Political Transition in Mauritania Results and Prospects
Middle East/North Africa Report N°53
24 Apr 2006
On 3 August 2005, a junta led by Ely Ould Mohamed Vall, director-general of the Sûreté National, and Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, commander of the presidential security battalion, seized power in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania. The coup, which responded to the growing unpopularity and declining legitimacy of President Maaouya Ould Sid’Ahmed Taya’s regime, signifies a break with the past but also reflects significant continuity in terms both of method and personalities. The new leaders must demonstrate they are in the business of promoting change rather than preserving the status quo and they will uphold the rule of law. The international community, which quickly accepted the government after mostly formal objections to how it came to power, will need to press it to respect its commitments, in particular on the issue of the promised democratic transition and its timetable.
The leaders of the Military Council for Justice and Democracy claimed their coup was intended to “end the regime’s totalitarian practices”, which had “led to a deviation that endangered the country’s future”, and vowed “to create favourable conditions for an open and transparent democratic game in which civil society and political actors can freely participate”. Yet, a number of contradictions are liable to undermine these stated good intentions.
Mauritanians wish to break with the way power has been concentrated in the hands of a few tribal groupings, a syndrome that reached unprecedented levels under Ould Taya. However, the country’s new strongman and some of his colleagues are pillars of the old power structure and almost certainly will want to turn the page rather than examine it, redress past injustices and shed light on the practices of the previous regime. That Ould Mohamed Vall and Ould Abdel Aziz belong to the same tribal group, one which was highly privileged under the old regime, raises the question whether they truly intend to change its clientelist patterns and could fuel political tensions before long.
The Military Council has promised to organise a return to legitimate institutions within a reasonable timetable: a constitutional referendum is scheduled for 26 June 2006, municipal and legislative elections for 19 November 2006, and senatorial and presidential elections for 11 March 2007. Over its first months, the regime has taken welcome steps. Political parties are consulted; the electoral calendar is neither too short (which would have prevented parties from organising) nor too long. An electoral commission whose independence is widely acknowledged has been established. Still, more is needed:
Until parliament has been elected, the government should establish a framework for regular consultation with the main political parties, as these have requested, and avoid unilateral decisions. Likewise, the electoral commission should work more closely with the parties, which it failed to do when it established regional and departmental commissions.
The new leaders must move to limit endemic corruption and the extraordinary accumulation of wealth in the hands of a few oligarchic groups with connections in the economic, political and security spheres. Rivalry among these groups inevitably will be exacerbated by oil-related money. The regime has taken some anti-corruption measures, including creating an inspector general’s office, ratifying international conventions and investigating the ex-oil minister. But it needs to fairly allocate public contracts, challenge private import and distribution monopolies, and more systematically fight trafficking, notably of cigarettes in the north, which is linked to armed banditry, as well as encourage the rule of law generally. Such deep and controversial reforms cannot be completed in the short transition but at a minimum the government should work closely with other national political forces to take initial steps. Its first challenge, given that its two most important leaders are closely linked to one of these oligarchic groups, will be to avoid favouritism.
The government lacks the legitimacy and authority to investigate, let alone prosecute, the former regime’s wrongs but it should alleviate ethnic tensions. The new leaders’ at times ambiguous discourse about the forced expulsion of roughly 100,000 black Africans into Senegal and Mali in 1989-1991 too often echoes what was said during the Taya regime. Some of the victimised communities expect, if not reparations, then at a minimum recognition of their losses and suffering.
During this period of institutional fragility, the international community should promote stability by maintaining cooperative agreements and aid programs. It should back efforts for a successful transition, notably by bolstering the electoral commission’s independence through material and technical aid. Most importantly, it should call unequivocally on the new leaders to abide by their commitments. A military coup is a disquieting precedent, above all in a region that has had too many. The early establishment of a law-bound democracy within a reasonable timetable is in the interests of all.
Cairo/Brussels, 24 April 2006