Mauritania, to be Sanctioned or Spared?

Thursday, November 20, 2008 

By Alhassan Atta-Quayson,, Accra 

MauritaniaOn Wednesday 6th of August 2008, a group of high ranking military personnel, who were dismissed from their post earlier in the day, ousted the Mauritanian President Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi and the Prime Minister Yahya Ould Ahmed El Waghef in a bloodless coup d’etat. The coup occurred after series of events that had sharply diminished the popularity of the fledgling government, whose election was supported by the coup makers. General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz was instrumental in the August 2005 coup that got rid of Maaouya Sid’Ahmed Ould Taya and ended his 21 years in power.

Some of the more significant events which were alleged to have led to the overthrow of the Abdallahi-government include the re-appointment of 12 ministers in May 2008, who were part of the former government, a number of whom had earlier been accused of corruption. On the 2nd of July 2008, the government resigned before a vote of no-confidence was held. It is also believed that the freeing up of suspected terrorists and alleged reach out to Islamic hardliners earlier by President Abdallahi’s government partly explains the August coup.

Two days before the overthrow, the government suffered a severe blow when 25 members in the National Assembly together with 24 senators, out of the party’s 45, broke away from the ruling party, depriving it of its parliamentary majority. Finally, the very last but noteworthy among the events which culminated in the overthrow was the firing, in the morning of August 6, of senior military officials including General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz (formerly the head of presidential guard) and General Mohamed Ould Cheikh Mohamed Ahmed (formerly the chief of staff), who were very instrumental in the election of President Abdallahi’s government.

Important international organizations together with influential governments, after the coup d’etat, have paid the usual lip-service of condemnation and repudiation, which sometimes precedes taking influential strategic positions. These include the Arab League, Arab Maghreb Union, the African Union, the European Union, United Nations and World Bank. Among the countries who have repudiated this coup include : United States of America, France, Canada, United Kingdom, Morocco, Nigeria, and even Abdoulaye Wade’s Senegal.

One of these condemnations is the focus of this piece. On the 20th of October, 2008 European Union (EU) officials had a meeting with the junta leaders of Mauritania in Paris, France. In that meeting, the EU officials reiterated their position on the matter and called on the coup makers for the immediate and unconditional release of President Abdallahi as well as the restoration of constitutional rule to the country. All this was to be done within a one-month ultimatum! The EU, in that Paris meeting, cautioned the West African country’s new leaders that if they are unable to show the EU in a period of one month, how and when they will return to democratic rule, sanctions will take effect. By this, Mauritania stands the chance of either gaining or losing hundreds of millions in development and military assistance from the largest economic bloc in the world.

The question bothering observers is whether after the one-month ultimatum, Mauritania, with its new oil finds, will be sanctioned to maintain the credibility of the EU or be spared for reasons yet to be known. It is worth noting that on the 13th of November, ousted President Abdallahi was moved from Nouakchott, the country’s capital, to his home village, Lemden. Also the coup, which has become more popular and now supported by majority of the people of Mauritania, was supposedly a response to President Abdallahi’s alleged outreach to terrorist! Now the question of whether the EU will effect its sanctions on Mauritania or spare it is synonymous with whether the bloc will be willing to bring back a president with alleged links to terrorists, in the name of democracy, or ask to be allowed to lean on its long established believe in dialogue?

Other developments in the country are worth considering so long as sanctioning or sparing the country by the EU is concerned. Within 24hours after the coup had taken place and Abdallahi’s powers terminated, an 11-member High Council of State, with Abdel Aziz as the President of the Council, until a new "free and transparent presidential election" was held "in the shortest possible period", was established. Mauritania’s Ambassador to the United Nations, at a UN Security Council meeting, has described the coup as a "corrective measure’.

Few days afterwards, more than two-thirds of the members of the country’s National Assembly released a statement which backed the coup and referred to it as "the logical and indisputable result of President Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi’s behaviour to stall the republic’s institutions" (Wikipedia). Further, over four-fifth of the country’s elected mayors have backed the coup and all arrangements being made by the transitional leadership to restore democracy and constitutional rule in their own way, which is most likely to be different from the demands and expectations of the EU.

It is my expectation that the EU carefully study the situation on the ground and to pursue a course that will truly reflect the interest of all sections of Mauritania. After all, the demand for the restoration of democracy and constitutional rule is aimed at ensuring the respect for broader human rights of the very people of Mauritania.

The EU is hereby commended for its determination to vigorously address some of the political challenges that confront the continent. But all too soon, it must be very cautious as these issues are usually precarious and its course of action could make or break the country. Also, the African Union Commission, a more legitimate continental body, is being called upon, at this moment, to keep pressurizing the junta leadership to quickly revert to acceptable standard of democracy.
Finally, but of equal importance, is the need on the part of internal stakeholders of the country, particularly political parties, mayors, senators and members of the National Assembly, opinion leaders, and all citizens of the country who are against and in support of the coup to quickly resolve differences and to work assiduously to restore democracy.
Alhassan Atta-Quayson is graduate student of the University of Ghana and a columnist of