Ould Taya wins election, but still faces growing discontent

Mauritanian strongman Maaouiya Ould Sid'Ahmed Taya won last week's presidential election amid howls of fraud from the opposition and promptly jailed his main challenger at the polls.

But opposition figures say the 63-year-old president may soon face a fresh showdown with the disgruntled army officers who nearly ousted him in a bloody coup attempt in June.

"The June event can still repeat itself one thousand and one times because the factors still exist," Messoud Ould Belkheir, an opposition presidential candidate who was officially credited with 5.3 percent of the vote told IRIN."I believe that the conditions on 8 and 9 June are still very much there."

"It is evident that if all exits are blocked the pot will explode one of these days and it will cause a lot of damage," warned Ahmed Ould Daddah, another opposition candidate who according to government figures, won 6.9 percent. "We had a taste of that possiblity on 8 and 9 June and it should have served as a lesson to Ould Taya," the former central bank president said.

The coup attempt resulted in tanks shelling the presidential palace. Ould Taya disappeared for 24 hours before popping up again on state television as loyal army units put down the rebellion. According to the state prosecutor, 129 serving and retired military personnel are now in detention awaiting trial for their part in the uprising.

But their ringleader, Saleh Ould Hanena, a major who was drummed out of the army three years ago, remains at large.

Last week he appeared on the Arab Al-Jazeera television network threatening that unless Ould Taya ran a clean election he would "open the gates of hell" in Mauritania, a desert country of 2.5 million people that forms an uneasy bridge between the Arab world and Sub-Saharan Africa.

Ould Taya, who has ruled this former French colony with an iron hand since he came to power in a bloodless coup 19 years ago, was officially credited with 66.7 percent of the vote in the 7 November election. However, few people believe that this was the result of an honest vote count.

"I am Maaouiya 100 percent. I voted for Maaouiya, but between Allah and us, this election was not normal," a fruit seller in the capital Nouakchott confided in broken French.

Alpha Jallow, a BBC correspondent in the southern town of Selibaby, near the Senegalese border, shared this opinion. He was surprised to hear the Interior Ministry announce the final results of the election over the radio last Saturday while he was still watching the local votes being counted.

The morning after the government announced that Ould Taya had been returned to power for a further six years, police arrested Mohamed Khouna Ould Haidalla, the main opposition presidential candidate.

Calling for change at the top as a starting point to solve Mauritania's problems of grinding poverty and massive unemployment, he had put together a broad coalition of liberal reformers, Islamic militants and disaffected former supporters of Ould Taya.

Ould Haidalla, 63, was military head of state from 1980 to 1984, but he was kicked out by Ould Taya in the 1984 coup. Official results credited him with 18.7 percent of the vote in last week's election. But before voting began the government warned that Ould Haidalla was planning to make a comeback by force if the polls went against him.

Supporters of Ould Taya, who include the governments of the United States, France and neighbouring Morocco, argue that he has modernised and reformed the economy along lines approved by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank and has introduced a democratic constitution, which allows - in theory at least - for free speech and regular multi-party elections.

Taya himself boasts that he has built roads, schools and the infrastructure of a modern state in Mauritania, which until independence in 1960 was simply an expanse of desert administered by France from the town of Saint Louis, in neighbouring Senegal.

At home, those most visibly overjoyed by Ould Taya's re-election were the light-skinned "Bidan" Moors of Nouakchott's small, but affluent middle class. They rode about the city's sandy streets in flashy four-wheel drive cars, honking their horns to celebrate.

The Bidan have traditionally formed the backbone of Mauritania's ruling elite and they have been the major benificiaries of government jobs and patronage.

But among Mauritania's"Harratin" black Moors, who comprise the majority of the population, there was a mood of quiet resignation.

"Life is very difficult for blacks," one Harratin hotel worker told IRIN. "Don't you see it for yourself?"

The Harratin formerly served as slaves to the Bidan. And since slavery in Mauritania was only abolished by law 22 years ago, the memory of their subjection is still fresh.

But the Harratin have a high birth rate and many young members of the community are educated and ambitious.

Cheick Saad Bouh Kamara a sociology professor at Nouakchott university and one of Mauritania's leading human rights activists, told IRIN that the Harratin were growing restless. "They have a policy of having lots of children, they increasingly send their kids to school and they want power," he said.

The minimum wage in Mauritania is US $20 per month, but many people do not even get that.

There is an army of unemployed people in the slums that surround the capital and officials of the United Nations World Food Programme say that over 200,000 subsistence farmers living on poor arid land in the south will still rely on food aid to survive for the next 12 months, despite this year's good rains.

They and the rest of the negro population that lives along the Senegal river valley, are effectively excluded from the power equation in Mauritania, even though they comprise about 30 percent of the population.

Of the six presidential candidates, five were light-skinned Bidan Moors and one, Ould Belkheir, was Harratin. None were negro.

With ethnic tensions continuing to tear at the fabric of society and the gap between the country's haves and have-nots growing ever wider, political analysts in Nouakchott said tight control of the security forces and the ability to buy off government opponents with jobs and other forms of government largesse would be key for ensuring Ould Taya's continued survival.

The military have run this Islamic republic ever since its first president, Moktar Ould Daddah, was deposed in a 1978 coup. A soldier's pay of $100 per month might not seem great, but it is five times Mauritania's minimum wage and makes the army relatively well off.

To keep government employees onside Ould Taya announced during the election campaign that they would receive a pay rise in January.

Others may also be paid off to keep quiet.

Ould Taya arrested several dozen Islamic fundamentalists earlier this year, but academics, lawyers and journalists in Mauritania suspect that many of these Muslim clerics may agree to take presidential money and keep quiet, despite their objection to Ould Taya's establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel four years ago.

Several members of Mauritania's educated elite said privately that Aicha Mint Jeddane, the only woman candidate in the presidential election was persuaded by Ould Taya himself to stand to help give the exercise a more democratic appearance.

They noted that she was a former member of the president's Democratic and Social Republican Party (PDSR) who was illiterate and unable to speak French. Arabic is now the official language of Mauritania, but French is still widely used in government.

A trump card up Ould Taya's sleeve as he tries to keep the lid on Mauritania's simmering pot of social ferment may be the imminent arrival of an oil boom.

A consortium led by the Australian company Woodside Petroleum struck oil offshore two years ago and has been dropping hints that it will shortly announce plans for the commercial development of its Chinguetti field. The Financial Times of London reported last month that Chinguetti could start producing 50,000 to 75,000 barrels of oil per day in 2005 or 2006 and maintain output at this level for 10 to 12 years.

The newspaper estimated that this would earn the government at least US $100 million per year, increasing its present export revenues from iron ore and fish by 50 percent. There are hopes that further exploration drilling could boost Mauritania's production capacity still further.

But until the oil revenues come on stream, Ould Taya may have to rely on the iron fist rather than the velvet glove to keep his house in order.

"The number of people arrested illegally and held in detention under Ould Taya is greater than the total held under all previous governments," said Sidi Ould Selem, the spokesman for presidential candidate Ould Daddah.

The president himself did not give press interviews during or after the election campaign.