WHILE ATTENTION WAS focused on the other side of the earth, a band of soldiers in Mauritania led by General Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz overthrew the government of Sidi Ould Cheik Abdallahi in a bloodless coup during the first week of August. The president, his family, and entourage are detained and unharmed, despite calls for their release by the African Union, the United States, and the governments of the continent's major powers, Nigeria and South Africa.
There have been peaceful demonstrations in support of both sides of a political drama that superficially appears to be a fight for power among leaders of the country's Moorish tribes who have run Mauritania since it gained independence from France in 1960. Apart from the brief detention of a photojournalist during one of these demonstrations, there has been no particular effort by the soldiers to suppress information on the events, even if General Ould Abdelaziz and his comrades-in-arms are characteristically quiet regarding motives and intentions. However, they have stated they will do what they did when they overthrew the government of Maaouiya Ould Taya in 2005 in a similarly bloodless coup. They ruled themselves ineligible to run in promised elections, which took place in early 2007. They retained key security posts, from which the deposed president reportedly tried to remove them last June.
The head of the new High Council of State, Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz, is from the northern region of Mauritania, which faces Western Sahara (disputed between Morocco and an autonomist movement, the Polisario Front) to the northeast and Algeria and Mali to the northwest. This vast region's stability, dubious in ordinary times, alarms security agencies watching the continued activities of al Qaeda-affiliated groups.
There are sectional rivalries as between the north and the west and south, and these both overlap and contradict issues of discrimination and wealth that grow out of Mauritania's traditional power relationships, but there is no evidence yet that these figured in the recent political turmoil. Spokesmen for the High Council of State insist the coup was provoked by corruption and a drift toward authoritarianism (flouting the parliament's constitutional prerogatives). The president's firing of General Ould Abdelaziz and other senior army and police officers in June did not endear him to them.
Sidi Ould Cheik Abdallahi is, moreover, held responsible for allowing the security situation to deteriorate, most egregiously by releasing from detention Islamic radicals. According to spokesmen for the coup leaders, the deposed president released from incarceration last year known radicals connected to the bin Laden subsidiary, AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb), suspected of involvement in the murder of French tourists in December 2007 and the attack on the embassy of Israel last February. There have been attacks on military outposts resulting in the deaths of Mauritanian soldiers. Attacks by AQIM in Algeria, and counterattacks by that country's security forces resulted in at least a dozen deaths, according to official Algerian reports.
American Rangers serve in joint missions with the Mauritanian army, one facet of the cooperation that, since the late 1990s and in particular since 2001, aims to help the countries of the vast Sahara-Sahel region--for practical purposes, the third of Africa stretching from Sudan to Senegal-resist precisely the kind of subversion that Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz is reported to believe the deposed president was not taking seriously enough. Islamist, or jihadist, activities are not only, perhaps not even mainly, focused on military and terrorist actions, but security on the ground is needed in order to address the economic and cultural challenges that, according to some Mauritania-watchers, give the radicals their opportunities for mischief.
Mauritania's economy is fragile. The country has some oil, mainly offshore, and some iron ore, and it manages these natural resources, by comparison with its neighbors in the Gulf of Guinea, efficiently. Thus far the managers of Mauritania's oil sector (the industry is only a few years old) have preferred market principles over the arbitrary allocation by the state of exploration and drilling rights and revenue distribution which characterizes the industry elsewhere in the region.
However, Mauritania's livestock industry, once a mainstay of the economy, has been devastated by the great Sahel drought of the past decades. The proximity of Mauritania's coastline to the Canary Islands (administratively in Europe) tempts would-be immigrants from across West Africa, some of whom drown on the way to the promised land of the EU and many of whom settle in Mauritania, adding to a strain this sparsely populated country is not equipped to carry.
Mauritania's fisheries on the Atlantic coast (between Morocco and Senegal), though abundant, are beset by trawlers from Japan and Europe, commercial pirates in all but name. Western nations' calls for democratic governance and the rule of law do not include offers to help create a coast guard and navy one of whose priorities would be to put an end to the lawless fleets that supply ocean delicacies to Parisian brasseries and Tokyo sushi bars. Instead, the United States, France, and other powers were quick to back the African Union in demanding the return to office of President Ould Cheik Abdallahi, suspending "non-humanitarian" aid in the process.
The African Union in recent years intervened in Togo and the Comoros to reverse coups against governments sanctioned by democratic legitimacy, and U.S. diplomacy cannot easily go against the AU principle of opposing the eviction of elected governments by force. The coup against Maaouiya Ould Taya in 2005 was met with the same chorus of disapproval, but the calm haste with which the colonels (as General Ould Abdelaziz and his fellow-officers then were) insisted on return to civilian governance reassured observers that this nation, located at one of the geographic and cultural crossroads of the continent, might know a bit more about finding its way than its would-be mentors.
Roger Kaplan is a frequent contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.