After one year in power, democratic president gets vote of confidence

President Sidi Mohamed Abdallahi Ould Cheikh took office as Mauritania’s first democratically elected civilian president in 47 years one year ago on 19 April 2007. He marked the completion of his first year in office facing down terrorist threats and a shaky economic outlook. Abdullahi is nonetheless expected to continue on the path of reform, analysts told IRIN.

The path to Abdallahi’s presidency was laid by Ely Ould Mohamed Vall, Mauritania’s ex military leader, who took power in August 2005 in a bloodless coup ousting President Maaoya Ould Sid’Ahmed Taya, who had held onto power for 21 years.

Vall vowed to hold a referendum on constitutional changes and to pave the way for democratic elections in 2007, both of which he achieved ahead of his own schedule, resulting in the election of President Abdallahi in March 2007.

Abdallahi has been credited with furthering Vall’s efforts to introduce democracy to Mauritania. He allowed the formation of political and religious associations that had long been banned under President Taya’s rule.

“Abdallahi is not a populist president - he has made sensible promises that he can live up to,” said Richard Reeve, an independent West Africa analyst.

Prominent Islamist parties such as Tawassoul and the Rally for National Reform and Development have quickly become well-established.

“The President has broken a thirty-year taboo by allowing the creation of my party.” said Jemil Ould Mansour leader of Tawassoul.

''...Abdallahi is not a populist president - he has made sensible promises that he can live up to...''

Rights and refugees

President Abdallahi has also lived up to a number of the promises made in his first presidential speech on 29 June 2007, among them to bring an end to slavery which persisted despite a 1981 law criminalising it, and to ensure the Afro-Mauritanian refugees who were expelled from the country in 1989 could return.

Parliament passed a law in August 2007 criminalising slavery and making it an offence punishable with up to ten years in prison. Widely praised by anti-slavery campaign groups, it nonetheless remains to be seen how it will be applied.

“This law is a major breakthrough”, Biram Ould Dah of SOS-Slaves told IRIN, “but the judiciary has yet to make progress to enforce it.”

The director of FONADH – a Mauritanian forum for human rights groups - Mamadou Moctar Sarr, told IRIN: “Slavery is a difficult thing to identify – it goes on behind closed doors, but since this law was passed we have already seen a stigma around it starting to emerge.”

Progress has also been registered on the refugee returns. On 29 January 2008 the first of several thousand Mauritanian refugees started to return home with the help of the government and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), 19 years after fleeing inter-ethnic violence at home.

Fears that the returnees would struggle to reintegrate into Mauritanian communities have proven unfounded. 

Photo: Manon Riviere/IRIN

Economic reforms

The President also vowed in his early stages in office to try to reduce poverty by tackling corruption, bolstering the economy and creating more jobs. Roughly half of the country still lives in poverty according to the World Bank.

It is here that progress has been more limited, according to analysts.

Government statistics released on 22 April showed just under a third of the working-age population is officially unemployed.

“Mauritania rests on a fragile economic base,” one diplomat in Nouakchott said.

The country’s economic mainstays are still fishing, though its waters have been over-fished, and mineral extraction.

Major oil deposits were discovered in Cinguetti and Tiof in central Mauritania in 2001, and Mauritania’s economic growth leaped to 11.4 percent in 2006 as oil production came on-line.

But the sector fell into disarray in 2007 as production tailed off and exploitation groups quibbled over whether surveys of the potential size of Mauritania’s oil fields were wrong, or shoddy equipment was to blame for the reduced flow of oil.

Economic growth levels dropped to 0.9 percent in 2007, according to Reuters.

Against this backdrop there is “little economic room for manoeuvre”, Reeve said, particularly when compounded by the global reality of the impact of rising food and fuel prices on a country that can only meet 30 percent of its food needs.

“The food and fuel price crisis poses an enormous constraint on the President’s ability to make things look better as well as to be better. This poses a phenomenal challenge for a government in its second year of office,” Reeve told IRIN. 

'' and fuel price rises pose...a phenomenal challenge for a government in its second year of office...''

President Abdallahi must tread a careful line between maintaining ties with Western donors and international financial institutions such as the US government, International Monetary Fund and World Bank, and Arabic finance institutions such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, according to Reeve.

Terrorist threat

According to United States Ambassador to Mauritania Mark Boulware, the President is currently perceived as focusing on the right things – human rights, democracy, cracking down on corruption, government openness and listening to the electorate – which could stand it in good stead for increases in donor financing, as well as potential large sums of foreign direct investment in the near future.

At a December 2007 donor conference in Paris, US$2.1 billion was pledged to the government, well above the US$1.5 billion called for.

However, a growing terrorist threat could undermine the country’s democratic progress and economic goals, and its position among donors.

Mauritania has traditionally practiced a tolerant form of Islam that many analysts thought would protect it from the growing Islamic radicalisation that is taking hold in parts of neighbouring Mali and Algeria

But in December 24 2007 four French tourists were killed by members of the terrorist group Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in southern Mauritania.

In early February the government says terrorists attacked the Israeli Embassy in Nouakchott, wounding three of people.

Fears of further attacks caused the Paris-Dakar rally which normally crosses the Sahara through Mauritania to be cancelled for the first time in the rally’s 30-year history.

“There is no strong terrorism network here per se, but there are pockets of cells that could spread,” the diplomat in Nouakchott said.

The pressure, according to Reeve, comes principally from AQIM, motivated by Mauritania’s continued ties with Israel.

But Boulware said, “The government has a handle on these issues. Mauritanians overwhelmingly reject these kinds of actions. Achieving sustainable development, building national unity and institutionalising democracy are the country’s real priorities.”

Other threats

Mauritanians point out that their country faces home-grown threats other than  terrorism.

The bloated, poorly trained military and growing evidence of well established drug networks in the country are problems that should not be ignored, according to opposition politician Mohamed Ould Maouloud of the Union of Forces for Progress (UFP) party.

“In countries where we have seen drug trafficking become entrenched, it has been a ticket to instability,” the diplomat told IRIN.

Another diplomat in Nouakchott worried the reform agenda could still be challenged by powerful factions who remain close to former President Taya who is currently in exile in Qatar.

“There will always be concerns from adherents of Taya’s regime that as democratisation continues, their slice of the pie may shrink,” the diplomat said.

Most observers are nonetheless sanguine about the President’s first year in office.

“Despite numerous obstacles, the government is ticking all the right boxes when it comes to reforms”, a representative of one of the foreign donor agencies in Nouakchott said.

“There were very high expectations of the President after the elections. People are always going to be frustrated that things don’t change more quickly, but that doesn’t mean they won’t give him a chance.”