In Mauritania, Democracy Takes
by Rukmini Callimachi, Associated
Blue-robed nomads, village elders, lawyers
and civil servants stream into Mauritania's presidential palace,
urging the bespectacled man who seized control of this desert
nation in a coup to stay in power. But Col. Ely Ould Mohamed Vall
calls the cream-colored palace generations of dictators have refused
to leave his "prison" -- and pledges to turn it over
as promised to a democratically elected president after an election
Coups are typically seen as the enemies
of democracy, but it was just such a military takeover that brought
the seeds of freedom to this nation on the edge of the Sahara.
Vall is packing his bags after two years in power, but many here
fear whoever replaces him could plunge the country back into autocratic
"As long as Mauritanians keep on
thinking of the president as someone who is indispensable, they
will continue to make a monumental error of judgment," said
the bookish, soft-spoken man who has the manner of a shy college
professor rather than a shrewd military commander. "It's
that kind of thinking that leads to dictatorship."
On Aug. 3, 2005, Vall led a coup against
long-ruling Maaoya Sid'Ahmed Ould Taya, who was attending the
funeral of Saudi Arabia's King Fahd at the time. Hours later,
Vall issued a statement assuring his countrymen, "We are
here to bring democracy." Taya fled into exile.
For the tired masses of this country enveloped
in sand dunes, it seemed another promise as empty as the vast
desert they inhabit. Before Vall took over, Mauritania had had
nine coups or attempted coups since gaining independence from
France in 1960; nearly all brought repression.
But Vall's coup was different. He promised
to free the press, restore basic rights and hold elections within
two years in which neither he nor anyone belonging to the 17-member
junta would be allowed to run.
Nineteen months later, a record 1.1 million
out of a population of 3.2 million are registered to vote for
one of 19 candidates in what is widely seen as Mauritanians' first
chance to freely elect their president.
The press is no longer muzzled, the judiciary
appears to be independent and a new referendum-approved constitution
has enshrined basic liberties, as well as term limits meant to
So changed is Mauritania under Vall that
many say they wish he had not vowed to step down. Hence the delegations
trying to persuade him to stay.
But staying in power would serve nothing,
said Vall on one of his last days in the spacious presidential
palace office, decorated with bouquets of plastic orange roses.
"The problem for Mauritanians is
that for the first time in their lives, they don't know what the
outcome of the election will be. ... Psychologically it's very
hard. It terrifies them," said Vall, who before the coup
headed the national police.
"But it's a fear that must be overcome,
like a child who must stop clinging to his parents to take his
Taya, who gained power in a 1984 coup,
often jailed opposition candidates, snuffing out their campaigns
before they gained momentum. On election day, Taya routinely received
more ballots than the number of registered voters in some precincts.
Tents have now sprouted throughout the
capital, and underneath their flaps, political rallies unfold
nightly to the beat of drums. Voters have scotch-taped posters
of candidates to car windshields. Others drive holding portraits
of their candidate through the sunroof, pumping them up and down
to the rhythm of blasting car radios.
"For the first time, in each house,
there are different political opinions. In my family, I'm for
one candidate, but my mother backs another, my brother another,
my father another. Before, we had just one opinion," said
17-year-old Lamina Mint Ameine. "The military gave us democracy
perfectly. I just hope that those that come will continue."
Some fear the future, said Mohamed Fall
Ould Ouimer, editor-in-chief of La Tribune, an independent newspaper
frequently censored during Taya's regime.
"This is a nation of nomads and nomads
hate uncertainty. They want to know that when they take off on
road X, they'll reach oasis Y after kilometer Z. Now they don't
know what's going to happen, so they feel panicked. They want
to grasp onto what they know," said Ouimer, who was jailed
for writing editorials critical of the former ruler.
Although the changes of the past two years
have marked "huge progress" there is still a long way
to go, said Ahmed Ould Daddah, who twice ran against Taya in elections
considered rigged and who is one of the 19 candidates.
The 64-year-old former World Bank economist
was jailed seven times and his rallies have garnered large crowds,
with supporters saying they trust him not to return the country
to its totalitarian past because he himself was a victim of repression.
Though newspapers are no longer censored,
Daddah points out that the country still lacks a private TV or
radio station. And he worries that some candidates have inexplicably
large campaign budgets, a sign he says, of the hand of Taya.
"Now we just hope those that have
ruled the country in the past will let the people have their say.
The people are not afraid of the unknown. They're afraid of going
back to the totalitarian ways of the past," he said.
One thing no one doubts is that Vall will
Not far from the presidential palace,
workers in the dying light apply plaster to the walls of the home
where Vall lived before the coup, and where he plans to return
Under plastic sheets in a back room are
Vall's belongings -- furniture, books, his children's toys, none
of which he brought to the palace his predecessor occupied for
"I always knew I wouldn't stay long,"
Vall said, sitting on the cream-colored couch where the dictator
once held court. "And because I knew I wouldn't stay long,
I didn't bring much. There will be no need for packing boxes."