Published 14 August 08
by J. Peter Pham, Ph.D.
World Defense Review columnist
Mauritania: Progress Hijacked
Last week, soldiers led by the dismissed head of the presidential guard, General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, seized Mauritanian President Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi and his prime minister, Yahia Ould Ahmed El-Ouakef, and announced the takeover of the largely desert country in the northwestern corner of Africa. While coups d'état have, sadly, been all to common in modern African history – there have been more than eighty successful coups in Sub-Saharan Africa since 1963 when Togo's Sylvanus Olympio became the first elected head of state to be overthrown by his military – this one deserves special attention because of the potentially significant adverse impact, not only for the long-term prospects of democracy in Africa but also, more immediately, the vital counterterrorism efforts in the increasingly sensitive Sahara/Sahel belt.
Roughly a million square kilometers – an area roughly equal to Texas and New Mexico combined – on the Atlantic coast of Africa, Mauritania shares borders with Senegal, Mali, Algeria, and Moroccan-ruled Western Sahara. The 3.36 million Mauritanians, almost all of whom are Muslim, are subdivided into three major ethno-cultural groups. Roughly 30 percent, living primarily in the south, are "black Mauritanians," members of the Bambara, Halpulaar, Soninké, and Wolof ethnic groups who are also found in Mali and Senegal. Another 30 percent consist of the members of the more than one hundred traditionally nomadic Beydane ("white") tribes descended from Arab invaders who first came into the region during the first Islamic centuries and intermingled with the indigenous Berber tribes. The Beydane have historically dominated Mauritanian society and their insistence on the Arab Islamic identity of the country has influenced its general political orientation. The remaining 40 percent of the population, the Haratin, or so-called "Black Moors," are descended from black Africans enslaved by the Beydane and share much of their former oppressors' cultural affinities. While Mauritania officially abolished slavery by presidential decree in 1981, the fact that in late 2007 the National Assembly was still debating legislation regarding the penalties for slavery is indicative of the extent to which the abuse persists.
The territory that is now Mauritania was gradually absorbed into French West Africa in the last decades of the 19th century, although the colonial authorities left local affairs largely in the hands of traditional tribal leaders. Mauritania was granted its independence on November 28, 1960, with Moktar Ould Daddah, the scion of a family of prominent marabouts (Islamic religious guides) and first Mauritanian to earn a degree from a Western university, as president. Within a year, Ould Dadah began turning the country into an authoritarian state with his Parti du Peuple Mauritanien (PPM, "Mauritanian People's Party") as the legal political party, a situation formalized by the constitution he imposed in 1964. Running unopposed under this one-party constitution, Ould Daddah was duly "reelected" in 1966, 1971, and 1976.
After embroiling his country in a bloody war to annex the southern third of the then-Spanish Morocco as the Spaniards were evacuating after the death of Generalissimo Francisco Franco in 1975, Ould Daddah was overthrown in a bloodless military coup by Colonel Mustafa Ould Salek in July 1978. Less than a year later, in April 1979, Ould Salek was pushed aside by Colonels Ahmad Ould Bouceif and Muhammad Khouna Haidallah. Haidallah, in turn, was overthrown by his chief of staff, Colonel Maaouiya Ould Sid Ahmed Taya, in December 1984. Ould Taya ruled for the next twenty-one years, up to 1991 as head of a military junta and afterward as "elected" president in a de facto one-party state dominated by his Parti Républicain Démocratique et Social (PRDS, "Republican Democratic and Social Party").
While his regime was noted for its massive human rights abuses, which primarily victimized black Mauritanians, as well as its corruption, Ould Taya was also clever enough to curry favor with the West. When, in late 1999, with the encouragement of the Clinton administration, Mauritania became only the third member of the Arab League – after Egypt and Jordan – to establish full diplomatic relations with Israel, the decision was announced at a ceremony at the U.S. State Department in Washington with then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright described by the Washington Post as "beaming" as Mauritanian Foreign Minister Ahmed Ould Sid'Ahmed shook hands with his Israeli counterpart, David Levy. After 9/11, Mauritania quickly aligned itself with the United States in the "Global War on Terror" and was a charter member of the modest State Department-funded Pan-Sahel Initiative (PSI) to provide border security and other counterterrorism assistance to four nations in the region using personnel from U.S. Army Special Forces attached to the Special Operations Command Europe (SOCEUR) as well as its successor, the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Program (see my report last year on the program as well as my report in May on Mauritania's ongoing counterterrorism challenge).
In August 2005, taking advantage of Ould Taya's absence from the country to attend the funeral of Saudi Arabia's King Fahd, the longtime Mauritanian security chief, Colonel Ely Ould Mohamed Vall, seized power in the name of a seventeen-member "Military Council for Justice and Democracy." The junta quickly pledged that it would remain in power for no more than two years, during which time it pledged that it would "create favorable conditions for open and transparent democratic competition in which civil society and political actors would be able to express themselves freely." In a surprise to many observers in Africa and beyond, Mauritania's military men kept their word. The month after seizing power, the junta proclaimed an amnesty and emptied the prisons of Ould Taya's political prisoners. Shortly thereafter, they opened a national consultative process that paved the way for a June 2006 referendum where, with a 76.5 percent turnout, 97 percent of the voters opted to enact a series of far-reaching constitutional reforms. Among the provisions adopted was an absolute limit of two five-year terms on presidential tenure, with incoming heads of state required to swear that they will not change the restriction. Also adopted were complex mechanisms for electing, by direct universal suffrage for a five-year term, the 95-seat National Assembly and, by indirect election to staggered six-year terms, the 56-member Senate. The complicated electoral system being designed to maximize the number of constituencies represented.
More than two dozen parties contested the two rounds of the legislative elections in November and December 2006. More than one million voters were registered and approximately 70 percent turned out to vote, the first real multiparty election in Mauritania's four and a half decades of independence. The eleven-party Coalition des Forces du Changement Démocratique (CFCD, "Coalition of Forces for Democratic Change), consisting of former opponents of the Ould Taya regime, won 38 seats in the National Assembly and 15 seats in the Senate. The former ruling party, which renamed itself the Parti Républicain pour la Démocratie et le Renouveau (PRDR, "Republican Party for Democracy and Renewal"), won only 7 seats in the Assembly and 3 in the Senate. The biggest winners were independent candidates, many of whom could be regarded as moderate Islamists, who won 41 seats in the Assembly and 34 in the Senate. Ultimately the independents joined with the PRDR and other small parties to form a bloc, al-Mithaq ("Convention"), which represented 57 National Assembly members and 38 senators.
Especially noteworthy given Mauritania's traditionalist society was the effect of a 20 percent minimum quota which the junta set for women representatives in parliament. The requirement meant that, as a 2007 report by the National Democratic Institute on The Changing Face of Leadership: Women in Politics noted, Mauritania having emerged from the elections with 21 women elected to the National Assembly and 9 to Senate gave the country "the second-highest proportion of women representatives in the entire Middle East and Africa region."
A total of twenty candidates campaigned for the presidency; none of them were members of the junta, which had excluded itself from eligibility. In the first round, in early March 2007, no candidate won an outright majority, so the two top finishers, Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi, an economist and former minister who ran as an independent and won 24.8 percent of the vote, and Ahmed Ould Daddah, half-brother of the founding president and likewise an economist and former minister who ran on the CFCD ticket, winning 20.7 percent, faced off in a second round two weeks later, which Adallahi won 52.9 percent to 47.1 percent. Abdallahi was inaugurated the following month, with Colonel Vall handing over power with a valedictory flourish: "We have fulfilled our commitment and now it is time to go." U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, who attended the inauguration ceremony, subsequently described it as "a historic event and a true celebration of an ongoing democratic transition in Africa."
The new president, the first democratically elected head of state in Mauritania's history as an independent state, started off on a good note. He appointed yet another economist Zeine Ould Zeidane, who had come in third in the first round of the presidential poll with 15.3 percent, as prime minister. In a gesture of reconciliation to non-Arab Mauritanians who have long complained of political marginalization at the hands of the Beydane ruling class, Abdallahi appointed a black Mauritanian to the powerful interior ministry and supported the election of a descendant of freed slaves, Messaould Ould Boulkheir, the fourth-place finisher in the presidential race with 9.8 percent of the vote, as president of the National Assembly.
The honeymoon, unfortunately, did not last long. Efforts by the president to form a ruling party out of the bloc of independents in parliament alienated many of his supporters. Still smarting from more than four decades of one-party rule and feeling that they had helped elect as head of state someone whose status as an independent was a short-term flag of convenience, members of opposition denounced the move as a "setback for democracy." Nonetheless, the president's allies rallied and formed the Pacte National pour la Démocratie et le Développement (PNDD, "National Pact for Democracy and Development") which, with the support of several smaller parties, was able to form a parliamentary majority to support the replacement of the "technocratic" cabinet with a new "political" cabinet headed by Yahia Ould Ahmed El-Ouakef in May of this year. To the chagrin of a number of prominent Mauritanians, including officers involved in the 2005 coup which ushered in democracy, the new cabinet included not only several Islamists, but also a number of ministers who had served under the old dictatorship of Ould Taya.
Even as he was facing political pressures, Abdallahi was confronted with an uptick in violence spilling over its borders as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) stepped up its activities (see my May 8 update on AQIM) in recent months, including a February 1 shooting attack on the Israeli embassy in Nouakchott for which it claimed responsibility. The extremist activity opened a rift between the president, whose coalition includes moderate Islamists, and elements in the military which favored more forceful action to check the spread of Islamist radicals whom they feared – not without justification – were aligning themselves with criminal networks in country's vast spaces as well as making inroads among the populace. In fact, in recent months some military officers have openly denounced the emergence of a handful of small Islamist political parties, including one called Hawwa ("Eve"), headed by a woman named Sahla bint Ahmed Zaid, who advocates shari'a as the "methodology and source of legislation" as well as break in diplomatic ties with Israel. In addition, the rising food prices have caused widespread discontent among the citizenry, most of whom have abandoned the nomadic life to settle down in heavily concentrated urban areas, while the country's nascent offshore oilfields, which only began production two years ago, have yet to yield wealth in sufficient quantity to lift the country's GDP per capita above the roughly $800 where it has stagnated for years (according to CIA estimates, while economic growth was virtual nonexistent, the inflation rate last year was estimated at 7.3 percent).
Things finally came to a head in the last few weeks with a parliamentary vote of no confidence in the cabinet forcing the president to dismiss several ministers and, just two day before the coup, the defection of some 48 parliamentarians from the ruling coalition and discussion of impeaching the president on the basis of allegations of misappropriation of funds by members of his family. On the morning of August 7, Abdallahi signed decrees relieving several senior military officials, including General Ould Abdel Aziz, who had been the second-in-command during the 2005 coup against Ould Taya. When the president refused to reverse the dismissals, the general ordered soldiers loyal to him into the streets of the capital and, after shutting down broadcasts of state television, seized the president and took effective control of the reins of government in the name of a "High Council of State" whose leadership he assumed. General Ould Abdel Aziz later told reporters, "The military chiefs have arms and munitions, they have men under their command, they are responsible for securing the country and you cannot just fire them all like that ... In an extraordinary situation you need an extraordinary solution."
While the situation in Mauritania appears calm at the moment and the prime minister and several other high officials seized during the takeover (but not the president) have been reportedly released, the coup has nonetheless been widely condemned. The African Union (AU), the European Union, and the United States all condemned the takeover. U.S. State Department's acting deputy spokesman, Gonzalo Gallegos, announced the suspension of more than $22 million in American assistance to the country, including $15 million in military-to-military aid, $4 million in peacekeeping training, $805,000 in funding for nonproliferation, antiterrorism, demining, and related programs (NADR), and $3 million in development assistance. In Mauritania, approximately sixty U.S. military personnel who were training their Mauritanian counterparts as part of Operation Enduring Freedom-Trans Sahara (OEF-TS) immediately suspended their activities. The only American assistance which remains unaffected is a $4.9 million food assistance program. The European Union is threatening to follow suit.
Obviously, ordinary Mauritanians will be the ones most affected by an aid cut-off. However, the coup has wider implications. First, as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stated last week, as a matter of principle "we oppose any attempts by military elements to change governments through extra-constitutional means." While President Abdallahi has managed to alienate not just the armed forces, but civilian politicians as well – witness the fact that 67 out of 95 parliamentarians repudiated assembly president Ould Boulkheir's post-coup statement of support for the head of state – the cure the putschists adopted for his political maladroitness is worse than the ailment. Second, should the African Union, subregional organizations on the continent, and individual African states fail to act effectively in the defense of a legitimate, constitutional, democratically-elected government, it is could well shred of what tattered credibility the AU has left in the wake of its disgraceful acquiescence to Robert Mugabe's violent theft of the Zimbabwean election (see my July 1 analysis). Suspending Mauritania's membership in the toothless AU – as Tanzanian Foreign Minister Bernard Membe, whose country holds the pan-African organization's rotating presidency, announced – is a first step, but only that. Third, as I noted in last week's column with respect to Morocco, while the choice to include moderate Islamists in the political process is a weighty one and not without its perils, there is a distinction between "Islamist" and "Islamic" and the wholesale marginalization of the latter in traditionalist societies such as Mauritania's is hardly the recipe for a stable, much less legitimate, government. Fourth, while the United States clearly has an interest in combating Islamist extremism in the vast spaces where the Maghreb meets the Sahel, if any lesson has been learned from our bitter experience in the Middle East, it is that, in general, we cannot achieve our strategic objectives by making – or even being perceived by the masses as making – Faustian bargains with unelected strongmen.
In 2005, Colonel Vall deposed a longtime authoritarian despot, promising to open the way for a democratic transition. To his credit, Vall kept his promise. Last week General Ould Abdel Aziz overthrew a president democratically elected less than two years ago and then turns around and promises to "restart the democratic process on a permanent foundation." Maybe he means it. But, given the changed circumstances as well as the overall struggle against terrorism and other forms of Islamist extremism, can the United States and other members of the international community really afford to give him the benefit of the doubt?
— J. Peter Pham is Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. He is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C., as well as Vice President of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA). In addition to the study of terrorism and political violence, his research interests lie at the intersection of international relations, international law, political theory, and ethics, with particular concentrations on the implications for United States foreign policy and African states as well as religion and global politics.
Dr. Pham is the author of over two hundred essays and reviews on a wide variety of subjects in scholarly and opinion journals on both sides of the Atlantic and the author, editor, or translator of over a dozen books. Among his recent publications are Liberia: Portrait of a Failed State (Reed Press, 2004), which has been critically acclaimed by Foreign Affairs, Worldview, Wilson Quarterly, American Foreign Policy Interests, and other scholarly publications, and Child Soldiers, Adult Interests: The Global Dimensions of the Sierra Leonean Tragedy (Nova Science Publishers, 2005).
In addition to serving on the boards of several international and national think tanks and journals, Dr. Pham has testified before the U.S. Congress and conducted briefings or consulted for both Congressional and Executive agencies. He is also a frequent contributor to National Review Online's military blog, The Tank.
© 2008 J. Peter Pham
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