In a controversial move, Marrakesh will no longer be the first African Capital of Culture after the government reportedly transferred the title to Morocco’s actual capital, Rabat. The popular tourist destination in the south of the country was named the inaugural recipient of the award for 2020-2021 in November last year by the United Cities and Local Governments of Africa (UCLGA), the organisers of the new initiative. On 12 February, the programme’s organising committee released a press statement announcing the decision to change the city from Marrakesh to Rabat.
While the UCLGA’s statement gave no reason for the change, the Moroccan news outlet TelQuel reports that Khalid Tamer, the secretary general of the African Capital of Culture committee, confirmed that the Moroccan government had stepped in to move the award to Rabat. The African capital of culture programme was set up by UCLGA to bring together arts and culture as part of Africa's sustainable development.
The Moroccan artist Mahi Binebine was the honorary president for a programme of cultural events to celebrate Marrakesh’s title of African Capital of Culture, scheduled for 31 January this year. He announced on Facebook in January this year that despite “several months of intense preparation” and “for incomprehensible reasons”, Marrakesh had relinquished its title “to the benefit of Rabat”. A committee is now organising a new cultural programme for Rabat to be announced in March.
The move was met with criticism online. On Facebook, one user Yasmina Bouzid described the move as "excessive centralisation from which all cities suffer", adding that "territorial development through culture has not arrived here. It's disastrous". Another, Francoise Prolongeau, said that Morocco should be disqualified. "The year has already started, the events should already be activated, the announcement has been made officially and we are starting from scratch. It would have been better to take a capital from a sub-Saharan country!" she said.
Others were less concerned by the decision. A Facebook comment from Aali Khalild, who is from the small city of Khenifra in northern-central Morocco, said: "It does not matter. I much prefer Rabat to Marrakech. And I could prefer Khenifra even more than the two. Why not?" The director and journalist Fouad Souiba, who is from Rabat, suggested: "Why don't the two share it 50-50?"
The rivalry between Moroccan cities is long-standing. Traditionally the city of Fez has competed with Marrakesh for the pole position, with the former often considered the capital of the north and the latter of the south. Rabat was made the country's administrative capital after the French invaded and occupied Morocco in 1912. It is now home to the Moroccan royal family and the government.