Coups, Slavery, Extremism and a confused Mauritanian population

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Recent visits between coup leader Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz and leaders from the African Union, League of Arab States, United Nations, and Mauritania’s major donors have prompted both protest and promises.

Soldiers arrested President Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi last Wednesday after his attempt to dismiss high-ranking military from his personal guard. The president remains in detention as of Monday. Also arrested, but since released, were Prime Minister Yahya Ould Ahmed Waghf and Moussa Fall, the government director in charge of overseeing the return of thousands of Mauritanian refugees.

Starting in 1989, tens of thousands of Mauritanians fled brutal army crackdowns and ethnic border clashes near Senegal. One of Abdallahi’s campaign promises last year was to bring home these refugees and to help them readjust to life in Mauritania after almost two decades in exile.

Abou Ba, 22-years old, says he was five years old when his ethnic Pulaar family of herders fled.

Ba resettled in Mauritania one month before the latest coup. “We are all worried. It was a military regime [Maaouya Ould Taya government] that pushed us out and now it’s another military takeover. We were promised by the president [Abdallahi] that we would be treated equally, that we are all Mauritanians.”

As a part of the reintegration process, a Mauritanian government initiative was underway to identify thousands of refugees. Ba was prepared to apply for his national identity papers. “But now, we need to wait. Again.”

Coup leader Aziz has said that the newly-formed military council will respect the continued repatriation and rights of refugees. About 4,000 of the expected 24,000 have returned.

But refugee camp leader, Amadou Samba Ba, in Dodel, Senegal, says he will not send any groups to Mauritania until there are guarantees for the refugees’ safe return.

Aziz led the 2005 coup that deposed Maaouya Ould Taya, who faces a trial launched from New York in June 2007 for alleged ethnic cleansing crimes. In recent months, ruling party in-fighting grew more rancorous after a May government reshuffling that brought to power a dozen ministers who served Ould Taya.

Abdel Nasser Ould Outhman Yessa was arrested in absentia ten years ago, when Ould Taya was still power, for his work as an activist with the Nouakchott-based anti-slavery group, SOS Exclaves. Now based in Dakar, Senegal the human rights lobbyist says while he condemns the military takeover, he understands its roots.

“In recent months, Sidi [Ould Cheikh Abdallahi] has made overtures to Islamist groups, and brokered power exchanges with Ould Taya’s previous ministers. If this coup had not happened, a return to power from Ould Taya would have been inevitable.”

Having been barred for years, Islamists were allowed to set up a political party last year under the new Abdallahi government.

Yessa says the prospect of a return of Ould Taya’s men to power has been worrisome, but so is the trend of constant coups in Mauritania. Changes of power have typically taken place through military takeovers since the country gained independence in 1960.

After the 2005 coup, a transitional military council ruled until Abdallahi’s March 2007 election to power, which monitors declared to be largely free and fair.

The most recently-formed military council led by Aziz has pledged that it will hold, in its words, transparent elections that respect the rule of law.

But these declarations have not stemmed denunciations from the African Union (AU), which has suspended Mauritania’s membership in the AU; the United States, which cut off more than US $20 million in non-humanitarian aid last week; or the United Nations and European Union, whose representatives have publicly condemned the prospect of a one-sided illegitimate election.


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