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Mauritania: Continued Progress, or Stuck in the Sand?


[caption id="attachment_10421" align="aligncenter" width="600"] STUCK IN THE SAND: Mauritania's continued democratic development depends on a few key decisions. A car lodged in the desert in Tunisia. Photo by fjaviernunez, Creative Commons via Pixabay.[/caption]

Mauritania has reached a pivotal point in its post-2008 coup political transformation, when military officers overthrew the country's first democratically elected government. The country is situated where the Maghreb states of North Africa meet the Sahel states south of the Sahara. Neither wholly Arab/Berber nor wholly Black West African, its history and culture are deeply entwined with both regions. Outsiders often mistakenly relegate the country to a secondary status; however, if Mauritanian leaders make the right decisions on three important issues, the country can become a democratic development leader in the greater Maghreb-Sahel region, just as it has been a leader on counterterrorism. These three issues are the government's continued fidelity to Mauritania's constitution, full government partnership with civil society, and renewal of the country's institutions by full political participation in fresh elections by all democratically-inclined parties.

Term Limits

The first issue relates to a proposed constitutional amendment that would extend President Aziz's time in office. The people of Mauritania re-elected Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz to the presidency in 2014. However, most traditional opposition parties boycotted the election. This has left confounding problems for the president's ruling Union for the Republic (UPR) party, whose claim to power remains partly contested. The president was central to authoring the constitutional amendments that placed Mauritania on its positive post-coup course, amendments that he swore to uphold in his presidential oath. This puts him in a strong position to further Mauritania's democratic progress by overseeing a transition of power from one elected president to the next at the end of his term in 2019.

Of late, there is a growing clamor, mostly from UPR supporters, calling to extend the constitution's limit from two to three terms. UPR supporters argue such an amendment would promote Mauritanian stability, especially as the country faces growing strains from a sharply slowing economy. This, however, would set the country off its democratic course. According to the constitution, articles on presidential term limits cannot be amended. Failing to respect constitutional order would moreover lead to heightened political tension and further delay the country's democratic institutions from becoming deeply ingrained into the national consciousness, the sign of a mature democracy. President Aziz has not called for altering term limits. He should resist the calls of his supporters to do so. He has the historic opportunity to become the first president to oversee a transition of power between two democratically elected leaders in Mauritania's fifty-five year history.

Civil Society

The second issue is a draft association law that would significantly curtail Mauritania's vibrant civil society. Since the 2009 elections, civil society in Mauritania has grown — a change that is crucial to the country's post-coup national development. Civil society has a central role to play in human development, given Mauritania's demographic youth bulge and high youth unemployment. Civil society organizations provide education, incorporate young people into the public debate, and insulate the youth from extremist appeals. Mauritania was the last country in the world to formally ban and criminalize the practice of slavery. Although Mauritania's leaders are to be commended for recent efforts to strengthen laws and institutions that can prosecute and penalize such practices, the forced exploitation of human beings for labor still exists and requires long-term cultural and behavioral change. The state is not in a position to address these considerable challenges on its own. Rather, Mauritania's impressive anti-slavery network of civil society actors must be empowered to help end this practice, working in concert with state institutions.

The draft association law as currently written would place stringent, prohibitive conditions on civil society with regards to registration, prior approvals to meet, permits to conduct work, and onerous financial reporting. It would also restrict the ability of international organizations to assist them. The law is similar to Egypt's restrictive civil society laws, and it would most certainly yield the same results as those seen in Egypt, namely curtailing organizations that do needed work and silencing dissenting voices. Instead of proceeding on this shortsighted path, Mauritanian leaders should adopt the affirmative association law drafted in 2007, that, by international standards, would put Mauritania in a leadership position in both the Sahel and the Maghreb.

Political Inclusiveness

The third key issue pertains to full participation in Mauritania's democracy by the full range of the country's political parties. Since some of Mauritania's main opposition parties boycotted the last local and parliamentary elections in 2013, these decision-making institutions reflect only part of the spectrum of Mauritanian political opinion, depriving the country of essential voices. President Aziz is attempting to address this governing deficit by seeking to build a national consensus with all of the country's political stakeholders through dialog. Some key opposition parties, however, have thus far rejected the idea. In order to move the process forward, the president should offer to move up the timeline for fresh elections at the local and parliamentary levels based on the agreement to participate by all of the main political stakeholders.

Looking Ahead?

Mauritania is one of the least developed and most unequal countries in the world, ranking 156th out of 188 in the UN's 2015 human development index. At least 42 percent of the country, and probably more, is illiterate. It continues to be stymied by the heinous practice of slavery and it now faces a potential economic crisis as the world price of iron — Mauritania's largest export — has declined. These conditions make moving ahead on difficult political and governance reforms appear impossible. However, the governance crisis that the Mauritanian people could face in the coming year or two makes it absolutely essential that the country's leaders create the broadest and most representative mandate possible to deal with these problems, that they encourage civil society to be a partner, and that they adhere to the rule-of-law in the process.

Success on these issues positions Mauritania to be a leader in both the Sahel and the Maghreb regions and the beneficiary of increased international attention and support, including on items like Millennium Challenge Corporation threshold eligibility. Beyond notable progress on political and human rights, these measures can also have a profoundly positive impact on Mauritania's climate for business, foreign investment, and needed economic diversification and growth. Failure to undertake these measures places Mauritania at risk of getting stuck in the sand for a long time to come.

Scott Mastic is the Middle East and North Africa director at the International Republican Institute (IRI). He visited Mauritania last month on an assessment to determine whether IRI might play an assistance role there.

Please note that the views expressed here are solely theresponsibility of the author, and not those of the Wilson Center.

About the Author

Scott Mastic

Regional Director, Middle East and North Africa at the International Republican Institute

Africa Program

The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and US-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial US-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in US-Africa relations.    Read more