Al-Ahram Weekly Online   2 - 8 July 2009
Issue No. 954
Region
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Making up in Mauritania

There is no short cut to democracy in Mauritania and no place for cosmetic reform, notes Gamal Nkrumah

Is it too soon for Mauritania's civilian leaders and the generals who hold sway in the sprawling desert country to kiss and make up? Without doubt Mauritanian democracy has been found seriously wanting. The pressing question about the future of Mauritania is not really whether the country's ousted president Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdullahi's crisis-cum-coup bounce will be high and lasting enough to win the forthcoming general election. It is much more about underlying issues of racial inequality that plague the country.

Mauritania's presidential elections are scheduled to take place on 18 July. And Abdullahi happily announced that he was "ecstatic to be the first elected president to have consented to give up power to preserve the greater interest" of Mauritania. He had given up his claim to power and officially resigned last week.

Even if Abdullahi's move staves off disaster, it does not remove the threat of yet another military takeover if a civilian is elected president next month. Mauritania's politicians -- civilian and military -- all pretend to understand this.

If the Mauritanian military leaders think they can escape unpunished for usurping power, that could embolden future adventurism. Many regard Mauritania as small, distant and politically unimportant. It straddles, on the contrary, a strategically vital region that could play a critical role in the international war on terrorism, so-called.

On Sunday, an American aid worker Christopher Ervin Leggett was assassinated in the Mauritanian capital Nouakchott when two young men overpowered the middle-aged American. Al-Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) claimed responsibility for the "execution" of Leggett because he was "trying to convert Muslims to Christianity".

AQIM spokesman Salah Abu Mohamed said in a televised audio statement to the Qatar-based pan-Arab television channel Al-Jazeera that Leggett was proselytising among the poor in the low-income neighbourhood of Al-Kasr, Nouakchott. AQIM issued a separate statement claiming that it killed more than 100 "foreigners and their local lackeys" in 17 separate attacks throughout May and June, this year alone. The United States and France have issued warnings of the increasing power of AQIM especially after a group of French picnickers were abducted and killed in 2007 in Mauritania, prompting the organisers of the Dakar Rally to cancel the internationally renowned trans- Saharan car race.

Incidents of the abduction and assassination of Westerners in North and West African countries by AQIM have been on the rise recently. A British national Edwin Dyer was killed in neighbouring Mali last week. AQIM has apparently taken advantage of the political crisis in Mauritania to step up its activities in the country, and using it as a springboard for its activities in the entire Saharan and Maghreb regions.

It does not take the "execution" of an American aid worker for converting Muslims to Christianity to understand that Mauritania, as spooks put it, is on a downward spiral. That was all apparent when the military took over the reigns of government last year. But it need not be so.

Mauritania is a country of tremendous economic potential. In spite of the global financial crisis, Mauritania has fared well. It became an oil exporter this year -- currently producing some 75,000 barrels a day. And, it is awash with rich mineral deposits including uranium and iron ore.

Economic development, however, has become increasingly hampered by political unrest. The civilian parties are criticised for their incessant bickering over mundane subjects. The nascent Mauritanian democracy includes a coterie of corruption-ridden parties with conflicting political agendas such as the People's Progressive Alliance (APP), the Rally of Democratic Forces (RFD) led by charismatic leader Ahmed Ould Daddah and the former ruling Republican Party for Democracy and Renewal (PRDR). There is growing concern that it is bound to falter and fail. These civilian parties cannot propel the pace of democratisation forward.

On 11 March 2007 the first presidential elections in the country were held. However, there was widespread discontent with the nepotism and corruption that characterised the democratically-elected governing party. It was against this backdrop that the military stepped into the political arena. The coup that toppled the regime of Abdullahi was a palace coup. It was led by the head of the Presidential Guard General Mohamed Ould Abdel-Aziz who was in turn sacked by President Abdullahi days before the coup.

General Abdel-Aziz was implicated in the last Mauritanian coup in 2005 that ousted the former Mauritanian strongman Mouaaouya Ould Sidi Ahmed Taya. Under his rule Mauritania increasingly became a vital Western ally. The main instigator and ringleader was Colonel Ali Ould Mohamed Vall, who has announced that he is running for the presidency on 18 July. Taya was toppled in a bloodless coup d'état partially because he established diplomatic relations with Israel, a most unpopular move.

Moreover, tribalism and clan politics have curtailed efforts to democratise Moorish communities in the country. Abdullahi hails from Aleg, the provincial capital of the ancient emirate of Brakna. The generals hail from rival Moorish clans. Meanwhile, the darker skinned Mauritanians, including Moors as well as the members of non-Arabic speaking ethnic groups, are systematically excluded from high political office.

The APP, a party that represents the interests of former slaves and the descendants of slaves in Mauritania, made significant gains at parliamentary and municipal levels. Slavery was only officially abolished in Mauritania in 1982.

The down-trodden Haratin, the exonym with pejorative connotations of a people who make up a numerical majority of the country's population, 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.

The race for intensifying the democratisation of Mauritania continues unabated. Some 28 secular political parties participated with the aim of being represented in the 95-member Mauritanian assembly.

The lighter-skinned Arabic-speaking Moors, after whom the country's name is derived, have monopolised power in Mauritania since independence from France in 1960 and are not prepared or willing to relinquish power. Their powerful position is buttressed by their holding the reins of Mauritania's military establishment.

With an illiteracy rate of over 46 per cent, the majority of Mauritania's three million people lack not only the most essential amenities of modern living, but also the means to fight for social justice. So when democracy has come to Mauritania, it has invariably been a poor match for high-pitched rhetoric.

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