October 2005


Rawiya Tawfiq

The latest in the series of military coups to take place in Mauritania since it achieved its independence took place on 3 August 2005. The bloodless coup was led by the “Military Council for Justice and Democracy,” which seized power from Maaouiya Ould Sid Ahmed Taya – who himself took over in a military coup 20 years earlier – while he was out of the country.

The latest coup can be better understood after examination of the political and economic conditions during the presidency of Taya, whose policies had been the source of much popular resentment, which led to strong opposition and a desire for an alternative, even at the hands of the military.


In 1984, Taya, then chief of staff, took over in a military coup that removed president Mohamed Khouna Ould Haidallah, in office since 1980. Influenced by the democratic transformation sweeping Africa in the early 1990s, Mauritania endorsed a new constitution stipulating party pluralism. New political parties were established such as the Democratic and Social Republican Party (DSRP), formed by Taya, the Mauritanian Party for Renewal, whose members included former president Haidallah, the Union of Democratic Forces (UDF) and the Union for Democracy and Progress (UDP). However, the DSRP maintained control of the political process through its domination of the national assembly and municipal committees, and Taya was criticised by the opposition for his control over political life and misuse of state resources. Elections were thus criticised and even boycotted by the opposition. Six opposition parties boycotted the 1992 legislative elections and many refused to take part in the 1997 presidential elections as a result of the government’s refusal to establish an independent electoral committee to supervise the electoral process.

Human rights organisations also had issues with Taya’s government, especially in relation to the treatment of Mauritania’s black population.

Perhaps Taya’s strongest opposition came from Islamist groups, who were a prime target of the regime. Conflict between the two began in the early 1990s when the Islamists determined to make the best use of the new constitution by forming a political party, only to have their request turned down on the grounds that Mauritanian law prohibits the formation of religious parties. In 1994, aware of the growing Islamic tide, Taya launched an extensive detention campaign. By the end of the 1990s, tension between the two parties was even greater, largely the result of the government’s policy of normalisation with Israel.

As preparations were being made for the presidential election in 2003, the government banned the activities of a number of opposition parties, including the UDF and Action for Change, as well as the Baathists. Large numbers of Islamists were detained, the attorney general having accused some 60 Islamic activists of conspiracy to undertake terrorist activities and to overthrow the government. At that time, Taya considered his main threat to come from the Islamists and other opposition forces. Nevertheless, a group of officers calling themselves the “Knights of Change” attempted a coup in June 2003, though it failed after three days of confrontation.

Further attempts to overthrow Taya were made in August and September 2004, and another, said to have been masterminded by Haidallah, led to the former president’s arrest.

Popular discontent with the Taya regime was not just the result of the political situation. Harsh economic and social conditions perhaps played a larger part in nurturing popular dissatisfaction. As wages were reduced, the state abandoned its provision of basic services, including health care. Corruption was also rife. According to 2004 estimates, 40% of Mauritanians live in dire poverty.

The August 2005 coup was thus not a surprise to many political observers. What was not expected, however, was that a coup would be orchestrated by members of the president’s close circle. Ely Ould Mohamed Vall, chosen as president by the Military Council for Justice and Democracy, had been Taya’s head of national security and was his main assistant in the 1984 coup. Col Mohamed Ould Abdel-Aziz, current vice president of the council and one of the orchestrators of the coup, had been head of the presidential guard.

The council’s first statement after taking power stated that its main objective was to put an end to the coercive practices of the former regime, and that it would govern the country for a two-year period during which it would prepare it for democracy. The council has since opened channels of communication with the opposition forces targeted by the former regime, released leaders of the Mauritanian Islamic movement and made contact with members of the Knights of Change. The new prime minister, Sidy Mohamed Ould Boubacar, like the other members of the new government, has a non-military background.

Reactions to the coup

The media reported that the coup was widely welcomed by Mauritanians, as manifested in popular demonstrations of support. A number of opposition powers also expressed their approval. The Knights of Change described the coup as a “necessary step to free the country from a bloody tyrant,” while the Islamic movement expressed that it welcomed any change in the country, stressing the importance of consultation with all political parties to revitalise the spirit of the constitution.

Some regional and international organisations, as well as a number of western powers, condemned the coup as an unconstitutional way to obtain authority, as did a spokesman for the UN secretary-general. The US called for the return of the toppled president as the country’s elected representative. A similar stance was expressed by the EU commissioner, though France took a more restrained approach, attributable to the US-French conflict of interests that arises from time to time in the African arena. Following the coup, Vall met with all western ambassadors in Nouakchott to explain the motives behind it and assure them of its peaceful nature.

Despite the general condemnation of the coup by western governments, none has taken any tangible steps to bring about the return of Taya. They have rather started to alter their discourse, acknowledging the status quo and declaring support for the return of constitutional legitimacy. The US, for example, no longer demanding the return of the deposed president, has declared that it is dealing with the new regime with the aim of legitimising the transfer of authority. Consequent developments reflect that this is the general stance being adopted by the international community. The London-based Al-Hayat newspaper reported that a high-ranking Moroccan official visited Nouakchott one day after the coup. The Moroccan king, Mohammed VI, has since made contact with several western governments to clarify conditions in Mauritania and illustrate what the newspaper quoted him as describing as the “open tendencies” of the new system. Morocco’s position has dispelled fears of the coup being abused by Islamic trends and of any consequent instability. The US and European concern regarding developments in Mauritania is primarily related to the framework of the US war on terrorism and the desire to prevent the formation of terrorist strongholds in trouble spots.

The West’s quiet acceptance of the new regime in Nouakchott can be seen as a sign of indirect support as western governments seem prepared to test the readiness of the military council to introduce real democracy and run free elections. The council, for its part, has maintained the pro-western stance of the former regime, and has only released from prison those not proven to have been involved in acts of violence. The choice of Sidy Ould Sid Ahmed as minister of foreign affairs, known for his open-door policy towards Israel, also demonstrates the desire of the new government to allay possible fears in the West over changes in the direction of Mauritanian foreign policy.

The African perspective

The August 2005 coup provided a test for the commitment of African countries to the principle of not acknowledging any regime that assumes power by unconstitutional means. This commitment was applied in the case of Togo, compelling Faure Gnassingbe, who took over after the death of his father, Gnassingbe Eyadema, to hold competitive elections. The Mauritanian case is complicated, however, by the large popular support for the change.

Following the coup, the African Union suspended the membership of Mauritania in accordance with union resolutions that prohibit recognition of regimes that assume power unconstitutionally. The union sent a ministerial delegation to Mauritania to express its stance and called on the international community to support the return of constitutional rule in the country. Following meetings between the delegation and Mauritania’s ruling military council, the head of the delegation, Nigeria’s foreign affairs minister, said he had urged the council to set a plan for the running of democratic elections within a two-year period. He also noted the Mauritanians’ general consensus on the need to change the former regime, and expressed his belief that it would be possible to have an easy process of democratisation. Should this be the case, he said, Mauritanian membership of the union could be resumed after the elections.

The African Union’s communication with the military council, while at the same time suspending Mauritania’s membership, has been seen by some as a sign of the union backing down and showing support for a regime that has taken control through non-democratic means. The union, keen to refute these claims, has stressed that it called for respect of the constitution in Mauritania as soon as possible and that it does not accept the two-year mandate awarded itself by the military council. This, the union asserts, does not constitute support for the military council but rather a practical approach to dealing with the situation.

In contrast, the position of the Arab League has been much less positive, its members choosing simply to recognise the status quo.

The reactions of African countries on an individual level have been diverse. Some, including Nigeria and South Africa, have expressed opposition to the coup. Others, which had non-cordial relations with Taya’s regime, have expressed their support for the new government. Libya welcomed the coup as it considered it to reflect the will of the people of Mauritania. Libya’s foreign affairs minister, who headed the Maghreb Union delegation to Nouakchott, expressed this stance when he confirmed recognition of what the Mauritanian people recognise, while Senegal announced that it understood the motives behind the coup and that it considered it a purely internal affair.

Despite the discrepancies in the stances of regional and international powers, all seem to agree on the need for dialogue with the new regime in order to encourage it to restore constitutional legitimacy. The general consensus of acceptance of Mauritania’s new government, even if only temporarily, was no doubt the result of the large popular support for the new system among Mauritanians, and encouraged by the declarations of the new leaders that their system is a temporary one whose prime concern is to prepare the country for democracy.

Internal challenges and regional reconciliation

The new system faces a number of internal challenges, not the least of which is to gain the confidence of other internal forces. Some opposition forces, while acknowledging that a change in leadership was necessary, have expressed concern over how the transfer of power was achieved – a view expressed, for example, by the head of the Popular Progressive Alliance Party, Messaoud Ould Boulkheir. The new system must thus work hard to involve all political powers in the drafting of legislation and policy in the transitional era as this will provide the foundation for any new democratic system.

The fact that those who lead the military council were formally a part of the oppressive regime they overthrew might after the dust has settled lead some to question their real aims and the strength of their democratic credentials. Past experience shows that many who have led coups against oppressive systems with the aim of consolidating democracy within a limited timeframe have rather, for no shortage of reasons, extended their own mandates only to be toppled later by others. There was a clear pattern of such behaviour during the 1960s and 1980s.

In the case of Mauritania, however, it is unlikely that internal, regional and international powers would accept such developments. Aware of this, the new regime formed three committees to carry out transitional preparations just two weeks after the coup. These committees are charged with preparing a referendum on the constitution to guarantee legitimacy, examination of reform of the judicial system, and discussion of administrative reform and the elimination of corruption. Their findings are to be submitted to the military council for discussion with other parties and representatives of civil society. These efforts, as well as a promise not to nominate members of the military institution in the coming elections, are a clear reflection of the military council’s desire to win the confidence of all the opponents of the former regime.

This approach is likely to pave the way for reconciliation with those regional powers whose relations with Mauritania were previously tense. The new government recently sent delegates to Senegal, Morocco and Algeria to consolidate its relations with these states, though Mauritania’s reconciliation with its neighbours will of course still depend on the resolution of certain outstanding issues.

So far, there are no indications that the military council intends to change the former regime’s policy towards the superpowers – a matter that raises a number of questions. Is rapprochement with the superpowers a temporary strategy governed by practical considerations or does it reflect a firm policy? How will this approach affect the relationship between the ruling system and those internal opposition forces that object to the strengthening of Mauritanian relations with the West? Will the new regime find a successful balance in its attempt to win internal trust on the one hand, and maintain foreign support on the other, especially with regard to its relations with Israel, which are strongly opposed by various internal forces, especially the Islamist ones.

The August 2005 coup also raises important issues related to Arab and African affairs and the possibility of a peaceful transformation to democracy. The coup provides an insight into the strength of military power in relation to other societal powers, such as political parties and civil society organisations. The transitional era will also provide an important indicator as to the ability of a military system to establish a democratic system.