Mauritania’s coup in the making

Al Jazeera’s Mohamed Ould Mohamed Lemine says president’s days were numbered.

Supporter of Mauritania coup leader
Mauritanian MPs supported the military coup which unseated Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi on August 6, 2008 [EPA]

Mauritania, a North African country straddling the Great Sahara and the Atlantic, has undergone drastic change of government for the second time in just three years.

In 2005, a military coup toppled Mouaya Ould Sidi Ahmed Ould Taya and promised to usher in a new era of democratic rule.

The coup leaders organised legislative and general polls and oversaw a two-year transition which led to a peaceful handover of power to a civilian government.

But on August 6, the same military crop of generals stormed the palace, arrested the president and his prime minister and again took matters into their own hands.

The question now is what went wrong with Mauritania’s fledgling democratic exercise?

History of coups

Mauritania has been through six military coups in the past 50 years, but the one in 2005 stood out from the rest because it put end to two decades of dictatorial rule and laid the groundwork for a successful democratic transition.

The military this time came as makers of democracy not usurpers of power and were thus able to earn the public’s trust and end long-standing fear and mistrust of the men in uniform.

The military in Mauritania was also viewed by the public to be the only viable and functional institution in the country, having survived the debilitating changes in policies of previous governments.

Alternatively, decades of dictatorship had withered away at civil institutions, political parties, the state apparatus and NGO functionality.

With the political and civic infrastructures in disarray, the public believed the army to be the only stabilising force.

But Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi, the recently deposed president, failed in dealing effectively with the military’s popularity and public support; his decision to turn the heat on the army was costly for him and for the country’s democracy.

He miscalculated that his legitimacy as the democratically-elected president would be enough to tip the scales in his favour in any face-off with the military brass.

Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, a general in the armed forces, launched the coup within one hour of the president sacking him and three other generals on August 6.

Challenging the military

Even members of Abdallahi’s own party supported his unseating from power [AFP]

Presidents in unstable democracies tend to face overwhelming odds when they take on the military without public support.

And in Abdallahi’s case, this equation could not have been truer. Judging by the record of his first year as president, he is by all accounts the most unpopular first-year president in the history of the country.

The president raised expectations too high and promised to push through sweeping reforms, stem corruption and restore the credibility of public administration.

During his election campaign, he insisted that only an immediate implementation of his reform policies would ameliorate living conditions in Mauritania.

But his economic stimulus package plunged the country into a crisis beset by soaring fuel and food prices, and unemployment.

Ordinary citizens found it increasingly difficult to make ends meet. It took Nouakchott, the capital city, to be gripped by repeated blackouts and severe water shortages for the president to be jolted awake from his slumber.

Lack of action?

The president’s lack of action came back to haunt him when violent protests broke out in the eastern part of the country, his electoral base, and spread nationwide. It was the first time that the country has seen such violent protests which killed one and injured many.

As public anger continued to swell, it became clear the president’s popularity had slumped and that his lame duck attitude was becoming an impediment. Cracks began to emerge in the power structure which supported him, chiefly, the army, the ruling coalition and the MPs of the presidential majority.

In May, Abdallahi sacked his own government of technocrats following criticism over the government’s response to soaring food prices and to attacks carried out by al-Qaeda’s North African arm over the past year.

He proceeded to form a new government but failed to consult the ruling coalition and its MPs. Within one month the new government resigned in the face of a proposed no-confidence vote and yet another was formed.

With few options before him, Abdallahi resorted to include former Taya loyalists – believed by many to be involved in corruption and mismanagement of public wealth – in the latest government.

Loyalists walk out

Analysts believe Abdallahi took on the military with little public support [REUTERS]

This led to massive walkouts within his ruling coalition and the emergence of what has been dubbed “the breakaway parliaments”.

It became clear that the president was walking a tightrope.

Within days, his own supporters turned against him, spearheaded by the furious MPs’ attempt to try, convict and impeach him.

Both upper and lower houses of parliament were for some time sites of tireless efforts to bring the president to task, charging him and his spouse of corruption and mismanagement.

Over the past three years, the international community, keen to see democracy alive and kicking in the unstable, war-torn sub-region, was quick to embrace Mauritania as a role model, hoping that the rest of Arab countries would follow suit.

But the trappings of democracy which the world saw were a far cry from the reality inside the country as the failure of the president to adroitly manipulate the levers of power sent the country into an economic, legislative and power crisis.

Eventually, his departure was seen as the only remedy.

The army stepped in to put an end to a dictator in the making as it did in 2005 when it put an end to a full fledged dictator.

The views expressed by the author are not necessarily those of Al Jazeera.

Source: Al Jazeera