Tension mounts in Mauritania

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After months of peaceful protests against the Mauritanian government, violent scenes erupted into clashes with police, with at least one dead and several injuries reported, some of them critical. The dead and injured had to be transported to hospital over 100 kilometers away in Kaédi; the long journey increasing risk of death or medical emergencies.  An escalation of events occurred after police opened fire on a protest by residents of Maghama, in the far south of the country, on Tuesday, 27 September. The people were protesting against the national identity procedures, until police aggression sparked the protest into a riot, with heavy damage to buildings reported.

The actions of the protesters have met with criticism from at least one core group of dissidents devoted to the principles of non-violent protest, who denounced the destruction of property as vandalism. This in turn has given rise to heated disagreements and accusations of partisanship and racism. On the other side, there are angry demands for an armed response from those who say using live ammunition against unarmed protesters shows that the government has crossed the line, and marks a point of no return.

In Kaédi, a little further north, similar peaceful protests which began on Saturday also met with violence from the local police who used batons and tear gas. The next day witnessed angry scenes, and over 30 people were arrested after a police vehicle was overturned and vandalized. During the commotion the vehicle caught fire, and the event was captured on video. Most of those detained in Kaédi were reported released by late on Tuesday.

While the black African section of the population are largely concerned with the census, lack of clean drinking water and intermittent power supplies are an additional unwelcome feature of life in many parts of the country, including the nation’s capital of Nouakchott, where there was a power outage for several hours just a couple of days earlier.

The situation in Mauritania has much in common with other countries in the region, where a predominantly young population, with about two-thirds under 30, is frustrated by high unemployment – estimated at 68%, and the many additional problems they have to contend with. The deals made on mining, mineral extraction and fishing with companies from China, Europe (especially France) and Canada sees much of the nation’s wealth flow to foreign interests while the local economy and traditional crafts have been eroded to the point of extinction. There is also anger over what is seen as rampant corruption among the government and its elite inner circle, who enjoy the pick of top jobs and government positions, and whose companies are awarded those contracts which do go to domestic-owned enterprises. But whether a foreign or domestic company is involved, the outcome is too often inefficient, unprofitable or in some cases – such as mining – unhealthy and dangerous. Calls from the populace and the opposition to address any of the multi-layered issues afflicting Mauritania are met with indifference or delaying tactics, such as the fruitless dialogue that began last week.

Perhaps the overriding justification for massive popular dissent against the government of Mohamed Abdel Ould Aziz is the means by which he came to power, orchestrating a military coup against the man he helped to take control in an earlier coup, then donning civilian clothes to “win” a Presidential election which was assumed to be rigged. His close relationship with dictatorial luminaries such as Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, Zine Ben-Ali of Tunisia and  Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has done nothing to improve his standing or reputation. When Aziz was appointed chair of the African Union‘s Safety and Security commission special panel on Libya following the NATO intervention earlier this year, his willingness to stab his old friend in the back by declaring that Gaddafi should step down was no surprise to locals in Mauritania.

All of this unpleasant and uncomfortable history has generated many opposition groups and movements who have protested vigorously on such issues as:

  •    Clean drinking water
  •    Corruption
  •    Drains and sewerage
  •    Education
  •    Employment
  •    Land grabs, forced evictions
  •    Press Freedom
  •    Racial discrimination
  •    Slavery
  •    Stable electrical supply
  •    Workers’ rights (medical staff, teachers, taxi drivers, bus drivers, miners)
In the wake of protests in Tunisia and the rest of the region, youth went to the streets in large numbers on 25 February 2011. They were followed by a major campaign against the fishing deal with China, and a resurgence of the anti-discrimination movement in the form of a “Touche Pas á ma Mauritanitité” (je suis Noir et Mauritanien) campaign in response to the controversial methods used to register black African nationals, widely regarded as designed to deny them the right to claim their nationality. The government has launched a media campaign to deny what it calls false rumours, and “to reassure the people that they will all be registered, without restrictions,” the official in charge of the drive, M’Rabih Rabbou, has said.

The moderate Islamist National Rally for Reform and Development (RNRD, or Tawassoul) political party, the Alliance for Justice and Democracy – Movement for Renovation (AJD-MR) and the Rally for Democratic Forces (RFD) issued statements denouncing the week-end violence and calling for the census to be suspended until the claims of discrimination are addressed. Mauritanian human rights organisations AVOMM and OCVIDH are among the census opponents.

Mauritania has a multi-ethnic population of around three million made up of white and black Moors as well as various black African tribes and a long history of inter-ethnic conflicts.

Last weekend a new image posted on FaceBook promised a “change is coming” but activists from the February 25th Movement remained mysterious about their plans, only saying we should “wait and see”.
As the news of these deaths spreads, the already tense situation in Mauritania is being stretched to breaking point. There is a lot of anger, some denial, and many calls  to remain calm and peaceful in the face of increasing violence from a hostile government. We may not have to wait too long.

View Mauritania Protests in a larger map

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