Is Mauritania on the road to democracy?

Is Mauritania on the road to democracy?
4 min read
28 November, 2016
Or is it all a miscalculated adventure? Habibulah Lamin explores the legacy of Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz.
Aziz said he would relinquish power, but that doesn't automatically make Mauritania democratic [AFP]

After months of speculation, Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz has announced that he will not stand for re-election - setting the stage for the first democratic transition of power in Mauritania's modern history.

Mauritania has long waited for a democratic process to elect a leader after frequent military coups - from Ould Dadah's ousting in 1978 to the current president's own taking of power. 

However, October 21 appears to have marked the start of a new era, with Aziz telling Mauritanians he was not "planning to seek amending article 28" - legislation he introduced after coming into power in a 2008 military coup, limiting presidential terms to ten years.

Even so, the country remains politically divided, making it extremely hard to predict what is next for this nascent democracy.

The Mauritanian opposition, which represents a wide array of political groups, has not yet agreed on a united response, and, according to local media, one opposition official revealed "there are two opinions within the opposition forum on how to respond to Aziz's statement. And that there are continuous discussions between the two teams to agree on a united statement to announce later".

Mauritania's principal opposition boycotted the national dialogue summit, chaired by Aziz on September 30. Aziz announced: "My party, The Union for The Republic, is keen to dialogue and we extend our hands to all political parties.  The governing party has called for that platform to put on the table suggestions to modify the national anthem and the flag as well for a later referendum depending on the results of that dialogue."

Aziz was heavily criticised by the biggest coalition member of the opposition, The National Forum for Democracy and Unity, which organised marches in the capital, Nouakchott, to denounce any outcomes of such "dialogue".

I salute you for being here today to prevent the current government from hijacking our country

Cheikh Sidahmed Ould Babba, the president of the NFDU, told the crowd: "I salute you for being here today to prevent the current government from hijacking our country. We reject the results of the recent dialogue because it took place without our presence and the Democratic Alliance."

He added: "We condemn any amendments to the constitution during the current political division, because constitutions cannot be changed unless there is  comprehensive agreement."

He emphasised there should be other issues given priority by the government: "Our work should focus on fighting increasing prices, marginalisation, and strengthening national unity."

Alhadrami Ahemd Alhaib is a senior official at the Mauritanian ministry for food security. He praised the president for what he saw as a "brave decision". He also believes that Aziz "prefers the national interest over his own". 

"The reformation movement, which Aziz has been leading, is embodying democracy in its best practical patterns, and respecting the constitution is definite proof," Alhadrami told The New Arab.

Mauritania is classified as the top Arab country for press freedom. But a free press is not the only hallmark of a democracy. "I think that Aziz succeeded in improving the military performance to concentrate on protecting borders rather than internal affairs," said Alhadrami.

Mauritania's military has always had the final word when it comes to political decisions.

Perhaps Aziz's recent strategy will push for a greater role for civil society to engage in politics, with youth and women becoming policy makers.

During the past eight years, youth - and women in particular - have been increasingly present in running public affairs

"During the past eight years, youth - and women in particular - have been increasingly present in running public affairs," said Alhadrami.

Aziz has also crafted an international reputation as chairman of the African Union, and for hosting the Arab League, which held its first meetings in Nouakchott under his auspices. Construction of the Mauritanian international airport has also made him popular among many.

This might explains why the Union for the Republic party still holds a majority in the Mauritanian parliament and how it has gained support from other parties in Aziz's plan to replace the role of the senate house with regional councils  in managing the upcoming referendum. 

According to Algpress, Aziz met with his supporters among the senate and promised to make them chairs of those councils.

This attempted re-consolidation of power, if successful, makes it difficult to see the opposition in power.

"I do not think that the opposition is going to win the upcoming elections in 2019, because its vision is contained in speeches rather than fitting present political demands," said Alhadrami, the food security official.

Mauritania's apparent "transition to democracy" has remained a unilateral effort, since the opposition remains an observer rather than an influential executive authority. Democracy is about more than a peaceful transition of power.

Habibulah Mohamed Lamin is a journalist based in the Western Sahara refugee camps in Tindouf, Algeria. He has worked as a translator and is director of Equipe Media Branch, a group of media activists covering Western Sahara. His work focuses on politics and culture of the Maghreb.

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