The Magazine

The Mauritanian Candidate

Muslim, pro-American, and running for reelection.

Nov 3, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 08 • By ROGER KAPLAN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Ironically, the human rights activists' alarums about Mauritania's "slavery problem" all have to do with the haratine, whose situation is evolving neither more nor less haltingly than African Americans' position did in the post-civil rights period. The activists tend to ignore the persistent and unchanging functional slavery found in the Senegal river valley.

Against this backdrop, President Taya wants to go down as the Moor who took Mauritania into modernity. While a majority of its people still live on a dollar a day, Mauritania's economy has grown steadily under Taya, the drought notwithstanding. And oil is arriving soon, according to the Australian prospectors who have found substantial offshore deposits. If it does, the issue of managing sudden riches could become more critical than that of managing persistent poverty. "We've put in place one of the most investment-friendly regimes in this part of the world," a businessman tells me. "And if Taya stays on course, we are arguably the most favorable port of entry to the whole region."

Skeptical observers respond that the government does not understand the meaning of opportunity, and that wealth remains concentrated in a small circle. Yet the haratine prime minister, a longstanding Taya opponent named Sghair Ould M'Barek, who only this year decided to try joining 'em instead of fighting 'em, insists that poverty-eradication is possible and depends on economic growth rather than redistribution. This too is a rather original approach in an oil-producing country in the Third World.

"Taya is a modernizer," says Moussa Ould Hamed, editor of Le Calame, a local French-language weekly. "He is also out on a limb, in the sense that he wants to integrate the haratine and he is adamant on his foreign policy, like a convert." The reference is to the fact that until the early 1990s, Taya was an Arab-nation man, entertaining good relations with Saddam Hussein. "In a sense, he has no choice but to go forward. The question is how he can manage this, and how much change our society can tolerate."

Many in Mauritania agree on the desirability of change, but what they mean by it varies. Policies, like ideas, have consequences, and signing on for the anti-terror war has brought not only U.S. military assistance but also training and upgrading opportunities that young officers may appreciate. (The would-be putschists were trained in Saudi Arabia and spoke no English.) A high-level Western diplomat says U.S. military assistance cannot go unnoticed in a country where everybody knows everybody. "They will soon see there are benefits," this source says. "But so will the United States benefit from being here: Keep in mind that if you are not watching, before you know it the bad guys can buy a place like this--that's what they did in Afghanistan."

Every candidate against him in the November election has stated that reversing Taya's pro-West foreign policy is the first order of business. Prominent among the eight registered candidates are Mohamed Khouna Ould Haidalla, a bedayin hard-liner distrustful of Taya's reforms, and Messaoud Ould Boulkheir, who is demanding the functional equivalent of affirmative action for the haratines. Also noteworthy is the presence of a woman candidate, Aïcha Mint Jeddane. Women's emergence in recent years as more active players in politics and business may be due to the Taya regime's encouragement, or it may be a result of the inevitable flow of things.

At present, pundits are predicting a victory for Ould Taya. If the election is demonstrably free and fair, and Taya, win or lose, abides by its results, his record as a modernizer will be secure. Now or in the near future, a peaceful transfer of power from a longtime incumbent to an elected successor will vindicate Ould Taya's model of regime change by gradual reform and set a welcome example for Muslim Africa.

Roger Kaplan is a writer in New York.