| Democratic Process
This section has been updated
by Mr Boubacar Issa Abdourhamane,
a doctorate student at the CEAN, IEP Montesquieu University of Bordeaux
The democratic process in
Mauritania has taken place under the control of the government of Colonel Maaouya SidAhmed
Ould Taya. It was in April 1991 that, to general surprise, he announced a forthcoming
constitutional referendum followed by general elections. The opposition and the
non-authorised trades unions, who had been demanding that a national conference should be
held, were caught unawares. Despite the fact that they rejected the timetable proposed by
the President, the new Constitution, written up by a commission placed under the aegis of
the Military Committee for National Salvation (Comité Militaire de Salut National),
was adopted by referendum on 12 July 1991. On 25 July, political parties were authorised
and, at the end of the month, a general amnesty of all crimes against the security of the
State was decreed. This represented one more step along the road towards democracy, coming
as it did after the pluralist municipal elections that had been held in 1990.
With the government retaining control over the agenda, the transition to democracy did not lead to political upheaval. On 17 January 1992, the first pluralist elections were held. President Ould Taya won in the first round with a score of 62.65%, although the opposition claimed there had been large-scale fraud and refused to recognise the results. As a result, the main opposition parties boycotted the two rounds of the general elections (6 and 13 March 1992). The Democratic and Social Republican Party (Parti Républicain Démocratique et Social - PRDS) of President Taya won 67 of the 79 seats. Ten seats went to independents and the two remaining seats to two small parties. The same thing happened in the elections to the Senate held on 3 and 10 April. They were won by the PRDS with 36 seats out of 56, while 17 seats went to independents.
The weakness of the Mauritanian opposition seems to get worse with time and those in power have no difficulty dominating the political stage. In October 1996 (11 and 18), the elections were held to close the legislature. The opposition was decimated, winning just one seat, while the PRDS won 71 seats and independents seven. The opposition grouped itself together in February 1997 to form the Front Uni des Partis dOpposition (United Front of Opposition Parties) to prepare for the presidential election of December 1997. The Front demanded, among other things, the creation of an independent electoral commission, a new electoral code and new electoral rolls. However, the Front split in June 1997. In the absence of any serious adversaries, with the opposition deciding to boycott the election due to the fact that the guarantees of transparency had not been given, President Taya had no difficulty winning with 90.15% of the votes in the first round.
The Mauritanian opposition appears to be even weaker and its chances of winning elections seem slimmer than ever while the government does not seem to have rid itself of its single-party system approach. The climate is one of political opposition against a backdrop of community problems. The Front de Libération Africaine de Mauritanie has carried out armed attacks to protest against the marginal situation of black Mauritanians. The institutionalisation of democracy still has a lot of progress to make, as does the notion of cohabitation within the State.
The Mauritanian constitution
establishes the preponderance of the executive which, although bicephal, is dominated by
the President of the Republic, elected for a term of office of 6 years that can be renewed
indefinitely. He must be a Muslim. He appoints the Prime Minister and the ministers, holds
regulatory power, promulgates laws, signs and ratifies treaties and can turn to the people
to hold a referendum (Art. 38) and pronounce the dissolution of the National Assembly. The
Prime Minister defines government policy, but remains under the authority, or even control
of the Head of State.
The Parliament is composed of the National Assembly (79 seats) and the Senate (56 seats) and holds legislative power. The members of the Assembly are elected for 5 years by direct suffrage and the Senators for 6 years by indirect suffrage. The Constitution defines the terms of government responsibility in front of the National Assembly which can vote a no-confidence motion (Article 74). The initiative in matters of law belongs to the government and Assembly. The parliament can vote a law to authorise the government to take measures that are normally subject to law. In case of the post becoming vacant, it is the Speaker of the Senate who provisionally replaces the President of the Republic.
The Constitutional Council ensures that the laws voted comply with the Constitution and judges whether the elections have been fair. The council has six members with a single term of office of nine years. The members of the Council are appointed by the President of the Republic (3 members, including the President of the Council), the Speaker of the National Assembly (2 members) and the President of the Senate (1 member). The members of the Council may not belong to any government body or political party. The decisions of the Council are not subject to appeal.
As well as this, Mauritania has two institutions that play a consultative role: the High Islamic Council, composed of 5 members designated by the Head of State, and the Economic and Social Council.
On the occasion of the celebration of the 40th anniversary of national independence, President Ould Taya announced that the organic laws relating to the elections of members of the Assembly and the Senate were to be revised to introduce an element of proportional representation.
The constitution guarantees the independence of the legal system and, according to the terms of Article 90, the judge obeys only the law. Judicial power is in the hands of the Courts of First Instance in Nouakchott, Atar, Aioun, El Atrouss and Kiffa. Islamic jurisprudence was adopted in 1980. In contrast, Mauritania has not created new legislation, on questions such as personal status for example, but operates a western system on the basis of exclusively Muslim law. The new Constitution proclaims that Islam is the only source of law and establishes consultative institutions such as the five-member High Islamic Council.
Decentralisation and Devolution
The administrative organisation of Mauritania subdivides the territory into twelve regions and one district, but the breakdown of competence between the various levels of the administration is not clear. In fact, there are cases in which the law on decentralisation grants responsibilities to the communes without having taken those responsibilities away from the central administration. The region is both an administrative sub-division of the State and a local authority. In alphabetical order, the twelve regions are: the district of Nouakchott, the regions of Adrar, Assaba, Brâkna, Dakhlet Nouadhibou, Gorgol, Guidimaka, Hodh Ech Chargui, Hodh el Charbi, Inchiri, Tagânt, Tiris Zemmour and, finally, Trârza. As well as this, since 1986, the decentralisation project has resulted in the creation of 208 communes. Municipal elections have been held regularly since the first multi-party elections in 1990. The municipal councils, dominated by the PRDS, were renewed in 1994 and in January-February 1999.
The new Constitution
guarantees that political parties and groups play a role in the formation and
expression of the political will. Islamic parties are banned, although the law
requires that political formations must respect Islam.
Among the largest parties, there are the Democratic and Social Republican Party (Parti Républicain Démocratique et Social PRDS) of President Ould Taya which overwhelmingly dominates the political scene with 71 of the 79 seats in the National Assembly. The Presidential movement also includes the Rally for Democracy and National Unity (Rassemblement pour la Démocratie et lUnité Nationale RDU) led by Ahmed Ould Sidi Baba and the Union for Democracy and Progress (Union pour la Démocratie et le Progrès UDP) which supported the candidacy of President Taya in 1996.
The opposition is represented by the Union of Democratic Forces (Union des Forces Démocratiques UFD), a coalition of various parties led by Ahmed Ould Daddah, the half brother of Mocktar Ould Daddah, the first President of Mauritania. The UFD-New Era was dissolved in October 2000 by the government for inciting violence and hatred. The Mauritanian Supreme Court, the highest legal authority in the land, has since upheld this dissolution.
However, one wing of the UFD refused to recognise the legitimacy of the PRDS and created a new party in 1993, the Union for Democracy and Progress (Union pour la Démocratie et le Progrés UDP) led by Hamdi Ould Mouknassa. The opposition was thus weakened, since the Movement for Democracy and Independence (MDI) and El Hor (representing the Harratin Arabs) left the UFD in July 1994. The UFD is now known as the UFD-New Era and is essentially made up of the hard core of the National Democratic Movement (Mouvement National Démocratique MND). Messaoud Ould Boukheir is now the leader of Action for Change (Action pour le Changement AC). Except for the seven independents, only one AC member represents the opposition in the National Assembly.
The Unions were all grouped
together in 1961 to form the Union of Mauritanian Workers (Union des Travailleurs
Mauritaniens UTM) with a total of 45,000 members. Although there was a time
when this organisation had a certain amount of room for manoeuvre in relation to the
government, it has since come closer into line. With the opening up of the political
system and the constitutional recognition of union freedom, the number of unions has
increased. There are now also other union confederations: the General Confederation of the
Workers of Mauritania (Confédération Générale des Travailleurs de Mauritanie
CGTM) and the Free Confederation of Workers of Mauritania (Confédération
Libre des Travailleurs de Mauritanie CLTM) which is close to the opposition.
Many sector-based unions exist, including the Union of Secondary Education (Syndicat des Travailleurs de lEnseignement Secondaire - SIPES) or the National Dockers Union (Syndicat National des Dockers - SND).
Despite various international
commitments and the fact that it has ratified the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
(1948) and the African Charter of Human Rights of 1981, Mauritania is still pilloried by
organisations that defend human rights and notably by Bouh Camara, the President of the
Mauritanian Association of Human Rights (AMDH), by Boubacar Ould Messoud, the President of
SOS Slavery, and by the International Federation of Human Rights which has denounced
clear steps backwards in terms of fundamental liberties.
Although officially abolished, slavery unfortunately remains widespread, due to the lack of supervision by the authorities when it comes to applying the law. On top of this, many political prisoners die mysteriously each year and the Black African population still suffers from discrimination and violence in the wake of the events of April 1989. Human Rights Watch/Africa, an American organisation, has accused the government of organising terror campaigns against the black population. Amnesty International also accuses the country each year of flagrant violations of human rights. These violations have led to the indictment of a Mauritanian officer by a French judge who declared himself competent on the basis of the UN Convention against Torture, consecutive to complaints by victims of the repression of 1989 who identified this officer as one of those responsible for torturing them.
As well as this, the right to demonstrate and the right of association are very much limited: during the hunger riots of 1995, exploited by an opposition that was otherwise impotent in political matters, the authorities responded by a curfew and by arresting leaders of the UFD and UDP. Several opposition leaders (Action for Change and the Popular Progress Alliance) were arrested in January 1997 for suspicious relations with Libya. In March 1998, 5 militants of the Mauritanian Association of Human Rights (AMDH) who had denounced slavery were sentenced to 13 months in prison before being pardoned by the Head of State. In 1999, the leader of the Union of Democratic Forces (UFD) and other opposition figures were arrested and then released again without charge. In October 2000, it was the party itself that was dissolved. Harassment of opposition members has become routine practice in Mauritania.
The Constitution of 12 July
1991 recognises the freedom of expression of the citizen and an order relating to the
press was promulgated by the Military Committee of National Salvation on 25 July 1991 in
the wake of the liberalisation measures. The National Association for the Independent
Press has demanded a new examination of press legislation that it still considers
repressive, but in vain.
There are about sixty publications in Arabic or in French. We will mention, among others, Mauritanie Nouvelles, Le Calame, and La Vérité for the independent press, to which can be added two satirical papers, La Tortue and LIndépendant. Al Joumhouriya, Al Moustaqbal, Chaab and Horizons have direct links with the party in power, the PRDS, via the Ministry of Communication.
Press freedom is subject to many restrictions that can quickly become obstacles to the profession: not only are journalists required to respect the principles of Islam and national cultural values but the creation of a paper also requires the approval of the Interior Ministry. On top of this, there is no real national distribution network and the market is very limited. The press is therefore in no position to challenge the power of the authorities, all the less so in that the independent papers are often subject to censorship by the Interior Ministry through confiscations and temporary bans. Reporters Sans Frontières noted in a report that since 1 January 2000, nine papers have been seized in Mauritania.
Finally, the airwaves are still monopolised by public stations: radio and television are not yet subject to competition from independent channels.