Thursday, August 7, 2008

Mauritania and coup-mania

Coup. Yep, the generals have ousted another democratically elected leader, this time in Mauritania. Following the standard procedure coup checklist, troops detained President Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi, took control of state radio and TV and announced the formation of a "state council" led by the commander of the presidential guard, Gen. Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz. Of course the newly formed junta has assured the public and the world that free and open elections are planned for as soon as possible, meaning most likely never. After all, Mauritanians would expect nothing less after having their first open elections just last year after 40 years of dictatorships since independence from France.

Again, why should we care, it's just Africa, right? Well, Mauritania is a lot bigger than you think, check the map here. Nearly twice the size of former colonial ruler France, it is rich in minerals and perhaps more importantly, it has oil. It's hoped that its off-shore oil reserves may yield millions of barrels of the black gold. Until then though, even the meagre 75,000 bpt output is over eight million dollars a day, not a bad income for a despot. Things haven't gone so well since independence in 1960 for this country and hopes are high that the oil fields can be further developed to bring some prosperity.

The region has been marked by waves of subjugation and domination. Around the 3rd and 4th century, the Berbers began to move in and displaced the Bafour people and the Berbers were in the most part supplanted by the Arabs beginning in the 8th century. The displaced usually moved south, bringing them into conflict with black inhabitants. To this day, these three groups are still vying for control. The Berbers tried to overthrow the power of the Arabs in the Mauritanian 30-year' war of 1644-74 but were unsuccessful, from which point the social structure of the region has been pretty much fixed with the Arab warriors at the top, the Berbers who turned mostly to clericism underneath and the black slaves at the bottom. The rivalries between these groups were easily manipulated by the French who became their colonial rulers beginning in the 1850's, officially becoming a colonial territory in 1904, then part of French West Africa in 1920.

Independence was gained on November 28, 1960, since which time there have been ten coup attempts. A series of dictatorships, coups, transition military governments and "supervised" elections have hindered any chance the independent nation had. The high point for the region came during the Almoravid dynasty when beginning in 1053 they began spreading their religious ways mostly through war. In 1076 they defeated the empire of Ghana. At its peak at the end of the century, the empire stretched over 3000 km north to south, from Spain to Senegal. They haven't had much luck of late, for example they were the hardest hit country by the African locust invasion in 2004, virtually wiping out their crop. Today's problems are more global in scale, mainly food prices and terrorism. As in much of the world, the cost of food has doubled in the past year in Mauritania, this a nation where 40% of the population live on a dollar a day. And yes, the terrorist thing and alleged al-Queda links. The Dakar rally was cancelled this year due to the murder of four French tourists, then gunmen fired on the Israeli embassy in the capital of Nouakchott. Yes, the strong arm of the military had to step in...

It's a shame really as president Abdallahi never really had a chance to implement policies. Severe flooding hit just a few months after he came into power, draining the government's meager resources. This is a nation in which an anti-slavery law was enacted by parliament just last summer, it's been big business there for hundreds of years. It is one of only three Arab nations to have forged ties with Israel and it's now former president was seen as an ally in the "war on terror", with special US forces helping train Mauritanian troops. They were re-admitted to the African Union in April of 2007. This is a big turn around from 1989, when the nation saw race riots or 1993 when the US cut aid as a result of the treatment of the black population and its support for Iraq in the Gulf War. These events came on the heels of its disastrous relationship with the Western Sahara, in which Mauritania did everything wrong in its dealings with the Polisario, Morocco and Spain.

A couple of days after the latest bloodless coup, the whereabouts of the former president are still unknown, with demonstrations both for and against. International condemnation has been trickling in, but the world will mostly have to sit back and watch to see what happens next in this no-luck country.