Aug. 9, 2008
Mauritania junta's promise of democracy in doubt
By Todd Pitman
NOUAKCHOTT, Mauritania (AP) _ The small clique of army generals who masterminded Mauritania's latest coup say all the right things: they want to end authoritarianism, they want elections, they want real democracy.
Problem is, that's exactly what they said after their last putsch three years ago, when they ended a 21-year dictatorship and set the stage for the first free ballot in the Islamic nation's history.
The 2007 vote transferred power to a civilian president, culminating an extraordinary era of optimism in Africa's newest oil producer. But today, the man who won is under house arrest and the new junta's familiar promises are ringing hollow.
Facing international condemnation, the generals' biggest challenge this time may simply be getting the world and a skeptical public to believe them.
That will be vital to assuring foreign investors and securing aid programs. The U.S. had already cut aid programs and the European Union has threatened to.
The U.S. sees Mauritania as a bulwark against the encroachment southward of al-Qaida-linked militants in North Africa. It had sent dozens of troops to train Mauritania's military in its far northern deserts, but it suspended those programs in response to the coup.
The coup raises questions not just about the veracity of the junta's claim they acted to protect the democratic institutions they established in 2005. Another uncertainty is whether the country's next elected leader will have any real autonomy or power if a new ballot is held.
"They talk of democracy, but they just want their hands on the power," 30-year-old Oumar Sow said of the army's top brass. He spoke Friday after attending a demonstration broken up by baton-wielding riot police who chased dozens of protesters holding the image of ousted President Sidi Cheikh Ould Abdallahi off a street in the capital Nouakchott.
If Wednesday's bloodless coup made anything crystal clear, it was this: the army is in control, democracy or no.
That's par for the course in Mauritania, a country of just 3 million people on the southern edge of the Sahara desert that bridges the Arab world with sub-Saharan Africa. The coup was the country's fifth since independence in 1960, and many more have failed.
Most Mauritanians seemed unfazed by the takeover.
Though their president and prime minister have not been heard of since being detained by soldiers last week, laid-back shoppers nipped in and out of grocery stores Saturday as usual. They devoured shish-kebabs at sun-blasted sidewalk cafes. And battered old Mercedes plied through traffic-snarled sandswept streets _ some passing a jeep mounted with an anti-aircraft gun standing guard outside the junta-controlled state radio station.
As one party held a rally Friday calling for Abdallahi to be reinstated, rivals drove by with newly printed posters showing junta leader Gen. Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz in military garb, honking horns in a bid to drown the rally out. It looked startlingly like a scene from the electoral campaign.
There has been no curfew, no big clamp down, no massive military presence in the streets. Indeed, driving around Nouakchott, its hard to tell there was even a coup at all.
But the fact there was does not bode well for a country _ or a continent _ trying to escape the vestiges of military dictatorships that stretch back decades. Some of the worst were in Nigeria, where juntas stayed in power for years, ruling police states low on human rights and high on theft of state treasuries.
Led by Aziz, Mauritania's junta seems altogether different, and well aware that military rule cannot last long. One of their first statements promised democratic elections "as soon as possible." A lawmaker supporting them suggested the transition might last a mere six months.
The putschists actually have a good track record. When Aziz engineered the last coup in 2005, his junta promised elections in 24 months and held them in 19 to widespread praise. It fostered a free press and guaranteed unprecedented personal freedoms.
Since then, critics say Abdallahi had become increasingly dictatorial and ignored the officers who backed his electoral win.
Exercising his constitutional right, Abdallahi shuffled his Cabinet several times, but in June parliament passed a vote of no confidence. Lawmakers demanded an investigation into allegations of corruption and misappropriation of public funds by his wife, and Abdallahi threatened to dissolve the legislature if the inquiry went forward.
Increasingly isolated, he tried to build alliances with Islamist politicians and those who had served in the regime of former dictator Maaouya Sid'Ahmed Ould Taya, who was overthrown in 2005's wildly popular coup.
When Abdallahi named Taya loyalists to the Cabinet last month, 49 legislators quit the president's own party in protest.
Abdallahi's actions were all constitutionally sound, and supporters credit him with helping bring home thousands of refugees from Senegal who fled decades before. Under his rule, parliament passed laws imposing harsh jail terms for the scourge of slavery.
His error was that he thought Mauritania's fragile new laws were actually strong enough to protect him.
The trigger came Wednesday when he fired the country's top four military officers _ including Aziz, who had given him the backing he needed to win the election. Though legal, it was a fatal miscalculation.
An hour later, Abdallahi was toppled.
But why didn't his critics, particularly those in the military, wait for the next round of elections in 2012? The goal of the junta's own democratic set up was ostensibly that power could only change hands at the ballot box.
"The wait-factor is a luxury we don't have," said Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou, a Foreign Ministry official who is a member of Aziz's extended family.
"It's regrettable this had to happen," said Mohamedou, who directed a Harvard University program on conflict research until returning home this year. "But we couldn't let dictatorship return under the guise of democracy."
At stake are potentially lucrative offshore oil reserves discovered in 2006 and extensive iron ore deposits under the sand.
Also, Mauritania is only one of three Arab League countries to recognize Israel, though that policy is almost certain to remain unchanged.
The country was wracked by a series of attacks this year and last blamed on Islamic militants. The slaughter of four French tourists on Christmas Eve prompted organizers of the famous Dakar Rally to call off the cross-continental road-race this year _ a severe economic blow.
Sow, the protester, said the coup set a dangerous precedent.
"We didn't really like Abdallahi, but he was democratically elected," he said. "What's the point of having a constitution if he can be forced out like that?"
Associated Press West Africa Bureau Chief Todd Pitman has covered the region for more than a decade.
Aug. 9, 2008