Mauritania vote key to aid, trade restart

Mauritania goes to the polls on Saturday in an election meant to end the political crisis that has brought international criticism since a military junta seized power last August.

General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz overthrew the northwest African country’s first freely elected leader, President Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi, in a bloodless coup, ending Mauritania’s democratic experiment after less than two years.

Saturday’s election is a chance not only for Mauritania’s government to reclaim the legitimacy that aid and investment partners demand, but also to reverse a regional trend which has damaged Africa’s democratic credentials.

Until recently, Abdel Aziz was seen as the only serious candidate, but opposition parties lifted their boycott when the junta agreed to delay the vote from its original date of June 6, and now Ely Ould Mohamed Vall, who mounted a coup in 2005, and veteran oppostion figure Ahmed Ould Daddah offer alternatives.

A freely held and genuinely contested election in the desert nation, an ally of the West in the fight against al Qaeda, is important for governance and the integrity of the state in West Africa, diplomats say.

“With organised crime, drug trafficking and the threat of terrorism, there is a risk of instablility in the region and Mauritania is at the heart of this fragility,” said a European diplomat in Nouakchott. “The election will allow the strengthening of the institutional and security structures of the country.”

Last weekend, U.S. President Barack Obama used a speech in Ghana to ram home to Africans the importance of democracy as the foundation of peace and prosperity.

Ghana’s democratic credentials stand in contrast to Mauritania, which received plaudits for 2007 elections that ended more than two decades of military rule, but was quickly castigated for the Aziz putsch, which served as a reminder of an era of African politics that many had hoped was over.

“What Mauritania lost with the last coup d’etat was its attractive image,” said another Western diplomat in Nouakchott.


Not only image but money is at stake. A return to democratic government would open the door for international donors to restart aid programmes shelved in protest at the coup.

“Mauritania is entirely dependent on external aid. If the international community doesn’t recognise this election and doesn’t restart cooperation, the country will not be far away from catastrophe,” said Mauritanian economist Isselmou Ould Mohamed. The European Union, one of Mauritania’s biggest partners, said in April it could not work with a military government, but has indicated it would be willing to restart cooperation if Mauritania returns to democracy.

Brussels had allocated 156 million euros ($220 million) of aid for 2008-2013, which it suspended after the coup, while in March 2008 it agreed a 4-year deal to fish in Mauritanian waters, which are among the richest in the world, at a cost of 72 million euros per year.

State-owned iron ore miner SNIM, the world’s seventh-biggest supplier of the steelmaking raw material, accounts for around 40 percent of export earnings.

Steel firm ArcelorMittal (ISPA.AS: Quote, Profile, Research) signed an agreement in early 2008 to develop a large iron ore deposit, and Mauritania does produce oil, but output of around 15,000 barrels a day is far below initial expectations.

“Foreign investors will not come here if the international community does not endorse the regime chosen in these elections,” economist Mohamed said.

Neither the European Union nor United Nations are sending observers, but there will be more than 200 overseers from organisations including the African Union — which lifted sanctions this month — and the Arab League.

“So far, we have not seen any irregularities. There have from time to time been errors on voter lists, but these have been rectified each time,” said Hamdi Ould Mahjoub, vice-president of the electoral commission. “The presence of international observers will allow us to guarantee the reliability and transparency of the elections, which is very important for us,” he said.


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