The long-expected political transition in Mauritania

By Philippe BannierMEDEA Institute

While the media focus on the situation in Syria and Iraq, the presidential elections in Mauritania took place on the 21st of June in an absolute discretion. It was a predictable outcome in this military-ruled Arab country since its independence in 1960. This former French colony, familiar with the military coup for the past decades[1], is currently ruled by Gen. Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, who has overthrown the 2008 first elected president. He was then elected president in 2009, and was unsurprisingly re-elected on Saturday 21st of June with 81, 89 % of the vote in a rigged election.

carte mauritanie

© Gizi Map. Mauritania in the region.

The decision of the main opposition platform (COD)[2] to boycott the election has put the turnout as the major issue of the scrutiny. The observers were expected to a surprise, but when the 54% of turnout were announced, the regime could claim to a success despite a clear lack of legitimacy of the election.

In fact, the surprise came from the anti-slavery candidate, Biram Ould Dah OUld Abeid, who has finished second with 8, 67 %, after the UPR (Union for the Republic), the presidential party. He used his campaign as an opportunity to lash out against the phenomenon of slavery towards black communities across the country, especially haratine and black Africans. Mauritania has officially abolished slavery in 1980, the last country in the world to do so. However, slavery-like practices are still on. The total number is not precise: according to the Foundation Walk Free, slaves represent 4% of the total population[3], i.e. approximately 150,000 people of 3, 8 millions; a Mauritanian NGO evaluates them at 20 % of the total population[4]. Whatever the statistic, the number of slaves is very high, so that Mauritania is at the top of the slave country worldwide.

Whereas they have finished second in the 2013 parliamentary election after the presidential party despite of calls for boycott from the opposition, the Islamist-minded party Tawassol (created in 2007, legalized in 2008) didn’t participate in the presidential election. They were persecuted and arrested in the 1990s, then they have taken part to the political sphere, extending their influence based on predication and charity works[5]. The leader Jamil Ould Mansour is a reformist accepting pluralism, even if some hard-liners inside the party contests the democracy and claims that Islamic law must be strictly implemented.


© Le Calame. Jamil Ould Mansour, the leader of the Islamist party Tawassol.

The West, and mainly France, has closely watched this election, because the President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz’s regime is a strong ally in the region. France has a strong interest in this region since it has launched its 2013 military intervention in Mali. In fact, Mauritania helps France to fight against Al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and welcomes in this strategic framework French military bases and receives a financial and military support. Mauritania is also a member of the Arab League since 1973 and received also a financial support from Gulf countries, as well as a political back from other members.

Human rights are steadily violated in this military-ruled country, ignoring the promises of a political transition since independence. Corruption is widespread and the exploitation of the country’s resources, especially minerals (iron and gold) and oil, has fostered a political and economic elite close to the military[6]. The press is muzzled and declared opponents don’t have access to the highest positions either within the State or in the economic sector. Moreover, a strict application of Islamic law in this Islamic Republic has resulted in many violations of human rights[7].

The experience of a first elected president in 2007, Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi, had raised hopes, but it was cut short when the military, led by Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, conducted a coup the following year. This period was marked by a relative liberalization in the media and in the political world (creation of new parties), but also by institutional and political crisis that have caused its failure.

président mauritanie

© AFP. The current president of Mauritania, Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz.

In the context of the “Arab Spring”, the whole country has been shaken by demonstrations, strikes and calls for democratic reforms. As in the other countries of the region, unemployment, especially among young people, corruption, human rights violations, economic plight, etc. have largely caused the uprising. However, the movement has not transformed into a full-blown civil war as in Libya or Syria: the effective policies in terms of security[8], social services and struggle against poverty have explained the relative popularity of the President. Securing pluralism, organizing free and transparent elections and the implementation of the rule of law should be now the struggles of tomorrow of the Mauritanians.


[1] Except in 1992, 2007 and 2009 elections, regime change are due to military coup since independence. The 2014 presidential election was held in the aftermath of the 2008 military coup.

[2] This platform brings together 11 parties, among them the most important in the country as the Rally of Democratic Forces, or the Tawassol (Islamists).

[3] https://s3-ap-southeast-2.amazonaws.com/gsiwpassets/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/GlobalSlaveryIndex_2013_Download_WEB_French.pdf

[4] http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/210740.pdf

[5] Ould Ahmed Salem Zekeria, « Les mutations paradoxales de l’islamisme en Mauritanie », Cahiers d’études africaines, 2012/2 n°206-207, p.635-664.

[6] Choplin Armelle et Lombard Jérôme, « La ‘Mauritanie offshore’. Extraversion économique, Etat et sphères dirigeantes », Politique africaine, 2009/2 n°114.

[7] http://www.theguardian.com/media/greenslade/2014/jan/13/journalist-safety-mauritania

[8] In 2007, four French tourists were killed in the country, and in 2009 an al-Qaeda suicide bomb had exploded in front of the French embassy. Since 2011, no such attacks take place.