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Diplomacy in Action

Mauritania (04/04/10)

April 4, 2010


For the most current version of this Note, see Background Notes A-Z.


Area: 1,030,070 sq. km. (419,212 sq. mi.); slightly larger than Texas and New Mexico combined.
Cities (2004): Capital--Nouakchott (pop. 708,000). Other cities--Nouadhibou (72,000), Rosso (50,000), Kaedi (34,000), Zouerate (34,000), Kiffa (33,000), Atar (24,000).
Terrain: Northern four-fifths barren desert; southern 20% mainly Sahelian with small-scale irrigated and rain-fed agriculture in the Senegal River basin.
Climate: Predominantly hot and dry.

Nationality: Noun and adjective--Mauritanian(s).
Population: 3,162,338.
Annual population growth rate: 2.5%.
Ethnic groups: Arab-Berber (White Moor), Arab-Berber-Negroid (Black Moor), Haalpulaar, Soninke, Wolof (Black African Mauritanians).
Religion: Islam.
Languages: Arabic (official), Hassaniya (Arabic dialect), French, Pulaar, Wolof, and Soninke.
Education: Years compulsory--six. Attendance (student population enrolled in primary school)--82%. Adult literacy (% of population age 15+)--59%.
Health: Infant mortality rate--67/1,000. Life expectancy--64 yrs.
Work force: Agriculture and fisheries--50%. Services and commerce--20%. Government--20%. Industry and transportation--10%.

Type: Republic.
Independence: November 28, 1960.
Constitution: Approved 1991. Original constitution promulgated 1961.
Branches: Executive--president (head of state). Legislative--bicameral national assembly, directly elected lower house (81 members), and upper house (56 members) chosen indirectly by municipal councilors. Judicial--a supreme court and lower courts are nominally independent but subject to control of executive branch; judicial decisions are rendered mainly on the basis of Shari'a (Islamic law) for social/family matters and a western style legal code, applied in commercial and some criminal cases.
Political parties: 21.
Suffrage: Universal at 18.
National day: November 28, Independence Day.

GDP (at official exchange rate, 2009 est.): U.S. $3.029 billion.
Annual growth rate (2009): -0.9%.
Per capita GDP (2009): $939.
Natural resources: petroleum, fish, iron ore, gypsum, copper, gum arabic, phosphates, salt and gold.
Agriculture (13% of GDP 2007): Products--livestock, traditional fisheries, millet, maize, wheat, dates, rice.
Industry (47% of GDP 2007): Types--mining, commercial fishing.
Services (41% of GDP 2007).
Trade: Exports (2009) 1.37 billion: iron ore, fish and fish products, gold, copper, petroleum. Export partners (2007)--China 30.5%, France 9.5%, Italy 8.6%, Spain 8.5%, Japan 5.5%, Netherlands 5.3%, Belgium 5%, Cote d'Ivoire 4.7%. Imports (2009)--$1.43 billion: machinery and equipment, petroleum products, capital goods, foodstuffs, consumer goods. Import partners (2007)--France 16.7%, China 8.2%, Spain 6.8%, U.S. 6.2%, Belgium 5.8%, Brazil 5.5%.
Currency: Ouguiya (UM).
USAID: Total FY 2009 USAID humanitarian and development assistance to Mauritania--$11,100,000.

From the 3rd to 7th centuries, the migration of Berber tribes from North Africa displaced the Bafours, the original inhabitants of present-day Mauritania and the ancestors of the Soninke. Continued Arab-Berber migration drove indigenous black Africans south to the Senegal River or enslaved them. By 1076, Islamic warrior monks (Almoravid or Al Murabitun) completed the conquest of southern Mauritania, defeating the ancient Ghana empire. Over the next 500 years, Arabs overcame fierce Berber resistance to dominate Mauritania. The Mauritanian Thirty-Year War (1644-74) was the unsuccessful final Berber effort to repel the Maqil Arab invaders led by the Beni Hassan tribe. The descendants of Beni Hassan warriors became the upper stratum of Moorish society. Berbers retained influence by producing the majority of the region's Marabouts--those who preserve and teach Islamic tradition. Hassaniya, a mainly oral, Berber-influenced Arabic dialect that derives its name from the Beni Hassan tribe, became the dominant language among the largely nomadic population. Within Moorish society, aristocratic and servant classes developed, yielding "white" (aristocracy) and "black" Moors (the enslaved indigenous class).

French colonization at the beginning of the 20th century brought legal prohibitions against slavery and an end to interclan warfare. During the colonial period, the population remained nomadic, but sedentary black Africans, whose ancestors had been expelled centuries earlier by the Moors, began to trickle back into southern Mauritania. As the country gained independence in 1960, the capital city of Nouakchott was founded at the site of a small colonial village. Ninety percent of the population was still nomadic. With independence, larger numbers of ethnic Sub-Saharan Africans (Haalpulaar, Soninke, and Wolof) entered Mauritania, moving into the area north of the Senegal River. Educated in French, many of these recent arrivals became clerks, soldiers, and administrators in the new state.

Moors reacted to this change by trying to Arabicize much of Mauritanian life, such as law and language. A schism developed between those who considered Mauritania to be an Arab country (mainly Moors) and those who sought a dominant role for the Sub-Saharan peoples. The discord between these two conflicting visions of Mauritanian society was evident during intercommunal violence that broke out in April 1989 (the "1989 Events").

The country's first president, Moktar Ould Daddah, served from independence until ousted in a bloodless coup on July 10, 1978. Mauritania was under military rule from 1978 to 1992, when the country's first multi-party elections were held following the July 1991 approval by referendum of a constitution.

The Democratic and Social Republican Party (PRDS), led by President Maaouya Ould Sid'Ahmed Taya, dominated Mauritanian politics from April 1992 until he was overthrown in August 2005. President Taya, who won elections in 1992 and 1997, first became chief of state through a December 12, 1984 bloodless coup which made him chairman of the committee of military officers that governed Mauritania from July 1978 to April 1992. A group of current and former Army officers launched a bloody but unsuccessful coup attempt on June 8, 2003.

On November 7, 2003, Mauritania's third presidential election since adopting the democratic process in 1992 took place. Incumbent President Taya was reelected. Several opposition groups alleged that the government had used fraudulent means to win the elections, but did not elect to pursue their grievances via available legal channels. The elections incorporated safeguards first adopted in 2001 municipal elections--published voter lists and hard-to-falsify voter identification cards.

On August 3, 2005, President Maaouya Ould Taya was deposed in a bloodless coup. Military officers, led by first cousins and tribesmen Colonel Ely Ould Mohamed Vall and Colonel Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, staged a coup while President Taya was attending the funeral of Saudi Arabia's King Fahd. Colonel Vall established the ruling Military Council for Justice and Democracy, a military organ responsible for running the country. The council dissolved the Parliament and appointed a transitional government, which quickly adopted a timetable for the establishment of democratic rule within two years that led to successful parliamentary elections in November 2006, and free and transparent presidential elections in March 2007. A new democratically elected government under President Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi--the first in 29 years--was inaugurated on April 19, 2007.

On August 6, 2008, President Abdallahi was overthrown in a bloodless coup. General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz seized power after President Abdallahi issued a decree dismissing General Aziz and three other senior military officers. The country was officially run for eight months by a 12-member High State Council (HSC) composed entirely of military officers. For the first time in the history of Mauritania, the coup encountered considerable opposition both nationally and internationally. On April 15, 2009, Aziz resigned from the government and the army and announced his presidential candidacy for elections on June 6, 2009, which were boycotted by main opposition leaders and ultimately rescheduled. A Government of National Unity was instituted on June 27, 2009, followed by President Abdallahi's voluntary resignation in compliance with the Dakar Accord negotiated under the aegis of Senegalese President Wade, the African Union, and an International Contact Group and signed on June 4. Aziz scored a first-round victory in elections organized on July 18. The results of those elections were recognized by the international community, and President Aziz was inaugurated on August 5, 2009.

Following the 2008 coup, the opposition organized under the Front National Pour la Defense de la Democratie (FNDD), an umbrella organization of anti-coup parties, and opposition leader Ahmed Ould Daddah's Rassemblement des Forces Democratiques (RFD). These groups joined forces to organize coup protests and to boycott unilateral elections organized by the junta for June 6, 2009. General Aziz governed the country at the head of the HSC until April 2009, when he resigned both from the government and the military to run for president in the controversial planned June 6 elections. Senate President Ba Mamadou M'Bare, an Afro-Mauritanian, was appointed interim President, and the HSC was relegated to a national security role. Mauritania's 10-month-long political stalemate ended with the June 4 signing of the Dakar Accord, which was brokered by Senegalese President Wade, the African Union, and the international community and signed by the three parties to the crisis--the Aziz camp, the FNDD, and the RFD. The accord called for President Abdallahi's return to form a consensual Transitional Government of National Unity and sign his resignation, which would open the way to constitutionality. The new government would organize elections on July 18 under the supervision of the international community.

After delays implementing the accord, which stemmed from disagreements about the future of the HSC, Abdallahi returned to form a Transitional Government of National Unity and resigned on June 27, 2009. In this interim government, the pro-coup camp, also known as "the majority," appointed the Prime Minister and 50% of the government, while the opposition controlled the remaining half, including the Ministry of Interior and Communications. The opposition also controlled two-thirds of the National Independent Electoral Commission. Presidential elections took place on July 18, with General Aziz scoring a first-round victory with over 53% of the popular vote. Three presidential candidates contested the result but the Government of National Unity, international observers, and the international community declared the elections free and fair.

Mauritania's government bureaucracy is composed of ministries, special agencies, and parastatal companies. The Ministry of Interior controls a system of regional governors and prefects modeled on the French system of local administration. Under this system, Mauritania is divided into 13 regions (wilaya), including the capital district, Nouakchott. Control is tightly concentrated in the executive branch of the central government, but a series of national and municipal elections since 1992 have produced some decentralization, and efforts to decentralize the government continue.

Politics in Mauritania have always been heavily influenced by the military and by "strong men" or personalities. A leader's ability to exercise political power depends upon control over resources; financial means; perceived strength; and tribal, ethnic, and family considerations. Conflict among White Moor, Black Moor, and Black African Mauritanian groups, centering on unequal access to power, language, government, education, and land tenure, continues to be a major challenge to national unity. Slavery, and the repatriation and compensation of victims from the 1989-90 purges of Afro-Mauritanians known as the "passif humanitaire," are still socio-political issues awaiting resolution, but Mauritania took several important steps toward reconciliation in 2009. On March 25, 2009, the HSC signed a framework agreement to compensate 244 widows of Afro-Mauritanian military personnel killed during the 1989-91 expulsions of Afro-Mauritanians and held a memorial for the victims on the same day. The agreement and memorial represented the authorities' first public acknowledgement of the government's role in the ethnic killings and expulsions of 1989-91. During 2009 President Aziz' government also conducted a census of former teachers among returnees in order to reinstate them in their former positions with the Ministry of Education.

Principal Government Officials
President--Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz
Prime Minister--Moulaye Ould Mohamed Laghdaf
Minister of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation--Naha Mint Mouknass
Minister of Economy and Development--Sidi Ould Tah
Minister of Finance--Ousmane Kane
Ambassador to the United Nations--Abdelrahim Ould Elhadrami
Ambassador to the United States--vacant

Mauritania maintains an embassy in the United States at 2129 Leroy Place NW, Washington, DC 20008 (tel. 202-232-5700, fax 202-232-5701) and a Permanent Mission to the United Nations at 211 East 43rd Street, Suite 2000, New York, NY 10017 (tel. 212-986-7963, fax 212-986-8419).

Before Mauritania's August 2005 coup, U.S.-Mauritania relations had been excellent, but had undergone several transformations since the country gained independence. From 1960 to 1967, the United States maintained cordial relations with Mauritania and provided a small amount of economic assistance. During the June 1967 Middle East war, Mauritania broke diplomatic and consular relations with the United States but restored ties 2 years later and maintained relatively friendly relations until the late 1980s, despite disagreement over the Arab-Israeli issue.

The 1989 rupture between Mauritania and Senegal (the "1989 Events"), which resulted in Mauritania's deportation of Senegalese citizens and also the purge of tens of thousands of Afro-Mauritanians from the military and government and their expulsion to Senegal and Mali, negatively affected U.S.-Mauritanian relations. (The Mauritanian Government, assisted by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), began repatriating Mauritanians displaced to Senegal and Mali in early 2008. The repatriation of returnees from Senegal ended in December 2009.) Moreover, Mauritania's perceived support of Iraq prior to and during the 1991 Gulf war further weakened strained ties.

Relations between the U.S. and Mauritania reached a low in the spring of 1991, as details of the Mauritanian military's role in widespread human rights abuses surfaced. The U.S. responded by formally halting U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) operations and all military assistance to Mauritania. Relations also suffered in the 1990s as a result of repeated reports that slavery continued in some parts of Mauritania despite legal proscriptions.

By the late 1990s, the Mauritanian Government: adopted policies facilitating the return of those expelled or who fled during the 1989 Events; turned away from Iraq and toward the West; and initiated a poverty reduction strategy while securing debt relief under the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative. Improved relations with the United States, including the return of military cooperation and training programs, accompanied these changes.

The United States condemned the 2005 coup and the unconstitutional assumption of power by the Military Council for Justice and Democracy, and called for a return to a constitutional government through free and fair elections as soon as possible. The U.S. Government supported Mauritania's transition to democracy, providing election-related assistance for voter education, political party training, and democracy building. Following the successful series of 2006-2007 parliamentary and presidential elections, the U.S. mobilized considerable amounts of development assistance.

The United States strongly condemned the 2008 military coup that overthrew President Abdallahi, the legitimate and democratically elected president. U.S.-Mauritania relations were strained due to the U.S.'s principled position in defense of democracy; its rejection and active denunciation of the coup; the suspension of all development and cooperation programs; its call for international sanctions; and the imposition of travel restrictions on the junta and its supporters. The Dakar Accord signed on June 4, 2009 was a significant diplomatic achievement, as it succeeded in bringing radically opposed positions closer together in the best interest of Mauritania. President Abdallahi’s return to sign the Government of National Unity decree and his own voluntary resignation, two conditions crucial to the U.S. for a return to constitutionality, helped pave the way for diplomatic rapprochement.

The United States, along with the Government of National Unity and the international community, accepted the July 18, 2009 election of former General Aziz as reflecting the general will of the Mauritanian people. Following the international certification of the 2009 election, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) re-launched their development programs in Mauritania, which had been suspended following the coup. The U.S. congratulated President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz on his victory and called on all Mauritanian political leaders to continue to work together constructively and respectfully in the interest of their people.

Since then, the United States has worked energetically with the Mauritanian Government on a wide array of issues, including counterterrorism cooperation, food security, trade promotion, and efforts to strengthen human rights and the rule of law.

Principal U.S. Officials
Ambassador--Mark M. Boulware
Deputy Chief of Mission--Dennis Hankins
Regional Security Officer--Robert Castro
Political Officer--Nitza Sola-Rotger
Acting Public Affairs Officer--Nitza Sola-Rotger
Management Officer--Susan N'Garnim
Economic Officer--Stephen Kochuba
Peace Corps Country Director--David Solomon

The address of the U.S. Embassy in Mauritania is Rue Abdallaye, BP 222, Nouakchott, Islamic Republic of Mauritania. Tel. (222) 525-2660/525-2663; fax (222) 525-1592.

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