Mail & Guardian

New flag, same old president

Mauritania’s referendum is being viewed as a prelude to changing the term limits for its leader

- Simon Allison

The design of the Mauritania­n flag is simple, yet classic: a yellow star and crescent set against a rectangle of emerald green. Too simple, says President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, who wants to add a thin band of red on the top and bottom. The red represents the blood spilled by his people in the fight against French colonialis­m.

On Sunday, Mauritania­ns approved the new design in a referendum with an 85% majority.

That wasn’t the only major change they were approving, however. The oui vote also amended Mauritania’s Constituti­on to abolish the Senate, which functions as the upper house of Parliament. In the run-up to the vote, Abdel Aziz described the Senate as “useless and too costly”.

Combining the flag issue with the Senate issue in a single referendum was a typically cunning move from the president: voting to keep the Senate would have also meant voting against honouring the martyrs from the independen­ce movement.

Or, as the president himself explained: “To vote no is to oppose the developmen­t of the country.”

Along with this electoral sleight of hand, opponents to the proposed changes also faced intimidati­on from security forces. “Protest leaders were reportedly beaten up and a number of them were arrested,” said the United Nations human rights office in the build-up to the referendum.

Nonetheles­s, there was still plenty of opposition to the president’s move. Eight opposition parties boycotted the vote entirely and civil society groups warned that this was the first step in an effort to extend the president’s time in office.

Abdel Aziz has two years of his second term in office remaining, after which he is constituti­onally mandated to step down. Critics fear that this new constituti­onal amendment — which was initially blocked by the Senate — paves the way for further constituti­onal changes that will allow Abdel Aziz to stay in the top job.

“We believe that, if there are things to change, they should be related to national unity — to ensure cohabitati­on between members of diverse ethnic groups, to make all national languages official to guarantee fairness,” said Dia Alassane, head of social activist movement Touche pas à ma nationalit­é (Don’t touch me on my nationalit­y).

“It is these things that are important, not the changing of the flag or the national anthem, which is just a prelude to changing the Constituti­on on the issue of term limits.”

A group of opposition leaders dismissed the referendum as an “electoral farce which has given way to open-air fraud”. Members of the Senate, meanwhile, are staging a sit-in at the Senate buildings in the capital, Nouakchott, in protest. Admittedly, having just been made redundant, they don’t have anything better to do.

Not that the president seems worried. As he cast his vote on Sunday, in Nouakchott West district, he dismissed “the phantom opposition” that he says only exists on social media. “Those who have followed the news lately realise that they have no impact on the national political scene,” he said.

Abdel Aziz came to power in this large but sparsely populated country — just 4.3-million people in an area only a little smaller than South Africa — through a military coup in 2008. He was formally elected the next year, and then again in 2013, although this vote was also boycotted by most opposition parties.

Although his record on human rights is poor, the president enjoys significan­t support from the internatio­nal community because of Mauritania’s active role in the fight against terrorism in the Sahel region. Recently, Mauritania signed up to be part of the G5 Sahel, a regional counterter­rorism bloc composed of troops from Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad.

 ?? Graphic: JOHN McCANN Data source: WORLD BANK ??
Graphic: JOHN McCANN Data source: WORLD BANK
 ??  ?? Dominant figure: A poster of President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz looms large in Nouakchott, Mauritania. The president took control of the country with a military coup in 2008. Photo: Joe Penney/Reuters
Dominant figure: A poster of President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz looms large in Nouakchott, Mauritania. The president took control of the country with a military coup in 2008. Photo: Joe Penney/Reuters

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