Mauritania – from the outside

Critical Muslim 09 The Maghreb
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A minor re-draft of the article I wrote for Critical Muslim‘s Maghreb edition (08 – Jan 2014) which was drawn from my interpretation of Mauritanian culture and society as seen from a distance, as an outsider. The intended audience is the same as ever: one which is almost completely unaware of the existence of this country, its people, and their lifestyle apart from the occasional tabloid-style stories.

What I am about to share with you may seem oddly fascinating, and even a little mysterious, as indeed it is, to outsiders, but not to Mauritanians. To Mauritanians, everything you are about to read is just part of everyday normal life and, being rather conservative, they don’t necessarily relish the idea of being put under the microscope as some kind of social curiosity, and quite rightly. As Mauritanian social network activist Nasser Weddady explains, “Mauritanians are very conscious that they and their country are a footnote in the world, and more so in the Arab world itself. We are almost never talked about, very few people can even locate us on the map. Most Arabs don’t even know that we share with them a common language and in the case of some, common ancestry. Furthermore, when fellow Arabs talk about us, the clichés and stereotypes veer quickly into the realm of the exotic.” [1]

Mauritania covers more than a million square kilometers of mainly arid Saharan desert, its two main population centres punctuating the 800 kilometre Atlantic coastline.  Stretching east into the Sahel from these two pins on the map, the angular northern borders wedge against Morocco, Algeria and Mali, while the Senegal river valley softens the outline along the southern edge. The immense desert contains a wealth of natural resources such as copper, gold, gypsum and iron, but the extractive industries offer few employment opportunities for unskilled labour. Meanwhile, persistent drought, desertification and poverty in the interior gradually pushes tens of thousands of Mauritanians to abandon a life of humble self-sufficiency as nomadic livestock herders or smallholders in rural village communities. They arrive seeking new means of survival in Nouakchott and Nouadhibou, but instead find high unemployment and very few work opportunities, even for trained workers or university graduates, let alone semi-nomadic herdsmen, or farmers with only a rudimentary education. The inevitable result is a sprawling mess of urban slums, many of which are routinely bulldozed by the authorities, the inhabitants struggling to find work as day-labourers or begging for charity at chaotic traffic junctions. The towns were not built to cope with such dramatic population shifts, and meagre efforts to create or improve essential infrastructure are failing to keep pace.

The bustling economic capital of Nouadhibou huddles beneath Western Sahara, to the north, tenaciously maintaining a vantage point from which to survey the nation’s massive fishing grounds, its cubist landscape of squat terracotta buildings and rickety shacks scoured by desert sand and sea salt. Beyond the jumble of boat yards, warehouses and dry docks, massive foreign trawlers and container vessels jostle alongside smaller fishing boats and supply ships. While the sea holds the promise of a sustainable fortune in fish, very little finds its way to Mauritanian tables: most is processed at sea in huge factory ships and shipped directly to distant lands. The local and artisanal fishing sector is dominated by immigrant workers with stronger sea-legs, mainly from nearby Senegal. To the south, a little over halfway to Senegal, lies Nouakchott, on a site first established by colonial invaders, and selected as the national capital in 1960, when Mauritania gained independence from France. Nouakchott boasts the presidential residence, known locally as the “grey palace”, a few embassies or diplomatic missions, and a handful of multi-story buildings. Expanding under the relentless influx of new residents, Nouakchott oozes out from the centre, retreating from the ocean into the unforgiving desert, the buildings growing progressively smaller and shabbier towards the margins, finally dissolving into salvaged scraps of wood and flapping tarpaulin. The rather drab and dreary aspect of the twin capitals allows them to serve as an unobtrusive backdrop to their vastly more interesting and ethnically diverse inhabitants, comprising Moors of both Arab and African descent, Berbers, and West African ethnic groups such as Fulani, Songhai and Wolof.

The richness of Mauritanian cultural diversity reveals itself through a vibrant social tapestry of customs and traditions, rooted in pre-colonial history, yet often embroidered by the experience and impact of French rule. The official language is Arabic, although French is widely used, and there is a strong tradition of speaking the local Hassaniya dialect, which also features in conversations between the growing network of social media users. Facebook is the dominant social network, with Twitter trailing behind in the popularity stakes, and there is a small but dedicated, and very vocal, blogging community. Less than five percent of the country has reliable internet access [2], although the telecoms operators promise that this is set to change, with the recent installation of a new high capacity undersea cable connection to Europe. True connectivity depends on the rest of the country being able to connect, and judging by the lack of progress on infrastructure projects in general, and the logistical and geographical challenges of the terrain, that could take several years to reach even partial penetration.

Despite the majority of their efforts often being overshadowed by Western media narratives,  which tend to focus on isolated and often sensationalist topics, such as slavery, terror threats, or the practice of force feeding known as gavage, Mauritanians have tentatively begun to record their history and tell their stories through their various online interactions. It has been said, “Language is a central feature of human identity. When we hear someone speak, we immediately make guesses about gender, education level, age, profession, and place of origin. Beyond this individual matter, a language is a powerful symbol of national and ethnic identity.” [3] In Mauritania’s case, a great deal more guesswork might be required, as multilingual speakers frequently transition almost seamlessly between different dialects and languages. It is not unusual to see Arabic, Hassaniya and French being used in the same online conversation, even in posts from the same user. This aspect of cultural diversity frequently transforms conversations into incredibly challenging, but nonetheless very rewarding, experiences. There is a fairly strong sense of national identity in Mauritania, at a certain level, but this is overlaid with a patchwork of social and political ideas and beliefs encompassing a very broad spectrum. Language, and especially the choice between languages and how that is played out, both feeds into and springs from this sense of cultural identity mingled with fear and prejudice.

The ancient and enduring oral tradition of Mauritania has several unique facets, including traditional Mauritanian singing, performed by both men and women, to the accompaniment of Moorish hand drums and stringed instruments, and enthusiastic yet unfailingly rhythmic clapping of the audience. Far smaller, but popular among urban youth, is a more Western-influenced interest in popular music, notably rap and female solo vocalists. There is a small rap music festival held annually in Nouakchott, and Mauritania can boast at least one internationally-known rap artist and a few rising stars who are gaining recognition in the region.

Poetry is undoubtedly the best-known and most enduring pastime, widely loved and practised in subtly different forms by young and old, and causing Mauritania to be known across the Arab world as “the country of one million poets.”  So deeply ingrained is the poetic tradition, that one blogger [4] recently described prose as relatively new and uncharted territory for Mauritanian writers, explaining that poetry was, for so long, the only prevailing literary standard. He goes on to suggest that prose was the outcome of “displacement from the open nomadic horizon into the narrow space of the city with all its impositions and inclinations,” and relates that to the emergence of central government in postcolonial Mauritania during the 1960s and 70s. The discipline is actually quite male-dominated, but women can and do write poetry. There is even a special form of poetry used only by women, known as “intebra,” consisting of two highly condensed poetic phrases, and used exclusively to convey romantic meaning. A joke between one of my Mauritanian friends and I goes that Mauritanian poetesses perfected the micropoetry format, placing them far in advance of Twitter! Whether male or female, griot is the name used to describe someone who combines poetry, storytelling, humour, gossip, and, occasionally, political commentary, as a performance art, and who quite literally embodies a living history of the country and the events that shape it.

Borrowing from the poetic tradition, and the role of the griot in sharing news, an enterprising radio presenter, working for the country’s first national radio station, Mohamed Lemine ould Agatt, introduced a new programme. It was shortly after the declaration of independence in 1960, and the government was keen to tackle the challenge of fostering a sense of identity and unity among the mainly nomadic community, at that time spread more widely across the desert wilderness. The programme is known as “al-Balaghat” or “messages,” taken from its full title, which translates to “the people’s messages and communications,” and is still broadcast every weeknight. The messages are delivered or relayed to the radio station’s office by citizens at home or abroad, and composed by the presenter into a unique format in the Hassaniya dialect. The result is part poem and part song, and might be easiest to imagine as a kind of “singing telegram.” Individual messages are known simply as “balagh” and, through the genius of ould Agatt, became the first new oral tradition to enter Mauritanian culture for centuries. As with the intebra feminine poetic form, each balagh engages the imagination of the listener, turning what would otherwise be a fairly terse missive into a more rounded communication, reminding them of their heritage and their history. After more than forty years, every Mauritanian knows about balagh, it’s formats and traditions, and it has become the stuff of legend. The story goes that the first president, Mokhtar ould Daddah, warned ould Agatt that the telegraph and postal services would feel threatened by the popularity of the programme, and would try to close it down. Ould Agatt is said to have promised the president that the show would be aired in the evenings, to avoid competing with the other communication companies. Decades later, mobile telecoms has dominated the sector, usurping the national landline network for domestic consumers, balagh and Radio Mauritanie are still going strong, telegrams are reserved for formal state occasions, and the postal service is virtually non-existent.

We can not speak of Mauritania without mentioning the local dress. The typical robe worn by most women shrouds everything but the face, hands, and feet like a brightly-patterned mist, and is a single length of fabric, usually a fine voile, about one and a half metres wide and three metres metres in length. Wearing the “melehfa” is almost an art-form, and the end result is effortlessly elegant, even a little mysterious, as one is forced to ponder how the flimsy fabric is able to remain in place without coming adrift at the slightest movement. Interestingly enough, despite being swaddled in this cloud of fabric, women do not seem to find it any impediment to physical activities like driving or working. The small group of women who have pilots licences tend to wear more practical garb, and women who serve in the military wear regular uniform, but elsewhere, work clothes are often worn on top of the robe.

Men seldom wear the full national costume, which includes a waistcoat-style sleeveless or short-sleeved top, and loose fitting pants reaching just below the knee, in addition to the full-length robe which is routinely worn. The pants are fastened by a long length of leather worn as a belt, which dangles rather precariously from the waist, as if waiting to trip them. It takes very little imagination to realise that such an accessory would be extremely useful to anyone living a nomadic lifestyle, and needing to draw well water, hobble the odd camel, or pitch a tent in a sandstorm. Indeed, the main garment, the “dara’a,” can double as a tent in an emergency. A diaphanous gown, made from two man-sized sheets of heavy cotton damask, joined at the shoulders and the hem, the dara’a sports a large shield-shaped front pocket, positioned slightly to the left below a deep asymmetrical “V” neckline. Many are embellished with richly-embroidered geometric shapes, of which diamonds are prevalent, in shades of light umber or gold, like the sands of the Sahara. The gowns themselves are almost always white or one of many shades of blue, from the pale of a winter morning, to the deep azure of the ocean. The wide shoulder seams drop from the neck to the wrist to form loose open sleeves, and are usually folded into broad pleats which rest on the shoulders. To complete the ensemble, some men veil themselves with a strip of cloth worn turban-style. It is called a “hawli” and can be tied using one of several methods, leaving the eyes uncovered, sometimes also showing the nose or the chin as well. The various methods of wrapping the hawli can sometimes indicate membership of specific cultural groups, but most often it’s just an optional mode of dress, and many men go bareheaded. More colours are used for howli than for dara’a, but certain colours have special significance. Black, for example, is worn for weddings by the groom and his entourage, to match the bridal robe, which is all black. The bride herself remains out of sight during most of the wedding celebration, and is sometimes hidden by her bridesmaids and female relatives, to force the groom to search for her, and also to prevent the guests from staging a fake kidnapping, which is another part of the wedding tradition.

Weddings are extremely popular in Mauritania, and part of the excitement they bring is from knowing that, often despite severe economic hardship, the groom has managed to gather enough money to cover the cost of the wedding and to support himself and his bride in their new life. A change in financial circumstances, however, can sometimes signal the end of the relationship. Although polygamy is legal, it is not that popular, and with two out of every five marriages ending in divorce, second or third marriages are common. Women can divorce and remarry as often as they wish without attracting any social stigma. In fact, it is not unusual for women to celebrate their divorce with a big family gathering. Somewhat more disturbing are reports of a more recent trend of women insisting on marrying men who have not been previously married, yet retaining their right to divorce and remarry. Such behaviour could create quite devastating social imbalance, and the level of inequality such attitudes generates has already opened wounds, to the extent that one man founded a non-government organisation to defend the rights of Mauritanian men.

Compared to most Arab countries, women in Mauritania are considered to be extremely well emancipated, and especially so because the country is an Islamic republic, with a legal system based partly on Islamic principles, and the rest borrowed from France. This perception of gender equality sits uncomfortably alongside stories of women rape victims being jailed for breaking the law; female descendent slaves being used for non-consensual sex by their masters; and girls as young as five being sent off to “fattening farms” in the countryside, to be fed large volumes of camel’s milk and greasy bowls of millet porridge with added lard. Mauritanian society undeniably has many troubling issues to contend with, and civil society groups are very popular in Mauritania, including some dedicated to women’s and children’s rights, and others promoting the abolition of slavery. Yet there are few tangible signs evidencing serious progress on these issues, and a lot of conflicting information about the current status for any of them.

Mauritania also boasts a burgeoning local media, with hundreds of journalists writing for newspapers or news websites. There are also several dozen political parties, and a large number of small independent charities. Mosques, sometimes with small schools attached, are another major feature. These Koranic schools are vitally important, especially in rural and regional communities, often representing the only source of education for marginalised local children living in poverty. Sustained and widespread access to religious education and places of worship, supported by over 8,000 mosques, has created a remarkably tolerant society. There is a long historical connection with Mecca, and Mauritanians were among the first to complete the Hajj pilgrimage, so it is no wonder that Islam is as natural as breathing. Formal education opportunities are patchy at best, with a mixture of state, military, and private schools, including some French academies. The country has only one university, in Nouakchott, and two Islamic education institutes, with demand for places outstripping supply many times over. There are hundreds of highly committed teachers across the entire education sector, but they are almost all rendered powerless by an inefficient government administration and lack of funding. Many state schools struggle because of a dire lack of basic supplies, including desks, chairs, chalk, and textbooks. Koranic schools face even more hardships, since they rely almost entirely on charitable donations, in a country where more than 42 percent live below poverty.

At the end of each school year, the education ministry publishes lists of examination results for secondary school students hoping to enter high school, and also for high school students who had taken the Baccalaureate, many of them hoping to enter university. The 2013 Baccalaureate results were disappointing for two reasons. First, because the pass rate was less than ten percent, and second, because an analysis of the spreadsheet indicated that the results had been tampered with. As the implications of this twin tragedy were still sinking in, the high school student results were released, a little later than promised, but the report was incomplete. No explanation was offered, so I got hold of a copy of the file to take a look. On my first inspection of the high school entrance examination results, one feature stood out. That partial list, containing many thousands of names, recorded an identical day and month of birth for every child, most of whom were born in the past 10 or 12 years. Each New Year’s Eve, if you toast the coming year, it would be worthwhile to remember that you are also celebrating the state-imposed birthday of countless, and uncounted, Mauritanians.

No one knows the actual size of the population of Mauritania, and it is only possible to speculate about the reasons for that, although the prevailing theory is that the ruling class, dominated by Moorish Arab elites, is afraid to reveal that they are outnumbered by an oppressed majority of ethnic negro Africans. Whether the state has imposed a system on its citizens where they are casually assigned the same date of birth, or whether it is a workaround to compensate for a lack of access to reliable data, this situation still seems to indicate a level of callous neglect beyond most people’s comprehension. It also brings to mind the chilling effects of entrenched poverty and illiteracy, where entire villages might not have access to even a basic calendar, and would struggle to read one, even if they did. For many rural communities, the nearest health clinic is more than a hundred kilometers away along unmade roads, while the only means of transport are walking, hitchhiking, or riding a donkey, and the registrar of births or deaths is even further away.

So much of what I have said here about Mauritania seems to speak of a land not only steeped in history, but trapped in it. For a large, and largely marginalised, group of Mauritanians, time is almost at a standstill. The majority of the population are young, and increasingly restless, with aspirations far in excess of what Mauritania currently has to offer. I am acutely aware that my good fortune in making virtual friends with people from Mauritania has exposed me to the brightest and best of a tiny, privileged, minority. Yet they are also a representative sample of their generation, and this indicates a rich, untapped, potential, which is ripe for change.

1.  Weddady, Nasser. “Mauritania Beyond The Exotic”. Free Arabs, 12 APR 2013.

2.  Internet penetration figure based on the 2011 report from http://www.internetworldstats.com/af/mr.htm website.

3. Spolsky, B. (1999). Second-language learning. In J. Fishman (Ed.), Handbook of language and ethnic identity (pp. 181-192). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

4. Bah Ahmedtolba, Elycheikh. “Prose in the land of Poetry: The Novel & Short Story.” Rim – pulse / عندما يكتبني وطني. Blogger, 01 JAN 2011.

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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.

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.

Strike Season in Mauritania

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26 Apr 2013 update: video of the workers hearing details of the deal.


There are precious few videos of worker protests or meetings in Mauritania.

24 Apr 13 Mauritania dockers gather outside Ministry building
24 April 2013: Striking dockers in Mauritania gathered outside the ministry of transport. They avoided a replay of this week’s violent police oppression by arriving early in the morning, making their way in small groups or alone.

24 Apr 13 Mauritania dockers hear details of win over ministry from strike leaders

24 Apr 13 Mauritania dockers hear details of win over ministry from strike leaders

The workers heard from their representative, who announced that agreement had been reached to meet their demands, most importantly a 5MRO increase in the per-kilo lifting payment, and provision of a medical centre and ambulance. Thousands of dockers working as day labourers currently earn something like 4 Euros per day.

Dockers shoulder-carry an injured colleague while celebrating decisive win from strike action over pay and conditions

Dockers shoulder-carry an injured colleague while celebrating decisive win from strike action over pay and conditions

Workers insisted on staying until the agreement was signed. Even so, vigilance will be maintained to make sure the government does not renege on the deal. As I wrote this, I saw an update warning that the 5MRO pay increase was already in doubt.

24 Apr 13 Mauritania dockers decide to stay at the ministry until the new deal is signed

24 Apr 13 Mauritania dockers decide to stay at the ministry until the new deal is signed

A press conference scheduled for 2pm Wednesday by the free trade union would have been the rallying point for further peaceful protest, one which the media could not be banned from hearing or pretend to ignore. In light of development, the dockers called their own press conference for 10am Thursday 25 April.

Issues of pay and conditions have been a source of contention among port workers for a long time, and there are several reasons behind the decision to strike from Monday 22 April:

  • Their appeal for a very moderate pay increase had not been addressed by authorities for many months
  • 180 dockers were arbitrarily dismissed last month; they have no contractual employment protection or rights to appeal and this highlighted the precarious lack of job security for all port workers
  • A docker died a couple of weeks ago after an industrial accident. He had to wait over 3 hours for medical help to arrive because there is no on-site medical facility.
  • Price inflation has been eating away at the dockers already meagre earnings, yet being  employed means they are far less likely to benefit from charitable or state-run projects for poverty reduction.

On a video posted on Facebook, a dock worker reveals the extent of dire working conditions, Aziz’ broken promises.

Rough transcript: “My name is Mohammed, I work nights. We have no safety clothing, not even when we descend into the holds loaded with agricultural insecticides. There’s no healthcare or medical centre on the site, and we are decducted 6-7000 MRO a month for access to the only water – an open-air bath outdoors. The President came to visit here and said he would improve conditions, but it has only gotten worse and he has forgotten his promises.”

22 Apr 13 Porters in Nouakchott protesting in Mauritania

22 Apr 13 Porters in Nouakchott protesting in Mauritania

The most recent protests began at the port on Wednesday 13 March but many people were unaware of the scale of unrest until the sit-in on Monday 22 April, which gained the support of a majority of workers. Security police rushed to the scene, confiscating cameras and sending media away from the area before launching a barrage of hundreds of tear gas canisters and sound grenades at the workers, attacking them with batons and arresting about 25 protesters.

22 Apr 13 Porters show gas grenade cartridges s used against them by gendarmes in Mauritania today

22 Apr 13 Porters show gas grenade cartridges s used against them by gendarmes

Several injuries were reported and nine protesters were taken to the hospital for emergency medical treatment.

23 Apr 13 Docker injured by tear gas canister. Shot by Mauritania security forces with ammunition supplied by France and Spain

23 Apr 13 Docker injured by tear gas canister. Shot by Mauritania security forces with ammunition supplied by France and Spain

A small fire using scraps of board and a discarded tyre was extinguished by some of the strike leaders, who explained to the others that this type of action was not necessary or in keeping with their image, and would be used against them as a stain on the character of the peaceful protest action.

22 Apr 13 Strike leaders extinguish burning tyre

22 Apr 13 Strike leaders extinguish burning tyre

Several members of the m25fev civil activist movement are port workers, and they rallied support from m25fev and others for the following day, at which point the centre of protest moved towards the city centre and the presidential palace. Once again, security launched a violent attack and made several more arrests. Four detained workers were seen being taken to an unknown location.

23 Apr 13 M25Fev outside security HQ solidarity with detained dockers

23 Apr 13 M25Fev outside security HQ solidarity with detained dockers

Members of m25fev held a vigil outside Nouakchott security HQ to protest the arbitrary detentions and demand the release of all protesters. In the dead of night, the detained workers were taken outside the city limits and abandoned there to make their own way back on foot.

The presence of civil activists resulted in a rapid spread of news on social media networks, and some opinion pieces, with statements of support from labour groups and condemnation by human rights organisations, but the overall lack of media coverage was deplorable.

The media need to raise their game, because it would seem that a season of industrial action in Mauritania is looming:

  • port workers in Nouadhibou reached a compromise agreement Thurday, 25 April with authorities to end their long-running strike and protest actions over pay and conditions
  • workers at the SNIM mining operation are planning industrial action beginning with a limited work stoppage on Sunday
  • at the Kinross Gold mine, CGTM union members are threatening to strike over non-payment of a promised bonus
  • teachers in Zouerate are threatening three days of strike action and a boycott of exams over pay and conditions

Civil protests in Mauritania continue with almost daily events demanding electrical power and/or drinking water in many parts of the country, plus a protest today by traders in Nouadhibou, who have no replacements for plastic bags which were banned in January and again in February after a brief respite.

There was a great deal of sympathy and support for the workers expressed by social media users, but not all reactions were favourable. A  Mauritanian news website, atlasinfo.info, posted an item claiming that the workers were chanting racist slogans and making other outrageous comments which were completely fabricated. The item was quickly removed, but not before activists made a screen capture image and located the page in a search engine cache. Such blatant propaganda – commonly held to be enacted in support of the regime – is incredibly dangerous, but it does hint at the level of fear which might be generated within the regime by the prospect of united protests involving workers and civil activists. At an individual level, I saw one or two fairly typical remarks accusing m25fev of trying to capitalise on the workers’ situation. Such comments were made in ignorance of the broad-based support and membership of m25fev, which is often mistakenly viewed as a political entity.

In my opinion, most of these identity issues for m25fev stem from the  organisers’ decision to retain the name after the debacle of April 2011, when the original 25 February group was compromised by infiltration and there was a lot of confusion and unpleasantness. Two years later, they are still paying the price of this decision, which is compounded by a lack of consistent effort to confront persistent misconceptions and re-frame their story. Meanwhile, the abolitionist movement IRA appears to be moving in the opposite direction to m25fev, towards the political arena. Time will tell what this gamble might cost them.

23 June 2012 #Mauritania Opposition “Biggest Ever” March and Rally

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Tens of thousands answered the call to join the Coordination of Democratic Opposition parties in Mauritania on 23 June, for the “biggest ever” anti-regime protest gathering. This was no small feat considering Spain were playing France in the Euro 2012 soccer championships! As it turned out, the boys in blue didn’t put on much of a show, while crowds of up to 60,000 marched in Nouakchott, thousands more in the economic capital of Nouadhibou and a sizeable crowd was also reported in the Western basin, for a local protest against the continued lack of water.

Ely Ould Mohammed Vall once again joined the party leaders. Each takes their turn to speak, as has become their habit; it does make for a long day. People began to gather around 5pm, marched to Ibn Abbass mosque and stopped to pray – an impressive sight – before the rally continued. By around 1am the event drew to a close. During the speeches someone posted that a few pro-regime youth were driving up and down Gamal Abdel Nasser street where the mosque is located, chanting slogans in support of Aziz.

Here’s a collection of images from friends on FaceBook and Twitter


We had been promised a special treat this evening, the screening of an exclusive clandestine video said to show president Aziz discussing business dealing with “foreign” associates. But as the rally drew to a close there was no sign of the promised film footage. Many are now left wondering what prompted this change of heart. Cold feet? Doubts about the integrity of the video? Was it perhaps handed to them by regime loyalists hoping to trap them into making quite serious but false accusations? Mauritania is a close-knit society with a fine tradition of sharing confidences over a glass of tea or three, so I am anticipating the answer will not be long in coming. 😉

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nVTs1qGGApQ]

Video from “Latest Network News