In Mauritania, Democracy Takes Root

by Rukmini Callimachi, Associated Press Writer, March 9, 2007


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 Sunday.

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 rule.

"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 prevent dictatorships.

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 first steps."

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 step down.

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 next week.

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 21 years.

"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."

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