Al-Ahram Weekly Online   7 - 13 August 2008
Issue No. 909
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Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

A classic coup

Déjà vu? Yesterday's coup in Mauritania demonstrated once again the bounds of the country's nascent democracy, writes Gamal Nkrumah

Mauritanian President Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdullahi and his newly-installed Prime Minister Yehia Ould Ahmed Al-Ouakef were ousted yesterday in a bloodless military coup.

Elected in June 2007, President Abdullahi had long been mired in a political crisis of gargantuan proportions. The ousted president was facing a parliamentary revolt and has now been replaced by a military junta. Earlier in the week he had sacked four senior army officers. He was as unpopular with the army as with parliament, and his reputation had further nose-dived following his wife's implication in a series of corruption scandals.

Army units surrounded the presidential palace in the early hours of Wednesday and radio and television broadcasts were interrupted. To many it was a blast from the past, a classic African coup. The new Mauritanian government-organised vigilantes, however, are a far more recent phenomenon.

Mauritania, with a population of three million, is potentially one of Africa's richest countries. It is one of the continent's newest oil producers, and its newfound oil wealth has generated much political unrest. Potential troublemakers include the Al-Qaeda North Africa branch, whose long arm extends to Mauritania. Last December, four French tourists were murdered and after warnings that "infidels" should leave the country the Mauritanian stretch of the Dakar-Paris motor rally was cancelled.

Militant Islamists and the battle to control oil revenues are not the only causes of tension. The vast Saharan country straddles a huge swathe of inhospitable territory between Arab North Africa and Africa south of the Sahara. The Arabic- speaking Moorish tribes have long enjoyed political and economic control, relegating black Africans to the bottom of the social ladder. And then there is foreign interference.

Once again Libya has been implicated in the coup. This beggars certain questions. One is whether Libya would, or could, influence political developments in Mauritania or stymie the nascent democratic process there.

Mauritanian First Lady Kahtou Boukhari has been embroiled in ongoing scandal. She founded the KB (the initials of her name) Association -- the largest and most moneyed humanitarian organisation in the country -- by, she claims, soliciting funds from rich relatives and expatriate Mauritanian tycoons overseas. Allegations of double-billing for the running costs of her NGO have been made, much to the chagrin of the president. It is now questionable whether the NGO will survive.

President Abdullahi's ruling National Pact for Development and Democracy (PNDD-ADIL) has been undergoing a spate of political infighting. There have also been tensions with minor coalition partners such as the Islamist Tawassoul Party, which had two ministers in the government. The opposition Union of Forces for Progress (UFP) Parliamentarians issued a vote of no confidence in the president and 48 MPs walked out earlier this week in protest at the way the country was being run. The ruling PNDD-ADIL has 50 seats in the 95-member Mauritanian parliament. Other coalition parties have 17 seats. As Al-Ahram Weekly went to press it was not clear if parliament would be disbanded.

Initially it looked like the president would be in for a long and hard period of concessions. Then it transpired he might not. Now he appears to have been relegated to the sidelines and is under house arrest. The Presidential Security Battalion was either unwilling or unable to come to the president's rescue.

To add insult to injury initial unconfirmed reports suggest that the recently sacked chief presidential guard, General Mohamed Ould Abdul- Aziz, was a key coup player. The president had sacked Abdul-Aziz alongside Chief-of-Staff General Mohamed Ould Cheikh Mohamed Ahmed, ensuring, in one move, the alienation of both his political and military allies. In a country like Mauritania, where the army holds political sway, it is a fatal error to offend the generals. The president's miscalculation displayed an embarrassing degree of political naïveté.

President Abdullahi's fate is unclear, and he continues to protest his wife's innocence. The African Union (AU) has condemned the forceful deposing of a democratically elected president, though Mauritania, which is also a member of the Arab League, has a long history of disregarding AU resolutions.

Mauritania is sandwiched between Morocco to the north and Senegal to the south. Senegal is a vibrant democracy, one of the most genuinely democratic countries in Africa. Morocco is another story.

Ironically, if civilians cannot make the most of democracy it leaves many countries with no option than to place themselves at the mercy of a military strongman and the coup in Mauritania may well have averted, by an admittedly thin margin, the nation's worst political crisis in years.

It is too soon to say whether President Abdullahi should be written off as a political leader. There is no clear indication how much influence he will retain within his party. Though he was a civilian and a self-declared democrat, he had deployed dictatorial military tactics. Press freedom was under attack. The arrest of Mohamed Ould Abdul-Latif and Mohamed Nema Oumar, a journalist and the publisher of the independent Arabic-language newspaper Al-Hurriya, was a case in point. The two had been charged with defamation, a classic dictatorial tactic of regimes unwilling to be criticised.

Abdullahi is likely to go down in history as one of the most inept of Mauritania's presidents. His political demise will set back the country's democratic experiment and could yet be a severe blow to democratic aspirations across the continent.

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