Is Mauritania Experiencing a Surprising Democracy Bounce?

Published August 7th, 2019 - 12:39 GMT
Mohamed Ould Ghazouani /AFP
Mohamed Ould Ghazouani /AFP


Observers of the recent political history of the Middle East and North Africa tend to tell a similar story about the period since 2011: the lofty ambitions and hopes excited by the ‘Arab Spring’ have almost universally given way to a march of autocracy.

Multiparty democracy has given way to strong man rule, military elites shaken by surges of protest activity have re-grouped to call the shots, and authoritarian states which survived the events of earlier in the decade have increased measures of securitisation and repression. Yet last week an unlikely success story emerged in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, one of the region’s poorest states on its Western periphery.
 


 

Mauritania’s June Presidential Election and the investiture of its 9th President, Mohamed Ould Ghazouani last Thursday marked the country’s first democratic transfer of power since winning independence from France in 1960.

Ghazouani’s centrist party, the Union for the Republic collected 52% of the vote in the first round of elections, defeating Biram Dah Abei, an anti-slavery campaigner and Sidi Mohamed Ould Bouchaber, a representative of Mauritania’s main Islamist Party, Tawassoul. African Union representatives were satisfied by the election’s conduct and despite legal challenges to the electoral result, the Constitutional Court complied with requests to release the results from the country’s 3861 polling stations, a level of transparency that augurs well for the prospects of democratic consolidation. 
 

Mauritania’s June Presidential Election and the investiture of its 9th President, Mohamed Ould Ghazouani last Thursday marked the country’s first democratic transfer of power since winning independence from France in 1960.

 
Whilst criticisms of electoral practice must be taken seriously, remarkable democratic progress has been achieved since a long period of authoritarian rule under Maaouya Ould Sid’Ahmed Taya between 1984-2005 and the instability which followed his ouster in a military coup.

Since the legalisation of Tawassoul in 2007 and relaxations on media freedom under the tenure of former President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, Mauritania has developed a pluralistic political system and more robust civic institutions. The mercurial Mr Abdel Aziz’s decision to abide by a two-term limit, a democratic transfer of power and peaceful electoral contestation all attest to important changes in political culture and institutional independence.

The mercurial Mr Abdel Aziz’s decision to abide by a two-term limit, a democratic transfer of power and peaceful electoral contestation all attest to important changes in political culture and institutional independence.

Mr Ghazouani has had some previous experience ruling the West African nation, having briefly held office in 2012 when his predecessor was hospitalised following a shooting incident. A moderniser and trusted confidant of Mr Abdel Aziz, as Chief of the Armed Forces and later Minister for Defence, Mr Ghazouani has attempted to elevate the role of women in the military of his deeply conservative nation and proved adroit in negotiating the establishment of the G5 Sahel security alliance with Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, and Niger to contain the threat of jihadist organisations operating in the region.

Mr Ghazouani’s role in restructuring the military and countering religious fundamentalism has been praised by observers, and since 2011 no major terrorist attacks have occurred in the country, in stark contrast to ongoing troubles in neighbouring Mali.

 

As Chief of the Armed Forces and later Minister for Defence, Mr Ghazouani.... has proved adroit in negotiating the establishment of the G5 Sahel security alliance with Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, and Niger to contain the threat of jihadist organisations operating in the region.

On his inauguration, Mr Ghazouani pledged to be ‘a president for all Mauritanians’, yet his nation continues to face formidable challenges. Whilst economic growth has been positive in recent years, the IMF estimates that 31% of the population still lives in poverty. Though education has been a priority for the Union for the Republic for over a decade, according to the UN, only 26% of boys and 27% of girls enrol in secondary schools.


Wealth inequality has widened significantly in recent years as wealthy investors in the capital Nouakchott have reaped the benefits of sales of gold and iron ore, while deforestation and drought have continued to dampen the country’s agricultural sector and pushed unemployed grazers and farmers into precarious housing on the capital’s periphery.

 

The discovery of lucrative gas deposits on the maritime border between Mauritania and Senegal may prove a mixed blessing. Whilst hydrocarbon sales may briefly stimulate economic investment, longer term solutions are required to provide security and employment for a young and restless population - 40% of the national population are under the age of 25 according to Chatham House, an international British think-tank.

The 2016 announcement of a ‘Strategy for Accelerated Growth and Shared Prosperity’ which seeks to reinvest hydrocarbon rents in national development projects looks to be a useful start, yet economic integration with its regional neighbours will be the key to sustained economic performance.

Mauritania’s 2015 entry into the trading structure of the Economic Community of West African States is an important beginning in this regard. Mauritania’s coastal access has facilitated the emergence of a competitive fishing industry and may see Nouakchott serve as an important gateway port for landlocked regions of the Sahel.
 

The discovery of lucrative gas deposits on the maritime border between Mauritania and Senegal may prove a mixed blessing.

The prospects for economic development in the country are intimately linked with underlying political tensions. Whilst the establishment of the G5 Sahel Alliance and support from the European Union and UN has helped achieve short-term security imperatives, the primary drivers of instability remain economic- low wages, limited employment prospects, and a lack of educational access in the country’s rural hinterland.

It is little surprise that the majority of Mauritanian recruits for Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb hail from its impoverished South-Eastern corner. Economic integration and a joint G5 project geared towards developing the Route D’Elespoir which stretches from Nouakchott to Nema, close to the Malian border may yet aid an agriculture resurgence and stave off economic insecurity.

 
Wealth inequality also intersects with the country’s most deep-seated issue: race. Access to economic and political opportunities tends to be restricted to the country’s Arab-Berber population, whilst the indigenous Afro-Mauritanian population and Haritane descendants of 

African slaves continue to face discrimination. According to the Global Slavery Index, until 2017, Mauritania claimed an unenviable title as the nation with the highest percentage of slaves per-capita.

At that time, SOS Slavery, an NGO, estimated that as many as 600,000 people were enslaved or worked in slave like conditions. Whilst Mr Ghazouani has pledged to crack down on discrimination on the basis of social caste and take allegations of slavery more seriously, solutions to Mauritania’s vexed racial problems will require both economic reform and an unprecedented level of political openness on the country’s shameful racial past.

Afro-Mauritanian campaigners have long called on the government to establish a truth and reconciliation commission to address past human rights failings and any path towards a more just and democratic future will require grappling with these difficult issues.

According to the Global Slavery Index, until 2017, Mauritania claimed an unenviable title as the nation with the highest percentage of slaves per-capita.

For now, there is much to celebrate. Mr Abdel Aziz’s standing down from power and a peaceful election cycle aligns Mauritania with a norm of democratic alternation prevalent in West Africa but rare in the Arab world, whilst a reconfiguration of foreign relations augurs well for future prosperity. Yet much remains to be done to translate hopes and ambitions into lasting political advancement.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Al Bawaba News.


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