- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Good news and something bordering on the unique took place on June 22 in Mauritania of all places. Voters in this northwest African nation of less than 4 million went to the polls peaceably to elect a new president to succeed a retiring elected president.

Most observers reported that this election like the last went fairly smoothly. It’s been certified as fair by the African Union and the European Union, and while the losing candidates weren’t any happier with the results than Hillary Clinton was when she lost to Donald Trump, they haven’t been able to muster much popular support or evidence that it was anything but “free and fair.”

The retiring president wasn’t forced out and hasn’t been hauled off to jail. Instead, he retired voluntarily and plans to return to private life. It’s a shame that this went virtually unnoticed in the United States. In this country both because of the importance of Mauritania in the war on terror and Washington’s supposed interest in nurturing emerging democracies.

It used to be said that the definition of African democracy was “one man, one vote, one time.” Little has changed continent-wide especially at a time when more authoritarian models of governance are in vogue worldwide. Leaders who bump up against constitutionally imposed term limits tend to seek and obtain constitutional changes that allow them to remain in office, we hope that this Mauritanian experience will serve to many others in Africa.

Mauritania itself has suffered nine coups since gaining independence in 1960. Its retiring president, 62-year-old Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, was elected for a second term in 2014, he decided to not seek a third term and to abide by the constitution. He mobilized against the terrorists that threatened Mauritania and used the county’s vast virtually uninhabited desert as a sanctuary and staging ground for attacks on other nations in the region. In the process, Mauritania became a valuable ally of the United States and brought stability to his own country.

There were rumors that, like the rulers of the Congo Republic and Rwanda, the president would have the constitution amended to allow him to run for a third term this year, but he surprised many by announcing that he wouldn’t tamper with the constitution. He said that “changing constitutions for the sake of a single individual is unseemly.”

His country has more than its share of problems, but this election was decisive. Against two formidable and four minor opponents, Mohamed Ould Ghazouami won with 52 percent of the vote. Mr. Ghazouami is a former defense minister, widely recognized for his role in virtually eliminating terrorist activity within Mauritania. The runner-up won 18.5 percent of the vote promising to eliminate remaining pockets of tribally based slavery outlawed in 2007. The third-place candidate was aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood.

BBC reports that the election was decided by voters who remain concerned about security, but the newly elected president campaigned also on the need for economic development. Mauritania is a poor country, but rich in resources and potential. Iron ore along with copper, gold and petroleum are plentiful, but a shaky judicial tradition, bad tax laws and a lack of infrastructure have made it difficult to do business or attract much needed foreign investment. As a result, although the Mauritanian economy is dependent on mineral exports and a rich off-shore fisheries industry, the country is forced to import food and lacks the resources needed to reach its potential.

With a solid majority in his legislature, Mr. Ghazouami is in a position to deliver the legal, regulatory and tax reform that should get foreign investors to take a second look at the opportunities in his country. If he follows through on his campaign pledges, he has a real chance to modernize his economy, build a more democratic society and make Mauritania a positive example for the rest of the third world.

This success story gives the United Sates the opportunity to strengthen the political and economic and security relations with Mauritania, which will have an impact in the whole region and will encourage other countries to follow the example.

Mr. Ghazouani’s election proves that even in the poorest nations the seeds of democracy can take root. Countries that move peaceably from authoritarianism to democracy are rare and deserve support when they do.

It is up to Mauritania’s newly elected president to nurture his nation’s new-born democracy even as he continues the fight against terrorism and works to improve the lives of those who elected him.

It is going to be tough, but if he succeeds, the day may well arrive when the people of other poor, underdeveloped countries will look to Mauritania and say, “if they did it, we can too.”

• David A. Keene is an editor at large at The Washington Times.

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