Carnival, business and politics in Mauritania

Elections in the West African country are far too much fun to let politics get in the way.

I always thought Mauritania had its own freakish brand of democracy.

I have always enjoyed the campaigning, and failed to care about the real thing – the voting and the years that follow.

Naturally, it turns out, I’m not alone in this.

Many Mauritanians agree that the best thing – or possibly the only thing – they can hope to get out of any election is what happens in the build-up to the polls, certainly not the failed promises of politicians pledging prosperity to come in the months following the vote.

For some here, and I count myself among them, it’s the atmosphere of carnival during the campaigns, when white tents dot the streets and squares, music fills the air, people put on their best outifts, and green tea and roasted meshwi meat is served up for free.

It’s a fantastic time of grand hopes and colourful dreams splashed nonstop from loudspeakers in every public area.

It’s a time when otherwise invisible politicians come down among the simple crowd, distributing broad smiles – and sometimes, cold, hard cash.

Rare of attention

The poor and the downtrodden become the focus of rare attention and for a few moments begin to feel they matter to the people in power.

They forgive, and even forget, the lies and the hypocrisy of the politicians deigning to visit their neighbourhoods.

It is at this point that the business dealers enter the fray. These are perhaps the people who benefit most from elections in this country [and in many others].

They tend to fall into two categories.

The first is that of the campaign managers and the tribal figures who get wads of cash from the top politicians in order to fund the campaign or to secure loyalties among the tribe or within the constituency.

From what I have heard, the amount of money dispensed in this way is unbelievable.

A chunk of the cash may trickle down to the second category of business folk – event organisers, tent-renters, carpet-loaners and the rest of the people behind the logistical utilities of a campaign.

Politics itself comes last and lowest on the scale of importance.

The end of the campaigns marks for many the end of the real show.

Bunch of liars

What follows is just the toil of queuing and voting for a bunch of liars who won’t even remember your face or know whether you voted for them or not.

Such is the scene not only in Mauritania but in many other countries – rich and poor alike.

I saw an example of it even in the world’s largest democracy, when I covered the Indian elections in 2005.

But the difference is that the poor in India really do topple governments with the touch of a button – they use voting machines.

In my country, there’s no such magic wand, and nothing less than a military coup can really hope to change a regime.

More than over one million registered voters will be able on Saturday to choose new representatives and new local councils.

However, in most cases change depends on the delicate balance of power between tribal leaders, regional representatives, wealthy businessmen and the politicians themselves.

Real social programmes rarely play a crucial role in politics here – and major changes are never expected.

The country adopts a presidential system of government. So only a real and fair presidential vote can change the fundamental power within the country.

This is a system where change matters only at the top of the tree.

Everything stays the same

As long as the president remains, everything stays the same.

The only time a regime has been “changed through ballots” in Mauritania was in 2007, when the military decided upon a tactical retreat from power. They presented a candidate of their choice and to promoted him from the shadows.

But in little over a year they came returned to the spotlight, and toppled their own chosen candidate in a brand new coup.

The opposition tried hard to reverse the situation, but no protests or peaceful rallies were going to send the military back to their barracks.

Since then, Mauritania has been in crisis.

The country’s problems are typical of much of sub-Saharan Africa: poverty, desertification, mismanagement of resources, illiteracy, and, worst of all, inertia and a total lack of initiative and vision among the learned elite.

All this has resulted in the failure of the public to stand up in the face of social injustice and military dictatorship.