Mau­ri­ta­nia: slow but steady walk to democ­racy

De­spite chal­lenges, Mau­ri­ta­nia’s democ­racy spreads

Africa Renewal - - Contents - By Kaci Racelma

Mau­ri­ta­nia has been in the news lately over the hot-but­ton is­sue of slav­ery. Last year the Amer­i­can satel­lite news chan­nel CNN broad­cast a doc­u­men­tary ti­tled Mau­ri­ta­nia, Slav­ery’s Last Strong­hold, a sear­ing in­dict­ment of the coun­try’s weak ef­forts to end mod­ern forms of slav­ery such as forced labour, child labour and hu­man traf­fick­ing. Also last year, the Global Slav­ery In­dex, an or­ga­ni­za­tion that tracks the phe­nom­e­non, named Mau­ri­ta­nia as hav­ing pro­por­tion­ally the high­est preva­lence of slaves in the world. With up to 140,000 per­sons said to be en­slaved in the coun­try, the UN Se­cu­rity Coun­cil es­tab­lished a tri­bunal last Fe­bru­ary to pros­e­cute those re­spon­si­ble for the prac­tice.

Along­side slav­ery have been sto­ries of po­lit­i­cal in­sta­bil­ity—six coups since in­de­pen­dence in 1960. Gen. Mo­hamed Ould Ab­del Aziz staged the lat­est coup in 2008. In 2009 he handed power over to him­self after claim­ing vic­tory in a con­tro­ver­sial elec­tion.

But along with the con­tin­u­ing prob­lem of slav­ery, a sub­dued econ­omy and past po­lit­i­cal up­heavals, Mau­ri­ta­nia has an­other side that has been un­der the radar since 2009, when Pres­i­dent Ab­del Aziz be­came a civil­ian leader. It is the coun­try’s grow­ing democ­racy and, by ex­ten­sion, its im­prove­ments in free­dom, hu­man rights and ac­count­abil­ity.

“We no longer need to go to Paris to ex­press openly our con­cerns,” said Ab­del­lahi Ould Hour­matal­lah, direc­tor of Mau­ri­ta­nia’s Min­istry of Com­mu­ni­ca­tions, in an in­ter­view with Africa Re­newal. “At least we can now stay here and de­mand ac­count­abil­ity from our rulers.” He’s right, be­cause just last year about 10 prom­i­nent mem­bers of the African Lib­er­a­tion Forces of Mau­ri­ta­nia (ALFM), who had been in ex­ile since the group was out­lawed in 1986 for plan­ning to over­throw the govern­ment, re­turned home. They have been go­ing about their busi­ness with­out ar­rest.

The re­turn of these ex­iles co­in­cided with the govern­ment’s es­tab­lish­ment of the Fo­rum for the Preser­va­tion of Demo­cratic Process (MFPDP), a group com­pris­ing key mem­bers of civil so­ci­ety groups. The MFPDP will as­sist the govern­ment in pro­mot­ing so­cial har­mony, en­cour­ag­ing women’s par­tic­i­pa­tion in gov­er­nance and pro­mot­ing me­dia free­dom, among other en­deav­ours.

Mo­hamed Lem­jad Salem, head of the MFPDP, told Africa Re­newal that by ed­u­cat­ing the pop­u­la­tion about demo­cratic val­ues, the group would cre­ate an at­mos­phere in which the govern­ment and the op­po­si­tion could play their tra­di­tional demo­cratic roles. “We want to strive to con­sol­i­date demo­cratic val­ues … to achieve the democ­racy we as­pire to.” At the mo­ment there is a grow­ing recog­ni­tion among Mau­ri­ta­ni­ans that civil so­ci­ety “can play a pri­mary role in shap­ing pub­lic opin­ion and help to con­sol­i­date democ­racy,” says Mr. Hour­matal­lah.

Im­prove­ments in Mau­ri­ta­nia’s hu­man rights sit­u­a­tion cor­re­spond to in­creas­ing press free­dom. The me­dia watch­dog Re­porters With­out Bor­ders says the coun­try has a rel­a­tively open me­dia en­vi­ron­ment. It was not this way a few years ago, when ed­i­tors were obliged to ob­tain govern­ment ap­proval be­fore pub­lish­ing sto­ries. Then, un­like now, they were ex­pected to re­veal their sources—in­clud­ing con­fi­den­tial ones—if asked to do so by the govern­ment. The govern­ment owned the me­dia houses, and it cre­ated a board, with­out any me­dia rep­re­sen­ta­tion, that nom­i­nated heads of me­dia in­sti­tu­tions and reg­u­lated jour­nal­is­tic prac­tices.

But the sit­u­a­tion has im­proved in re­cent years. Amend­ments to me­dia laws, though com­ing slowly, have been de­ci­sive. In 2010 the govern­ment opened up the broad­cast me­dia to pri­vate-sec­tor own­er­ship, and the fol­low­ing year it amended parts of the law un­der which jour­nal­ists could be jailed for slan­der­ing the head of state.

There has been a no­table re­sponse to the changes in the me­dia laws. Mau­ri­ta­nia

cur­rently has two in­de­pen­dent tele­vi­sion sta­tions and several in­de­pen­dent ra­dio sta­tions, fi­nally end­ing govern­ment’s mo­nop­oly of the broad­cast me­dia. Al­though the govern­ment still con­trols two news­pa­pers, 28 others are pri­vately owned. Two in­ter­net-tele­vi­sion sta­tions, Shin­quiti and Mura­bitun, are also pri­vately owned. Re­porters With­out Bor­ders says that Mau­ri­ta­nia has some of the best me­dia laws in the sub-re­gion.

As with the me­dia, a pos­i­tive change is hap­pen­ing in women’s par­tic­i­pa­tion in gov­er­nance. The coun­try is one of only 34 with a quota sys­tem that en­sures par­tic­i­pa­tion for women in govern­ment. Mau­ri­ta­nia re­serves 31 seats out of the 147 in the lower house of par­lia­ment for women. (This is about 21%, which is the global av­er­age for women in par­lia­ment.) As a re­sult, 31 women won par­lia­men­tary seats in the Novem­ber 2013 elec­tions. Ab­del­lahi Ould Zoubeir, a jour­nal­ist and mem­ber of the MFPDP, told Africa Re­newal that “there is a long way to go, but we are striv­ing to make Mau­ri­ta­nia a more open so­ci­ety.”

Mau­ri­ta­nia may be mak­ing progress on many fronts, but there are also real con­cerns about democ­racy div­i­dends on the eco­nomic front. Know­ing the con­nec­tion be­tween ci­ti­zens’ well-be­ing and their po­lit­i­cal par­tic­i­pa­tion, Pres­i­dent Ab­del Aziz is con­fronting poverty. Al­though the coun­try ran a 32% bud­get deficit in 2013, the In­ter­na­tional Mone­tary Fund (IMF) ap­pears to be sat­is­fied with its 6.4% eco­nomic growth rate. The Fund wrote, “For 2014, eco­nomic growth will main­tain its mo­men­tum, in spite of global de­mand that re­mains sub­dued. Ac­cord­ingly, the rate of growth in real GDP is ex­pected to turn out at about 6.5%, driven by strong per­for­mance in the min­ing sec­tor, agri­cul­ture, ser­vices, and con­struc­tion and pub­lic works.”

These achievements are “not re­flected in the so­cial sit­u­a­tion, still char­ac­ter­ized by high poverty and high un­em­ploy­ment,” notes a 2013 re­port, African Eco­nomic Out­look (AEO), jointly pub­lished by the African Devel­op­ment Bank, the Or­gan­i­sa­tion for Eco­nomic Co­op­er­a­tion and Devel­op­ment, the UN Eco­nomic Com­mis­sion for Africa and the UN Devel­op­ment Pro­gramme. The re­port says that up to 21% of the pop­u­la­tion lives in ab­so­lute poverty, and while over­all un­em­ploy­ment is at 30%, that num­ber rises to 60% in the ru­ral ar­eas.

“Mau­ri­ta­nian women suf­fer dis­crim­i­na­tion in ac­cess to em­ploy­ment and land re­sult­ing in low lev­els of eco­nomic par­tic­i­pa­tion,” adds the AEO re­port. Aminet­tou Mint Ely, who heads the non-gov­ern­men­tal or­ga­ni­za­tion As­so­ci­a­tion of Women, told IRIN, a hu­man­i­tar­ian news ser­vice, that men don’t give women a chance to fight against dis­crim­i­na­tory laws “such as those bar­ring work­ing women from claim­ing a pen­sion, or [those that per­mit] pay­ing elected women less than men for the same posts.” Mah­naz Afkhami, pres­i­dent of the Women’s Learn­ing Part­ner­ship, an­other ad­vo­cacy group, adds, “We also need to break down cul­tural stig­mas and train these women to be­come good lead­ers.”

Some male politi­cians make mat­ters worse for women. As­lamo Ould Sidi al-Mustafa, a pres­i­den­tial ad­vi­sor, con­tro­ver­sially is­sued a fatwa (an Is­lamic de­cree)

Im­prove­ments in Mau­ri­ta­nia’s hu­man rights sit­u­a­tion cor­re­spond to in­creas­ing press free­dom.

in 2012 ban­ning women from con­test­ing pres­i­den­tial elec­tions. They may en­ter the race, Mr. al-Mustafa said, but it must be “just for fun.” This ef­fec­tively means that no woman can be pres­i­dent of Mau­ri­ta­nia. Women’s ad­vo­cacy groups are fight­ing back and are un­set­tled by Pres­i­dent Ab­del Aziz’s si­lence on the mat­ter.

Al­though the me­dia en­joy rel­a­tive free­dom, they are not sta­ble enough fi­nan­cially to play their watch­dog role ef­fec­tively. The pri­vately owned tele­vi­sion sta­tions broad­cast only via the in­ter­net. With in­ter­net pen­e­tra­tion of just 4.5% in the coun­try, these sta­tions have lim­ited reach. The news­pa­pers don’t fare any bet­ter, due to in­suf­fi­cient ad­ver­tis­ing and poor dis­tri­bu­tion sys­tems, notes the BBC. And with­out a free­dom of in­for­ma­tion law, jour­nal­ists of­ten hit a brick wall when re­quest­ing in­for­ma­tion that the govern­ment con­sid­ers em­bar­rass­ing.

Plau­dits for Mau­ri­ta­nia’s democ­racy are jus­ti­fied only when the present cir­cum­stance is com­pared to pre­vi­ous sit­u­a­tions, many be­lieve—par­tic­u­larly pe­ri­ods of mil­i­tary rule. The govern­ment re­mains sen­si­tive to harsh me­dia re­ports. In Au­gust 2011, for ex­am­ple, se­cu­rity op­er­a­tives de­tained a Sene­galese me­dia crew that was in Mau­ri­ta­nia to in­ter­view op­po­si­tion lead­ers and anti-slav­ery ac­tivists. That same year Ab­del­hafiz al-Baqali, a Moroc­can jour­nal­ist, was de­ported for no of­fi­cial rea­son. And there are al­le­ga­tions of dis­crim­i­na­tion against blacks, tor­ture as a tac­tic in de­ten­tion and a ju­di­cial sys­tem that is not fully in­de­pen­dent of the ex­ec­u­tive branch. With­out any ex­pla­na­tion, Pres­i­dent Ab­del Aziz ap­pointed three dif­fer­ent Supreme Court chief jus­tices be­tween 2007 and 2010, al­though each chief jus­tice is sup­posed to serve for at least five years.

To be fair, the govern­ment is fac­ing a lot of chal­lenges. Mau­ri­ta­nia is a mul­tira­cial so­ci­ety sand­wiched be­tween coun­tries with which it has strained re­la­tion­ships. It is still squab­bling at one end with Morocco and Al­ge­ria over Western Sa­hara, and at the other with Sene­gal over the use of the Sene­gal River, which di­vides the two coun­tries. In ad­di­tion, thou­sands of Malian refugees are mov­ing to Mau­ri­ta­nia, putting a strain on lim­ited so­cial in­fra­struc­ture such as water and en­ergy. Se­cu­rity is also a ma­jor con­cern as the govern­ment con­stantly tries to sup­press any lurk­ing ter­ror­ist net­works.

Mau­ri­ta­nia has been mak­ing ef­forts to stamp out slav­ery. It passed an an­ti­slav­ery law in 2007, mak­ing it a crime pun­ish­able by up to 10 years in prison. A ju­di­cial com­mit­tee headed by Pres­i­dent Ab­del Aziz an­nounced a de­ci­sion to cre­ate a spe­cial tri­bunal to pros­e­cute those re­spon­si­ble for the prac­tice last De­cem­ber. Gul­nara Shahinian, the UN’s spe­cial rap­por­teur on con­tem­po­rary slav­ery, has praised “the po­lit­i­cal will dis­played by the [Mau­ri­ta­nian] au­thor­i­ties” in fight­ing slav­ery.

With so much on Pres­i­dent Ab­del Aziz’s plate, an­a­lysts be­lieve that re­cent steps to­ward deep­en­ing democ­racy are sig­nif­i­cant. The per­cep­tion of Mau­ri­ta­nia as a place only of po­lit­i­cal in­sta­bil­ity and slav­ery could soon be­gin to change. Many now ex­pect that this coun­try of 3.6 mil­lion peo­ple, lo­cated in the Sa­hara desert, may soon emerge as a sta­ble democ­racy.

Paul Kings­ley/Alamy

Mau­ri­ta­nian women in­creased par­tic­i­pa­tion in gov­er­nance.

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