Crawl Across the Ocean

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Mauritania - Freedom (from pro-U.S. policies) on the March?

I see that there has been a coup in Mauritania. I have to admit that I know next to nothing about Mauritania, but I figured this was as good a time as any to change that, so I turned to my friend google for help.

Mauritania, located in Western Africa, is a pretty sparsely populated place, with a population under 5 million despite a land area twice the size of France. Of course most of that land is either in or trying to avoid being in, the Sahara desert. Quality of life indicators are generally in line with its neighbours (Senegal, Mali, Algeria) but that's not really a good thing as this is one of the poorest parts of the world.

Lonely Planet has a fairly succinct history of Mauritania, along with one of the most unenthusiastic writeups (from a travel perspective) I've ever seen,
"The biggest attraction Mauritania offers is the very desolation that keeps so many people away. For those with the true spirit of adventure, Mauritania is one of the least trodden spots in the world - and even those who find it godforssaken agree that it's exotic.

To see more than sand outside the small, staid capital of Nouakchott (which has its fair share of sand too) requires some planning and some luck."

Politically, the country has (had) been ruled by Ould Taya, who himself took power via a military coup, since 1984. Although there are democratic institutions these are widely considered a sham with opposition parties often boycotting elections to protest massive vote rigging when they are not banned altogether. The best article on the current political situation I've seen was by Andrew McGregor, director of Aberfoyle International Security Analysis, in Toronto of all places. (I found this article in the blog of an American working in Mauritania for the peace corps for the last two years - the blog makes for interesting reading to get a sense of daily life in Mauritania). The article was written earlier this year, and has some interesting insights into the connections between the political situation in Mauritania and the 'Global War on Terror':

"Mauritania, the vast desert refuge of the Arab/Berber Moors in northwest Africa, may seem a distant front in the war on terrorism. Yet the pro-Israel/U.S. policies of its President, Maaouya Ould Taya, have sparked an Islamic revival in this traditionally moderate nation, a country that takes pride in being the world's first Islamic Republic. Mauritania has experienced no domestic acts of terrorism or known al-Qaeda activity, but the President claims Islamists with foreign connections guided three recent coup attempts."

But the coup leaders themselves claimed different motivations:

"Coup leaders Major Salih Ould Hanana and Captain Abdul Rahman Ould Mini entered guilty pleas. Hanana used his time in court to deny receiving foreign assistance and to describe the President as "[A] despot who doesn't respect the laws of the country or international conventions" I wanted to change a rotten and illegal regime by way of a coup, similar to that launched on 12 December 1984 by President Ould Taya." [1] Islamist rhetoric was noticeably absent from Hanana's address. Ould Mini cited the tribalism prevailing in the government and the injustices in the army as reasons for his leading role in the "Knights of Change". [2]"

The recent discovery of oil offshore is a complicating factor as well:
"Calls for change have also been fuelled by the discovery of large offshore oil reserves. Production is scheduled to start next year at an initial rate of 75,000 barrels per day. While the amount is not large compared to some Arab states, it has life-changing potential for impoverished Mauritanians who survive on an average income of US$1 per day. The leading company in Mauritania's new offshore oil industry is Australia's Woodside Petroleum, with major contracts for development awarded to the Halliburton Corporation. The opposition fears that the oil revenues will be swallowed up by a well-entrenched system of government corruption."

Of note, the government's foreign policy has shifted dramatically over the years, from being a supporter of Saddam Hussein in the 1980's, to being one of the few Arab countries to have diplomatic relations with Israel:
"Ould Taya's shift in alignment from the Arab/Islamic world to the U.S. and Israel has created a wide gulf in Mauritanian society. The French and Arabic speaking Mauritanians feel a natural attachment to France (the former colonial power) and the Arab world. The Islamic opposition warns that allowing Israel to establish a presence in the country is to open the door to Israeli intelligence activities in North Africa. The U.S. and NATO are both interested in developing Mauritania as a cornerstone for anti-terrorism operations in North Africa."

The quite prescient (as it turns out) conclusion of the article is that the army would play a key role in deciding whether the pro U.S./Israsel Taya government would remain in power or whether he would be overthrown with the support of the marabouts, the traditional moderate Islamic leadership in the country:
"Ould Taya sees an opportunity to solidify his rule through participation in the war on terrorism, even if it means creating Islamist threats and external aggressions where none exist. Hanana and some other rebel officers come from warrior tribes that traditionally work closely with the marabouts. There may be further cooperation between these two castes to restore the customary balance of power within Mauritania. This local reaction to Ould Taya's tribalism and authoritarianism remains open to exploitation by Salafist extremists but no evidence exists that this process has begun. Growing ties with the U.S. and Israel are isolating the Ould Taya regime, which will increasingly have to rely on the loyalty of the army. Furthermore, Ould Taya may see a U.S. military presence and Israeli security assistance as insurance for the survival of the regime."

It's possible that Taya will find a way to regain control of the country or that the leaders of the new coup will just pick up where Taya left off and nothing will change except who benefits from the corruption, but there are other more interesting possibilities. From the globe article:
"The group, which identified itself as the Military Council for Justice and Democracy, announced the coup against President Maaoya Sid'Ahmed Taya, who was abroad, through the state-run news agency.

"The armed forces and security forces have unanimously decided to put an end to the totalitarian practices of the deposed regime under which our people have suffered much over the last several years," the statement said.

The junta said it would exercise power for two years to allow time to put in place democratic institutions."

If the new leadership decides to turn it's back on the pro U.S./Israel/war on terror stance of Taya and return to a more pro-Islamic, pro-Arabic position, then this would have to be seen as a setback in the 'battle for hearts and minds' in the Islamic world.

If (believe it when I see it) the new leaders are actually serious about creating a legitimate democracy (one which would almost undoubtedly lead to Islamic-oriented parties taking control) then this would be highly ironic. I can't put it any better than the sphinx does, "If they turn out to be genuine democrats who really do plan to hand over power to an elected civilian after two years, which seems by far the least likely option, then I suppose we should all be grateful. That would also be a bizarre outcome -- democrats overthrow a military ruler, backed by the United States because of his anti-Islamist activities, even as the United States advocates more democracy as an antidote to Islamism. Go figure."

Update: An interesting account of the events here. Seems like the locals (in the capital anyway) are pretty happy about the turn of events (and they ought to know).

Labels: , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home