Mauritania’s new military leaders are encouraging voters to massively take part in a referendum on Sunday aimed at promoting democracy and preventing presidents from remaining in office for more than two terms.
The country’s former president of over 20 years, Maaouya Ould Sid'Ahmed Taya, was ousted in a coup in August 2005, leaving power in the hands of a military junta headed by Colonel Ely Ould Mohammed Vall that pledged to restore democracy as quickly as possible.
Vall is the main proponent of the referendum that will, if passed, prevent future heads of state from remaining in office for more than two consecutive terms, with the mandate cut from the current six years to five, and an age limit of 75 years.
“Imagine an entire generation that is born, grows up and sometimes ages under the same regime,” said Vall during a tour of the country to promote the referendum last month. “It is that political system that almost led us on a dangerous path towards total destruction.”
“It is that system that you will condemn by adopting these constitutional changes,” he added.
But the leader of last year’s bloodless coup reminded voters that the decision lay in their hands. “Each citizen is free to vote against these amendments…But those who let this historical opportunity slip by will pay a very high price,” Vall said.
Democracy has remained largely elusive in Mauritania, a vast state that straddles the most western expanse of the Sahara desert. Taya was three times returned to power through the ballot box, but each time polls were mired in allegations of fraud and after the most recent presidential ballot in 2003 opposition candidates were arrested by security forces.
Yet the African Union, former colonial power France and the United States all initially denounced the 2005 military coup.
Vall’s reassurances of a quick return to democratic processes have since won him international recognition however.
At home, Mauritania’s political opposition too has largely sided with Vall, urging Mauritanians to vote in favour of constitutional change on Sunday. Even Taya’s former ruling party, the Republican Party for Democracy and Renewal (PRDR), has issued a guarded approval of the changes.
“Of all the transitional changes, 25 June will be an historic date for the institutions of the republic,” said a PRDR statement. The vote will be a test run for parliamentary and local elections scheduled for 19 November and a presidential ballot due 11 March 2007.
But of the country’s 30-odd parties, a handful not represented in the former assembly called for a boycott of Sunday’s vote. “Even if amended, the constitution worries us. It does not address humanitarian issues, access to resources, the fight against poverty… Such a constitution should not be modified but fundamentally changed,” said the Liberty, Equality and Justice Party.
Mauritania, one of the poorest countries in the world according to the UN, became Africa’s newest oil producing nation this year. Economists say the modest oil earnings could transform the country. Mauritania’s annual GDP is just US $1.5 billion according to the World Bank.
Meanwhile, as the country gears up for the ground-breaking ballot, two army officers and three civilians close to former president Taya were arrested earlier this week. Vall accused them of planning to sabotage the referendum.
The vote takes place following a nationwide registration that ended 30 April during which nearly one million of Mauritania’s sparse population of three million registered to vote.