The Week in ‎Mauritania – 6 July 2013

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Roundup of news and images from Mauritania during the week ending 6 July 2013

4 July 7 Ndb youth march to Nkt again
7 youth who set out on foot from Nouadhibou almost 2 weeks ago are within 50km of the presidential palace in Nouakchott. They are marching to protest the marginalisation of youth, and have the support of their peers back home in the nation’s economic capital. 

Scandals are plentiful in Mauritania, and the past week yielded a bumper harvest, from the Minister of Culture being dismissed after a fraud investigation opened into her husband’s affairs, to the resignation of a director of the mining company SNIM. One which almost escaped attention occurred the previous week; a meeting between the president, one of his lawyers, and a former French judge who was himself embroiled in scandal. This meeting (pictured below) led to much speculation about the “Mamere Case” and “GhanaGate”: Aziz was described in a TV interview with French journalist and politician Noël Mamère last year as a “drug lord”. The Mamère statement came to light at the start of 2013 and eventually – after certain damaging recordings allegedly between Aziz, one of his ministers, and an individual in Ghana were released by local media – Aziz decided to sue Mamère for slander, according to news reports.

27-06-2013-Aziz meets former French judge

An officer on his way to work at Dar Naim prison in Nouakchott was reportedly the victim of an attempted kidnapping by a group of people thought to be friends or relatives of one or more jailed Salafists.

A talented high school student put on a one man show to draw attention to the visual arts.

A young visually impaired man with a verbal agreement to work for Radio Mauritania was dropped at the last minute because of the political views he shared on Facebook.

Ministers have agreed a draft agreement to finance a school in Mauritania for specialist training in mining and metals in a partnership agreement between national mining entities, foreign mining companies, and the World Bank. The timing of this decision is interesting because on 30 November 2010, Kinross Gold announced a $10 million budget to be spent over a period of 3 years on this project, saying at the time:

“The Mauritania Mining School will have two campuses, located in Nouakchott and Akjoujt, and will focus on developing both technicians and engineers for careers in the mining industry. The three-year technician program will focus on mineral technology, and will be based in Akjoujt.

The five-year engineering programs will focus on management of mineral resources and on electro-mechanics, and will be based in Nouakchott. At full capacity, the school is expected to host a total of 340 students and to graduate 50 engineers and 30 technicians annually. The school is scheduled to start up in 2013-2014.

Planning for the school is being coordinated by the Mauritanian Mining School Implementation Unit, under the direction of an Orientation Committee comprising all major stakeholders in the project, including government, mining companies, and other project contributors, and overseen by the Mauritanian Ministry of Mines.”

President Aziz has been touring the country in what is widely considered an early start to campaigning ahead of the long overdue parliamentary elections, currently rumoured to be in planning for October. The media has obediently trotted behind the Aziz entourage, yet few journalists have noted the low turnout compared to previous outings. They have also avoided mentioning the president’s health issues, which this tour has made glaringly evident. Arriving late to scheduled appearances is nothing new, but when he does finally show Aziz is visibly pale, his movements slow and hesitant, and there are occasional delays as he appears to adjust what is assumed to be a colostomy bag under his garments. At every location, requests for an audience have been refused and other arrangements cancelled as the exhausted head of state is whisked away without explanation.

On the link below, blogger Moulay Abdallah concludes that Aziz is risking his life for political gain.

It is worth noting that the voter registration process which started in 2011 is still incomplete, and there seems little likelihood of establishing a legitimate election within the next few months.

Demands for drinking water and electrical power erupt wherever Aziz plans to visit, but gendarmes were dispatched to remove protest banners and empty water containers placed along the road near Rosso. This is the same route Aziz took on his last visit to Rosso in 2012, when activists from the 25 February movement famously created a string of graffiti images saying simply “Leave”. The group has since established branches in different regional capitals, which manifested in protest during the current presidential tour.

كثبان اترارزة تقول "ارحل" وستقولها هضاب تكانت والعصابة وغيرهم .. ارحل تلاحق عزيز أينما حل وارتحل

Some news oddities from last week include self-promoting script kiddie “Mauritania Hacker” (aka @An0nGhost) being interviewed. I have seen tweets of the link with text describing his antics as a global “cyberwar” defending Islam against the West, which is laughable considering he is an indiscriminate defacer of random websites who occasionally posts information from previous hacking claims lifted from pastebins etc, and edited or photoshopped to look current.

Let’s bear this in mind as we see increased claims about the activities of an Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) franchise in Mauritania.

For good measure, we can add bold assertions that Ansar al-Sharia is also now mobilising people to demand the application of Sharia law. As @HannahHaniya put it “Ansar al Sharia in Mauritania and mosques call for sharia. I don’t see how Mauritania could be any more Sharia-compliant than it already is.”

In other news

  • A woman with a degree in International Law was appointed to head the national TV station, prompting her to resign from the ruling political party.
  • Ramadan is almost upon us, and some poor families have been given charitable aid, while all families are now seeing prices of food and other goods increase in the markets.
  • There has been some good rainfall in rural areas, bringing hopes of a second consecutive year with a good agricultural harvest, and encouraging herders about grazing and watering their livestock.
  • The first batch of Malian refugees has returned to Goundam, near Timbuktu. About 100 people from 20 families left Mauritania, with assistance from UNHCR.
  • The Aziz tour sparked a series of competing political meetings and rallies all over the place. There’s a larger rally planned for Sunday 7 July by the Coordination of Democratic Opposition parties (COD). It will beinteresting to see what kind of turnout they get.
  • All of the above has been somewhat overshadowed by the consistently high level of interest within Mauritania for events in Egypt this past week, which has seen several protests – the largest in favour of Morsi, and the usual ream of statements commending or condemning the actions of the military.

Petition | #HumanRights Org: Stop misconduct of mining companies in #Mauritania

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Please sign the petitions on change.org here:

https://www.change.org/petitions/mauritanian-human-rights-organization-stop-the-misconduct-of-mining-companies-in-mauritania

and on Avaaz here: http://www.avaaz.org/fr/petition/Sauver_la_Mauritanie_de_la_Pollution_Miniere_de_KINROSS_TAZIAZET

We need to urge the government to make these mining companies sustain the environment and preserve the landscape for the future generations. These corporation need to assume social responsibility and take a hand into developing the local communities instead of devastating them…

We aspire to break the government’s shameful silence and indifference towards the atrocities caused by corporations such as KINROSS, MCM and PETRONAS…

By Elycheikh Ahmed-Tolba

KINROSS, the Canadian gold mining corporation (monster) which is leading the Gold Exploitation in Mauritania, has displayed its interest in expanding industrial hegemony over the Tasiast facility. Kinross is considered to be one of the worst mining companies working in Mauritania along with MCM and PETRONAS.  It has no respect for the local people. It has been contributing in the degradation of the environment…

Monday, 04/29/2013, Kinross revealed its decision to expand gold production in Tasiast-Mauritania which will produce 830,000 ounces of gold annually – undoubtedly enough to exhaust gold reserves in the desert. Kinross is acting beyond the limits and mandate of the Mauritanian government…

Our silent military government has turned into deaf ears and blind eyes to Kinross atrocities due the percentages given under the table to the military junta and their lead generals…

Kinross is using these attitudes in Mauritania because of the government’s corruption and involvement in the process of demeaning the Mauritanian population. Kinross has no sense or consideration for CSR: corporate social responsibility…

It’s the burden of intellectuals in RIM to stand up against this monster and disclose its awful intent to ruin the potential richness of the country. We need to work together hand-in-hand to preserve the sustainability of the Mauritanian environment for future generations. —

KINROSS, the Canadian  gold mining corporation (monster) which is leading the Gold Exploitation in Mauritania, has displayed its interest in expending the industrial hegemony over Tazyazet factory. Kinross is considered to be one of the worst mining companies working in Mauritania among MCM and PETRONASS. It has no respect for the local people; It has been contributing in the degradation of the environment... </p> <p>Today 04/29/2013, Kinross revealed its decision to build up a new factory of gold in Tazyazet-Mauritania which will produce 830000 ounces of gold annually which will be undoubtedly enough to dry up the refinery of the gold in the desert. Especially, that Kinross is acting beyond the limits and observations of the Mauritanian government...</p> <p>Our silent military government has turned into deaf ears and blind eyes to Kinross’s atrocities due the percentages given from beneath the table to the military junta and their lead generals...Kinross is using these attitudes in Mauritania because of the government’s corruption and involvement in the process of demeaning the Mauritanian population. Kinross has no sense or consideration for CSR: corporate social responsibility...</p> <p>It’s the burden of the intellectuals in RIM to stand up against this monster and disclose its awful intent to ruin the potential richness of the country. We need to work all together and hand-in-hand to preserve the sustainability of the Mauritanian sole and environment for the future generations.

Kinross-Tasiast Mauritania: Questionable Values

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Kinross-Tasiast has been a hot topic in the mining community for at least two years, since the take-over of Red Back mining in September 2010, stirring much speculation among stock market traders as well as anticipation from unemployed Mauritanian graduates. Yet it remains an impenetrable mystery. The precious ore is extracted far from prying eyes hoping to catch a glimpse of the truth, to confirm their unanswered questions and suspicions. Despite its many problems, the mine is claimed to have achieved something in the order of US$2.5 billion annual revenue, under an agreement where Mauritania receives only 3%.  With traders losing faith in the promised gold, and the jobless Mauritanians still looking for work, the big question is: “where is the money?”

Tasiast was touted as the second largest gold deposit in Africa, making it irresistible to international companies lured to Mauritania by the promise of massive returns. By April 2012, the Executive Board of Kinross Gold was cloistered for two days in the Canary Islands at the Las Palmas regional headquarters of the Canadian gold mining giant. They were urgently discussing a major capital optimization study for its mines in Ghana and Mauritania. The meeting came at a critical juncture for Kinross Gold, facing massive cost escalation on its development projects, after already announcing delays to the Ghanaian Lobo-Marte and Fruta del Norte projects to focus on Tasiast.

A series of negative events triggered a sharp fall in share price in January 2012m when US$3.1 billion – about 21% of its value – was wiped out after announcing a $2.49 billion write off – part of the US$4.6 billion “goodwill” included in the US$7.1 billion cost of the Red Back purchase, and a 6-9 months’ delay before Tasiast gold production would come on-stream, at which time it would fail to meet previous output estimates.

Then in March, the company was hit with a $4-billion class action lawsuit related to the troubles at Tasiast, filed by Canadian firm Koskie Minsky LLP. “Based on our investigation, we are prepared to pursue litigation to preserve the company and the value of Kinross Gold stock for all shareholders, including seeking removal of certain officers and directors and monetary payments,” said shareholder rights attorney Willie Briscoe. The complaint charged that Kinross Gold’s financial statements were not fairly presented in conformity with International Financial Reporting Standards and were materially false and misleading.

This was the second such suit in less than a month, after a similar claim was filed in the United States in February. Both lawsuits relate to Kinross Gold’s disclosure around Tasiast: that the miner made misrepresentations relating to the quality and quantity of gold ore.

With the write-off, plus punitive damages in the offing, cost-cutting would be at the top of the agenda in Las Palmas. They would also need to decide how to respond to an unexpected tax demand for several million dollars from Mauritania.

The meeting would also be an ideal opportunity to discuss the creation of a plan, since, despite allocating a budget of $US800 million for Tasiast this year, and being way behind schedule, they don’t have one.

Speaking as a programme manager, this would be the most disturbing fact about Kinross Gold I have uncovered, were it not for the fatal plane crash in July which claimed seven lives, all Mauritanians, and to which Kinross reacted with condolences for the deceased and their families, but also saw fit to mention that no Kinross staff were killed, no gold was on board, and that the tragedy would not impact mining operations. It certainly made a difference to the loved ones of the seven people who died. The pilot’s sister is still struggling to cope with her grief.

Top-down de-staffing

Despite offical denials, removal of “certain officers and directors” did happen, although it is not clear whether this was solely in response to the lawsuits. People who were formerly described in glowing terms as “integral” to the growth of the company, and especially the flagship Tasiast project, disappeared.  Calls to their numbers via the Kinross switchboard went unanswered, and the receptionist said they had left the company.

Based on press releases, it is apparent some of them found new jobs:

  • TIMOTHY C. BAKER– Executive Vice-President and Chief Operating Officer, when the due diligence was being done on the Red Back transaction.
  • THOMAS M. BOEHLERT– Executive Vice-President and Chief Financial Officer.  He left soon after the Red Back transaction.
  • KENNETH G. THOMAS– Senior Vice-President, Projects.  This was the man responsible for the Tasiast expansion project.
  • ROBERT D. HENDERSON– Senior Vice-President, Technical Services.  He signed off as a “Qualified Person” on most of the Kinross Gold mines’ reporting.
  • MARK E. ISTO– Senior Vice-President, Project Development.  Coordinated work with engineering consultants for Tasiast.
  • MARK D. SEDORE—Vice-President, Technical Services.  He signed off as a “Qualified Person” on Tasiast.

For a while it seemed as though the one man who has profited most from Kinross, CEO Tye Burt, who was awarded total compensation of US$50-60-million since 2005 in the form of cash, share and option-based awards and pension value, would never leave, but he finally got canned in August after a drop in Q2 profits.

Whoever was still around in April would have had to discuss the Tasiast mine expansion project in their meeting. This is a project which had previously been considered impracticable by independent and separate expert studies. However, Ken Thomas, who joined Kinross Gold from Hatch in 2010, seemingly had his heart set on engaging the company in what later proved a costly and reckless adventure. The expansion project, which included two processing plants with a complex infrastructure, would have to be cancelled or curtailed. But Kinross had already outsourced to a host of foreign sub-contractors. If the board decided to surrender the project indefinitely, the subcontractors would not relinquish their claims without some form of compensation.

Subcontractor perks

Some subcontracted companies based in Mauritania enjoy(improperly) the same dispensations and benefits as Kinross-Tasiast. This situation has come about either by contrivance, or through the ignorance of the Mauritanian authorities which carved out the Tasiast deal. The primary subcontractor was Hatch, a Canadian consulting firm whose mission was the study and monitoring of the expansion project.

The key expansion project subcontractor is Consolidated Contractors Company [CCC], an Arabian construction company, owned by a Palestinian from Lebanon, and based in Greece. CCC was in charge of Civil Engineering works to build the expansion project plant at a cost of US$1 billion.

The project being mothballed, CCC has been thrown some million-dollar bones to chew on while waiting for the return of better times, but they are all projects which were originally slated to be awarded to Mauritanian companies. CCC now supports construction of the airport at Tasiast; an asphalt road linking the site to the road between Nouakchott and Nouadhibou – and related works; and a pipeline project to supply fresh water. To do this, it employs 110 expatriates and not a single Mauritanian.

In those situations where local people are employed, the recruitment practices reflect the grace-and-favour cronyism that is endemic in Mauritanian society. “Kinross employs about 300 Mauritanian workers, strictly for manual labour, and 5 in 6 of them almost exclusively have the same tribal affiliation,”  says one worker.

Second in line is DORCE, a Turkish company based in Ankara, tasked with construction of a workforce camp of about 7,000 rooms, for a total of US$100 million. It employs 500 expatriates and 600 locals, but 80% of the Mauritanians are small traders.

Next is the turn of Friedlander (ORTEC Group), a French company specializing in plumbing, whose mission is limited to the construction of a pipeline feeding the plant with seawater to clean extracted ore. It employs 50 expatriates, as well as a workforce of labourers, of which 70% are from sub-Saharan Africa.

Fourth most important is CIS, an international catering company with headquarters in France, operating in Mauritania as NAC, and responsible for a catering contract worth US$11 million. CIS, or NAC, employs 30 expatriates and more than 400 Mauritanian staff. The indigenous employees are hired without permanent employment contracts, working 12 hours a day for a measly 70,000 Ouguiyas (about US$230) at the end of the month, and no entitlement to overtime. No wonder the company has no operations in France other than an office: the EU labour laws forbid such treatment.

According to one worker, “There are of course other, less visible foreign companies operating behind the scenes, seemingly unknown to the Mauritanian tax man, but appearing on the list of companies associated with Kinross-Tasiast.”

“The ‘Mauritanisation’ of workers obviously does not apply to these companies,” one worker voices. “Here, they conspire with the authorities, with the compliance of the labour inspector, to keep almost everything in the dark,” concludes a team leader. “Cheating is endemic here,” reveals a Mauritanian civil rights activist. “For example, salaries of expatriate workers of these various companies are kept under wraps. Expats working in that area of Kinross-Tasiast which they call “operations” are managed from the regional office in Las Palmas.”

Another indignant  Mauritanian engineer adds, “Kinross-Tasiast is just a big scam.”

“Regardless of the level of commitment from the government in wanting to impose real transparency on these vested interests,” adds a technician, “it will never happen.”

#Mauritania: On The Edge

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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.

Disturbing Mining Sector News from #Mauritania

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Some news stories caught my attention today, each relating to mining in Mauritania, which is a major source of income for the country, although only a tiny fraction of the revenue finds its way to the impoverished population.

First, a report [ar] that there are hundreds of unexploited areas of mining potential which have been discovered by surveys – as many as 900 – with less than 300 licences granted so far. The report also claims that contributions from mining have increased by 16%

The next story [ar] is of SAMIA gypsum mine workers appealing to an industry watchdog to investigate the reports made by their employers of profits, which the workers say are inaccurate. The workers believe the joint operation, which is 50% owned by an investor in Kuwait, has made a loss, and that this is attributable to fraudulent practices. They say the Q1 reports were based on erroneous data supporting a 20 million MRO profit when in fact it should register a 60 million MRO loss, and that they have documented evidence of these allegations. Sahara Medias adds that the reporters wanted to contact the company for comment but were unable to find a telephone contact. By common accounts, this is a fairly typical situation for notoriously corrupt Mauritanian commercial dealings: it was described to me as “business as usual”.

These stories brought to mind Kinross Gold’s claims that the strike action which ended a few days ago was causing them to lose vast sums of money, amounts which would transform Tasiast into a far more valuable operation than it is in reality. Interestingly enough, Kinross shares nudged up a little on the news. We know that Kinross was in difficulties after it’s takeover of the Tasiast mine and has written off part of the purchase, which included a massive payout to at least one former director, who was retained as consultant. The $11 billion Canadian company has lost some $3 billion of its worth since the start of 2012 and is embroiled in alleged violations of securities laws, leading analysts to speculate the company may succumb to hostile takeover bids.

Injured MCM mine worker Mohamed Ould Khatari

Finally, there is the sad case of a worker from the Akjoujt mine operated by MCM who was exposed to toxic chemical powder at work and was given only rudimentary treatment (the exposed skin was washed with water). He eventually reported MCM to the gendarmerie for negligence after they refused to send him for a spcialist consultation. He was then sent for medical treatment, but the doctor just prescribed a topical antibiotic and told him to take Paracetamol for the agonising burning pain still affecting his arm, which is covered in irregular lesions.