Mauritania warily eyes internationalized conflict in neighboring Mali

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If Mali had two decades of practice with democracy and rule of law and still couldn’t prevent a northern revolt that’s torn the country apart, leading to this week’s French military action to salvage the secular government in Bamako, it’s downright fortuitous that Mauritania, with virtually no experience of progressive, liberal democratic government, has so far avoided being dragged into the conflict. mauritania flag

Like Mali, Mauritania gained its independence from France in 1960.

Like Mali, which is 90% Muslim, Mauritania is nearly 100% Muslim, and it’s divided, ethnically, between a more Arabic north and a more sub-Saharan African south.

Like Mali, it’s a west African country that’s traditionally been at the bottom of an already-grim range of economic growth on the continent.

So there’s plenty of reason to believe that if the conflict in Mali spreads throughout the region, it will spread first to Mauritania,  a country with which Mali shares its largest border.  Although Mauritania has sealed its borders with Mali, and its current president Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz has been relatively aggressive against radical Islam, the relatively sparse Sahara country would seem to be an easy target for al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).  In recent years, Abdelaziz has authorized raids against AQIM agitators across the border in northern Mali.

Let’s say that post-independence Mauritanian history doesn’t give us much optimism in the event that it does.

As a colony, until 1954, Mauritania was ruled from Saint-Louis in what is today Senegal, and its 1960 borders gave little thought to ethnic unity or political or economic viability.

After independence, it didn’t take long for Mauritania’s first president, Moktar Daddah, to enact a one-party authoritarian regime.  In the wake of an ongoing and draining war over the Western Sahara, Daddah was ousted in the first of the country’s many coups in 1978, which resulted in the fairly rapid ceasefire and peace accords with the Polisario guerrillas fighting the Mauritanian government and a relinquishment of Mauritian claims to the Western Sahara.

Shortly thereafter, in 1984, another coup brought army colonel Maaouiya Ould Sid Ahmed Taya to power.  His rule, also an autocratic regime, featured discrimination against black Mauritanians — race riots in 1989 led to many thousands of black Mauritanians being killed, attacked or forced to flee the country for Senegal.

Taya himself was ousted in 2005, and the country prepared for its first free and fair presidential elections, which resulted in the elevation of Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi as president.

Unfortunately, Abdallahi himself was ousted in another military coup in 2008.  His successor, Abdelaziz, who took power after the coup, won the subsequently organized July 2009 presidential election, though opposition figures protested against the rigged vote.

Mauritania’s GDP per capita of $2,178 compares favorably with that of neighboring Mali and even Senegal, due in large part to oil discoveries in 2006 that have kept it growing at around 5% for the past three years (its economy grew at nearly 19% in 2006).

But the country remains plagued with many problems — including, according to a UN report in 2009, the continued practice of human slavery.  Between 10% and 20% of the country’s 3.4 million population is allegedly enslaved, even though slavery was abolished in 1981 (the last country in the world to do so) and made a crime in 2007.

Many more of Mauritania’s citizens remain essentially in poverty — many still depend upon agriculture and livestock, though extensive droughts in the 1970s and the 1980s forced many nomadic peoples into the cities.  Before the discovery of oil, over 50% of the country’s exports consisted of iron ore,  as Mauritania holds extensive deposits.

Photo credit to nyiragongo / 123RF Stock Photo.

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