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Zimbabwe: The State Of Crisis

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Zimbabwe put Emmerson Mnangagwa in power hoping he would revive its battered economy. This expectation is on a downward spiral as harassed citizens take to the streets.

A mere 14 months ago, people sang and danced on the streets in jubilation. After 37 years at the helm, Robert Mugabe had finally resigned. The masses sang struggle songs saying “true independence” had finally arrived. They hoped his successor, Emmerson Mnangagwa, would bring back Zimbabwe’s dim and distant economic boom.

The optimism was misplaced. The country’s economic condition has been gradually worsening since.

On January 12, horror set in.

President Mnangagwa announced an overnight fuel hike of 150%. It now costs $3.31 (local bond note) to buy a liter of fuel. Of that, 78% goes to taxes, making fuel in Zimbabwe one of the most expensive in the world. If you drive a 40-liter petrol tank car, you will now spend $265 (local bond note) on just two tanks of petrol, per month, when an average Zimbabwean earns a mere $300 (local bond notes).

“That the fuel increase will only trigger a wave of price hikes on each and every other item on the shelves is as obvious as the incapacity of Zanu-PF to govern and lead a prosperous Zimbabwe,” says Jacob Mafume, National Spokesperson of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

The shocking fuel hike comes when most of Zimbabwe’s fuel stations have been dry for weeks.

“I have to spend one day a week in a fuel queue and I lose valuable time. I spend six to 11 hours in a queue at a time. I am even forced to do some of my work while in the queue, otherwise I won’t be able to go to work or take my kids to school. What’s worse is that this fuel is not unleaded, it is actually blended with ethanol which means it doesn’t last,” says Zimbabwean resident Grace Zulu.

The fuel hike pushed citizens to the edge and drove the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), the umbrella body for all Zimbabwean workers, to call for people to stay home for three days, in protest.

“The government has officially declared its ‘anti-workers, anti-poor and anti-people’ ideological position by increasing fuel prices. Workers’ salaries have now been reduced to nothing and our suffering elevated to another level. We must and will mobilize and fight for our survival,” said the ZCTU in a statement.

Instead of dealing with the mounting anger of Zimbabweans, after the hike announcement, Mnangagwa jetted off on a five-nation tour that started in Russia and was expected to end at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. At the time of going press, Mnangagwa had eventually cancelled the trip but these were the reactions of citizens prior the announcement.

“He doesn’t even care about us or what is happening in the country. He has money and his family is set for life while we all struggle to make ends meet.

“He should be here right now dealing with this and coming up with solutions that will work, instead of trying to convince countries we don’t know to put money [back] in the country. Even I know that in this state, Zimbabwe in un-investable,” she laments.

Angry citizens, like Zulu, took to the streets around the country in protest. Among them is Nomathemba Ngwenya, a 30-year-old unemployed Masters in Philosophy graduate.

“I can’t believe this is happening. I knew that Mnangagwa wasn’t going to be great but I didn’t expect things to be this bad. We are struggling and since he came into power, the situation has been worse. I am protesting today because I am tired of this and the government has to hear us,” Ngwenya says.

In Bulawayo, in southwest Zimbabwe, schools, taxi-ranks and work places were empty. Protesters had blocked roads, burned tyres and marched around the city center singing “Into’ yenzayo siyayizonda” meaning, “we despise what you are doing”.

Government responded by deploying police and soldiers armed with tear gas and guns. It caused panic, violence, looting and the protest expanded to residential areas.

“The situation is bad here. Some people took advantage of the situation and looted shops. When police came, they burned the police car and everything got worse. I could feel the tear gas in my throat and eyes from my home. Many people were wounded during this whole thing. The government just needs to act in a way that benefits its citizens,” says Bulawayo resident Mbongeni Mabhena.

With no positive response from the government, the marches spread to other cities.

In Epworth, an impoverished township in the southeast of capital Harare, residents woke up to blocked roads and marches which also escalated to violence.

“A stay-away had been suggested instead of a protest because the state loves to infiltrate demonstrations and cause violence as a pretext. It is possible that it was caused by protesters themselves but there are signs that the state was involved, for example, when there is someone carrying an AK-47, which is unheard of in Zimbabwe because of strict gun control,” says Doug Coltart, a Zimbabwean political activist and lawyer.

Loud cracks echoed around Bulawayo, Harare and even relatively smaller cities like Mutare in eastern Zimbabwe. People were injured,  they had gunshot wounds and lives were lost. It marked a fast developing week of shocking news in the poor southern African country. 

“I can’t believe this is happening. The president should be here sorting this out. He even left the vice president, who was a general in the army and was instrumental in the overthrow of Mugabe, in charge. Of course, he is going to send the army. That’s the kind of language he understands,” says Ngwenya who spends hours reading about Zimbabwe’s current and historical politics.

“Soldiers are in the townships beating up people who are protesting and even getting into people’s private homes. At this time, my understanding is that over 200 people have been arrested and at least five have lost their lives.”

As the protest grew, the #ShutDownZimbabwe trended on social media. History had begun to repeat itself.

Just like in the Mugabe regime where speaking up against the government was met with censorship, Mnangagwa’s government allegedly sent an order to mobile networks to shut down the internet in an effort to silence people.

There was confirmation of this order from Zimbabwe’s largest telecommunications company, Econet Wireless.

Founder, Strive Masiyiwa, said on social media the company was issued a warrant, to disconnect internet services, by the Minister of State in the Office of the President.

“We are obliged to act when directed to do so and the matter is beyond our control,” Econet said in a text message to customers, adding that all networks and providers had suspended their services.

“Failure to comply would result in three years’ imprisonment for members of local management in terms of section 6:2 (b),” Masiyiwa said.

“I have had no network for most of the day and I’m not sure how long it will last. Mnangagwa encouraged us to speak out when he was orchestrating a coup but now that he is the one in hot water it becomes a problem,” Zulu says.

After two days of chaos, Mnangagwa finally broke his silence.

“As I have said numerous times, everyone in Zimbabwe has the right to express themselves freely – to speak out, to criticize and to protest. Unfortunately, what we have witnessed is violence and vandalism instead of peaceful, legal protests.

“There can be no justification for violence, against people and property. Violence will not reform our economy. Violence will not rebuild our nation,” he said in a statement from Russia.

He said he traveled abroad to get investors vital for the economy. He claimed the response has been positive.

“Alrosa, the world’s largest diamond company, has decided to launch operations in Zimbabwe, and we have also signed a series of important agreements that will lead to investment, development and jobs.”

Although the fuel increase was the straw that broke the camel’s back, for months leading to the protests, Zimbabwe has been facing its worst economic crisis in 10 years.

  The economy has been in meltdown since the July 30 peaceful election which turned violent. The army and police clashed with demonstrators who again took to the streets amid allegations that the ruling Zanu-PF party had rigged the vote. Six people died and hundreds were injured causing uncertainty and doubt to the investor community.

“The signs have been there from the beginning. This crisis is caused by the Mnangagwa administration in the months leading up to the elections. There was never a sign of real improvement, it’s been a disaster from day one,”  Coltart says.

Many were sceptical but hopeful when Mnangagwa took over.

Mnangagwa had previously served as Mugabe’s right-hand man. Earlier in his life, he played a role in the fight for independence. He was part of a gang called ‘The Crocodile Gang’ and was known for his ruthlessness which later earned him the nickname, Crocodile.

There have been diverse accounts of Mnangawa’s reputation. A book by Ray Ndlovu, published in 2018 called In The Jaws of the Crocodile recounts these incidents.

Mnangagwa has been accused of bringing his ruthlessness to independent Zimbabwe. He is also accused of overseeing some of the state-sponsored crimes during Mugabe’s reign. When he was fired by Mugabe, he orchestrated a coup d’état with the help of the military led by now vice president, Constantino Chiwenga.

  “Zimbabweans were just pawns in a fight between Mugabe and Mnangagwa. I don’t believe he ever had an intention to fix the problems we have in this country. If I see a queue, I just get in it before I even ask what it is for because there is a shortage of even cooking oil,”  Zulu says.

The Currency Crisis

One of the problems the president inherited from Mugabe is a currency crisis.

Zimbabwe abandoned its currency in 2009 and adopted foreign currencies like the South African rand and the United States (US) dollar. Amid foreign currency shortages, in 2016, it introduced the bond note which the government claims is equivalent to the US dollar.

“There was a lot of hope for a lot of Zimbabweans not because they thought the new administration would do much better but they were just so desperate for change. You would think that any administration that came after that would have its ear to the ground in trying to fix the issue for the ordinary citizen but there is no evidence of that,”  says citizen Kukhanya Ndlovu.

Hyperinflation worsened.

The bond note is being sold on the black market for $3 and inflation is at nearly 21%. Problems are compounded by the high unemployment in the country, but even those who have jobs are not paid enough. Zulu, for instance, is a secretary who earns about 450 bonds per month.

“When you are on the ground, you understand how Zimbabweans are suffering and have been suffering for a long time. For some reason, the government doesn’t get it. At some point, something gives and something has to break,” says Dr Nkosana Moyo, a politician, economist and former Zimbabwe Minister of Industry and International Trade.

It gets worse.

Companies continue to shut their doors or demand hard currency. Bulawayo, once the country’s industrial hub, has closed a significant number of its factories. The spaces are now used as places of worship.

One of the latest companies to put a seal on its doors is National Foods, one of the largest manufacturers and marketers of food products. There is also Olivine Industries, which manufactures soap and cooking oil. It has suspended its production and put workers on indefinite leave because it owes foreign suppliers $11 million.

“The company has struggled to restart its manufacturing operations in January 2019 for lack of imported raw materials. As such it remains closed,” says Olivine Industries in a statement.

There is more.

As of January 4, Zimbabwe’s largest brewing company, Delta Corporation, started selling only in hard currency to keep its doors open.

“Our business has been adversely affected by the prevailing shortages in hard currency, resulting in the company failing to meet your orders,” it says also in a statement.

It is clear that for money to work, people have to believe in it. No one believes in the bond note or its 1:1 valuation. The government itself doesn’t seem to believe it.

“When the president announced the new fuel prices, he implied an exchange rate of 1:3 between the dollar and the bond note. It signals that there is no honesty in how the government is communicating with the population. This crisis is more painful and almost unforgivable because it indicates no lessons were learned from 2008,” Moyo says.

In 2008, Zimbabwe suffered a staggering inflation rate of 80,000,000,000%, printing notes up to 100 trillion. When the Zimbabwean dollar tanked, life savings vanished from the banks; shops were empty and ATMs dry. In 2019, the panic and kneejerk reaction has seen people holding on to their US dollars and moving them out of the country.

“People have forex but it’s not with the government structures because people don’t trust banks because of what happened in 2008 where there was a shortage of everything and hyperinflation was terrible. Part of the crisis is exaggerated, people have the forex,” says former Deputy Information Minister in Robert Mugabe’s cabinet, Bright Matonga. 

The government is encouraging people to bank their foreign currency. It says it has now started foreign currency bank accounts which it claims are safe.

“The legislation protects your account. Back then, they used to be able to raid your account but now they can’t. You can bank your US dollars and can go to the bank and withdraw all of it,” Matonga says.

According to Finance Minister Mthuli Ncube, the country also plans to bring back the Zimbabwean dollar in the next 12 months. Many Zimbabweans think it won’t work.

“Currency is a symptom, not the cause. It doesn’t matter what currency we adopt, we are going to end up right at the same point as long as we don’t have a government that understands what needs to be done. Our problem is the irresponsible behavior of government. How do you run a country which has a budget of more than 90% which is in recurrence expenditure? How do you run a country with a government that doesn’t understand that taxes should be a small fraction?” Moyo asks.

The protests came just days before the World Economic Forum gathering in Davos. Mnangagwa was set to appear under the banner of his “Zimbabwe is Open for Business” mantra. This year, he also visited Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Belarus and Russia in a bid to attract investments. Prior the cancellation of the trip there was public pressure, as citizens felt aggrieved about his decision to attend.

“Instead of accepting its gross failure to turn the economy around, the cartel now basks in the pretence of ‘mega deals’in curious corners of the forgotten world such as Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and other places you may have never heard of,” Mafume says.

Moyo believes nobody is going to invest money in Zimbabwe until Zimbabwe shows a behavior that is conducive for investment and that it can manage its own finances.

“These mega deals are not coming. What people are talking about are indications. People are interested in Zimbabwe but investors will look for certain signals, without which they will not put money in the country,” Moyo says.

“What product is he taking to Davos? Does he really think investors around the world are stupid enough not to see that they shouldn’t put their money into the country? Last year, he shouldn’t have even gone to Davos. I don’t know why he is even going to all these countries. It’s totally nonsensical.”

Gaining people’s trust is one of the few things Matonga and Moyo agree on.

“The leadership should come from the top so people see the seriousness of the mantra that Zimbabwe is open for business. We need to get trust with our own people here at home and then get trust from Zimbabweans in the diaspora, because they bring in a lot of foreign currency, then we can go out,”  Matonga says. 

In fact, Moyo believes, with this government, there is no sector that is safe to invest in.

“At a country level, there is stupidity. If all you see is irrationality and kleptocracy, how can anything survive under it?”

Moyo argues that Mnangagwa should first build an environment that is conducive for investment  before wasting money on travel to sell a product that won’t be bought.

“In terms of investment, if I was the president, I would have approached two categories of investors. One would be someone who is already invested in Zimbabwe and then regional investors who are primarily South African. These are people who understand the environment and would help the economy to begin to take off.”

On the other hand, Matonga blames the economic sanctions, and not the government, for Zimbabwe’s downfall.

“Whoever wants to bring money into Zimbabwe has to get clearance from the United States government. As long as the sanctions remain, it’s going to be difficult to effectively deal with business challenges. The root of all our troubles is the sanctions,” Matonga says.

Coltart, who lived in SA and the US for eight years before returning  to Zimbabwe to be an activist and human rights lawyer, sees the errors in policy as the biggest culprits for lack of investor confidence.

“As Zimbabweans, we want stability and investment but what is clear is that the government doesn’t know how to do that. Their policies are wrong, they waste government funds and the wrong cabinet is in charge,” Coltart says.

Matonga, who now has a company that assists people looking to invest in Zimbabwe, maintains that Zimbabwe is open for business.

“We are currently going through a process of trying to put our house in order. It is a very difficult process but the new minister is trying to put in systems to make sure business is done properly. This process is painful but it will take time for us to see results,” Matonga says.

Coltart encourages the government to fix policy issues, hire people dedicated to reviving the country’s economy and to find reputable investors in mining and agriculture.

“We need credible investors in mining and agriculture but a government like ours attracts the worst kind of investor, like sharks who go into a crisis situation in order to make a huge amount of money because no one else will go there. Typically, that kind of investment is not good for the country,” Coltart says.

Matonga shares a similar sentiment about investment focus areas.

“Yes, we need to invest more in agriculture so we can start importing to the region; we need to invest more in mining so  we have enough gold reserves to support our currency. The tourism sector is doing very well,” Matonga says.

He, however, believes it’s unfair to say Zimbabwe isn’t attracting investors and that the government isn’t doing its job.

“There are a lot of massive deals that have come into the country. For one, there is an electricity deal that happened and soon Zimbabwe will be selling electricity throughout the region. Our tourism sector is also doing very well. This December, it was booked 90%. The investors are listening to us because also our new minister is credible. He is being invited all around the world to speak about opportunities in Zimbabwe,” he says.

The challenge so far has been that if investments are made, it becomes a struggle to retrieve money because of cash shortages in Zimbabwe.

“I had planned to expand my farming logistics business into Zimbabwe but the problem is that I would have invested in rands and people would have paid me in bond notes and I wouldn’t have been able to use that money anywhere outside Zimbabwe, which is where I actually need to use it,” says South African entrepreneur Mark Zondo.

To make matters worse, even the bond note is scarce. According to Reserve Bank governor, John Mangudya, in 2017, 96% of transactions in Zimbabwe were electronic. So if you are a business operating in Zimbabwe, you would have money in a mobile money account or bank account but not in hand.

Matonga says this is not the ideal situation but things have improved.

“Doing business in Zimbabwe is easier than it was in the past. For example, the government removed the indigenisation law that demanded that a foreign investor had to partner with a local to start a business. If you are a company that imports and exports, you can also get at least 50 percent of your foreign currency in hand to be able to continue running,” he says.

Although that’s the case, investors will have to take the remaining 50% cutting into their profits.

Matonga insists the government is doing well. “The minister of finance has closed the loopholes and even the rate on the black market is going down. He has also introduced a two percent tax in mobile transactions and has collected more than $550 million which means we are able to fund government projects, road construction, infrastructure development,” he says. He blames the current fuel shortages on the increase on car imports.

“This time last year, we had about one million cars on the road and now we have about 1.7 million. In the last six months, Zimbabweans imported about 700,000 vehicles which has now put a strain on the forex,” Matonga says.

He, however, agrees that there is a currency strain crippling the country.

“When you don’t have your own currency, it is extremely difficult. If you want to import necessary raw materials or equipment, it’s difficult to get foreign currency. You have to get it on the informal market where the rates are three times higher,” he says.

Moyo, who ran against Mnangagwa during the presidential elections, says he was called by Mnangagwa to help boost the economy, but their relationship was short-lived. 

“I allowed myself to be invited into government and I joined. I then realized I couldn’t work for this government. The way the land issue was handled and the way occupation of industries was taking place in a similar manner, I just felt it was going the wrong way. The policy positioning of Zanu-PF was unstrategic so I told the president I wasn’t going to work for an administration like that,” Moyo says.

“He said he brought me in to make those changes but I had enough evidence because of the number of times I had gone to him and asked him to do certain things which he would agree with and never do them.”

According to Moyo, the evidence to date shows Mnangagwa is not capable of taking a step back and actually fixing the country. It is up to the people to fix Zimbabwe.

“There is desperation. Young men are spending their days playing board games while drunk on alcohol or high on drugs. When I asked them about it, they would tell me that’s the only way they could retain their sanity because there are no jobs. People are doing things they would otherwise not do. We as a nation have committed a crime against our youth,” Moyo says.

Last year, for the first time in 37 years, the country went to the polls to choose a leader and 133 parties took part in the elections, and 23 candidates ran for the presidency. Mnangagwa won by 2,460,463 votes (50.8%), followed by the MDC’s Nelson Chamisa with 2,147,436 votes (44.3%).

“Zimbabweans need to learn what democracy really is. We need to learn that elections mean choosing the person who will solve the problems that are confronting the country at that point in time. We need to take responsibility for our actions, ” Moyo says.

Taking responsibility places the burden on the people to drive change towards the direction they want it. This has been done before. Perhaps another 37-year wait might be too late.

Current Affairs

Haute-Couture Designer Karl Lagerfeld Has Died

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Haute-couture designer Karl Lagerfeld has died at the age of 85, French media reported on Tuesday.

German haute-couture designer Karl Lagerfeld, artistic director at Chanel and an icon of the global fashion industry for over half a century, has died, a source at the French fashion house Chanel said on Tuesday. He was 85.

Lagerfeld, instantly recognizable in his dark suits, pony-tailed white hair and tinted sun glasses, was best known for his association with Chanel but simultaneously delivered collections for LVMH’s Fendi and his own eponymous label.

French celebrity online magazine Purepeople said Lagerfeld died on Tuesday morning after being rushed to a hospital in Neuilly-sur-Seine just outside Paris the night before.

A spokesman for Chanel was not immediately available for comment.

Lagerfeld was artistic director at Chanel. A spokesman for Chanel was not immediately available for comment. -Reuters

Sudip Kar-Gupta

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The Coffee Farmers Betting On Blockchain To Boost Business

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 On a bustling street near the shiny new international airport in Ethiopia’s capital is a small coffee roastery with big dreams. 

Nearly 40 Ethiopians – a third of them women – sift, roast and package prized Arabica beans for export to Europe under the Moyee brand, founded by a Dutch social entrepreneur.

The roastery, together with the innovative use of blockchain technology to ensure the supply chain is transparent, represents an attempt to keep as much of the profits as possible in Ethiopia, one of the world’s poorest countries.

“It’s the world’s favorite drink. We drink over 2 billion cups a day,” said Killian Stokes, who set up the Irish branch of Moyee.

“The industry’s worth $100 billion and yet 90 percent of coffee farmers in Ethiopia live on less than $2 a day.”

That is partly because most exporters process the beans elsewhere, but also down to price fluctuations and other factors that make coffee growing a precarious business.

READ MORE | Ugandan Firm Uses Blockchain To Trace Coffee From Farms To Stores

To make things fairer, Moyee has created unique digital identities for the 350 farmers it currently works with – meaning buyers can see exactly how much each individual grower is paid, with prices set at 20 percent above the market rate.

Now the brand, whose slogan is “radically good coffee”, wants to use blockchain to take that to the next level – allowing buyers to tip farmers, or fund projects such as a new planting program, through a mobile app.

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said in a recent report that blockchain had huge potential to address challenges smallholder farmers faced by “reducing uncertainty and enabling trust among market players”.

The technology, used to underpin cyber-currencies like Bitcoin, allows shared access to data that is maintained by a network of computers and can quickly trace the hundreds of parties involved in the production and distribution of food.

Once entered, any information cannot be altered or tampered with.

‘BIGGER THAN THE INTERNET’

Siobhan Kelly, an advisor to the Food Systems Programme at the FAO, said blockchain would ultimately be “much bigger than the internet”. 

“Within 10 years – it’ll take probably 10 years – it’s going to be a major revolution, for everything,” said Kelly.

Fruit farmers in Caribbean nations are also looking at using blockchain to attract better-paying customers, bring traceability and build a credit trail. 

“It’s an innovation that is poised to empower local farmers in the Caribbean region,” said Pamela Thomas, executive director of the Agriculture Alliance of the Caribbean (AACARI), a regional network of nearly 100,000 farmers.

AACARI’s project has two components: auditing by accredited professionals to ensure farmers adhere to the Global GAP (good agricultural practices) standards, and a digital marketplace where buyers can find detailed information about the produce. 

Global GAP is a voluntary standard required by many European and U.S. supermarket chains.

Vijay Kandy, whose company is building the blockchain platform, said the auditing process would allow farmers to deal directly with buyers – bypassing the middlemen that many currently rely on – and make access to credit easier.

“One reason why buyers from faraway places or different countries go through middlemen is because they rely on them to make sure farmers are following these good practices,” he said.

One such buyer is London-based Union Hand-Roasted Coffee. 

The company sources its coffee directly from growers’ cooperatives to ensure higher quality, pays farmers more than minimum price set by the global Fairtrade organization, and works with more than 40 producer groups in 14 countries.

“We currently undertake direct interviews to verify farmers have been paid, but it’s very time- and labor-intensive to do that and to record all that data,” said Steven Macatonia, who co-founded Union in 2001.

“So to have a much more simple system where we can get a confirmation that payment has been received and how much that is, that could be hugely beneficial,” he said.

Price fluctuations and the impact of climate change make coffee a particularly challenging crop to grow.

“Large companies’ profits usually increase when prices are low, but the profit for farmers does not, and in some cases it may cost them money to produce coffee,” said Aaron Davis, head of coffee research at Britain’s Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. 

Davis’s latest research shows climate change and deforestation are putting more than half of the world’s wild coffee species at risk of extinction.

Ethiopia – the birthplace of Arabica, the world’s most popular coffee – is of particular concern. Up to 60 percent of the land used to grow coffee could become unsuitable by the end of the century, Davis found. 

“The more a farmer is paid, the more resources he will be able to devote to climate resilience,” he said.   

Both Davis and the FAO’s Kelly however cautioned that blockchain technology was not going to be a “quick fix”, with farmers around the world facing multiple challenges.

“Farmers need access to affordable seeds, to affordable finance and credit when they need it … and these things are not going to be given by blockchain,” said Kelly. -Reuters

-Thin Lei Win @thinink

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Morocco Looks To French As Language Of Economic Success

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Morocco’s economy is getting lost in translation.

With so many students dropping out of university because they don’t speak French, the government has proposed reintroducing it as the language for teaching science, maths and technical subjects such as computer science in high schools.

It also wants children to start learning French when they start school.

The country’s official languages are Arabic and Amazigh, or Berber. Most people speak Moroccan Arabic – a mixture of Arabic and Amazigh infused with French and Spanish influences.

In school, children are taught through Arabic although they don’t use it outside the classroom. When they get to university, lessons switch to French, the language of the urban elite and the country’s former colonial masters. Confused? Many are.

Two out of three people fail to complete their studies at public universities in Morocco, mainly because they don’t speak French.

The linguistic morass has stymied economic growth and exacerbated inequalities in the North African country, where one in four young people are unemployed and the average annual income runs at approximately $3,440 per person, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) – less than a third of the world average.

The plans to broaden the teaching of French go to the heart of Morocco’s national identity.

They would overturn decades of Arabisation after independence from France in 1956 and have triggered a furor in parliament, where members of the Islamist PJD party, the senior partner in the coalition government, and the conservative Istiqlal party view them as a betrayal.

The disagreement has delayed a vote on the changes.

“Openness to the world should not be used as an excuse to impose the primacy of French,” said Hassan Adili, a PJD lawmaker.

Proponents say the changes reflect the reality that French reigns supreme in business, government and higher education, giving those who can afford to be privately schooled through French a huge advantage over the majority of the country’s students.

“In the Moroccan job market, mastery of French is indispensable. Those who do not have command of French are considered illiterate,” said Hamid El Otmani, head of talent and training at the Confederation of Moroccan Employers.

Even before parliament votes on the changes, Education Minister Said Amzazi has okayed the roll-out of French in some schools, declaring its use in teaching scientific subjects as an “irreversible choice”.

Like many Moroccan politicians, his children received a private education.

“When decision-makers start sending their children to public schools, only then can we say that we have a successful education system,” said Jamal Karimi Benchekroun of the co-ruling socialist PPS party.

Amzazi did not respond to a request for comment.

Frustration over jobs and poverty has fueled periodic protests in Morocco, but the country has avoided the sort of instability suffered by other North African states, where pent-up anger has triggered uprisings and provided fertile ground for Islamist extremism.

King Mohammed VI, the ultimate power in Morocco, has proven adept at introducing limited reforms in response to popular protest. He has spoken publicly about the need to teach foreign languages to students to reduce unemployment and has made the economy a top priority.

Last year, he sacked the minister for finance after calling on the government to do more to boost investment.

C’EST LA VIE

Problems with language are not unique to Morocco. In neighboring Algeria, another former French colony, students are also schooled in Arabic only to be greeted “en francais” in university and the workplace.

French’s pre-eminence reflects Paris’ continuing influence in the region. France is the biggest foreign direct investor in Morocco and large companies such as carmakers Renault and Peugeot employ tens of thousands of people.

Privately-run universities such as the International University of Rabat (UIR) have courses geared toward high-growth industries such as aerospace and renewable energy and offer tuition in French and English.

But a year at UIR can cost up to $10,000 in fees, way beyond the budget of most Moroccans. They go instead to non-fee paying public universities, where the abrupt transition to studying in French is frequently a burden for students and their lecturers.

“Sometimes we find ourselves giving French language courses during economy classes,” said Amine Dafir, economy professor at Hassan II University, a public institution in Mohamedia, near Casablanca.

Hamid Farricha, 37, dropped out of his applied physics and computer science degree at Hassan II University during the first year. He dreamed of becoming an engineer but the language barrier meant he struggled to keep up.

Trying to find Arabic translations for French scientific words was a drain on his time.

He switched instead to studying mechanics at a vocational school. He still had to master French to get hired.

“The biggest challenge after earning my diploma was writing a CV and sitting for job interviews in French,” Farricha said.

He got a job as a technician at a plant repairing car frames, paid below Morocco’s minimum monthly salary of 2570 dirhams, or $270.

Farricha was one of the lucky ones. Morocco’s economy cannot absorb all the young people looking for work. Around 280,000 graduates entered the labor force last year but only 112,000 jobs were created.

The unemployment rate for graduates is 17 percent, above the national rate of 9.8 percent, according to data from Morocco’s planning agency.

Morocco’s reliance on small and medium-sized companies which do not typically employ graduates, and austerity drives which have cut public sector jobs are part of the reason for the high rate of graduate unemployment.

The education system is also failing to prepare students for work.

In addition to high dropout rates, Moroccan students score badly compared to peers on international tests, and at university level, students oversubscribe to social science fields at the expense of technical subjects, according to an IMF report in late 2017. That means many don’t have the skills employers are looking for when they graduate.

Even for roles not requiring a degree, French is a must. On the French website of Morocco’s job promotion agency, almost all employers were looking for French speakers, including for jobs as guards, waiters, cooks and drivers.

Determined to get ahead, Farricha worked on his French while employed at the plant. He read newspapers and books in his spare time and gave himself a daily list of new expressions and vocabulary to learn.

He went back to university in 2014 for a degree in French law and is studying for a masters in diplomacy and international arbitration.

To meet his living costs, he teaches French to other students. -Reuters

Ahmed Eljechtimi

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