President raises wages ahead of oil boom

Brushing aside plots to overthrow him and a weakening national currency, President Maaouiya Ould Taya has announced a massive increase in pay and pensions as Mauritania prepares to become Africa's newest oil exporter.

He announced a flat-rate pay rise of 8,000 ouguiyas (US$31)per month for all civil servants in a speech at the weekend to mark the 44th anniversary of independence. That will boost the salary of the lowest paid government employees by a third when it comes into force in January.

Some of the 2.8 million people in this desert country in West Africa may have wondered how Ould Taya was going to pay for such a huge pay rise following this year's devastating invasion by swarms of locusts which destoyed half of all crops and much of the pasture used by nomads to graze their animals.

But Ould Taya, a former army colonel who seized power in a 1984 coup, pointed to new riches on the horizon.

He said in a speech broadcast on radio and television that Mauritania would start to export copper and gold during the first half of 2005 and its first offshore oilfield would come on stream in December next year.

This is the second year in a row that Ould Taya has announced hefty pay rises for the civil service.

He badly needs to secure a strong base of civilian support following three failed coup attempts staged by dissident army officers over the past 18 months and his suppression of Islamic radicals who form the backbone of the civilian opposition.

Earlier this month, 181 military personnel and civilian opposition figures went on trial at a remote military barracks in the desert charged with plotting to overthrow the president.

The latest pay rise, which was accompanied by a 20 percent increase in state pensions was not greeted with universal popular acclaim. Trade union officials said there was no indication yet as to whether the increases would be tax-free. If not, they said, their impact would be limited.

Living costs have soared as the ouguiya has depreciated steadily in value against the euro and the dollar this year.

Ould Taya, who in recent years has courted the United States and France and cast himself as a moderniser, marked the latest anniversary of Mauritania's independence by inaugurating a bevy of new projects. These included dams, roads, water supply, electricity plants and 53 public libraries.

The inaugurations culminated in the opening of a new US$36 million terminal for offloading oil products at the port of Nouakchott and a new tank farm that triples the size of its oil storage facilities.

It is hoped these new facilities will help to relieve Mauritania's chronic fuel shortages as the country joins the ranks of Africa's new oil exporters.

Ould Taya said in his weekend speech that “important” new offshore fields had been discovered.

The Chinguetti offshore field will be the first to come on stream, producing around 75,000 barrels per day for export. The neighbouring Tiof field, which is even bigger, will follow a few months later.

But Ould Taya's upbeat speech was followed by disappointing news on Monday, when foreign oil companies announced disappointing results from an exploration well drilled in the Merou offshore block.

The oil and gas information group Rigzone has estimated that oil export will add about $100 million to Mauritanian government revenues by 2008, increasing them by a quarter. At present the country relies mainly on exports of iron ore and fish.