Africa Matters is a blog that follows the news and offers analysis of African affairs. Our aim is to delve deeper into the issues of African politics and development. We don’t presume to be experts, and we don’t presume to have all the answers—we are just trying to ask the right questions.

Monday, March 12

Mauritania's elections

Mauritania held Presidential elections yesterday. The country, a former French colony, is currently under the control of a military junta led by Col. Ely Ould Mohamed Vall, who took power in a palace coup in August 2005, vowing to return the country to democracy. The man he deposed, Maaoya Ould Sid Ahmed Taya, took control in a coup in 1984. While Taya formally introduced multiparty democracy in 1992, the country has in practice remained a dictatorship until now.

Vall introduced a new constitution in a referendum in June 2005 that established presidential term limits, and has loosened controls on the press (though there are still no private TV or radio stations), established what appears to be a free judiciary, and formed an independent electoral commission to carry out the vote. Vall , who has said nobody from the current junta will run for President, seems to be quite popular in the country - and some reports in the foreign press are gushing in their praise. Other observers are slightly warier, noting that Vall appears to be giving tacit support to a candidate with strong connections to the political and military elite, Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi. So far though, observers - including from the European Union - have said the vote looks fair.

The leading candidate is, by most accounts, Ahmed Ould Daddah, a longtime opposition figure and head of the CFCD (Coalition of Forces for Democratic Change) opposition coalition that won the most votes, though not a majority, in December's parliamentary elections. Daddah, a former World Bank economist, is also the half-brother of Mauritania's first president. In all, there are 19 candidates. If none get above 50 percent today, a second round will take place March 25.

Underlying the contest, though often avoided in campaign speeches, is Mauritania's ethnic tension. Over two-thirds of the country is black - either black Moors or Haratines, members of Southern tribes that overlap with groups in Senegal and Niger. Less than a third of the population is Bidan, or "white Moor", yet this group dominates the political and economic elite - 16 of the 19 Presidential candidates are white Moors.

In the late 1980s, 70,000 blacks were expelled from the country, and several thousand remain on the Senegalese side of the border. And slavery, though it has been formally abolished several times, is still quite prevalent (the 2004 reform went so far as to institute fines for slavery). A former slave, Messaoud Ould Boulkheir, is one of the Presidential candidates and has been highlighting the issue of slavery and the continued disadvantaged status of former slaves. But most candidates tend to focus little on such issues. For its part, the Islamic government does not keep records on racial groups, saying the concept of race is against Islam.

The focus for many appears to be on stability. Some observers worry that the powerful military establishment will be opposed to a victory by the opposition leader Daddah. And the political stakes will likely rise as Mauritania exploits its newly-found oil. But for the moment, at least, it looks like Mauritania is headed in the direction of meaningful political reform.