Without the aid of its foreign friends, the regime of President Maaouiya Ould Taya in Mauritania would have ended on June 8, 2003. The attempted coup on that day left 15 reported dead and 68 injured. Taya, well-regarded in the West but perceived as a brutal dictator by most Mauritanians, fled his palace with his wife and four children and obtained refuge—reports conflict—in either the Spanish, French or US embassy. Most accounts of these events, by ignoring the local politics that drove the coup attempt, have facilitated an interpretation that serves Taya and even makes the rebellion’s defeat seem like a victory in the US-led “war on terrorism.”

Hinted Nexus

Absent concrete evidence of the immediate motivations of the coup leaders, widespread press reports have linked the insurgents, who were members of the Mauritanian Baath Party and had vocally protested Taya’s support for regime change in Iraq, to the recent suppression of Islamists in the country. Working under US guidance, Taya has indeed vigorously pursued advocates of Islamic purity, ordering the arrests of prayer leaders, Islamic judges and scholars, and teachers. But the regime has targeted other political opponents as well. Nine members of the banned Baathist opposition party, Nouhoud, were arrested and given prison sentences at the end of May. On June 1, the Arabic weekly newspaper, al-Raya, was banned on charges of sowing subversion and intolerance.

What political interest links the Islamists with the Baathists? Two can be identified: hostility toward Israel and anger at Taya, in part because of his ties to the US and to Israel. In 1999, Mauritania established diplomatic relations with Israel, one of three members of the Arab League to do so. Though stopping short of asserting direct ties between the Baathists and Islamists, most reporting on the coup has strongly implied the connection. A June 6 BBC report said that: “While Mauritania is officially an Islamic republic, the authorities have cracked down on suspected Islamists and politicians with links to Saddam Hussein since the beginning of the war in Iraq…The coup came after the arrest of 32 Islamists charged with threatening national security.”

Since there is no inherent link between Mauritania’s Baathists and Islamists, the only means of understanding this implied alliance is that, under the pressure of the US-led war on terrorism, the two groups have sought each other out for mutual support. With no evidence emerging in post-war Iraq to tie al-Qaeda to Saddam Hussein, the case of Mauritania can be trumpeted as proof, albeit far afield, of the hinted nexus between Baathists, radical Islamists and terrorism. On July 16, Taya himself publicly accused “those who preach in mosques” of fomenting the putsch.

Pecuniary Motives

A more mundane, yet more compelling explanation of the attempted coup demands detailed knowledge of power struggles within Ould Taya’s autocratic state. From this perspective, the attempted coup was a battle between previously intimate rivals for money and the other fruits of corrupt governance. The chief plotters were Ould Hanna, a former regional military commander, and Mohamed Ould Cheikh al-Kouti, former head of the armored division, who was forced from his post less than two months before the failed revolt. Like their fellow conspirators Ahmed Salem Kabech, also of the armored division, and Mohamed Ould Abdahman, from the Mauritanian air force, these men hailed from the region of Ayoun-Nema, in the east of the country. The first two men come from the tribe of Oulad Nasser, while Abdahman belongs to the Togounout tribe. These are warrior tribes. Historically, they pledged loyalty to Smassides d’Atar, the fiefdom of the president.

According to the June 12 edition of La Lettre du Continent, a France-based newsletter covering African intelligence, early in 2003 Ould Hanna had a personal conversation with Taya in which he explained his tribe’s discontent at their exclusion from the circuits of economic and financial power. Access to these domains is controlled by men close to Taya, including Mohamed Bouamatou, head of the General Confederation of Mauritanian Employers, Mohamed Abdallahi Ould Abdallahi, who oversees water and electricity utilities, and Abdellahi Noueigued, chief executive of the National Bank of Mauritania. Excluded from the bounty flowing from the top state sinecures, Ould Hanna and his fellow conspirators turned to the men formerly under their command to launch their bid for power.

More generally, the coup attempt has roots in the deep malaise among Mauritania’s predominantly Arab political class. Their malaise finds an echo in cries of racist oppression carried out against the black African population, a byproduct of the regime’s long-standing and concerted campaign to identify Mauritania as an Arab country, not an African one.

Darling of Heads of State

Ould Taya is an unpopular ruler. After gaining power himself through a military coup, he has ruled Mauritania for the past 19 years. In 1990-1991, his regime pursued an “Arabizing” ethnic cleansing of the armed forces. At least 500 black African officers were murdered in state-run prisons in this spate of intra-national violence. Taya also stirred up violence against civilian black African Mauritanians, leading to the expulsion of over 80,000 people into Mali and Senegal in 1989. These expelled Mauritanians have languished for 14 years in refugee camps, unrecognized by the international community. The United Nations, the only body vested with the authority to handle complaints over the right to nationality under article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, has declined to lend its aid to the refugees. Taya’s regime refuses to criminalize slaveholding or trafficking in children, despite well-documented problems of this nature in the country. Finally, Taya’s project of making Mauritania into an Arab nation has victimized and disenfranchised 30 percent of the nation’s people—those of black African heritage.

Yet especially after his escape from overthrow in June, Taya is the darling of heads of state near and far. The attempted coup was condemned by most African and Arab states, as well as by the European Union and the United States. Strong US support for Taya’s regime has been apparent in recent years, since it recognized Israel, and George W. Bush has expressed appreciation to Taya for his cooperation in the war on terrorism. Following the attempted coup, French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin hastened to Taya’s side to congratulate him on defeating the putschists. Morocco’s King Mohammed VI personally traveled to the Mauritanian capital of Nouakchott to offer his consolations. Arriving on June 22 for a scheduled 24-hour stay, such was the monarch’s desire to forge bonds with Taya that he prolonged his visit for an extra afternoon. On July 1-2, the president and his wife journeyed to Spain, where they were feted by the Spanish prime minister and king. Taya signed an agreement to crack down on African emigrants using Mauritania as their point of departure for illegal entry into Spain. The International Monetary Fund, happy with the Taya regime’s adherence to its recommended structural adjustment program, approved a new $8.8 million “poverty reduction” loan to Mauritania on July 18.

International support for Ould Taya, despite his marked unpopularity in Mauritania, gives him a green light to continue his abusive practices. The contrasting narratives of the coup attempt coming from Mauritania’s neighbors, Senegal and Morocco, reveal the higher stakes in this shadow game.

Contrasting Responses

Senegal, on Mauritania’s southern border, stands out among African states as a relatively stable and successful democracy. The Senegalese human rights organization, the African Association for the Defense of Human Rights (known by its French acronym, RADDHO), condemned the attempt to overthrow the Mauritanian government by force. But RADDHO’s press release also called on the Organization of African Unity to refrain from opposing all coups as a matter of principle, and to look instead at their deeper causes. RADDHO hopes, in this way, to isolate politically and diplomatically the “dinosaur” and “ethnocratic” regimes on the continent.

After the coup was defeated, Senegalese newspapers reported that some of the defeated insurgents had fled to Senegal. Journalists editorialized that the government should resist any demand by Mauritania for extradition of these individuals. Pointing to the fact that no extradition treaty exists between Senegal and Mauritania, the editorials argued as well that any fugitive rebels sent back to Mauritania would invariably be summarily executed. No independent judiciary would try them. The investigators would also be the executioners. Human rights activists in Dakar, Senegal’s capital, protested on July 21 when the government did extradite one alleged coup plotter, Didi Ould Mohammed, to Nouakchott.

The Senegalese concern for human rights contrasts with the response from Morocco, Mauritania’s neighbor to the north. An Arab-identified monarchy with a dedication to liberal Islam, Morocco has cultivated increasingly strong ties with Mauritania since King Mohammed VI ascended the throne in 1999. The Mauritanian and Moroccan governments express common concerns about terrorism, security and economic development in their “Arab-Maghrib region.” The designation of Mauritania as part of Arab-identified North Africa is a politically charged statement, given the determination of Taya’s regime to disavow those aspects of the country’s identity which are African. Mohammed VI clearly supports the “Arabized” identity of Taya’s Mauritania.

After the multiple suicide bombings in Casablanca on May 16, 2003, which killed 43 people, Mohammed VI was anxious to encourage the Mauritanian state in its efforts to combat radical Islamism. During Mohammed’s visit, the two heads of state agreed to greater cooperation in the war against terrorism.

Morocco and Mauritania

But the ties between the two countries are solidly economic, as reported by the Moroccan newspaper Liberation on June 23. Mauritania, with a population of 2.5 million, is currently receiving $1.5 billion annually from international development agencies. Inflation is under control and its economy is growing at a rate of 4.5 percent. In the last year, commercial exchange with Morocco grew by 41 percent, totaling 25 million euros. The vast majority of this commerce flowed from Morocco to Mauritania. Moroccan corporations are also investing heavily in Mauritania. An excellent example is Ittisalat al-Maghrib (Maroc Télécom), which in 2001 acquired a controlling share in the Mauritanian telephone company, Mauritel, at a price of $84 million.

The Moroccan Office for Mineral Research and Exploitation owns 2.35 percent of Mauritania’s chief economic powerhouse, the National Industrial and Mining Corporation, which extracts iron ore and supports more than 5,000 Mauritanian households. Another Moroccan company, DRAPOR, a subsidiary of the Moroccan Office of Port Development, has contracted to dredge the port of Nouakchott. There is also a newly created partnership between Moroccan and Mauritanian companies for the distribution of fuel and the building of a refinery.

Morocco is also participating in internationally financed Mauritanian development projects, like the planned 292-mile Nouakchott-Nouadhibou road. The total cost of this road is estimated at $70 million. The principal financing comes from the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development, which is supplying $51.6 million. The African Development Bank and the Islamic Development Bank are supplying $10 million, while the Mauritanian government is contributing $9 million. Four Moroccan companies contracted to produce the initial studies and plans for the road at a cost of over $39 million, and the Moroccan government is bankrolling the construction of nearly nine miles of the road at a cost of $2.6 million.

“With a Firm Step”

Were it not for the assistance of international financial institutions and his sympathetic neighbors, Ould Taya would not have the resources to maintain his repressive apparatus. While Taya assiduously pursues economic development, human rights groups and anti-slavery activists have consistently called on the government to criminalize slavery and to cease incitement of racial divides between Arab and black African Mauritanians. Without first addressing these social evils, representatives of the NGOs argue, social inequalities and injustice will only grow as foreign capital is pumped into the economy. To these critics, Taya has consistently maintained that Mauritania’s problems are poverty and illiteracy, not slavery and racist injustice.

Ould Taya has not convinced the Mauritanian NGOs, nor the Senegalese NGOs. But he has won the support of Morocco, France and international funding agencies, as well as the US. The State Department, for its part, praises Mauritania for having “a democratically elected government that is cooperating in the war on terrorism, combating poverty and leading the Arab League in constructive engagement with Israel,” according to a recent report from Amnesty International on trafficking. The State Department website refers to activists’ charges that slavery continues with impunity in Mauritania as “repeated but later discredited.”

The characterization of Ould Taya’s government as “democratic” is particularly ironic in light of its roundups of political opponents before and since the coup attempt. Earlier in the spring of 2003, the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) protested the government’s actions as a deliberate attempt to intimidate any form of political opposition. In the wake of the arrest campaigns of May and the suppression of opposition newspapers and political parties, the government has scheduled a presidential election for November 7. In Spain on July 2, Taya proclaimed that these elections are a sign that Mauritania is advancing “with a firm step” toward democracy despite the ill wishes of the Baathist insurgents. The previous day, Mauritanian authorities arrested the deputy director of the state news agency, who, like the coup plotters, belongs to the Oulad Nasser tribe. In this climate of intimidation, it is very unclear how free the November elections will be. Ould Taya, naturally, plans to run again.

How to cite this article:

Bakary Tandia, Alice Bullard "Images and Realities of Mauritania’s Attempted Coup," Middle East Report Online, July 22, 2003.

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