Coup d’etat in Mauritania: slave system strikes back?

The international community is condemning the Aug. 6 military ouster of Mauritania’s President Sidi Mohamed ould Cheikh Abdallahi and Prime Minister Yahya ould Ahmed Waghf. The coup started just hours after a presidential decree that declared the dismissal of Mauritania’s top four military leaders. By the morning, soldiers had barricaded and occupied the presidential palace. Coup leaders announced the creation of a state council to be led by head of the presidential guard, Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz—who told the reporters the takeover was not a coup, but rather an attempt to restore security. He cited security problems, including terrorism, that only the army is capable of eradicating.

The coup follows a May government reshuffle that appointed Waghf prime minister; a July no-confidence vote against the government, which then resigned; an ensuing threat by the president to dissolve the National Assembly; and the resignation of almost 50 deputies this week from the ruling party.

President Abdallahi came to power 2007 in the first democratic change of government since independence in 1960. Leaders of the United Nations, African Union, European Union and United States have condemned the coup and are calling for a return to constitutional rule.

Food prices in arid Mauritania have doubled within the past year. In August 2007, thousands were displaced in Mauritania from flooding that wiped out crops and cattle. Months later, food riots broke out in the southeast.

Abdallahi campaigned to end slavery, which persists despite being outlawed for more than 20 years, and to reintegrate refugees who fled brutal border and ethnic clashes in 1989. Moustapha Toure of the Association of Mauritanian Refugees in Senegal says he is worried the coup will stop the return of refugees from Senegal, which began earlier this year. “This will end the repatriation, and effectively put the brakes on the healing process,” he said.

Last October, Abdallahi’s government held a national day of dialogue with exiled refugees to discuss how to carry out the repatriation. Toure attended the event in Nouakchott. “The president had committed to organizing a peace and reconciliation commission, which has long been one of our key demands. It is hard to see that commission coming apart even before it has had a chance to be created.” (IRIN via AllAfrica, Aug. 7)

See our last posts on Mauritania and the Sahel.