"Mauritanians are experiencing a deep malaise"

Mauritanian women voting in landmark presidential elections in 2007 that transferred power from the military to a civilian government Keystone

Mauritania needs a political and military code of conduct and robust civil society to end the cycle of coups, human rights activist Abdoulaye Sow tells swissinfo.

This content was published on August 17, 2008 - 10:15

Mauritanian army officers staged a putsch on August 6, seizing the elected president of the northwest African country and ending a brief experiment in democracy.

The new junta appointed Mauritania's ambassador to the European Union as its prime minister on Thursday and has promised to hold free and fair elections in the impoverished nation "as soon as possible".

Troops seized President Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi after he announced the dismissal of four generals, one of them the coup leader, General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz.

A crisis began this year when the president sacked the government amid protests over soaring food prices. The cabinet that replaced it has been dogged by instability.

The bloodless putsch, which drew widespread international criticism, is the country's 11th coup or attempted coup since independence in 1960.

Sow, professor of philosophy and anthropology at Nouakchott University in Mauritania, travelled to Geneva on Friday to give a series of human rights lectures at the Henry Dunant University College.

swissinfo: How do you describe the population's current state of mind following the coup?

Abdoulaye Sow: What is certain is that most Mauritanians are experiencing a deep malaise.

The bloodless coup on August 3, 2005 allowed us to get rid of longstanding president Taya; everyone applauded, there was a democratic transition, they respected their word, elections were organised and institutions set up. Everyone thought we'd come out of the endless cycle of coup d'états.

Today people are worried and are looking back to the short-lived democratic period [2005-2007] and national reconciliation initiatives.

swissinfo: Isn't this putsch an illustration of the failure of the democratic period [2005-2007] to take root in Mauritania?

A.S.: In the minds of the Mauritanians, we hope that this is just a small brake on the democratic process. It would be very dangerous if it were a definite full stop.

A putsch is an illegal political takeover. People have to be very clear about the principles. Democracy is above all the peaceful management of society's problems. We thought that coup d'états were behind us after almost three years' democracy and free and transparent elections.

But we shouldn't kid ourselves; the military are in place and exert political power. They have instigated a constitutional decree to transfer presidential power to General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz and have also appointed Moulaye Ould Mohamed Laghdaf as prime minister. The military are there and we have to take account of them.

swissinfo: What were the main factors behind the coup?

A.S.: Those who carried out the coup d'état put forward numerous reasons: institutional blockages, the collapse of the state, a deterioration of living standards and the illegal dismissal of military chiefs, but all that doesn't justify a coup d'état.

What is certain is that Abdallahi held out his hand to leaders of the former regime who have their own economic interests, political powers and lobbies. He tried to please lots of people and this led to a chaotic situation.

He was stuck between the barons of industry and the military, which never really gave up political power. It's certain that the dismissal of various army heads was a pretext that led to the August 6 coup.

What were the reasons for democracy's inability to take root? It's the failure of civil society, the absence of a democratic culture and lack of private media, especially private radio, which would have helped challenge authority and played a very important role.

swissinfo: What should be done to end the country's penchant for coups?

A.S.: The Mauritanians have to think about three things: firstly, a code of conduct for all politicians. They have to agree that politicians should be prevented from gaining a position of power using violence and political parties should refuse to enter a government or cooperate with a military dictatorship. Otherwise, the military will simply set up shop and appoint a prime minister who will pick and choose among the political parties and life will go on as normal.

Next, there has to be some kind of charter concerning the army to show them that they do not have the right to occupy the political sphere. There has to be a strong signal that if they seize power they will violate a charter signed by the Mauritanian people.

Finally, the authorities should have the courage to allow private radio stations to set up in Mauritania where people can talk in the national languages. This would help reinforce democratic culture.

Otherwise, it's not possible to stop them. There are Mauritanians who think this coup d'état was normal to help us get out of this blocked situation.

I'm not saying the former regime didn't make mistakes, but we should ban coup d'états from Africa. We have to condemn them and say that, whatever the motives, they are anti-constitutional and anti-democratic.

swissinfo-interview: Simon Bradley in Geneva


Mauritania is a mainly desert country spanning the Arab Maghreb of North Africa and the western sub-Saharan Africa.

The country has a population of 3.1 million, divided between the Arab-Berber population to the north and black Africans to the south.

In 1904, France established Mauritania as a colonial territory.

Mauritania gained independence in 1960, with Nouakchott as its capital. Its first president, Moktar Ould Daddah, was deposed in a coup in 1978.

A series of military rulers followed until August 2005 when the Military Council for Justice and Democracy seized power and appointed a transitional government, promising to return the country to democracy by 2007.

Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi was elected President of Mauritania in a run-off vote on 25 March 2007, in the first democratic presidential elections since independence.

With national income per capita averaging $560, Mauritania is one of the world's poorest countries. But the discovery and exploitation of oil and gas reserves on its Atlantic coast has raised hopes of future prosperity.

Slavery was banned in 1981, but the practice is still believed to be widespread.

The country has recently become the target of terrorist activities. In December 2007, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQM) claimed responsibility for the killing of four Mauritanian soldiers and a family of French tourists. In February 2008, AQM attacked the Israeli Embassy in Nouakchott.

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