Monday, August 18, 2008

Mauritania military anoints new leader

A week after a bloodless coup that overthrew Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi’s civilian administration, Mauritania’s military has appointed a new Prime Minister to lead a transitional government. He is Moulaye Ould Mohamed Laghdaf, Mauritania's former ambassador to the EU. Coup leader General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz made the announcement in a bid to head off international condemnation of his actions. He was emboldened this week by the support of a majority of Mauritanian politicians, including the Opposition, who declared their support for the coup which they said was carried out "in the interest of the Mauritanian people".

Laghdaf is a lackey of Abdel Aziz, and his appointment was a transparent attempt to restore international relations with the aid of Laghdaf’s diplomatic service in the EU. The London-based The Economist said that while the rest of Africa seems to be slowly ridding itself of its penchant for coups, Mauritania seems to be perfecting its ability to stage them. The last two successful coups on the continent have now both taken place in Mauritania.

Abdallahi was arrested by his presidential guard and relieved of his duties on 6 August. The coup took place without a single gunshot and the news was spread mostly by the president's distraught daughter, who telephoned journalists as coup leaders occupied his house and arrested him. In time honoured fashion, state television and radio went off the air but not before declaring Abdallahi the "former" president. They also announced the reinstatement of senior army officers whose sacking had been announced earlier that morning.

Coup leader Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz is the head of the presidential guard and one of the officers Abdallahi had tried to fire. The coup came as Mauritania launched from one crisis to another. In the last three months, one government had been sacked and another forced to resign. Complaints have ranged from rising food prices to the lack of transparency over the Abdallahi’s wife’s finances. In the wake of the coup, the army instigated a mass resignation of the president's supporters in parliament.

The wheels have come full circle for Abdel Aziz who was involved in the previous coup in 2005. Just as in last week’s affair, there was international disapproval about the army's removal of President Maaouya Ould Sid'Ahmed Taya, who had ruled brutally for two decades. However, optimism returned after the army quickly organised 2006 elections that brought Abdallahi to power. He was Mauritania’s first democratically elected president since independence in 1960.

But the optimism of the early days faded. Al-Qaeda has claimed several attacks in Mauritania over the past year including an attack that killed several French tourists. That attack plus threats against the race caused the cancellation of the Paris-Dakar rally. Eight of the events 15 stages were due to take place in Mauritania.

But while the 2005 coup received mild international reaction, this one has been widely condemned. The US demanded the immediate restoration of the president, while the AU suspended Mauritanian membership. Regional powerhouse Nigeria has refused to recognise the new regime while the EU threatens to suspend aid. The problem is the coup is generally supported within Mauritania. The post 2005 regime did not deliver on their promises and became deeply unpopular. According to one Portuguese expat, life goes on as normal in the capital Nouakchott. “I don't feel stressed and continue to go on as if nothing happened,” said Isabel Fiadeiro. “The only thing that would make you realise something happened yesterday, is the beeping of horns in the street.”

No comments: