Al-Ahram Weekly Online   23 - 29 October 2008
Issue No. 919
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Tug of war

Pulled in two directions, Mauritania's elite is determined to stay in power no matter what, says Gamal Nkrumah

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Supporters of ousted President Abdullahi and current strongman Abdul-Aziz

Mauritania is a land of mind-boggling myths. One myth tells us that it is not prepared for Western- style "democracy". This dubious hypothesis purports that local inhospitable conditions and ancient nomadic traditions tenaciously held onto since time immemorial preclude a smooth transition from paternalistic parochialism to dynamic democracy. On the contrary, the traditional communalism of the nomads incorporates many elements of democracy. Democracy is universal and no culture has a monopoly on democratic values.

With the right policies, resource-rich Mauritania could be poised for the good times. Yet, there is no question that the country's restless youth, which make up the overwhelming majority of Mauritania's 3.5 million people, yearn for change. Their overriding goal is political participation in the decision-making processes, and because most are black as opposed to Moorish, there is little chance of realising their hopes.

What is wrong is the corollary that the EU has attached to this: that in order to democratise, Mauritania must cement ties with Israel in particular and the West in general. There is plenty of room for serious debate about what role Western governments should play in the Mauritanian political reform process.

It shouldn't take a military intervention, as occurred on 6 August, to get a president investigated for corruption, tax evasion and human rights violations. The coup was waiting to happen given Mauritania's central political problem: weak institutions mean that the presidency and the parliamentary system are vulnerable to powerful forces within the military establishment, and that the rule of law is haphazard and subject to the dictates of military strongmen.

In Mauritania private individuals, especially when they happen to be close relatives or political associates of the president, can avoid their contractual obligations with impunity. Mauritanian public servants have become selective in their application of the law since they neither have faith in the legal system or in the political reform process. Indeed, consecutive Mauritanian military regimes have deliberately encouraged government officials to make arbitrary use of the law. It is against this rather chaotic backdrop that the ouster of President Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdullahi took place.

Parliamentarians and the military had subjected the ousted president and his hangers-on to a campaign of harassment. Unquestionably, the Mauritanian opposition judged correctly the gravity of the situation, the disappointment in the man they elected president and who failed to deliver. And, perhaps the contempt with the procedure that brought him to power. Not the least of the ironies in this situation is that the Mauritanian opposition to Abdullahi is now soliciting the support of the very forces they supposedly abhor -- the military. Moreover, Western powers are taking full advantage of the Mauritanian political morass.

The European Union has threatened to cut off all investments to the mineral-rich northwest African country. The EU accounts for two-thirds of all investments in Mauritania and is determined to use its leverage to full effect if the junta does not revert to constitutional rule within the space of a month. The EU has also urged the junta to release the incarcerated Mauritanian president.

The United States, too, is stepping up pressure on the ruling clique in Nouakchott, the Mauritanian capital -- ordinarily a sleepy seaside town. And even though popular disgruntlement with Western pressure on Nouakchott to establish fully-fledged diplomatic relations with Israel is intense, successive Mauritanian governments -- civilian and military -- have failed to fulfil the people's wishes and break off ties with Israel. The new military ruler of the country vowed that he would do so. He has taken some steps to that end which are welcome but very modest.

The theory of Mauritania's "slippery slope" has many advocates. Many in the West view Mauritania as a basket case. The junta includes members who are the toughest and the least compromising of the country's military bigwigs, like all Mauritania's leaders are from the Moorish tribal aristocracy -- this, in a predominantly black nation.

On 11 March 2007 the first presidential elections in its history were held. The country has made some strides towards democracy in recent years. The presidential poll was won in a second round of voting by Abdullahi, who hails from Aleg, the provincial capital of the ancient emirate of Brakna, with Ahmed Ould Daddah, French educated son of the first president Moukhtar Ould Daddah, a close second. Daddah junior's mother, incidentally, was French.

Abdullahi was a disappointment to all, a weak, indecisive leader, unable to respond to the many intractable problems, both economic and political, that the desert country faces. The main charge, however, was nepotism and rampant corruption, especially on the part of the first lady.

The coup was led by the head of the Presidential Guard General Mohamed Ould Abdul-Aziz who was sacked by President Abdullahi days before the coup. General Abdul-Aziz was implicated in the last Mauritanian coup in 2005 that ousted the former Mauritanian strongman Mouaaouya Ould Sidi Ahmed Taya. One of the most hated personalities in Mauritania's political history, Taya set a precedence when he forged close ties with Israel and the West. He paid a price and was summarily overthrown, though the ties with Israel were not severed, thanks to Washington's incessant bullying.

Another myth is that the country's Moors are a treacherous lot. History tells us differently, or does it? The down-trodden Haratin, the exonym with pejorative connotations of a people who make up a numerical majority of the country's 3.4 million people, are yearning for a bigger share of the national cake. The Haratin, descendant of slaves who identify ethnically with the Moorish elite, are now asking pertinent questions regarding their political future, social status and economic well-being. And, Mauritanians, who are exceptional extrapolators, were pulled this week in two contradictory directions. Nouakchott was lambasted and expelled from the Francophonie summit in Quebec and threatened with punitive retaliation for daring not to tow the Western line. At the same time, it is being drawn by the allure of its Arab and African roots.

The tide, finally, seems to have turned on Mauritania's military rulers. That is where the West comes in.

The coup caused a stir. It was enthusiastically greeted by the people, but it fell far short of people's power. The Haratin remain despised third- rate citizens. The Moors remain in charge and Israel has yet to be given the boot. The junta in power today argues that when President Abdullahi's bad policies were making political problems worse, they felt a moral obligation to obliterate, or at least to change, them. But the innate nature of Moorish political life means little is likely to change, especially with unflagging pressure on the part of the West. Real Mauritanian democracy has a long way to go before it is ready to reach its full flowering.

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