Countries at the Crossroads 2005 - Mauritania

  • Author: Cedric Jourde
  • Document source:
  • Date:
    5 May 2005

(Scores are based on a scale of 0 to 7, with 0 representing weakest and 7 representing strongest performance.)



Cedric Jourde is assistant professor at the University of Ottawa, School of Political Studies.

Like many of its African counterparts, the Mauritanian regime is a hybrid, combining democratic and authoritarian traits. On the one hand, Mauritania embarked upon a path of political liberalization in 1991, after 31 years of single-party and military rule. The 1991 constitution provided for a pluralist political regime and for the official recognition of universal human rights. For the first time since the year of independence (1960), the country has held an uninterrupted cycle of multiparty elections at the municipal, legislative, and presidential levels. Independent newspapers have flourished, allowing for an unprecedented degree of public criticism of the government. New actors (i.e., local and transnational nongovernmental organizations [NGOs]) have entered the political field. In addition, the state's violent repression of non-Arabic-speaking minorities (Haalpulaar, Sooninke, and Wolof), which peaked in the 1989-1990 period, has been receding since the mid-1990s. In 2004, under pressure from international organizations, the Mauritanian government and civil society groups approved a "National Plan of Action for Human Rights," which the United Nations Development Program describes as "the most comprehensive document on the human rights situation in Mauritania to date."1

On the other hand, beyond these formal democratic reforms lies another reality. Ancien regime elites have maintained their privileged positions at the top of the state and have co-opted many opposition activists. They have successfully perpetuated authoritarian practices and skillfully manipulated the liberalization reforms. For instance, although elections have been organized on a regular basis, the regime has never put itself at risk: The incumbent president, who came to power through a coup in 1984, won all three presidential elections since 1992 in a process generally seen as unfair. Illustrative of such a process, in the most recent presidential election, in November 2003, security forces arrested the president's most serious opponent on the day before the election and again two days after. The government also cracked down on alleged Islamist leaders and organizations, while simultaneously harassing, arresting, and jailing opposition leaders and disbanding opposition parties. For their part, the presidential party and its smaller allies controlled 100 percent of the seats in the National Assembly in 1992, 99 percent in 1996, and 87 percent in 2001.

The public administration is highly politicized; the distribution of public offices and the management of public resources are influenced by loyalty to the regime and connections to powerful networks. Despite the civilian nature of the new constitution, the political (and financial) influence of top military and security personnel exceeds that of elected representatives and of most members of the cabinet. American and NATO support to the Mauritanian military, a consequence of Mauritania's allegiance to the "War on Terror," runs the risk of consolidating this regime and its allies in the security apparatus.

As the regime refuses to undertake substantive democratic reforms, it is more likely to witness radical forms of opposition. A failed coup occurred in June 2003, led by military officers who were frustrated by the government's foreign policy (rapprochement with the United States and Israel) and by its domestic military policy (perceived favoritism and discrimination based on regional identities). Two other coup attempts allegedly occurred in August and September of 2004.

Accountability and Public Voice – 2.00

In 1991, Mauritania adopted a constitution that provides for a pluralist political system. This led to an uninterrupted cycle of elections at the presidential, legislative, and municipal levels. In general, however, these elections have not been conducted fairly and freely. The only exceptions to this were the 2001 municipal and legislative elections.2

As the November 2003 presidential election approached, authorities pledged to replicate the conditions of the October 2001 legislative and municipal elections, including state funding for political parties on the basis of their representation in municipal councils;3 the guarantee of fair media coverage; the establishment of a new computerized voters' list; and a new "unfalsifiable" identity card.4 However, as in the previous elections, the government refused to create an independent electoral commission to organize and supervise the presidential election; it continued to rely upon the interior ministry to perform these functions. Opposition parties claimed that the presidency's formal and informal control over the public administration, and more specifically the interior ministry, prevented the organization of a fair election. In addition, foreign observers were not invited.5

As election day approached, unfair state interference increased. The main opposition candidate, Mohamed Khouna Ould Haidallah (who had been head of state until he was ousted in a coup by the current president), was specifically targeted. Security forces searched his house and those of his collaborators. Surprisingly, the chair of President Maaouya Ould Sid'Ahmed Taya's campaign staff – not an official representative of the state – showed the media a document allegedly found in Ould Haidallah's house that contained a plan to stage a coup. Security forces arrested Ould Haidallah's two sons a few days prior to the election. On election eve, Ould Haidallah and members of his organization were arrested. Ould Haidallah was released on the same day, possibly because the election would have been cancelled otherwise. But he was arrested again two days after the election, with 14 members of his campaign staff. Authorities accused him of plotting a coup and of receiving money from a foreign (i.e., Libyan) source.6

In addition to the arrests of the main candidate, newspapers reported that on election day, opposition parties' representatives at the voting sites were denied access to the voter list by interior ministry officials, were denied their right to compare each voter's identity card with the voter list, and had their mobile phones taken away.7

President Ould Taya won the election, for the third consecutive time, with 67 percent of the vote. His main opponent, Ould Haidallah, obtained 18.7 percent. The relatively fair campaigning opportunities of the 2001 legislative and municipal elections have not been replicated. These results confirmed the iron law of Mauritanian politics: Coups have been the only form of rotation of power at the top of the state since Mauritania became independent.

A month after the election, the criminal court gave Ould Haidallah and his staff members a suspended sentence of five years and stripped them of their civic and political rights, which means that they cannot run in elections.8 Ould Haidallah's lawyers called upon the Supreme Court to annul the elections and, later on, to reexamine the accusations of the coup attempt and the deprivation of their client's political and civil rights; both demands were rejected.

In April 2004, Mauritania held elections for one-third of the Senate seats. The ruling party and one of its small allies won 15 seats and the opposition won 3 seats. The opposition denounced the administration's biased monitoring of the election, claiming for example that undue pressure was put on opposition municipal councilors to vote for the ruling party's candidate.9

More generally, as a Mauritanian legal expert explains, the 1991 constitution sanctions "the preeminence of the Head of State."10 In effect, in theory and in practice, the state is highly centralized in the hands of the president, leaving the legislative and the judicial branches in a condition of political subordination. The president appoints and dismisses the government, and he can dissolve the National Assembly. In addition, he appoints three of the six judges to the Constitutional Council (including the court's president), whose task is, among other things, to validate electoral results (including the results of presidential elections); there is no oversight of these appointments. Also, the presidency is not subject to a term limit (Article 28). The power of the presidency is strengthened in practice by the fact that the president's party – the Parti republicain, democratique et social (PRDS) – has always had control of the National Assembly and the Senate. The highest proportion of seats the opposition has ever had in the National Assembly is 13.5 percent (11 seats out of 81), following the 2001 election. It won only one seat in 1996 and boycotted the 1992 legislative elections.

Opposition political organizations are regularly the target of unfair interference by the state. Over the past five years, the government disbanded some of the most popular opposition parties: Action pour le changement (AC) in January 2002; Union des forces democratiques/ere nouvelle in October 2000; and At-tali'a in 1999. Opposition leaders have also been targeted: Ch'bih Ould Melainine (Front Populaire) was arrested in April 2001 and sentenced to five years in prison; he was eventually granted a presidential pardon.11 Ahmed Ould Daddah (Union des forces democratiques/ere nouvelle, before it was dismantled by the government) was arrested five times between 1998 and 2000.12 State harassment of political opposition and the lack of political openness may lead political actors to opt increasingly for more violent forms of change, as illustrated by the failed coup of June 2003 and two alleged coup attempts in August – September 2004. However, opposition parties also have some responsibility for the ruling party's and incumbent president's permanent rule, as they have fought intense struggles among themselves, based partly on personal and factional rivalries and partly on ideological differences.13

The official centralization of power parallels unofficial forms of domination. Informal political relations connect the presidency to local rural leaders, powerful businessmen, and public servants. These patron-client relations provide a strong political base of support for the president and can help secure votes before, and irrespective of, electoral campaigns. This suggests that a narrow analytical focus on elections and electoral campaigning opportunities is not sufficient to understanding why a rotation of power through elections has not occurred since 1991.

The politicization of public institutions also weakens Mauritanian democracy. Appointments to, and management of, public offices are neither meritocratic nor transparent. Rather, they form a mechanism that rewards political loyalty to the regime and punishes political opposition. As one observer argues, the selection of public servants is determined less by formal education and diploma and much more by one's proximity to the top decision-making circle and by the president's informal policy of balancing among the different regions, tribes, and ethnic groups.14

No civic associations can operate without a formal interior ministry authorization, which can be denied or removed at any time. Past refusals to authorize NGOs were justified by these organizations' strong stand on issues such as slavery and human rights. In general, civic groups do not exert substantive influence on state policies and legislation. It must be said that the Mauritanian political system is not constituted only of formal organizations, such as NGOs and political parties. Political influence upon state policies emanates in large part from informal webs of networks and factions. These are based on various forms of loyalty, ranging from one's home region, lineage group, or religious brotherhood to childhood friendships. Some of these networks have survived for several years while others have changed and reformed at a fast pace.

Privately owned newspapers have flourished since 1992, before which only the state-owned daily was authorized. Yet, state censorship of independent media is frequent, not to mention the less quantifiable self-censorship. The state owns the only printing facility (Imprimerie nationale) in the country, and the ministry of the interior is entitled by Article 11 of the Law on the Press to censor any publication that "threatens the principles of Islam or the credibility of the State, or that threatens the general interest as well as public order and security." Newspapers, most of which are weeklies, must submit each issue to the ministry of the interior, which then authorizes or prohibits publication based on Article 11. (Two of the three daily newspapers are state-owned [in French and Arabic] and the third is relatively close to the government's position.) Article 11 has been used to censor the press when newspaper articles talk about (in no specific order) the Western Sahara dispute (in which Mauritania is officially neutral), Islamist organizations, corruption by public officials and/or big businesses, slavery, and bilateral relations with Israel.15

In October 2003, the government forbade publication of one issue of each of four newspapers because they included a pro-opposition advertisement. In May 2004, a journalist of L'Eveil-Hebdo was questioned by police forces after he had published an article that described daily police acts of intimidation and brutality against members of the local population.16 In September 2004, the government shut down the newspaper Al Jamahir; no official reason was given other than that the shutdown was "in conformity with Article 11," although the fact that this newspaper is said to be ideologically and financially close to Libya, which the government accused of supporting coup plotters, could be an explanation.17

The state has never authorized the creation of national independent television and radio stations. However, both international shortwave radio stations and international television channels broadcast by satellite enjoy a wide audience in Mauritania. The boundaries of state censorship now seem to extend to opinions expressed on these foreign channels. For instance, on November 23, 2003, a Mauritanian professor at the University of Nouakchott was arrested because he had criticized the American invasion of Iraq on Al-Jazeera.


  • The constitution should limit the number of terms a president can serve.
  • Elections should be monitored by a fully independent agency to enhance the legitimacy of electoral results (and of the elections' winners). The relatively good conditions of the 2001 legislative and municipal elections should be replicated in future electoral contests, including for the presidential election.
  • Limitations should be placed on the central state's power in rural areas, where the representatives of the interior ministry and of the defense ministry currently enjoy unchecked powers. Central government representatives should be at least partly accountable to local elected councils.
  • Although the need to achieve a certain balance among the different regional groups is valid, effective control mechanisms are nonetheless needed to prevent the over-politicization of the public service. Appointments in the civil service should be based on merit.
  • Article 11 of the Law on the Press should be abolished. Independent Mauritanian broadcast stations should be authorized.

Civil Liberties – 2.39

In theory, Article 13 of the Mauritanian constitution protects citizens from torture and from inhumane treatment in prisons. Article 91 proscribes arbitrary detention, and detention without trial cannot exceed 72 hours, with the exception of detention for crimes against the security of the state, in which case detention may last up to 30 days. A mediator of the republic (similar to an ombudsman) was established in 1993, both to investigate abuse of citizens by representatives of the public administration and to make recommendations to settle these differends (disputes). However, this legal framework does not match the empirical reality. When citizens seek to defend themselves they most often resort to informal mechanisms based on tribal, ethnic, and family-based connections.

In the aftermath of the failed coup attempt of June 8, 2003, about 130 members of the military were arrested, as well as members of their families.18 On August 9, 2004, about 50 people, including military officers, religious leaders, and civilians, were arrested after the government allegedly uncovered another coup plot. About a dozen more military officers and civilians were arrested at the end of September 2004, including two leaders of the 2003 coup attempt. They were officially accused of "attempting to destroy and to change the constitutional order with the use of weapons ... and to use armed groups to threaten the state."19 Throughout these waves of arrests, defense lawyers have denounced several violations of the law. They asserted that the prisoners were illegally denied access to their family members and lawyers and that the duration of detention without trial exceeded the legal limit.20 Human Rights Watch echoed these denunciations and stated that the "lack of access to the military officers that are in detention raises serious concerns about their treatment, given past reports of inhuman conditions of detention in Mauritania."21

The government has never authorized formal investigations of allegations of torture. The only measure it has taken recently was to let some foreign journalists talk to a selected number of prisoners. However, this took place in the presence of their guards, thereby making it difficult to determine the extent to which torture is practiced in Mauritanian jails. Official punishment of perpetrators is even less frequent.

Prison conditions depend on the detainee's status and political connections. Families are often expected to provide for prisoners' basic needs. Without such connections and family support, a prisoner's living conditions can be execrable. Limits on length of detention without trial are arbitrarily implemented, with the exception of high-profile prisoners, who enjoy strong media exposure and legal support.

Formal institutions are generally inadequate for protecting citizens against state and non-state abuses. Even the office of the mediator of the republic is powerless, given its lack of independence from the executive branch: The president appoints the mediator, its budget is drawn from the president's office, and its annual report is presented to the president only. Also, only deputies and mayors (elected representatives) can lodge a complaint with the mediator. Consequently, people often resort to informal networks of personal connections to express their grievances and to defend themselves when their rights are violated by state authorities. Most people are forced to plead for a personal favor in cases in which they should simply be able to secure a legal right.

No political assassination was reported in 2003-2004. However, up to this day, the state-sponsored killings of hundreds of Haalpulaar, Wolof, and Sooninke citizens and soldiers between 1989 and 1991 have never been investigated. The Amnesty Law of 1993 protects state officials involved in these human rights violations.

Slavery is both a highly controversial and complex issue. Historically, all four ethnic groups of Mauritania shared a relatively similar hierarchy based on social status, with groups such as religious scholars, warriors, artisans, freed slaves, and slaves. Although today these statuses no longer refer to actual professional occupations, generally speaking, high status continues to generate prestige and favoritism, and low-ranking people such as "freed slaves" face exclusion and discrimination.

The government and opposition groups are involved in a fierce battle over the issue of slavery. The government argues that only the after-effects of slavery remain, not slavery itself; after the official abolishment of slavery in 1980, a June 2003 law forbid trafficking in persons and the new labor code outlaws forced labor. The government also argues that poverty-reduction policies targeting vulnerable populations are addressing the after-effects of slavery, although the official discourse never explicitly mentions any of the low-ranking social groups. For their part, opposition parties and NGOs argue that slavery still persists among the Bidhan(Arabic-speaking communities), specifically outside the urban centers. They argue that the 1980 law has two major weaknesses: it does not specify any sanction for those who violate the law, and it provides for compensation only for former masters, not for former slaves. The government's arrest of activists (in 1998) and journalists (in 2005) and the disbanding of the AC in 2002, all on the basis of these parties' anti-slavery discourse and actions, reinforces the belief that slavery in some form has not completely disappeared.

Most analysts agree that the 1980 law in itself did not change anything.22 Within the Arabic-speaking community, many Haratin (a contested social status that means "freed slaves") continue to be heavily dependent economically, socially, and politically on their social superiors. Studies suggest that changes are taking place, mostly due to socioeconomic transformations (urbanization, industrialization, and the rapid growth of the army following the Saharan war). The Haratin's dependency has been challenged in urban centers, and sometimes ended altogether. Even in such cases, however, the Haratin's extreme poverty persists.23 As one of Mauritania's most reputable social scientists observes, the adoption of an anti-slavery legal framework is not "sufficient to abolish the status [of "former slaves" or "slaves"], which is inscribed in a complex web of economic, ideological and symbolic relations."24 The constitution ordains the equality of all citizens but does not offer any specific guideline in cases of racial or ethnic discrimination. The Law of the Public Administration stipulates that there cannot be any discrimination against civil servants on the basis of their opinion, gender, or race (Article 15). In practice, however, citizens who feel they have been the subject of racial or ethnic discrimination in employment or occupation are left with few legal tools. No claims of racial discrimination have been filed so far, suggesting that individuals who feel that they are treated unfairly prefer to resort to personal and informal connections; unfortunately, not all citizens have access to such connections. State resources and appointments in the public service are informally distributed along tribal and ethnic lines.25 However, these appointments generally benefit individual public servants and rarely the community to which they belong.

The State Secretary for Women's Condition is the main office through which the state seeks to promote women's rights in the country; international organizations – mainly UN branches – and local NGOs advise and put pressure on the office. For instance, in 2004 a local organization obtained the support of the imams of Nouakchott in their campaign against sexual harassment. In July 2001, the National Assembly adopted the personal status code, which put forward some legal improvements regarding women's rights. Husbands can no longer forbid their wives to study or to work outside the house, and wives can refuse polygamous weddings. But the personal status code confirms the husband's unilateral right to repudiate his wife, as authorized by Sharia. Marriage at an early age is common among Mauritanian women: In 2003, 23 percent of women between the ages of 20 and 29 were married before the age of 15.26 The state's capacity and willingness to prevent and punish discrimination against women is relatively weak.27 For instance, a UN report has documented the persistence of different forms of violence against women, including genital mutilation.28

Women's rights, as well as their socioeconomic and political conditions, are largely dependent on their ethnic, caste, and geographical (rural/urban) background. In the 2001 legislative election, three women were elected to the National Assembly, accounting for 3.7 percent of the total number of elected representatives. As of 2004, only three women were among the 54 members of the Senate. Women account for only 6.6 percent of the top positions in the public administration.29 Hopefully the increasing rate of female school enrollment as well as the recent adoption of a compulsory education law (for boys and girls) will improve this situation, although this will also require that civil service appointments become transparent and merit based.

People with disabilities who wish to improve their living conditions and status in society cannot count on strong state support. They are usually cared for by their families, to the extent possible given the extreme poverty of most of the population. A special office of the Direction des affaires sociales (social affairs division) is in charge of providing educational and professional help to people with disabilities. The government asserts that its Social Affairs Secretary has "re-educated and provided [disabled people] with equipment" and that "300 physically handicapped children have been placed in elementary schools and 58 deaf or blind children are receiving special education. 218 handicapped adults are benefiting from a community-based reintegration project."30 A group of local organizations formed the National Association for Disabled People in 1999 in an attempt to lobby for much greater changes. With the help of international organizations, people with disabilities recently called upon the state to adopt a legal framework and adopt measures that would protect their rights and promote their interests more substantially.31

Between 1989 and 1991, state officials directly and indirectly encouraged the assassination and expulsion from the national territory of citizens from the Haalpulaar, Sooninke, and Wolof ethnic minorities. Since then, gross violations have decreased in scope and number. However, less quantifiable (and recordable) forms of exclusion continue. For instance, individuals from these minorities are rarely appointed to strategic positions in the political and security apparatus. Tribal and regional identities within the Bidhan community can also be the source of discrimination. For instance, given that most of the alleged coup plotters in 2003 came from eastern Mauritania, many citizens from these regions were arrested or have lost their jobs, especially those at the top of the state administration and in the military.

The freedom of cultural expression of ethnic minorities has slowly improved since the aftermath of the 1989-1991 state-sponsored violence. The state has authorized the creation of associations that promote the Haalpulaar, Sooninke, and Wolof cultures. However, Arabic remains the only official language, whereas Haalpulaar, Sooninke, and Wolof are only national languages. Arabic and French are now the only two languages of public education, following the 1999 educational reform that abolished a special educational program in the Haalpulaar, Sooninke, and Wolof languages.

Mauritania is officially an Islamic republic. The state allows the few non-Muslims (Western expatriates and West African workers and refugees) to practice their religions. Since 1994, the government has increasingly controlled and repressed political activities that it defined as Islamist. This process has accelerated since the spring of 2003, when the government arrested high-profile Islamic figures while shutting down numerous Islamic associations. In June 2003 the council of ministers adopted a draft law that turned mosques into public facilities, thereby allowing the state to monitor sermons, control the mosques' sources of funding, and define imams' rules of conduct.32

The constitution guarantees citizens' right of association. However, this right is often violated in practice, as the state regularly interferes with the activities and even the existence of political parties, NGOs, and various associations, as illustrated by the numerous arrests and dismantling of opposition organizations and associations. Human Rights Watch claims that the arrests of religious leaders, opposition politicians, and social activists "have been justified in terms of the need to suppress terrorism, but appear rather to be designed to silence those who are critical of the government."33 In addition, new parties and organizations have been denied official authorization. For instance, in October 2003, the government refused to authorize the creation of an Observatory for Democracy and Transparency, as requested by a group of citizens.34 In April 2004, the government refused to authorize a party created by supporters of Ould Haidallah, the Party of the Democratic Convergence. In May 2004, however, it authorized another party, Assawab, which also included supporters of Ould Haidallah. Although Mauritanians are allowed to join trade unions, two of the three main unions complain that the new labor code adopted in May 2004 further restrains their rights and activities.35 Since the establishment of the 1991 constitution, Mauritanians are not compelled by the state to belong to any association. However, indirect incentives to join the ruling party do exist, given that the management and distribution of public resources are permeated by political clientelism.

In 2004, the streets of Nouakchott were relatively calm, and no major protests took place. However, police forces have severely repressed demonstrations in recent years, particularly when demonstrators protested against the Israeli government's handling of the second Intifada, against Mauritania's diplomatic relations with Israel, and against the war in Iraq.


  • The Mauritanian state should both officially acknowledge and investigate the 1989-1991 human rights violations against citizens of Haalpulaar, Sooninke, and Wolof origins. This is the precondition for a real process of national unification.
  • The government must authorize independent investigations of detention conditions and of allegations of torture and illegal arrests by state forces. This would simply confirm already existing constitutional rights.
  • In order to end controversies about the existence of slavery in the country and in accordance with the existing law, the judicial system must proceed in a transparent and effective way when citizens report cases of slavery, trafficking of persons, and forced labor.
  • State harassment of opposition political parties and opposition movements in general, and against organizations labeled as Islamic in particular, should cease.
  • The government, with support from UN agencies and NGOs, should sustain and consolidate its new program of improving female enrollment at the secondary-school level. Measures would include improved educational facilities and resources, especially in rural areas; financial support for teenage girls' families; awareness programs for parents and teachers; and enforcement of the compulsory education law for both boys and girls.

Rule of Law – 2.12

The Mauritanian judicial system combines Western and Islamic (Malikite rite) legal traditions. The constitution guarantees the independence of the judiciary in theory (Article 89). An organic law also protects judges from undue influence (Law 94-012). However, the constitution as well as informal political practices point to the domination of the president over the justice system. The constitution enables the president to appoint three of the six members of the constitutional council, including its chair, whose voice predominates in case of a split vote. One of the constitutional council's tasks is to validate electoral results, including those of the presidential election. The president also appoints all five members of the high Islamic council, which advises the president on matters of Islamic law. The president presides over the Conseil superieur de la magistrature (superior council of magistrates), whose tasks include the nomination of judges. In effect, the same politicization that prevails in the civil service also applies to the judiciary, both in terms of nominations and in terms of its inner working. As an independent newspaper argued, Mauritanian judges "in most cases do not respect the procedures and legal texts they are supposed to implement."36

In cases involving politically sensitive issues, the informal dominance of the presidency over the work of prosecutors and judges generally prevails, as the recent arrests of and charges against opponents suggest. In cases of lower political intensity, financial influences and political connections reduce the impartiality of the justice system. Attempts by the executive to influence the judiciary can also be seen in the recent dispute about the Mauritanian Bar. In June 2002, a lawyer close to the opposition, Mahfoudh Ould Bettah, claimed he had been elected as the batonnier (chair) of the Mauritanian Bar. The government, however, declared that it recognized the victory of another candidate, who happened to be a member of the presidential party. Since then, the latter has served as chair of the Bar. However, the international Union of Arab Lawyers gave strong support to Ould Bettah by stating that they would only recognize his victory and that only he can represent Mauritania at the Union's meetings.37 More generally, the contrast between the almost complete absence of legal investigation and condemnations of high-ranking civil servants, ruling party officials, and security and military personnel and the increasingly high number of arrests and condemnations of members of the political opposition and activists underscores the politicization of the judiciary.

Leading international organizations have highlighted the lack of adequate training of judges and of the personnel of the ministry of justice and have funded programs to tackle that problem.38 However, formal legal training will have limited effects if informal political obstacles continue to block the real application of the law. Better training cannot eliminate political motivation.

A legal reform was passed in 1999 that, among other things, provides for better financial and legal support for poor citizens charged with an offense. No information on the actual effectiveness of this legal assistance is available. The constitution considers citizens innocent until proved otherwise.

The political power of the military began to rise when Mauritania fought the war in the Western Sahara in 1975. At the onset of the war, Mauritania had 2,000 troops; it had 18,000 troops three years later when it withdrew from the conflict.39 Between 1978 and 1991, Mauritania was governed by various military juntas. The current president, Colonel Ould Taya, came to power in 1984 after he staged a coup against Ould Haidallah. Although the 1991 constitution provides for a civil form of government, in reality the military still is a key pillar of the regime. Its loyalty is secured through the distribution of significant political and economic advantages to top officers.40 Security matters are the reserved domains of the military, as well as the internal affairs of the army. However, the failed coup of June 2003 and the alleged coup attempts of 2004 suggest growing frustration among segments of the military and breaches in its loyalty to the regime.

Article 15 of the constitution ensures the right to own property. The Law on Land Tenure, adopted in 1983, guarantees the private ownership of land. However, it does add that the state can evict citizens, with compensation, when "economic and social development needs" apply. Communities that, in accordance with their communal customs, oppose the individualization and marketing of land must create cooperatives and officially register as associations.

In practice, however, many conflicts over property rights occur. In rural areas, de facto extortion of land by powerful agents with connections to high-ranking civil servants is frequent. In the Senegal River region – homeland of the Haalpulaar, Sooninke, and Wolof ethnic minorities – the implementation of the 1983 land tenure reform was seen by many in these minorities as a means to dispossess them of their land. This led to growing frustration, which eventually resulted in the state-sponsored killings and eviction of thousands of citizens between 1989 and 1991. Conflicts between Haratin and Bidhan masters also broke out in rural areas when the former claimed land ownership on the basis that they are the ones actually working the land. In urban centers, shantytowns have mushroomed, most often without any official delimitation of properties, and are the frequent targets of violent and sudden eviction by state officials. Some improvements took place recently: The Programme de developpement urbain, launched in 2002, aimed to delimit land occupation in one of Nouakchott's poorest neighborhoods, thereby providing the inhabitants with security of ownership.


  • The constitutional independence of the judiciary must be applied in practice to provide for a universal and effective respect for the rule of law.
  • Formal and informal reserved domains for the military and security agencies violate the civilian spirit of the 1991 constitution. The military must be effectively monitored and bounded by transparent and autonomous civilian forms of control.
  • The government must implement transparent and effective procedures to prevent the arbitrary seizure of land in rural areas. Similarly, the sudden expulsion of poor urban squatters must be replaced with transparent mechanisms of property attribution.

Anticorruption and Transparency – 1.97

In recent years, official state intervention in the economy has receded, as illustrated by the privatization of some state-owned enterprises. State intervention has also been more clearly defined through the adoption of an investment code (2002), a simplification of the tax system, and the elimination of many bureaucratic regulations in the economy. However, less state intervention does not mean better state intervention. Political clientelism, or the weak separation of public office from the personal and political interests of state officials, is widespread and nurtures corruption. The management of public resources, whether those generated from within or those channeled through international development aid, is strongly influenced by these political and private imperatives. The education system is also affected: high school and university exam results and grades are often said to be highly dependent on the student's personal connections.41 As a consequence, state intervention in the economy, and in social affairs more generally (including the fight against poverty), has failed to serve the public interest.42

Public access to government information is both limited and unreliable. Even public institutions, such as the different commissions of the National Assembly, the Senate, and the Cour des comptes (comptroller and auditor general), face great difficulties in gaining access to government information and monitoring the policy-making process.43 According to the IMF, the Mauritanian government argued that "instituting a financial disclosure law for high government officials [is] impractical ... in a society where family and tribal links are predominant – thus making it possible for those officials to place their assets in the name of their relative tribesmen."44 The government instead pledged to adopt and implement a code of ethics for public servants.

Private economic actors (individuals and firms) enjoy great economic freedom, so much so that they form an oligopoly with close family, clan, and personal ties to the presidency.45 They control most sectors of the market economy, such as transport, banking, food-import, and construction, and they have little regard for the public good.

The government rarely cracks down on corruption at the highest levels of the state. Illustrative of this fact is the relative incapacity of the country's auditing body, the Cour des comptes, to fulfill its role. It has launched only two known investigations since its creation in 1993, one of which examined malpractices in the ministry of rural development and environment in February 2004.46 Its lack of independence from the president, who appoints the Cour's chair, contributes to its relative weakness.47 The accountability of tax collection is also hampered by weak human and material capacity. An IMF report pointed out, in diplomatic language, the possibility of "inadequate supervision by the revenue-collecting agencies" and that "revenue collection agencies are not obliged to provide annual reports to the legislature on their activities."48 A government document promises that an audit of the tax collecting agency will soon be implemented.49

The IMF also noted that the budget-making process is weak. It states that "no annual accounts have been produced for over 30 years," which makes it difficult to determine how the annual budget is spent.50 In addition, parliamentarians have neither the necessary training nor adequate access to information to provide oversight of the budget-making process.51

In theory, the mediator of the republic, the penal code (Article 124 and 128), and the constitutional right of expression should provide a safe legal environment for citizens who denounce cases of corruption. However, in reality the reliability of this framework is undermined by the institutional and empirical weakness of the mediator (see "Civil Liberties") and the judicial system's lack of independence. For their part, political activists and independent newspapers that attempt to publish detailed investigations of cases of corruption are subject to state censorship (see "Accountability and Public Voice"). In one case, four newspapers were brought to court after each had published articles on the corrupt practices of an ex-minister and leading figure in the presidential party.

The president made a much-publicized speech in July 2004 in which he stated that a major reform of the administration and of the management of public resources would soon be adopted. This reform would grant greater power to the agencies in charge of monitoring the management of public resources and would provide for a tougher legal framework to supervise the public service.52 The approval of a General Framework of Good Governance by the government, civil society organizations, and international organizations in February 2004 points in the same direction. The major test for the regime consists in the effective implementation of public administration reforms and the democratization of state-society relations.


  • In the spirit of the presidential speech of July 2004, an effective mechanism must be set in place to investigate and condemn cases of private appropriation of public resources. This could be done by making the mediator of the republic fully independent of the presidency, by allowing all citizens (not just elected representatives) to lodge a complaint with the mediator and by providing the mediator with more human and material resources.
  • In accordance with the above recommendation, Article 11 of the Law of the Press should be abandoned so as to allow media to investigate and publicize cases of corruption and state abuses more generally.
  • The personnel of educational institutions should be given the means to resist undue pressures on their work in order to enhance the value of students' diplomas, as well as the overall quality of the civil service. This would include better salaries, better working conditions (including a lower student-teacher ratio and better class facilities), and the creation of an independent body to investigate illegal pressures by parents and by administrative superiors on teachers.
  • In order to improve the management and control of public resources, internal and external auditing bodies (Inspection generale des finances and Cour des comptes) should be granted full independence from the presidency and must be protected against informal influences. They should be provided with the human and material means to undertake their mission.


1 "Status Report No. 19" (New York: United Nations Development Programme [UNDP], Human Rights Strengthening Programme [HURIS], 25 May 2004),

2 Hindou Mint Ainina, "La politique de censure des partis de l'opposition se consolide et le theme tabou de l'esclavage est au devant de la scene politique," Annuaire de l'Afrique du nord 2000-2001 39 (2001): 355. The author characterizes these elections as "surprisingly transparent."

3 Ordinance on Political Parties (modified, February 2001), Article 20.

4 Decree 028-2000 (19 March 2000) provided for the new identity card. See also "La carte infalsifiable, symbole de la 'transparence' des elections," Agence France Presse (AFP), 3 November 2003.

5 "Derniers preparatifs," Le Calame 417, 5 November 2003.

6 On the Ould Haidallah affair, see "Campagne electorale: le domicile de Ould Haidalla perquisitionne!" L'Eveil-quotidien 506, 5 November 2003; "Chronique de l'election de tous les dangers," Le Calame 418, 12 November 2003.

7 "Chronique de l'election de tous les dangers," Le Calame 418, 12 November 2003; "Rapport preliminaire relatif aux operations du scrutin presidentiel du 07-11-03 en Mauritanie," L'Eveil-hebdo 508, 18 November 2003, 6.

8 La Cour supreme mauritanienne confirme le verdict contre Ould Haidalla, AFP, 20 April 2004.

9 See "Senatoriales d'avril 2004: Interview du secretaire general de l'UFP," L'Eveil-hebdo, 20 April 2004; "Le PRDS (au pouvoir) remporte le second tour des senatoriales," AFP, 17 April 2004; "L'opposition denonce la sequestration de conseillers apres les senatoriales," Le Soleil [Dakar], 20 April 2004.

10 Djibril Ly, "L'Etat de droit dans la constitution mauritanienne du 20 juillet 1991," Revue mauritanienne de Droit et d'economie 9 (1993): 50.

11 Hindou Mint Ainina, "La politique de censure ...," 352.

12 Ibid., 346.

13 See Zekeria Ould Ahmed Salem, "L'opposition dans l'imaginaire mauritanien: de la fronde au consensus mou," Le Calame 278, 20-26 April 2000, 8-9.

14 Abdel Weddoud Ould Cheikh, "Cherche elite, desesperement: evolution du systeme educatif et (de)formation des 'elites' dans la societe mauritanienne," Nomadic Peoples 2.1 (1998): 235-51.

15 "Mauritania: Annual Report 2004" (Paris: Reporters sans frontieres [RSF], 2005),

16 "Mauritania Alert" (Legon, Ghana: Media Foundation of West Africa [MFWA], 18 June 2004),

17 "Interdiction d'un hebdomadaire pro-libyen en Mauritanie,"AFP, 12 September, 2004.

18 "Nouvelle affaire du putsch: retour a la case depart," Le Calame, 435, 14 April 2004; "Enquete sur la nouvelle affaire du putsch: le chainon perdu," Le Calame, 437, 28 April 2004.

19 Prosecutor of the Republic, cited in "Le procureur de la republique lors d'un point de presse," Horizons, 23 September 2004; see also "Revelations: Ould Hannena entre les mains de la justice," Le Calame, 27 October 2004 and "Revelations sur la tentative de coup d'Etat manquee," Agence mauritanienne d'information, 27 August 2004.

20 "Presumees tentatives de putsch: reactions et prises de positions," L'Eveil-hebdo, 12 October 2004.

21 "Mauritania: Harassment of Opposition Undermines Free and Fair Elections: Open Letter to President Taya" (New York: Human Rights Watch [HRW], 3 September 2003),

22 E. Ann McDougall, Meskerem Brhane, and Urs Peter Ruf, "Legacies of Slavery, Promises of Democracy: Mauritania in the 21st Century," in Malinda S. Smith, ed., Globalizing Africa (Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 2003), note 7.

23 The best works in English on the condition of Haratin are those of Meskerem Brhane, "Narratives of the Past, Politics of the Present: Identity, Subordination and the Haratines of Mauritania," Ph.D. diss. (University of Chicago, 1997), and Urs Peter Ruf, Ending Slavery: Hierarchy, Dependency and Gender in Central Mauritania (Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag, Roswitha Gost, Sigrid Noke, 1999).

24 Abdel Weddoud Ould Cheikh, "L'evolution de l'esclavage dans la societe maure," in Edmond Bernus et al., eds., Nomades et commandants (Paris: Karthala, 1993), 192. See one such case, reported in "Probleme d'esclavage ou de justice?" Le Calame, 427, 18 February 2004.

25 The English word "tribe" is not used here as a synonym of "ethnicity." It is used as a translation of qabila (plural qaba'il), which refers to a lineage group that claims a common descent within the larger Arabic-speaking (or Bidhan) "ethnic" group. The Bidhan ethnic group is made up of numerous tribes (qaba'il).

26 Indicateurs de genre en Mauritanie, (Calverton, Md., and Nouakchott, Groupe de Suivi Genre/Secretariat d'Etat a la Condition Feminine, 2003), 49,

27 See the criticisms expressed in "Programme d'appui a la mise en oeuvre du Programme national de Bonne Gouvernance" (UNDP, MAU/03/001, March 2003), 6, 17.

28 Rapport sur le progres dans la mise en oeuvre des objectifs de developpement du millenaire en Mauritanie (Nouakchott: United Nations Development Group, December 2002), 16,

29 Rapport sur le progres ... (United Nations Development Group), 16.

30 "State Party Report" (New York: United Nations, Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, CERD/C/330/Add.1, 26 October 1998), paragraphs 138-39.

31 "Rapport Final, Atelier national de renforcement des capacites des OSC et lancement du reseau informel des ONG en Mauritanie" (UNDP, 7-8 April 2004), 20.

32 See "Le conseil des ministres approuve une loi sur les mosquees," Agence Mauritanienne d'Information [AMI], 30 June 2003; "La Mauritanie adopte un projet de loi sur les mosquees," AFP, 30 June, 2003.

33 "Mauritania: Harassment of Opposition Undermines Free and Fair Elections" (HRW, 3 September 2003),

34 "Observatoire pour la democratie et la transparence: le pouvoir durcit sa position," Nouakchott-Info, 12 October 2003.

35 "Revision du code du travail: timides reamenagements," Le Calame, 437, 28 April 2004, 1-4; "Reforme du code du travail: la CLTM exprime son opposition," Le Calame, 19 May 2004; "Code du travail: la grogne des syndicats," L'Authentique, 15 June 2004.

36 "Conseil superieur de la magistrature: en attendant que justice..." L'Independant, 57, 15 August 1999, 3.

37 For the latest event on that issue, see "Barreau: l'UAA tranche en faveur de Me Bettah," Nouakchott Info, 692, 8 December 2004.

38 For instance, see "Seminaire de formation au profit des magistrats et greffiers," Horizons, 26 July 2004.

39 Philippe Marchesin, Tribus, ethnies et pouvoir en Mauritanie (Paris: Karthala, 1992), 153.

40 Zekeria Ould Ahmed Salem, "La democratisation en Mauritanie: une 'illusio' postcoloniale ?" Politique africaine, 75, October 1999, 140-41.

41 For instance, "Nepotisme et favoritisme," L'Eveil-hebdo, 539, 6 July 2004, 5.

42 See, for instance, the criticisms expressed in "Programme d'appui ..." (UNDP), 5.

43 As reported in "Report on the Observance of Standards and Codes – Fiscal Transparency Module" (Washington, DC: International Monetary Fund [IMF], Country Report No. 02/268, December 2002); and in "Groupe Technique Thematique, 'Gestion Ressources Publiques,' Rapport Provisoire" (Nouakchott: Islamic Republic of Mauritania, February 2004), 7; "Country Financial Accountability Assessment," World Bank and the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, Report No. 27065, Volume 1, November 2003), 46-47; "Programme d'appui ..." (UNDP), 63.

44 "Article IV Consultation" (IMF, Country Report No. 03/314, October 2003), paragraph 42, 20.

45 "Project Performance Assessment Report" (World Bank, Report No. 29615, 1 July 2004), 25.

46 "La Cour des Comptes epingle des fonctionnaires du MDRE: la fin de l'impunite?" Le Calame, 426, 11 February 2004, 1-3; "Affaire du MDRE: faux lampistes," Le Calame, 428, 25 February 2004.

47 "Report on the Observance of Standards and Codes" (IMF, Country report 02/268), 13-14.

48 Ibid., 7-8, 14.

49 "Gestion Ressources Publiques" (Islamic Republic of Mauritania), 8.

50 "Report on the Observance of Standards and Codes" (IMF, Country report 02/268), 8, 11.

51 "Programme d'appui ..." (UNDP); "Country ... Assessment" (World Bank and the Islamic Republic of Mauritania).

52 Ould Taya, speech in Kiffa, 15 July 2004, transcribed in AMI, 15 July 2004.

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