The six-point-eight earthquake that hit the High Atlas mountain range of the Moroccan Kingdom last Friday claimed 2,901 lives and injured 5,530. The number of casualties is likely to rise, and we may never know how many more will die. Also, quite tragically, we may never know how many might have survived had the Moroccan government not played the parochial politics of rejecting help from friends and foes alike except Spain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and the United Kingdom. Even the quartet had to wait for two days before receiving the green light to deploy.
When an earthquake occurs, it is an emergency, and every second counts as it is a race against time. In fact, after the first 24 hours, the chances of finding survivors begin to dim as victims may be trapped with life-threatening injuries and may die unless they are not only quickly rescued but also given emergency treatment. There is what is called the 72-hour “golden period” for saving lives, after which hope of finding survivors is lost.
So, quick and immediate rescue is crucial, as some victims may be trapped in places with little oxygen, others may be weighed down by debris, or they may even be faced with amputation. This is more so in the Moroccan case, in which collapsing buildings have been mainly responsible for many of the casualties. Also, all some may need to survive is water. There is also the matter of aftershocks. So, any assistance available must be grabbed, as life has no duplicate. In many cases, an earthquake victim is like a drowning person, who, as a British proverb says, will clutch at a straw.
Therefore, the decision of Moroccan King Mohammed VI to reject almost all aid after the quake struck, based on claims of the need to maintain the country’s sovereignty and ensure “co-ordination”, is playing parochial politics and constitutes a crime against the quake victims.
What can the dying Moroccan trapped under rubble care about his country’s sovereignty? All he needs is to be rescued, irrespective of the colour, religion, or political persuasion of his rescuer. It would not even matter to him if his rescuer was a dog.
Algeria is Morocco’s neighbour, and both countries are virtually the same: Ninety nine per cent of Algerians are Arabs and Berbers, while 98 per cent of Moroccans are Arabs and Berbers. In fact, Ahmed Ben Bella, the revolutionary who was Algeria’s founding president, was the child of Moroccan migrants. However, both countries differ on the status of the Saharawi of Western Sahara, another country with mainly Berber stock.
While Morocco occupies most of Western Sahara, claiming it as part of its kingdom, Algeria insists that the Saharawi, who are the brothers and sisters of both countries, should be allowed the freedom to run their country.
Despite such differences, immediately after the earthquake occurred, Algeria offered to come across the border to aid the victims and save lives. The Moroccan government, through its Justice Minister Abdellatif Ouahabi, like any reasonable government would, accepted the offer, but with the caveat that the aid be delivered in coordination with the Moroccan Foreign Ministry. Based on this, Algeria opened its airspace for humanitarian flights and mobilised 80 emergency personnel and three military aircraft carrying humanitarian aid. After waiting for two days, a counter-order came, rejecting the Algerian offer. The rejection was in line with King Mohammed VI’s view stated in a speech in 2022: “The Sahara issue is the lens through which Morocco looks at the world.”
France, which had colonised Morocco but had subsequently become a close ally, offered immediate assistance. But France had recently angered the Moroccan monarchy when, unlike the United States and Israel, it declined to recognise Western Sahara as part of Morocco. The latter’s reaction to France’s aid offer was a total rejection.
French President Emmanuel Macron, disappointed by the Moroccan rejection, lamented: “ … We are here and we are able to provide direct humanitarian aid… We will be there in the long term on a humanitarian and medical level for reconstruction, cultural and heritage aid, and in all areas where the Moroccan people and the government consider that we will be useful.” It released five million euros in aid to Moroccan NGOs for relief work.
Rescuers Without Borders, a non-state French organisation, was also unable to enter Morocco. Its founder, Arnaud Fraisse, told the media: “Unfortunately, we still don’t have the go-ahead from the Moroccan government… All of our team members who train regularly year-round for this type of thing are miserable that they couldn’t leave and put their skills to use.”
Morocco also snubbed Germany, which had assembled a 50-person team from its Technical Relief Agency that had gathered at Cologne airport for a flight to Morocco.
Germany has, like France, fallen foul of Morocco’s insistence that its colonisation of Western Sahara must be accepted. To this snub, the Chair of the German Parliament Group on the Maghreb responded: “It is incomprehensible that Rabat has so far forgone German help… The current situation should not be about misunderstood national pride.” Vladimir Vlcek, the Director General of a Czech rescue service that assembled a 70-person team, said the reason they were denied permission “could be political, religious, or any other reason”.
A puzzle is why Morocco snubbed the United States, which has not only supported its skewed foreign policy but whose immediate past President Donald Trump had also ‘donated’ Western Sahara to it.
There may be brewing problems between them that are not apparent, but what is clear is the Moroccan monarch’s macabre foreign policy dance. For instance, after its deviant attitude led to the collapse of the Arab Maghreb Union, AMU, rather than mend fences and try to revive it, Morocco, which is in North Africa, applied to join the Economic Community of West African States, ECOWAS.
When the Organisation of African States rejected its attempts to recolonize Western Sahara after the Spanish colonisers left, Morocco stormed out of the continental body, returning on January 31, 2017, after 33 years in the cold.
So, rather than accept badly needed international aid, Morocco prefers its citizens to use pick axes and their bare hands to dig concrete rubble. The aid intended for Morocco could well go to Libya, where on September 10, 2023, Storm Daniel hit, resulting in 5,300 deaths, about 10,000 missing and neighborhoods washed away by floodwaters. However, the tragedy is that there are warring rival governments in that country, and for them, aid for the flood victims is part of the eclectic wars being waged by war lords controlled by various countries.
Owei Lakemfa, a former secretary general of African workers, is a human rights activist, journalist and author.
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