It seems that all Mauritania's sources of discontent are erupting at once. But protests are nothing new in this land where a coup has been the answer to every political ill, whether real or imagined, for decades. Ein Gastbeitrag von Anita Hunt.
The coup in which the Aziz regime seized power in 2008 created a wave of protest, which continued despite General Aziz switching to civilian garb and claiming a democratic victory in the 2009 presidential election. After a year in which they failed to complete national registration, failed to maintain dialogue with the opposition, and postponed legislative, parliamentary and municipal elections indefinitely, the Aziz government is teetering on the brink of legitimacy. Many of those who accused the junta of merely paying lip-service to democracy in order to add a veneer of respectability and secure regional and international acceptance (and funding) are now feeling fully vindicated.
Anti-government protests which resurfaced last year have been increasing in recent months and are currently a daily occurrence in Nouakchott and elsewhere. Throughout all this, the junta continues to impose constitutional and legislative changes, and to enter into financial and trade agreements with foreign investors, lenders, and trade partners.
Geographically, Mauritania is a foreign invention. The uncomfortably angular shape of Mauritania's north eastern borders were decided long ago by colonial powers in London and Paris. There are few links with London now, although last October, William Hague did become the first the British Foreign Secretary to visit. But deep ties with France persist, and many are watching to see how the outcome of the French presidential election will impact the country. The neighbours who inhabit the other side of those awkward borders are also subject to the vagaries of Mauritania's fickle nature. Western Sahara lost its southern region to Morocco when Mauritania decided to withdraw from occupation after being outclassed by the POLISARIO rebel force in 1979. In Mali's case, there is an almost total lack of respect for their sovereignty, as evidenced by close associations with the MNLA (Mouvement National pour la Libération de l'Azawad) and frequent military sorties supposedly targeting AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) - even if those targets turn out to be civilians. During the relatively brief 1989 conflict with Senegal tens of thousands were forcibly expelled or repatriated between the two countries. The enmity was eventually resolved, but there is no great bond between them, as the April crackdown on Senegalese workers and residents in Nouadhibou demonstrates. While Mauritania worked with the UN HCR to repatriate some of the Senegal refugees, a process which was declared complete only last month, those in Mali were never even counted. In a peculiarly schizophrenic episode, tens of thousands of Malians displaced by the unrest the north are now refugees being sheltered in Mauritania.
As a member of the Arab League, Mauritania has always had close relations with the Gulf States, although some, for example Saudi Arabia or Kuwait, are perhaps closer than others. Once deeply indebted to Muammar Gaddafi's patronage, Mauritania was an unexpected choice as chair of the African Union's special committee on Libya. They were also one of the last of the Arab states to officially recognize the National Transitional Council, and entertained visitors from both sides during last year's conflict. This year finds them playing host to former Libyan intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senoussi, after an arrest which France claimed to have a hand with, and showing no signs of releasing him from "detention" any time soon. Mauritania is not a signatory to the convention which mandates the ICC, and they have not entered into discussions; general consensus is he will be returned to Libya eventually.
One of only four Islamic Republics in the world, Mauritania might be expected to enjoy close relations with Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, but this is not necessarily the case. Relations with Iran did seem warm last September, when they received Ahmadinejad and his entourage on the way to and from the UN General Assembly in New York. They seemed to have cooled by March, when Mauritania voted in favour of extending the UN Human Rights Special Rapporteur's mandate. But by early April, Iran had "repatriated" former Al Qaeda strategist Mahfouz Ould al Walid aka Abu Hafs al Mauritani, who arrived to join his family, already returned from Iran. For company,they have one of Osama bin Laden's former wives and her children. The presence in Mauritania of Al Qaeda "royalty", even if they are now supposedly retired, is rather disconcerting in light of the newly-declared "Azawad" having been hijacked by AQIM. Senoussi’s presences adds another dimension to this situation: as former Libyan intelligence chief he has contacts from all interested parties among his extensive network.
By all accounts, Mauritania is firmly against terrorism, and its preferred brand of moderate Islam is jihad-free. In fact the government has carved out a cosy niche as a player in the global war on terror, with its lucrative funding opportunities. This might not last, however, as it seems USAID has reduced its funding budget in the coming year, and there's some uncertainty with France, as noted. The EU remains an important source of funds.
Despite its massive land area of over 1 million km2, the majority of Mauritania's population - which is roughly the same as that of Berlin - is concentrated in the capital Nouakchott, and the port of Nouadhibou. These cities lie on the West coast where the Sahara desert meets Mauritania's vast fishing grounds in the Atlantic ocean. While the sea provides a wealth of fish, not much reaches land: most of it is destined for export after processing in huge factory ships. The European Union has just ordered its fleet to cease fishing in the waters, as the quota has been reached and their agreement expires in July 2012. Meanwhile China has moved in as another pelagic fishing partner, under a deal that caused a public outcry.
The inhospitable desert is also rich in natural resources such as iron, copper and gold. Another criticism levelled at the government concerns mining rights sold to foreign companies, such as Canada's Kinross, on terms which fail to provide a reasonable return. Protesters also demand an end to military dominance in government, and excessive military spending. As a placatory gesture after their recent agreement to purchase a $12 billion Super Tucano fighter aircraft from Brazil, plans for increased trade were mentioned, but will they materialise?
Decades of desertification and increasing frequency of severe drought have pushed people from a life of humble self-sufficiency as smallholders in rural villages to the cities. It's a race for survival, with the edge of Africa as the finishing line. But there are few opportunities for even skilled workers or university graduates in the cities, fewer still for semi-nomadic herdsmen and farmers with only a rudimentary education. The towns were not built to cope with such dramatic increase: essential support infrastructure is lacking, and plans to create or improve it are failing to keep pace. This situation is the basis for a raft of social issues - unemployment, poverty, homelessness, healthcare, education, social welfare - a constant source of domestic tension. Another source of social friction is racial discrimination, inescapable in a country with such a mixture of "white" and "black" Moors as well as black Africans and all possible variants.
This time last year, when the new population census and biometric registration programme was launched, there was an outcry over allegations of racial prejudice against black African citizens. This year, it is the turn of slavery to grab headlines. Recent media focus on slavery actually garnered little attention inside the country until a Saudi cleric suggested Muslims could seek atonement by purchasing the freedom of slaves in Mauritania. This was followed by a comment from the cleric, Sheikh Dedew - who is also the patron of the Islamist party, Tewassoul - that "slavery does not exist in Mauritania". In turn, this provoked Biram Ould Abeid, president of anti-slavery group "IRA" to hold his own Friday prayer meeting on 27 April, and afterwards burn several volumes by Islamic scholars which he said condone slavery. The response was immediate and massive. Angry protesters marched to the Presidential palace the next day, and president Aziz came out to meet them in full traditional dress instead of the usual couture suit, promising to defend Islam. Biram Ould Abeid and four of his associates were arrested that evening. Protests continued, with demands ranging from an apology to expulsion, and even execution for apostasy. Mauritania does use Islamic law, but has not actually executed anyone for many years. Whether knowingly or not, Biram Ould Abeid's attempt to demonstrate a link between Islam and slavery has provided a golden opportunity for Aziz to stifle the slavery debate and restore his flagging reputation by championing the one thing all people in Mauritania have in common: Islam.
Anita Hunt (Twitter: @lissnup) is an enthusiastic and active curator of human and civil rights news on social networks, with a special interest in the Middle East and Africa and publishes articles and guides on her blog at http://lissnup.wordpress.com. Anita also uses her technical skills and passion for design to create online campaigns and websites, a growing portfolio of artwork, and occasionally conducts training courses and seminar presentations.