#Mauritania: On The Edge

Harsh Desert Conditions
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Update of an article which originally appeared in Zenith Online in April 2012, when it seemed that all Mauritania’s sources of discontent were erupting at once. But protests are nothing new in this land where a coup has been the answer to every political ill, whether real or imagined, for decades.

Operating in a Constitutional Vacuum

General Aziz

The coup in which the Aziz regime seized power in 2008 created a wave of protest, which continued despite General Aziz switching to civilian garb and claiming a democratic victory in the 2009 presidential election. After a year in which they failed to complete national registration, failed to maintain dialogue with the opposition, and postponed legislative, parliamentary and municipal elections indefinitely, the Aziz government is no longer teetering on the brink of legitimacy: it fell off that precipice back in November 2011 when the mandate of the government expired. The only legally elected official in Mauritania is now the president, Mohammed Ould Abdel Aziz. Many of those who accused the junta of merely paying lip-service to democracy in order to add a veneer of respectability and secure regional and international acceptance (and funding) are now feeling fully vindicated.

Anti-government protests which resurfaced last year gradually increased since February 2012 to become a daily occurrence in Nouakchott, Nouadhibou and other towns further afield. Incidents of strikes have also increased, with actions by fishermen, mining workers, teachers, college professors and students. Even a group of administrators for the national registration programme threatened a strike over pay and conditions. Throughout all this, the junta continues to impose constitutional and legislative changes, and to enter into financial and trade agreements with foreign investors, lenders, and trade partners.

Neighbourhood Watch

Mauritania map

Geographically, Mauritania is a foreign invention. The uncomfortably angular shape of Mauritania’s north eastern borders were decided long ago by colonial powers in London and Paris. There are few links with London now, although last October, William Hague did become the first the British Foreign Secretary to visit. But deep ties with France persist, and many are watching to see how Hollande’s victory in the French presidential election will impact the country. The neighbours who inhabit the other side of those awkward borders are also subject to the vagaries of Mauritania’s fickle nature. Western Sahara lost it’s southern region to Morocco when Mauritania decided to withdraw from occupation after being outclassed by the POLISARIO rebel force in 1979. This land that only time remembers, and which the world tries to ignore, now presses in awkward silence against the north-western border, a permanent reminder of Mauritania’s humiliating defeat, tribal hegemony and political naivety.

During the relatively brief 1989 conflict with Senegal, tens of thousands were forcibly expelled or repatriated between the two countries. The enmity was eventually resolved, but there is no great bond between them, as the April2012 crackdown on Senegalese workers and residents in Nouadhibou demonstrates. While Mauritania worked with the UN HCR to repatriate some of the Senegal refugees, a process which was declared complete only in March 2012, those in Mali were never even counted. In a peculiarly schizophrenic episode, tens of thousands of refugees displaced by the unrest in Mali are now being sheltered in Mauritania. In Mali’s case, there is an almost total lack of respect for its sovereignty: Mauritania maintains close associations with the MNLA (Mouvement National pour la Libération de l’Azawad) and conducts frequent military sorties supposedly targeting AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) – even if those targets turn out to be civilians. With the introduction in May 2012 of a new residency tax for all foreign nationals of 30,000 MRO per person, including children, Mauritania now appears to be in breach of two clauses of its 1963 accord with Mali, which prohibits both taxation on citizens and uninvited military presence.

As a member of the Arab League, Mauritania has always had close relations with the Gulf States, although we are encouraged by unreliable media sources to consider some, for example Saudi Arabia or Kuwait, as being closer than others. Once deeply indebted to Muammar Gaddafi’s patronage, Mauritania was an unexpected choice as chair of the African Union’s special committee on Libya during the 2011 uprising. It was also one of the last of the Arab states to officially recognize the National Transitional Council, and entertained visitors from both sides during last year’s conflict.  This year finds Mauritania playing host to former Libyan intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senussi, after an improbable arrest (which France claimed to have a hand with) and showing no signs of releasing him from “detention” any time soon.

Islamic in Moderation

One of only four Islamic Republics in the world, Mauritania might be expected to enjoy close relations with Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, but this is not the case. Relations with Iran did seem warm last September, when they received Ahmadinejad and his entourage on the way to and from the UN General Assembly in New York, then seemed to have cooled by March, when Mauritania voted in favour of extending the UN Human Rights Special Rapporteur’s mandate. But by early April, Iran had “repatriated” former Al Qaeda strategist Mahfouz Ould al Walid aka Abu Hafs al Mauritani, who arrived to join his family, already returned from Iran. For company, they have one of Osama bin Laden’s former wives and her children, while Mali is fast becoming the Al Qaeda time-share capital of Africa.

Mauritania is reportedly keeping al Walid in detention and there are unconfirmed reports that he has refused visits and food in protest at being pressured to meet with delegations from “foreign powers”. Such reports have all the hallmarks of a smokescreen intended to dampen observers’ inclinations to link his presence in Mauritania with reports of increasing AQIM activity in the Sahel, or indeed with the recent spate of allegedly successful US drone attacks on Al Qaeda leadership figures. By all accounts, Mauritania is firmly against terrorism, and its preferred brand of moderate Islam is jihad-free. In fact the government has carved out a cosy niche as a player in the global war on terror, with its lucrative funding opportunities. This might get a boost due to the level of hysteria about Mali. For development funding, the EU remains an important source of funds and is joined by Japan, Spain, China and others. All of these donors surely know that their funds are being sieved through a mesh of corruption but they seem unperturbed.

Not Just Desert

Harsh Desert Conditions

Despite it’s massive land area of over 1 million km2, the majority of Mauritania’s population – which is roughly the same as that of Berlin – is concentrated in the capital Nouakchott, and the port of Nouadhibou. These cities lie on the West coast where the Sahara desert meets Mauritania’s vast fishing grounds in the Atlantic ocean. While the sea provides a wealth of fish, not much reaches land: most of it is destined for export after processing in huge factory ships. The European Union recently ordered its fleet to cease fishing in the waters, as the quota has been reached and their agreement expires in July 2012. Meanwhile, China has moved in as another pelagic fishing partner in a deal that was denounced as unfavourable and suspect.

The vast desert, though inhospitable, is also rich in natural resources such as iron, copper, gold and gypsum. One of the major criticisms levelled at the government concerns mining rights sold to foreign companies, such as Canada’s Kinross, on terms which fail to provide a reasonable return. Mining workers appear to be trapped in a cycle of industrial action and broken or half-kept promises, although an unprecedented and costly 5-day strike by 1500 Kinross workers in early June appears to have improved their situation.

Decades of desertification and increasing frequency of severe drought have pushed people from a life of humble self-sufficiency as smallholders in rural villages to the cities. It’s a race for survival, with the edge of Africa as the finishing line. But there are few opportunities for skilled workers or university graduates in the cities, fewer still for semi-nomadic herdsmen and farmers with only a rudimentary education. The towns were not built to cope with such dramatic increase: essential support infrastructure is lacking, and plans to create or improve it are failing to keep pace. This situation is the basis for a raft of social issues – unemployment, poverty, homelessness, healthcare, education, social welfare – a constant source of domestic tension. Another source of social friction is racial discrimination, inescapable in a country with such a mixture of “white” and “black” Moors as well as black Africans and all possible variants. Racial division is a “hot button” and the regime is highly skilled at applying pressure whenever it suits.

Sowing Division, Reaping Chaos

In April 2011, when the new population census and biometric registration programme was launched, there was an outcry over allegations of racial prejudice against citizens of black African heredity.  This year, it was the turn of slavery to grab headlines.  Recent media focus on slavery actually garnered little attention inside the country until a Saudi cleric suggested Muslims could seek atonement by purchasing the freedom of slaves, who he said  were readily-available in Mauritania. This was followed by a comment from the cleric Cheikh Dedew, who is also the patron of the Islamist party, Tewassoul. Dedew made a statement along the lines of “slavery does not exist in Mauritania”. In turn, this provoked Biram Ould Abeid, president of anti-slavery group “IRA” to hold his own Friday prayer meeting on 27 April, and afterwards burn several volumes by Islamic scholars which he said condone slavery through Islam.

Aziz goes Trad

The response was immediate and significant, some might even say orchestrated. Angry protesters marched to the Presidential palace the next day, and president Aziz came out to meet them in full traditional dress instead of the usual couture suit, promising to defend Islam. Biram Ould Abeid and 9 of his associates were arrested that evening. Protests against Biram’s act continued for a time, with demands ranging from an apology to expulsion, and even execution for apostasy. Mauritania does include some precepts of Islamic “Sharia” law, but has not actually executed anyone for many years. Whether knowingly or not, Biram Ould Abeid’s attempt to demonstrate a link between Islam and slavery provided a golden opportunity for Aziz to stifle the slavery debate and restore his flagging reputation by championing the one thing all people in Mauritania have in common: Islam.

As the indignation began to wane, regular Saturday protests by supporters of Biram and his fellow-prisoners began, and were immediately and repeatedly repressed by police with customary violence. Biram’s wife Leyla was attacked several times, and on one occasion shot in the face with a tear gas grenade. On 9 June 2012, a young man – who was not part of the protest, but a shopkeeper on one of the roads where police were clashing with the unarmed protesters – died from tear gas suffocation. As has been the case with previous incidents, officials denied any wrongdoing and claimed the youth died from a pre-existing medical complaint. Biram has in fact published an apology but he and six others, including a journalist, remain in custody.

Now Mauritania appears to be entering a new phase in its ever-evolving struggle. Last week there was a visit from the UN representative for West Africa, fresh from talks with ECOWAS* about the situation in Mali. He met with leaders of the the political opposition coalition for about half an hour before meeting with Aziz. Former transitional leader Ely Ould Mohammed Vall, a cousin of Aziz, provided some distraction by allowing himself to be quoted making outlandish and insulting comments about the 1989 atrocities. This got the abolitionists and anti-racists nicely worked up, while Massoud Ould Belkhair, leader of the more compliant opposition, worked on COD leaders by making overtures about dialogue. For the hat-trick, the failed group which was created last year to call for a national unity government was brought out of cold storage.

Former Chief Justice Ould Ghilani

In the background, the illegal Aziz government pressed on with its agenda. Unqualified diplomats have been dispatched to various international locations. Unqualified candidates have been assigned to a new Electoral Commission, and the former Chief Justice Ould Ghilani was removed from his post and replaced by a very junior and inexperienced jurist. Legislative elections are still not scheduled, but the country’s jurists are forming a union of sorts, just to keep themselves occupied. Next for the arbitrary chop could be the Chief of the Bar Association, Ould Boubehna, who is talking far too much sense these days, echoing constitutional law expert Lo Gormo’s 3 March pronouncement on the government’s  lack of legitimacy.

Eventually, all these issues must be resolved. It is not possible to continue like this indefinitely. The lack of comment or concern over this constitutional imbroglio from international partners, and their willingness to enter into legal agreements, provide aid, and accept and extend invitations to a government which has remained in power through a “coup by default” is at best puzzling and at worst hypocritical.

*Mauritania is not a member of ECOWAS.

Blind activist escapes after 18 months under house arrest in #China

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Activist Chen Guangcheng is in hiding after his escape from house arrest

BEIJING — A blind legal activist and inspirational figure in China’s rights movement fled the house arrest he has lived under for a year and a half, and made it to a secret location in Beijing on Friday, setting off a frantic police search for himself and those who helped him, activists said.

Chen Guangcheng’s escape, if ultimately successful, would boost a beleaguered civil rights community, which has faced rising arrests and other harassment over the past year. But the young humanitarian is now fearful for his family’s safety, in case of reprisals.

Activists described an improbable escape, saying Chen slipped away from his well-guarded rural village on Sunday night, driven away by activists and then transferred to others who brought him to Beijing.

By Friday afternoon, Chen “was 100 percent in a safe location,” said Bob Fu, an activist based in Texas who runs the China Aid Association and who was in contact with people helping Chen. But Chen’s flight unleashed a police crackdown on his relatives and the people who helped him flee, activists said.

“I am now free. But my worries have not ended yet,” Chen said in a video that was recorded this week and that activists sent Friday to the overseas Chinese news site Boxun.com, which then posted part of it on YouTube. It could not be independently verified. Speaking to a camera in a room with an off-white curtain drawn behind him, Chen said, “My escape might ignite a violent revenge against my family.”

A self-taught lawyer blinded by fever in infancy, Chen served four years in prison for exposing forced abortions and sterilizations in his and surrounding villages. Since his release in September 2010, local officials confined him to his home, despite the lack of legal grounds for doing so, beating him up on several occasions.

Chen was widely admired by rights activists at home who — led by blogger He Peirong — last year campaigned to publicize his case among ordinary Chinese and encourage them to go to Dongshigu village and break the security cordon. Even Hollywood actor Christian Bale tried to visit, but as with many others he was roughed up by locals paid to keep outsiders away.

Why activists spirited Chen to Beijing was not immediately known.

Though China’s most policed city, Beijing is home to foreign embassies that could provide asylum. Chen’s mistreatment has often seemed to be a vendetta by local officials, and perhaps Chen and his helpers thought a direct appeal to the central leadership would help.

The escape threatens to unleash a new wave of negative publicity for the authoritarian government when top leaders are already dealing with the fallout from the toppling of a former powerful politician, cashiered amid allegations of corruption, murder and abuse of power.

Online rumors and unconfirmed reports said Chen had sought protection at the U.S. or another foreign embassy. The U.S. Embassy and State Department declined comment on those reports and on Chen’s current status. “We have expressed concern in the past about this case. I don’t have anything current about this issue today,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told a news briefing in Washington.

The escape threatens to unleash a new wave of negative publicity for the authoritarian government when top leaders are already dealing with the fallout from the toppling of a former powerful politician, cashiered amid allegations of corruption, murder and abuse of power.

Online rumors and unconfirmed reports said Chen had sought protection at the U.S. or another foreign embassy. The U.S. Embassy and State Department declined comment on those reports and on Chen’s current status. “We have expressed concern in the past about this case. I don’t have anything current about this issue today,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told a news briefing in Washington.

China’s Foreign Ministry and police and government officials in Chen’s home town either refused comment or did not answer telephone calls.

Police detained He, the blogger, who earlier Friday told The Associated Press that she had driven Chen from Dongshigu village on Sunday night out of Shandong province to “a relatively safe place.” She handed him to another activist, who on Friday called Bob Fu, a Texas-based activist who runs the China Aid Association, to say that he was about to be arrested but that Chen already was safe. Civil rights lawyer Li Fangping said state security agents questioned him Friday about Chen.

In Dongshigu, where authorities have posted surveillance cameras and checkpoints since Chen’s release in 2010, local officials swarmed his brother’s home on Thursday, activists said, detaining the brother and his son after a violent scuffle. The county government, however, said the nephew remained at large and is wanted for assault.

In the video, Chen called on the premier, seen by many Chinese as a reformer, to punish those responsible.

“Including party leaders, police and other civilians, around 90 to 100 people have been involved in the persecution of my family. I hereby request to you, Premier Wen, to start an investigation into this case,” Chen said.

Much about how Chen eluded his usually vigilant captors remains untold. “Obviously, he got some inside help,” said Fu, the Texas activist.

His escape seemed to go unnoticed for several days. A Washington-based activist blogger quoted Chen’s nephew, Chen Kegui, as saying he heard his family members whispering that “Guangcheng’s gone” on Thursday morning, according to a transcript provided by the writer, Cao Yaxue.

On Thursday night, Zhang Jian, chief of the town that oversees Dongshigu, led local officials to scale the wall surrounding a house belonging to the activists’ relatives and his nephew, Chen Kegui, confronted them with a long vegetable knife, according to Cao and He.

Chen Kegui wounded Zhang and other officials, their accounts said. Chen and his father were detained by paramilitary police with electric batons while troops surrounded the family compound, Fu said.

Washington Post.

#Mauritania’s Protest Movements

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Mass protest 25 February 2012 in the capital of Mauritania, Nouakchott

Mauritania is experiencing a vibrant protest movement touching many sectors of political and civil society. Each day seems to bring fresh reports of demonstrations or rallies, sit-ins or gatherings. A member of the 22 states that make up the Arab League, with a complex mix of issues stemming from political, social and financial inequality, Mauritania was naturally caught up in the wave of uprisings that have swept across the region since 2010.

Mauritanian businessman Yacoub Oluld Dahoud who self-immolated in January 2011, leaving a note to explain his motives were to liberate his country from oppression.

In the case of Mauritania, a middle-aged businessman named Yacoub Ould Dahoud burned himself in front of the Presidential Palace in Nouakchott on 17 January 2011, imitating the action of Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia. Yacoub’s attempted suicide set off a round of protests in the capital which began before he died in hospital on 23 January. The protest movement continued to grow, peaking for the first time on 25 February 2011 with a large street protest in the capital, Nouakchott. That day prompted a civil society opposition group that had been active since January to adopt the name “February 25 Movement“.

This group remains at the forefront of non-violent civil society activism in Mauritania, despite constant pressure from the authorities, police repression and arrest of protesters, and occasional competition from other groups of various stripes, seeking to dominate the scene.

In the months that followed that debut, the culture of protest evolved and diversified with further large protests, most notably on 25 March, 25 April, and 24 May. In late March-early April 2011 there was a schism, as a new movement – “Don’t Touch My Nationality” (TPMN) – emerged in response to the national registration programme, which became deeply unpopular among that half of the population descended from black Africans. The issues centred around the insensitive and inequitable methods used by authorities to prove nationality, with the implication that they were deliberately trying to exclude citizens on the basis of their skin colour. This exposes wounds in Mauritanian civil society that are yet to heal: inequalities attributed to racial discrimination; the failure to eradicate slavery; and a series of events up to and during the Mauritania–Senegal Border War of 1989-91, when tens of thousands of black African citizens were forcibly expelled and still unknown numbers were massacred. There were aggressive actions during several TPMN protests in 2011, including an incident when a police vehicle was destroyed, and arson attacks on the courthouse and census office in Kaédi. The response to TPMN protests by police was immediate and more brutal than previous protests featuring more “white” Arab participants, which only lends more weight to the claims of discrimination.

Another group that has been highly active on the protest scene are the Islamists. Using the communal nature of worship and education to advantage, Tawassoul and it’s many online incarnations have had a very busy protest year, showing a preference to act independently, and with a penchant for selecting protest dates one or two days ahead of events announced by other groups. They are also incredibly persistent, especially on FaceBook, where links to every event or update are posted dozens or even hundreds of times. The drawback here is that their actions are sometimes seen as inconsiderate and aggressive, at odds with the more genteel Mauritanian disposition. This aggression spills onto the streets at times, as with ISERI students, for example, frequently pelting police with stones, and burning tires to block the road and stave off the effects of tear gas, which is used liberally by the riot police.

Protests continued throughout 2011, accompanied by relentless pressure from the regime to disrupt any opposition; a violent crackdown that saw one youth shot dead and several people seriously injured during TPMN protests, including a young rap musician; smear campaigns, arrests and persecution of activists; and the emergence of several copy-cat movements.

With less than 3.5 million people spread unevenly across a million square kilometres, and incomplete mobile or land line coverage, communications can not be taken for granted. For lower income families – the group most affected by social issues and therefore most expected to attend mass protests – poverty and low adult literacy complicate communication efforts still further. All this weighs heavily against civil society organization and can prevent a movement benefiting from natural momentum without significant and sustained effort.

Seeing the benefit of increased cooperation, and identifying the need to engage and educate people in the principles of non-violent opposition, the February 25 Movement organised a number of alternative events during the latter half of 2011. They also invested time in refining their strategy, consolidating the core membership through a recruitment drive, and reaching out to other groups. Despite very low internet usage in Mauritania, estimated at less than 3%, the movement maintains an online presence with a website and through social networking platforms such as FaceBook and Twitter. The recent introduction of support for right-to-left languages and hashtags on Twitter has definitely enhanced this experience, and we can already see increased interaction and mutual support between Mauritanian activists and bloggers and their counterparts in other Arabic-speaking countries.

An overview of the protest scene in Mauritania

Why Protest?

  • Human Rights abuses
    • arrests & torture of protesters and activists
    • child labour & neglect of street children
    • press freedom & censorship
    • racial discrimination & lack of support for non-Arabic speaking people
    • right to education
    • slavery, debt bondage and chattels
    • women’s rights and gender inequality
  • Politics
    • failure to complete national registration, and unfair registration practices
    • fraud and corruption by officials & their associates
    • indefinite postponement of elections
    • military domination of government
    • repression and manipulation
    • sabotage of national unity
  • Social neglect and injustice
    • Inadequate & dangerous public transport and roads
    • Lack of access to healthcare, water, electricity, sanitation
    • Poverty and food insecurity
    • Price inflation
  • Unemployment and unfair work conditions

What all protest movements essentially seek to do is facilitate change by giving a voice to issues or shining a light on shady practices. Mauritania’s protesters are no different in that respect than those in any other country. Apart from the political opposition now also openly demanding the departure of Aziz, the narrative of protests has really not changed dramatically in over a year, but the level of frustration and dissatisfaction has increased steadily. The government has tried to stem this flow in many ways, some more subtle than others. It’s important to appreciate the depth to which corruption and cronyism is embedded within the Mauritanian culture: a job here, a loan there, an indiscretion or even a bigger crime ignored or covered up. In other words, there are myriad ways in which favors are bought and sold in exchange for compliance, obedience, silence, inaction. However, the appearance of several recent reports which expose major financial scandals could be an indication that people are finally losing patience with the lies and hypocrisy. Even a society that for generations has accepted bribery and corruption as a daily reality will eventually reach saturation point.

Employment
In any given week, we might see protests in Mauritania by various industry or employee groups such as miners, fishermen, journalists, civil servants & municipal workers, temporary staff, pharmacists, taxi drivers, and medical staff

Recent video of an altercation between health workers and the Minister of Health.

Trade unions are legally allowed to stage protests but are prohibited from engaging in any political activities. However, any individual has the constitutional right to assemble in peaceful protest.

Women’s Rights
There are also sporadic protests for broader social issues like women’s rights – on 8 March 2012, International Women’s Day, there were 4 separate women’s movements holding protest marches in Nouakchott

(video of a women’s march against hunger and rising food prices).

On 29 March a large group of Salafi women held a protest demanding an end to democracy and the implementation of Sharia law, which they believe would secure the release of imprisoned husbands or family members. The group are especially concerned about the fate of 14 missing prisoners who were moved to an unknown location some months ago that the authorities refuse to account for.


Infrastructure

Water protest in Magta Lahjar

By far the longest-running series of protests are those among rural and some poorer urban communities demanding either potable water, consistent electrical power, or for the least fortunate, both of these essentials. The town of Magta Lahjar is a prime example, where they are currently holding an open-ended sit-in to demand safe drinking water, which was promised to them several years ago and has yet to be provided. As protests in Magta Lahjar grew, and threatened to clash with a regional visit by president Aziz, over 50 young activists were rounded up on the night of Monday April 16 and detained.

Boutilimit Protest for electricity

Boutilimit is just one of many towns that have protested against issues with electrical power supply after prolonged power cuts and intermittent outages. In Nouakchott last year there were protests against the lack of adequate drainage, which causes large areas to become flooded after heavy rain.

Mederdra 50km Protest March

Although public gatherings remain the most popular form of protest, two groups have recently held long distance marches in order to highlight their demands. The first covered almost 500km from Nouadhibou to Nouakchott, culminating in a meeting with president Aziz to present their list of grievances, which included several issues related to infrastructure and development. The second, in early April, was a hike from Mederdra to Tiguent, to demand that a paved road be constructed along the route of the 50km march.

Food Insecurity
Food-related issues were a feature of protest banners and slogans from the start. Mauritania has a large agricultural sector, but still imports approximately 70% of its food. With supplies diminished by a particularly severe drought last year, and 23 consecutive increases in the cost of motor fuel driving imported food prices even higher, there have been numerous protests about this situation in the past 15 months, many of them outside of the capital. Since the announcement of the government’s “Hope 2012″ drought relief project there have been several occasions where communities have protested against the allowances of feed for livestock, inefficient management, delayed distribution, or inadequate supplies. Meanwhile, flash floods in March killed thousands of heads of cattle, exacerbating existing food insecurity and dealing a tragic blow to herdsmen who had somehow managed to keep their flocks alive despite the drought.

Education

ISERI Protesters clash with riot police

At the end of 2011 a series of protests and sit-ins began at the Islamic Institute “ISERI” in Nouakchott, in response to rumours that the government was planning to close the college and move all students to another school in a more remote location. When the principal failed to open registration it provoked an angry response. Students crowded outside his office and the riot police were called to the scene. The brutality of their assault on the students only inflamed the situation, and even after a promise to keep ISERI open, registration is still closed and protests and examination boycotts have continued, as have the attacks by police. In addition to the ISERI protests, students held strikes and sit-ins at the university in Nouakchott. Again they were met with a violent response from police.

High School students protest

In March 2012 high school students added their voice to the rising tide of protest from the education sector. It is not only students who have taken action. A series of protests and a strike by teachers resulted in the government deducting one month’s salary from all who took part. As the teacher’s union is legally registered, strikes are permissible, and the loss of pay has prompted protests and a call for further action.

Politics
The political opposition is increasingly divided between those who are willing to engage with the majority party in government and a coalition of parties referred to as “COD”, which refuse to deal. COD has become increasingly active in recent months, beginning with a boycott of further dialogue, which is routinely resurrected by the ruling regime as a panacea for all political ills. In March 2012, after a tour of the country’s major towns, COD called for a march in Nouakchott, billing it as a “defining” moment. They were not disappointed. Tens of thousands took to the streets to join the march, surpassing all expectations and marking a milestone for the opposition, which is now demanding the departure of Aziz. The regime experienced a further blow when a pro-government rally the following week in the second largest city, Nouadhibou, failed to generate the same level of attendance despite supporters being ferried in from outside the area. At the start of April nine member parties of COD each called for simultaneous marches in nine separate districts, and again tens of thousands turned out. The opposition is now on a path of confrontation with the ruling party and Aziz in particular, determined to see his ouster. This in turn is boosting and revitalising  civil groups. We could say that protests in Mauritania have gone viral!

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Background in Brief
Mauritania is the most Westerly of the Arab States. Sitting on the edge of the African continent, with the ocean as it’s Western boundary and the vast deserts of the Sahara to the East, Mauritania has not often made headlines since the days of the Paris-Dakar Rally, which came to an abrupt end in 2008 because of a “terrorist threat”. From that point, the big country with its tiny population faded from the mainstream news and drifted into the shadow realm of international security reports featuring Al Qaeda. That same year saw the latest in a succession of military coups d’état that have punctuated the political landscape since gaining independence from France in 1960.  With tourism revenues almost wiped out, the suspension of international funding in response to the coup was devastating for the economy, and popular protests called by political opposition leaders erupted in response. Almost four years later, tourists are still extremely rare, and funding – although largely restored – is rarely perceived as benefiting civil society. It is in the area of regional security that the Aziz regime has invested the majority of it’s time and resources, to the detriment of social welfare and economic development.

Monitoring Mauritania
For anyone wishing to follow events in Mauritania the first difficulty is in identifying sources. This fairly comprehensive list of websites and FaceBook groups created by a student from the University of Leicester may be of help. As always, the problem with directory lists is in keeping them updated, and new sites and groups are appearing every week. The second difficulty is the language barrier for those who do not read Arabic or French, as English or Spanish language sources are few and far between. I try to maintain a steady flow of news on this blog, which you are welcome to follow and comment on.

Aziz whitewashes Mauritania issues, it's all about Mali

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The Mauritanian head of state interviewed by Bruno Daroux for RFI, Xavier Lambrechts for TV5 Monde, and Isabelle Mandraud for the newspaper “Le Monde”. Mauritania is at the heart of the Sahelian Sahara, and a has Mali, where the north has been in the hands of Tuareg, Islamists and Jihadists for a few days, as a neighbour. What are the consequences for Mauritania, what military and diplomatic strategies are needed against the destabilization in Mali that threatens all the countries in the region?
Video (without subtitles) and audio are in French
By Bruno Daroux via rfi.fr
Transcript: 

  1. Coups are “hard knocks” for Mali and Guinea Bissau. They are “the result of [mismanagement in] running the country” or “drug trafficking”.
  2. There should be “support” for countries that are victims of coups and that “deep and permanent solutions” are needed, ie: “global” and not just “institutional” [the return to constitutional order].
  3. The “territories beyond control of the central government [in Mali]” led to “unacceptable situations with terrorism.”
  4. He is “against military intervention but ready to act if necessary …”
  5. He “did not think we should have a republic in northern Mali,” but he is “not against autonomy [Northern Mali] if Malians accept” …
  6. Mauritania hosts unarmed members of MNLA in Nouakchott “as Malians” .
  7. He feels “threatened by AQIM” and “will not negotiate with terrorists who are acting illegally” …
  8. Mauritania does not fight terrorists but “are hunting them down” to remove “danger”. These enemy troops “now have a country [Azawad] and an army”
  9. “Europeans must act, but [...] without paying any ransom.”
  10. Mauritania “enjoys good cooperation with France, the United States and even Great Britain [...] to support the Mauritanian armed forces [...], but that the country must look to itself.”
  11. “Mauritania is not small! The Mauritanian army is not small!”
  12. You can ask to Algeria to “do more” but “Algeria has its own vision” of the situation in northern Mali …
  13. He sees talk of gas or uranium in northern Mali as a contradiction and “we do not see the terrorists” showing any interest in “this stuff”
  14. The hostages are not only European or Algerian, there are thousands uncounted because “the Malian population is hostage in the hands of terrorists [...] who have even begun to kill people.”
  15. A dialogue is underway with the opposition in Mauritania, which “affects even the constitution.” That “marital status is highly volatile.” So it requires them to “establish a biometric identity, which is more consistent, fairer and more transparent.” And that “elections [municipal and legislative] are delayed to maximise transparency.”
  16. “People go out to protest all day long and never see the police” in Nouakchott. “They are even encouraged to protest! It does not bother the government. ” and he has “asked the Interior Minister to invite them to demonstrate, and see if he approves. “
  17. The problems in Mauritania of “employment, water, electricity, health, infrastructure and all these things [...] result of mismanagement.” And that unemployment is a “problem of inadequacy of the country’s need.” That there is “one unemployed person in building” but thousands in other disciplines because “only 14% of students take science [and technology].” And “the problem in Mauritania is literature: this is the problem! Mauritania, they say it is the land of a million poets … ” That has to change, the government needs to create “technical colleges in the regions “. But “it’s been two years since we started on it” and “it will take a long time.”
  18. There are no “physical terrorists in Mauritania.” All “terrorists are in jail.”
  19. French tourists, in 2007, “were killed by prisoners that the old regime had released”.
  20. There is “no secret prison in Mauritania” but “prisoners [assassins or accomplices in the death of French nationals] are held incommunicado” somewhere for “their safety and that of the country”, so they can not “communicate with their leader.” And “their families did not ask to see them.”

Summary: 

A. Mali can continue to consider that Mauritania Aziz is definitely not the ideal neighbor.

B. Westerners can continue playing in the Mauritania sandbox.

C. Mauritanians can now spend their time learning science and technology, while listening to the President of a million poets talk about geopolitics, development and justice.

original version by Sid Ahmed for CIESMA, in Nouakchott,  15 April 2012 via mauritanidees

Something in the Air?

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Three events to consider here.

First, the story I posted on 11 March 2012, about the American Airlines flight attendant losing it on a flight, yelling about terrorist threats, and having to be restrained.

Second, on 27 March 2012, a JetBlue flight captain losing it on a flight, yelling about a terrorist threat, and having to be restrained. This time, the plane was packed with burly security experts and ex-cops, on their way to a convention in Las Vegas and there just happened to be an off-duty pilot available and people who took cellphone video of the “incident”.

Third, is the 23 March 2012 release of an affidavit created January 28, 2008, from a highly qualified pilot saying that the famous video footage aired by CNN of the Boeing jet airplanes striking the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York on  September 9, 2001 “could not have happened”.  It is important to note he is NOT saying 9/11 never happened, nor is he saying that planes did not strike the towers. He is saying it could not have been that type of aircraft, under those conditions, behaving as portrayed in the video and described in the commentary. The testimony, although expert, is from someone  described to me as a “conspiracy nut”. His remarks upset some people who have close personal links to the 9/11 tragedy, which is predictable and understandable. I watched that video over again and I knew from the moment I saw it that life would be different from that day on. Regardless, I tried to look at this “news” release from a different perspective: why release the document at this time?

The two recent in-flight incidents, when taken with the release of this statement, fit neatly into an orchestrated security preparedness scenario. Whether that is simply to enable security people to conduct realistic simulation training or for some other reason I would not hazard to guess.  But the idea of two trained and experienced individuals who work on board commercial aircraft each having a meltdown within such a short space of time, and having to be subdued is too big a coincidence to write off without giving it some thought. What made me think these three events might be related was that none of the Jet Blue stories I checked mentioned the American Airlines incident from just two week’s earlier. When I read today that the Jet Blue captain was interviewed in-depth last year, and the journalist who met him felt this behaviour was completely out of character for him, I wondered if the whole scenario was scripted and the affidavit release was simply timed to coincide with these stories for added emphasis.

I will try to monitor news for other similar stories in the next few weeks, in case there are more examples. If you find any I’d be grateful for a tip-off and a link. Meanwhile, I’d be interested in your take on this.