The Week in ‎Mauritania – 14 July 2013

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This week began with the COD political rally in Nouakchott as planned. The president of the socialist RFD party, Ould Daddah, called for the closure of “Sal Ahaddin” prison in the north – assumed to be the location of 14 disappeared Salafi prisoners. Other speakers echoed his calls for increased transparency, and again called for President Aziz to step down. Everything was much as expected: speeches, applause, and everyone returned home. I think turnout was quite low compared to last year.


مـوقع الطـواري الألكتـروني

عاجل: الالآف يهتفون بإسقاط النظام في ساحة ابن عباس 2013-07-07 17:25:00 الالآف من أنصار منسقية المعارضة يهتفون بإسقاط النظام الموريتاني أفاد ..
http://www.tawary.com

July 7 was also supposed to be the date for release of Baccalaureate exam results affecting thousands of young Mauritanians. In fact they came out the next day, and the results were pretty dismal, with a pass rate around 10%. Among the success stories was a student with a talent for poetry, who achieved the highest score in mathematics; and a 17 year-old from Nouadhibou, who scored the highest marks overall. A nice touch that this top achievement goes to a female student, as there was a call this week for implementing positive discrimination to improve opportunities for women.

Evidence of tampering is suspected in this year’s test results for children wanting to enter secondary schools, as detailed in the story below.  Considering the authorities have been unable to complete biometric registration of less than 4 million people in over two years, I find the notion that they are not capable of marking tens of thousands of exam papers – whether for high school or university entrance – entirely credible.


الأخبار: أول وكالة أنباء موريتانية مستقلة | شبه تلاعب بالتصحيح والرقابة بموريتانيا

الأخبار (نواكشوط) – أظهرت تحقيقات أجرتها وكالة الأخبار المستقلة على عينات من نتائج مسابقة دخول السنة الأولى الإعدادية 2013،وجود شبه تلاعب ..
http://www.alakhbar.info

Dozens injured in Sunday's riot in the town of #Kaedi #Mauritania. Photo via D. Camara and Saidou Wane
Dozens injured in Sunday’s riot in the town of #Kaedi #Mauritania. Photo via D. Camara

A market near Kaédi, ‎in Gourgol, southern Mauritania, was forced to close shortly after 7am Sunday morning, after an altercation between a shopkeeper and street trader reportedly sparked “ethnic clashes” 3 hours later. The story below includes a photo of a large crowd of youth who appeared around 10am to protest. Clashes erupted and several people, including 2 policemen, were reportedly injured. By Monday 8 July, at least seven arrests were reported by activist Mariame Kane:
Gando Dia
Maissou Salli Sy
Aboubakry Ba
Diawli Mamadou Moussa
Abdoul Sy
Aly Baba Ndiaye
Ousmane Thierno Ndiaye
Gorel Niang (son of the street trader who was assaulted)


مواجهات عنيفة بين الشرطة ومجموعة من الشبان في كيهيدي

شهدت مدينة كيهيدي جنوب موريتانيا مواجهات عنيفة صباح اليوم بين الشرطة ومجموعة من الشبان حاولت اقتحام سوق المدينة اثر خلاف بين تاجرة ..
http://www.saharamedias.net

The detentions increased to 30, including a local community leader, and they are all set to appear in court.

All Eyes on Egypt

Hard to imagine that anyone will be paying attention, but a Mauritanian MP from the RFD party, Ould Mini, succinctly pointed out that what happened in Egypt bears a striking resembleance to events in Mauritania in 2008. That was when the military, under General Aziz, overthrew the country’s first democratically-elected president Abdallahi in a coup. At the time, the US, EU and African Union withdrew their support.
More elections followed, after which the Aziz regime was granted a veneer of legitimacy by the African Union and Western allies, notably France. President Aziz has himself claimed, during a 2012 conference on the subject, that Mauritania was the first country to “benefit” from the “Arab Spring”. No one realised at the time he was not merely grandstanding.


الأخبار: أول وكالة أنباء موريتانية مستقلة | برلماني: انقلاب مصر مستنسخ من موريتانيا
الأخبار(نواكشوط) دعا رئيس الفريق البرلماني لحزب تكتل القوى الديمقراطية المعارض عبد الرحمن ولد ميني الحكومة الموريتانية إلى التنديد ..
http://www.alakhbar.info

An article on one of the more sensationalist news sites investigates the fast-growing trend of publishing sexually provocative video and images of Mauritanian girls, often without their permission, but on other occasions with their full knowledge and consent.


فتيات موريتانيات.. خارطة الجسد على قارعة “الفيسبوك (تحقيق)
المحيط نت
elmohit.net

Meanwhile, the campaign against pornography is seeking a court injunction to force local ISPs to block websites containing adult content of a pornographic nature.


منظمة ترفع دعوى ضد سلطة التنظيم لحجب المواقع الإباحية
بدأت منظمة آدم لحماية الطفل والمجتمع في إطار “مشروع لا للإباحية”، في إجراءات استصدار حكم قضائي بحجب المواقع الإباحية في شبكات ..
http://www.saharamedias.net

After levying new passport fees of 30,000 MRO for a passport, and enforcing mandatory renewal before old passports expired, authorities have now introduced a 64-page version with a 100,000 MRO fee.
Business customers are also now being asked to show a valid passport for bank withdrawals of 100,000 MRO or more.
It comes as no surprise, then, to learn that over 500 fake passports were seized by police during the 13 July arrest of a gang of forgers.

Protests this week include:

  • temporary workers employed by the state
  • residents of several rural towns and villages who want reliable access to water and electricity
  • fishing industry workers who were laid off
  • political groups in support of Egypt’s former president Morsi
  • transport drivers concerned about road safety and the new security procedures to prevent fuel smuggling
  • Kaédi district, as noted above


الأخبار: أول وكالة أنباء موريتانية مستقلة | المفصولون من وزارة المالية يشكون عدم التجاوب
الأخبار (انواكشوط) ـ أعرب مجموعة العمال الـ 290 المفصولين من وزارة المالية عن أن السلطات الحكومية تتعامل معهم بطريقة مهينة تتمثل في عدم ..
http://www.alakhbar.info


الأخبار: أول وكالة أنباء موريتانية مستقلة | تفاقم معاناة البحارة المسرحين بمدينة نواذيبو
الأخبار(نواذيبو) – تفاقمت معاناة البحارة المسرحين فى العاصمة الاقتصادية نواذيبو وسط دعوات بتوفير بدائل للعاطلين وخلق فرص عمل فى ..
http://www.alakhbar.info


الأخبار: أول وكالة أنباء موريتانية مستقلة | سكان قرى آفطوط الساحلي يشكون العطش
الأخبار (انواكشوط) ـ وجه سكان قرى آفطوط الساحلي نداء إلى رئيس الجمهورية محمد ولد عبد العزيز يشكون فيه من أن حظهم من مشروع آفطوط الذي علقوا ..
http://www.alakhbar.info


الأخبار: أول وكالة أنباء موريتانية مستقلة | سكان كزرة طب زايد: تخطيط الأراضي يتجاوزنا
الأخبار (انواكشوط) ـ قالت المتحدثة باسم سكان كزرة طب زايد: حورية بنت دادك ولد اصنيبة إن سكان هذه الكزرة يسكنون فيها منذ عام: 1986م، وظلت ..
http://www.alakhbar.info

4 July 7 Ndb youth march to Nkt again
The youth who marched 450km on foot from Nouadhibou to the presidential palace in Nouakchott reportedly met with the president. I have not see photos or reports of the meeting so far.

One village, demanding electricity and water supply, is in an agricultural area plagued by locusts.
They threatened that they would not vote for Aziz again if these issues are not resolved. The promises of Aziz during his current tour to provide these essential services could be causing an outbreak of protest as a form of bargaining.

Ramadan Mubarak مبارك عليكم الشهر Image: Maryam Al-attiya

The feast of Ramadan started – this year is one with a lot of daylight hours and extremely high temperatures in Mauritania. When it is time to break their fast, people have to contend with paying between 10 and 140 percent more for their groceries than the same time last year, according to research by deyloul.com.
The government issued a short statement from Aziz in which he boasted of the relative security and stability in the country. Two days later it was back to issuing dire warnings about threats to security and stability.
Several donations of food and social aid were announced this week, aimed at helping the poorest families during Ramadan.

Days after news that Benin would be seeking expert advice from Mauritania on building an airport, we heard that the new Nouakchott international airport project is stuck in the hangar.
In other news, there are concerns of impropriety in the administration of the police inspectors exam, and the chief executive of the sports stadium project has been arrested following a fraud investigation.
This week’s biggest corruption scandal comes (as so often) via alakhbar.info, which revealed extra-legal activities in assigning contracts with the finance ministry.


الأخبار: أول وكالة أنباء موريتانية مستقلة | صحيفة “الأخبار انفو” تكشف بالوثائق عن تعيينات خارج القانون بوزارة المالية
الأخبار (نواكشوط) كشفت وثائق ومعطيات رسمية نشرتها صحيفة “الأخبار إنفو” الموريتانية في عددها الصادر صباح اليوم الأربعاء عن اختلالات ..
http://www.alakhbar.info

Despite his office’s longstanding travel advisory notice warning against it, UK Foreign Office minister Alistair Burt visited Mauritania this week, immediately meeting with the new charge d’affaires on his return to London.
Other interesting visitors included the wife of Mali’s interim president Traoré, and a delegation from international philanthropist Sheikha Mozah, mother of the new Qatari ruler.
A new Mauritanian ambassador was accredited in Senegal.
This page is about Mauritania news, otherwise I would be adding an item about the release of hostages from South Africa on the border of Senegal and Guineau Bissau here.

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#Mauritania Headlines 29 May 2012

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A quick round up of news and opinion from Mauritania:

  • Fuel prices have been increased for the fifth time this year.
  • Residents of three villages near Kaédi  will be marking this as the date it was announced they will be getting electrical power after waiting more than 50 years.
  • Russia’s envoy for African affairs, Mikhail Margelov, has expressed concern that Azawad’s bid for independence creates security concerns for Niger and Mauritania. He is dead right there, but Nigeria and Mauritania governments are no doubt well aware of this. More interesting would be to discover what is it they have been promised that persuaded them to comply with this scheme?
  • Abu Hafs family issued a statement complaining that the former Al Qaeda visionary had been given all sorts of promises about being allowed freedom to be with his family – presumably as part of the deal which brought him home to Mauritania from Iran – and asking all concerned to honor their word, and to stop pressuring him to meet with “foreign delegations” despite his refusals.
  • Condemnation of manipulating student rights Once again students are complaining about unfair treatment and unnecessary delays in applications being processed, especially of concern is the situation of those studying abroad.
  • Mauritania police to resume previous traffic control role The Army will be deployed to the increased border security checkpoints with Mali (and presumably, Senegal, where tensions are mounting due to the Aziz  administration’s heavy-handed treatment of Senegalese nationals. and..
  • This recent renewed talk about an Arab Maghreb Union is eyewash says this op-ed. What about Western Sahara, the Amazigh, the Tuareg, “Azawad”?
  • Palestinians are demanding Ould Abdel Aziz to expel their ambassador in Nouakchott after he refused to meet them because they are “Gazans”
  • The signing of six agreements for cooperation between Mauritania and Gambia on education, culture, oil, energy, air transport and tourism was a prelude to Aziz and his Gambian counterpart – both former military men who ousted their respective governments and went on to be elected — calling for a return to constitutional order in Mali and Guinea-Bissau.
  • Questions directed to the opposition Op-ed, basically asking how they keep managing to switch horses mid-stream without getting the hem of their dara’a wet
  • Aziz vows not to harass Chinguetti TV channel It’s been a year and this Egypt-based independent Mauritanian channel has still not been granted a licence, so maybe Aziz means he’s not going to harass them “any more than usual”. Fact is, he has prior issues with the major investor, a businessman. Some like to imply it’s because Aziz was told Chinguetti TV is supported by “Islamists” – but that is to be expected.
  • Unemployed graduates return to storm the Ministry of Employment this is the group that stormed the grounds of the presidential palace and were eventually arrested, then later freed. Disappointing part: no attempt to align themselves with other protest movements or indeed, the many thousands of other unemployed people in the country.
  • Democratic Party meeting in Nouakchott remarked on the Doha fire of Monday 28 May 2012 and sent condolences to the victims
  • Differences within COD opposition alleged. We get a lot of these rumours. Many hands stirring that pot.
  • Background gossip surrounds the dismissal of Supreme Court Chief Justice Ghilani Bottom line is he and Aziz are very much alike – authoritarian and dictatorial – which worked out fine for a while but now the honeymoon is well and truly over. Aziz appointed a rookie to replace the Chief Justice, who took office Monday 28 May. Tuesday saw the former Commissioner of Human Rights, illegally detained for 9 or 10 months now, finally appear in court on charges of corruption. The accountant for the HR commission resigned last month. Other legal tangles include the impending trial (or not) of Abdulah Senussi, the former head of Libyan Intelligence under Gaddafi, currently evading an international arrest warrant from the ICC, and another from France, by dint of being held in Mauritania on charges of entering the country illegally. All very Mrs Bin Laden. Closer to home, Libya’s NTC is saying that their relationship with Mauritania relies on the outcome of the Senussi case. The other key case is that of anti-slavery campaigner Biram Ould Obeid, illegally detained after causing massive and embarassing controversy after almost a month, along with 10 supporters. His wife Leyla was among weekend protesters in Nouakchott demanding Biram’s release. She got injured in the face (I read somewhere it was a tear gas grenade) for her trouble and wound up in the Emergency Room.
  • Women from poorer neighbourhoods of the economic capital, Nouadhibou, protested Monday 28 May about the dire lack of facilities, incuding provision of water, electricity, education and shops.
  • Nouakchott University expelled the head of the Student Union in response to ongoing student protests, and he retaliated by making a very loud, very public announcement in which he catalogued their many issues and failures. As he put it – he displayed their dirty laundry on the street.
  • Activists @medabdou and @bhourma from Mauritania joined Egypt’s onTV channel by Skype (a technical triumph considering their poor internet reliability) for a live discussion on Monday 28 May. Video here.
  • The onTV invite came in the wake of an item about Mauritania’s “overlooked” Arab Spring in the Guardian, written by the same guy from Arab Media Watch who was in Press TV’s discussion last week, Sharif Nashashibi. As is so often the case, the comments are far more interesting and revealing than the blog post. It did put me in mind of Al Jazeera’s token piece “Mauritania’s overlooked uprising – what happened to the Feb 25 Movement?” from January 28th.
  • Note: Most links are to Arabic sources

#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.

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.

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