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Journal of Democracy 12.3 (2001) 88-95



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Francophone Africa in Flux

Mauritania's Stalled Democratization

Boubacar N'Diaye


In April 2001, the Islamic Republic of Mauritania entered the tenth year of a democratization process ostensibly aimed at transforming a country that had been ruled by an overtly repressive military regime. Ten years is long enough to allow a reasonable assessment of the experiment. On the surface Mauritania exhibits all the trappings of a democracy. The country has held multiparty municipal, legislative, and presidential elections, often with more than a dozen political parties competing. It has a National Assembly and a Senate. There are no known long-term political prisoners, and there appears to be a vibrant press. These attributes give the impression that Mauritania is a benevolent and tolerant democracy, an image that the government has painstakingly and assiduously tried to project. These efforts, abetted by the fact that the country usually generates little international interest, have been so effective that even perceptive observers of Mauritania have failed to understand the true nature and inner workings of the post-1992 regime. When it comes to Mauritania, appearance is seldom reality.

This divergence was apparent in events surrounding the country's fortieth anniversary celebration in late 2000. As the president unveiled political measures (a mixed electoral system and a new system for financing political parties) promoted as major strides toward anchoring "Mauritania's young democracy," dozens of students and intellectuals, accused of a graffiti campaign against the regime, were arrested, tortured, and put on trial. Three army officers were arrested for supporting student rallies. On 28 October 2000, a major opposition political party, the Union [End Page 88] of Democratic Forces-New Era (UFD-EN), was banned following a special meeting of the cabinet. Many of its leaders were arrested (and subsequently released) without apparent justification. Finally, a number of independent publications were closed in rapid succession. This unflattering reality is in sharp contrast with the promising political situations in Mauritania's neighbors, Mali and Senegal.

The regime created nearly a decade ago by Colonel Maaouya Ould Sid'Ahmed Taya closely approximates what theorists of democratization variously call a "virtual democracy" or "pseudodemocracy." 1 A look back at the factors that compelled Ould Taya to jump on the democratization bandwagon in 1991, and his subsequent shrewd maneuvers to retain power, can help us understand Mauritania's current political impasse. But first, it is necessary to say a few words about the country and its political history.

Mauritania has long been considered the trait d'union (hyphen) between sub-Saharan and Arab North Africa. Claimed by Morocco as part of its territory, Mauritania needed all the backing of its former colonial power, France, to secure international recognition for its independence in 1960. Mokhtar Ould Daddah, the country's first president, confronted the daunting tasks of managing centrifugal ethnic, cultural, and political forces and building a modern infrastructure from scratch.

Mauritania's estimated 2.5 million people are divided into three major ethno-cultural groups, each representing roughly a third of the population. The nomadic Arab-Berber (Beydane, or "White" Moor) tribes live mainly in the north and the east and monopolize all facets of political and economic power. The second set comprises four black ethnic groups (the Halpulaar, Soninke, Wolof, and Bambara) who live mainly in the south. Since the 1960s, these groups have struggled to assert their non-Arab cultural identity and to claim a more equitable share of political and economic power. Finally, the Haratines and Abeed, probably the largest group, are (freed or still enslaved) descendants of enslaved black Africans. They identify culturally and psychologically with their former or current Beydane masters, with whom they share the same language and Arab-Islamic culture. One of the most significant recent developments in Mauritanian politics has been the emergence of the Haratines as a potential social and political force. The El Hor ("freeman") movement has been at the forefront of the Haratines' quest for a greater political role and their fight against the persistence of slavery and the exploitation of former slaves.

Mokhtar Ould...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-3214
Print ISSN
1045-5736
Pages
pp. 88-95
Launched on MUSE
2001-07-01
Open Access
No
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