Freedom in the World
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Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Mauritania’s political rights rating improved from 6 to 5 due to changes to the electoral framework, including the creation of an independent electoral commission, as well as increased political pluralism and government transparency.
Since taking power in an August 2005 coup, the Military Council for Justice and Democracy (MCJD) has continued to make progress toward returning the country to elected civilian rule. Mauritanian voters overwhelming passed a constitutional referendum in June 2006 that will limit future presidential terms. Election observers acknowledged the positive role played by Mauritania’s independent electoral commission to ensure the credibility of legislative and municipal elections held in November and December 2007. Mauritania began producing oil in 2006, and the transitional government took steps toward ensuring that oil revenues are managed transparently.
Mauritania became an independent country in 1960 after nearly six decades of French colonial rule. A 1978 military coup ended President Moktaar Ould Daddah’s one-party state and was followed in 1984 by another coup, in which Colonel Maaouya Ahmed Taya ousted President Mohamed Khouna Ould Haidallah. Taya introduced a multiparty system in the early 1990s, but the absence of an independent election commission, harassment of independent print media, and the use of state resources to promote his candidacy devalued his presidential victories in 1992 and 1997. The main opposition parties boycotted legislative elections in 1992 and 1996.
More than a dozen political parties participated in the 2001 municipal and National Assembly elections. The ruling Democratic and Social Republican Party (PRDS) was the only party to present candidates in every constituency for the National Assembly’s 81 seats, and the electoral law was modified to ban independent candidates. The PRDS won 64 assembly seats, while opposition parties won 17.
In June 2003, a failed coup attempt triggered two days of fighting in the capital. Escaped leaders of the uprising later announced the formation in exile of an armed rebellion.
Though a number of electoral reforms were implemented in advance of the November 2003 presidential election, numerous irregularities characterized the electoral period. Media coverage favored Taya, even though the six candidates—including the country’s first female candidate and the first candidate descended from slaves—were each allocated equal time on state-run broadcast media. Civil society groups were barred from monitoring the polls, and most foreign observers declined to participate after the main challenger, former president Haidallah, was briefly detained on the eve of the election. Taya was declared the winner with 67 percent of the vote.
In September 2004, the government accused Burkina Faso and Libya of backing disgruntled soldiers in another foiled coup attempt. Three opposition leaders, including Haidallah, were detained in November. Accused of plotting a coup, they were put on trial with approximately 170 military personnel in late 2004. Although most, including Haidallah, were acquitted in February 2005, four soldiers received life sentences. One of the defense lawyers dismissed the case as a political farce and accused the government of torturing the defendants.
On August 3, 2005, military officers led by Colonel Ely Ould Mohamed Vall overthrew Taya’s government. Although the action was initially condemned by the international community, public support for the coup was strong within the country. Soon after taking power, the Military Council for Justice and Democracy (MCJD) issued a sweeping amnesty for those charged with political crimes. Approximately 100 political prisoners, including a number of Islamists, were issued pardons and released from prison, while dozens of political activists returned from exile. In October 2005, the MCJD published a series of reports intended to lead the country to elections within a two-year period, and created an independent electoral commission to administer the process. The MCJD also convened a five-day public debate with representatives from political parties and civil society to discuss the path set forward in the reports. In preparation for the presidential election in 2007, voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment to limit presidential terms in a referendum held in June 2006.
Legislative and municipal elections were held in November and December 2007. International and domestic election observers judged them generally free and fair, despite technical and administrative problems. Because of a ban on Islamist parties, a number of Islamist candidates ran as independents, many of them successfully. A coalition led by the Rally of Democratic Forces (RDF), whose leader, Ahmed Ould Daddah, was repeatedly jailed for criticizing the Taya regime, gained 41 of 95 seats in the lower house.
Under Taya, Mauritania had cultivated closer ties with the United States. The MCJD government has continued to work closely with the U.S. government on programs intended to promote security and stem the growth of terrorist organizations across the region.
An incident over land and grazing rights ignited a border dispute between Mauritania and Senegal in 1989 that led to widespread ethnic violence and the exodus of some 65,000 black Africans to Senegal and Mali. About 20,000 refugees remain outside the country. In April 2006, Mauritania and Senegal took steps toward improving relations by signing a protocol on cattle migration.
Mauritania is one of the world’s poorest countries, and more than half of the population depends on subsistence agriculture and livestock production. The rural population suffers the effects of recurrent droughts and locust invasions, and instances of chronic malnutrition have risen in some areas. Mauritania is a source and transit point for economic migrants seeking access to Europe. In 2006, the government signed an agreement with Spain to improve border controls. The European Union resumed aid that year in response to the MCJD’s progress toward returning the country to elected civilian rule, and the International Monetary Fund has acknowledged progress on budget management and transparency.
Mauritania began producing oil in February 2006, though the start-up was delayed as the government renegotiated a production sharing agreement with the oil project operator to obtain more favorable terms than those reached with the Taya government. Mauritania joined the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) in 2005 and has formed a broad-based committee to oversee oil revenues, which could reach as much as $200 million per year.
Mauritania is not an electoral democracy. However, the country is taking steps toward democracy, and the military-led transitional government has promised to complete the shift following presidential elections in 2007. Important steps to foster a more democratic and open political environment included the creation of an independent electoral commission to supervise the 2007 elections. Elections were held in November and December 2007 to fill 3,688 municipal council seats as well as seats in the 95-member lower house of the National Assembly. Approximately 25 parties competed along with a large number of independent candidates. The Coalition for Forces for Democratic Change (CFCD), which includes the RFD, won 41 assembly seats, while a coalition of independent and mainly Islamic candidates won 38. Members of the National Assembly are elected by popular vote every five years. Senators are elected by municipal leaders to serve six-year terms, with a portion coming up for election every two years. Presidential elections are scheduled for March 2007.
There were approximately 21 registered political parties at the time of the coup; since that time, additional parties have registered, though several remain banned. The MCJD has outlawed meetings characterized by religious, regional, or ethnic affiliations.
Under the transitional government, a number of measures have been adopted to reduce corruption, including the creation of an inspector general’s office. The government also raised civil service salaries and lowered taxes in December 2005. Steps have also been taken to develop a transparent framework for the management of Mauritania’s oil revenues. Mauritania was ranked 84 out of 163 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Under Taya, prepublication censorship, arrests of journalists, and seizures and bans of newspapers limited freedom of expression. The transitional government has relaxed censorship rules and allowed the resumption of Radio France International broadcasts, which had been banned since 2000. Journalists continue to practice self-censorship, however, and newspapers may be banned for publishing material seen as undermining Islam or threatening national security. The government does not impede internet access.
Islamic law limits religious freedom, but in practice, non-Muslim communities observe their religions without fear of social ostracism and are not targeted by the government. Muslim extremists are monitored. Academic freedom is not restricted, although security forces have cracked down violently on student demonstrations in the past.
Freedom of association is generally respected by the transitional government. Under Taya, however, public meetings were restricted and infrequent demonstrations were often violently suppressed.
The constitution provides for the right of citizens to unionize and bargain for wages. All workers except members of the military and police are free to join unions. Approximately one-fourth of Mauritania’s workers serve in the small formal (business) sector. The right to strike is limited by arbitration.
Mauritania’s judicial system is heavily influenced by the government. Many decisions are shaped by Islamic law, especially in family and civil matters. Prison conditions in Mauritania are harsh, and security forces suspected of human rights violations operate with impunity.
Mauritania’s citizens are divided into three main groups: the politically dominant, light-skinned Maurs of Arab and Berber extraction; black descendents of slaves, also known as Haratines or black Maurs; and black Africans closer in cultural and linguistic heritage to the peoples of neighboring Senegal and Mali. Slavery has existed in Mauritania for centuries, and despite passage in 2003 of a law prohibiting the practice, several thousand black Mauritanians are believed to still live in conditions of servitude. Racial and ethnic discrimination persists in all spheres of political and economic life, generally to the disadvantage of members of both the Haratine and black African classes. Much of the country’s wealth is concentrated in the hands of the light-skinned Maur elite, who control iron-ore exports and fishing.
However, a quota system established during the transition that required women to comprise at least 20 percent of candidates on political party and independent lists led to the election of 17 representatives to the National Assembly, while women won approximately 30 percent of the municipal council seats. In 2003, a female candidate competed in a presidential election for the first time, and afterward the first Haratine female was appointed to the cabinet. Still, discrimination against women persists. Under Sharia (Islamic law), a woman’s testimony is given only half the weight of a man’s. Legal protections regarding property and equality of pay are usually respected only in urban areas among the educated elite. At least one-quarter of girls undergo genital mutilation; the government has produced intensive media and education campaigns against this practice. Abortion is prohibited.