern Atlantic coast. The Belgium platform Alimentary Sovereignty reports the case of a Norwegian company FINSAM that started an ice factory in El Aiun with a capacity of 200 tons per day.

Studies show that Moroccan fish resources have drastically decreased since the start of the agreements. Local fishermen put the blame on agreements with the EU. Many cases of failure to respect laws with regard to requirements for nets were reported.

Spanish and Portuguese pressure and 2007-2011 deals: both countries paid large compensation to fishing companies after interruption of the agreements with Morocco. These two countries were the ones pushing most forcibly for the renewal of agreements with Morocco in 2005. Eventually, in March 2007, a four-year agreement was signed. Separatists in Morocco criticized it for not mentioning a particular status for the Western Sahara coast.

Last renewal of the agreement July 2011: On Wednesday, July 13th, the old 2007 agreement was renewed for one year. The terms were all kept the same, but an addendum on the Sahara coast was added. The EU asked Morocco for guarantees for the benefits of the profits for local populations in Western Sahara.

Unlike the separatist movement that pursues the fisheries agreement with tough campaigns, the pro-democracy movement in Morocco does not consider specific topics such as fisheries agreements to be of much importance. The pro-democracy movement would do well to raise questions such as:

–       Who decides on these agreements from the Moroccan side?

–       What accountability do decision-makers have, now that Morocco is claiming to start a new era of governance with a new constitution?

–       Do the fisheries agreements still benefit Morocco, while they have already resulted in depleting  Morocco’s fish stocks  over the past decade?

–       Is there any corruption behind such key decisions? For instance, some deputies in Mauritania were accused of taking backhanders from the Chinese firm

If it fails to link the actual uprising to burning socio-economic topics, the pro-democracy movement in Morocco will become of relevance only to a small elite as time goes on. Other issues will rise to the surface and grab public attention: real estate, tourism, transports, tax policy and so on. The pro-democracy movement is making the mistake of taking to the streets regularly while making no attempt to engage with the concerns of the average man or woman. It could indeed be a much more significant grass roots movement than what it is now.

I do believe that it is only if pro-democracy movements engage with social and economic causes that they can succeed. Otherwise the focus on institutional issues as the only headline when they take to the streets may well cause them to lose the sympathy they have gained since February 20th.

Beyond the short-term links these stories might have with the ongoing Arab Spring events, one should also think about the general context of the resource curse that brings such conflicts to the surface. As pointed out in the lead article the sad truth is that corruption flourishes alongside the income generated by the resource industry. This fact strengthens a general feeling of injustice about the distribution of resources to benefit the population and fuels latent anger.

Unless government attitudes towards fishing resources in both Mauritania and Morocco change, and unless the way fisheries deals are negotiated do not involve more actors including NGOs, scientists and elected representatives of local fishermen, they will always remains a source of popular anger. A more dramatic scenario is that the curse reaches such a point that the anger turns to tragedy.

Finally, I do believe that it is only if the pro-democracy movements succeed in establishing regimes with more accountable policy-makers that the threat of the resource curse can be avoided.

[1] The massacre of Kasserine, January 9th 2011; Tunisian Revolution.

[2] Serge Michel (Correspondent for Le Monde [Fr]) and Miche Beuret (L’Hebdo [Ch]) wrote a book on Chinafrique


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Mehdi Lbadikho Twitter: @L_badikho

Lbadikho, Engineer, Blogger at and co-founder of the Moroccan portal Also blogging about sustainable development issues in Morocco at