- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 9, 2003

With its decision in the past decade to switch foreign alignments from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to the United States, Europe and Israel, the Islamic Republic of Mauritania appears to have sowed the wind of discontent at home.

Last month it reaped the whirlwind — an attempted coup d’etat that almost swept out of power the 19-year-old government of Maaouyah Ould Sid Ahmed Taya.

The coup, launched in the early morning of Sunday June 8 by disaffected Islamists in the military, raged for two days and had to be turned back “tank by tank,” as Mr. Taya told reporters in Nouakchott, the Mauritanian capital.

“There are groups not at all happy with our pro-Western stand,” said Mauritanian Ambassador Mohamedou Ould Michel in a recent interview.

Judging by the heavy force needed to crush the rebels and the continuing dragnet cast for disaffected Mauritanians, the envoy’s remark seemed to qualify as a masterpiece of understatement.

The Bush administration expressed pleasure at the failure of the coup attempt and the continuation of Mr. Taya’s rule.

Last October the United States created a little publicized Pan-Sahelian Initiative to assist Mauritania, Mali, Niger and Chad with equipment — radios, Land Rovers and the like — to defend their borders with their northern neighbors and to combat terrorism.

“In 1990 we tried to remain neutral, but nobody recognized our neutrality,” Mr. Michel said.

Asked whether Mauritania acted after weighing the economic benefits to be gained through Western alignment, Mr. Michel rejected that thesis.

“We acted because it was obvious to us that this was the thing to do,” he said.

“In a world situation in which one nation is dominant, it serves the interest of other nations to take this into account.”

A clear factor in Mauritania’s Western appeal was the surge of offshore-oil discoveries in West Africa. From Mauritania in the north to Angola in the far south new discoveries of offshore oil are being reported routinely.

For Mauritania, the numbers include a modest 100 million barrel reserve, with plans to eventually produce about 175,000 barrels daily.

Hardly earth shaking. But for a sparsely populated country of 2.7 million with a current average income of about $1 a day, the oil discoveries hold out hope for a better life.

Immediately after the coup, shares in Woodside Petroleum Ltd. and Hardman Resources Ltd., the oil consortium drilling offshore, plummeted.

But a spokesman for Woodside said the project remained on track to get the final investment green light in the middle of next year, according to the June 11 edition of the West Australian newspaper.

In 1999 Mauritania became only the third nation in the 22-member Arab League to recognize Israel, joining Egypt and Jordan. The act also made it the only nation in sub-Saharan Africa to extend formal diplomatic recognition to the Jewish state.

“Israel has to be recognized. It is obvious that it is here to stay,” the ambassador said.

“In opening formal relations with Israel, we were opting for peace over war”

Geographically, Mauritania forms the western anchor of the Sahel, the belt across northern Africa where the dessicated Sahara shades southward into grassland (savannah) and then into tropical rain forest until the bulge of the continent meets the Gulf of Guinea.

Historically the dominant Moors, descendants of North African Arabs and Berbers, have constituted about a third of the population, with roughly an equal number of Haratines, mixed-race descendants of black slaves.

Black Africans, concentrated in the southern part of the country near the rich farmlands of the Senegal River, make up the rest of Mauritania’s population and are divided into a number of important ethnic groups, including the Fulani, who dominate much of the Africa’s northern savannah, and the Wolof, who form the core population of Senegal.

Mauritanian governments have legally outlawed slavery at least five times since the early 1980s, but as in most societies with deep-rooted racial problems, changing the law did not automatically change the discriminatory condition.

The government continues to insist that there is no more slavery in Mauritania. But treatment of Haratines is still a highly controversial issue.

As if to demonstrate its expressed commitment to right past wrongs, the Taya government this week named Sghair Ould M’Barek, a 49-year-old lawyer from a family of Haratines, as its new prime minister.

There was no official explanation, but some saw the selection as a bid to secure Haratine loyalties with elections scheduled this November. The new prime minister is known for his Arab nationalist sympathies.

Criticism of Arab enslavement of blacks, emphasized by Western anti-slavery groups, has been directed largely against the government of Omar Hassan Bashir in Sudan, but slavery has historically existed across the Sahelian belt, as well as in the coastal regions of East Africa, where Arab seafarers come into contact with mainland blacks.

“If there is such a thing as a clash of civilizations,” said Joseph Sala, a former State Department officer and now a consultant on Africa, “it exists in this zone, and has existed for all the centuries since the Arabs conquered the Maghreb.”

Maghreb is the Arabic word for west, meaning the lands west of the Arabian peninsula, namely Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya.

The Maghreb is where Arabs and Berbers disseminating the Islamic faith have come into contact with black Africa, originally the home of traditional faiths, and later of Christianity.

“This is where brown meets black, with all the variations that human contact can possibly produce, including adoption of Islam, intermarriage, war and slavery,” Mr. Sala said.

This is the setting in which the anti-Taya coup erupted.

There were undoubtedly feelings that the Taya government was turning its back on Islam.

The coup attempt, begun in the early morning hours of June 8, closely followed the government’s crackdown after Islamic and other movements had intensified their activities since the start of the U.S.-led war on Iraq.

According to wire-service reports, the uprising appears to have been led by Saleh Ould Hnana, a tank colonel with suspected Ba’athist views, who was dismissed from the army last year for suspected involvement in a previous coup attempt.

He was backed by disgruntled forces within the air force and armored units from the military garrison at Atar, about 275 miles northeast of the capital, Nouakchott.

The fighting continued for two days, and the rebels appeared to have the upper hand. The palace, the radio station and key government buildings were taken and changed hands several times in heavy fighting involving tanks.

It took huge reinforcements to quell the uprising. The main hospital reported scores of dead and wounded and numerous civilians injured, though exact figures are unknown.

Having put down the coup, the government sent thousands of its supporters into the streets — denouncing the coup attempt and rallying support for Mr. Taya.

Since the September 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, Mauritania has repeated its determination to “combat international terrorism.”

Last November, the government closed the offices of the opposition Union of Democratic Forces and banned the party for reportedly fomenting violence. This provoked massive protests throughout the country, with 15,000 demonstrating in the capital.

Since the start of the second war against Saddam this spring, Mr. Taya, like other pro-American leaders in the Arab world, has cracked down against political and religious opposition.

Mr. Taya came to power as a colonel in a military coup in 1984. Since 1991, he has run a multiparty state in form, though his ruling Democratic and Social Republican Party is completely in control.

He won the presidential elections of 1992 and 1997 running as a civilian. The election of 1997 was boycotted by the five-party Opposition Front. Both elections are widely considered suspect. The last election gave Mr. Taya’s party 54 of 56 seats in the Senate and 64 of 81 seats in the National Assembly.

The next election is scheduled for November.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.


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