On the 7th of August, Mauritania announced the results of its constitutional referendum, abolishing the Senate. The measures proposed by the current president Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz were approved by 85% of the voters and also included changes to the flag and the national anthem. The indirectly-elected Senate will now be replaced by regional bodies.
The push towards decentralization is reflected in the turnout. Although averaging at 54% across the country, voting rates around Nouakchott, the capital, sank into the 30s whilst they reached over 80% in some rural areas. This discrepancy can be explained by the widespread boycott of the referendum, called by a diverse selection of groups ranging from the religious traditionalists to the anti-slavery movement. Only one moderate opposition party did not join the boycott, supporting the ‘no’ campaign instead.
Planned rallies leading up to the vote were suppressed by the police using violence and tear gas. The UN Human Rights Office announced that “protests leaders were reportedly beaten up and a number of them were arrested.” An early protest in Nouadhilou did, however, lead to Abdel Aziz dropping his most controversial proposal: lifting the ban on a third presidential term. Mauritania remains the only Arab country with a two-term limit constitutionally attached to the office of president.
Although Abdel Aziz backed down this time, he responded to the results by saying, “in 2 years, or even 10 years, other amendments could arise to adapt our constitution to reality.” Opposition leaders, who condemned the voting as an “electoral farce which has given way to open-air fraud,” also warned that the vote marks a shift towards authoritarianism. Former President Silim Ould Cheikh Abdallahi described the changes as a “constitutional coup,” pointedly referencing Abdel Aziz’s initial rise to power in a military coup in 2008.
Whilst breaking down government into smaller units might appear sensible, the widespread problem of slavery in Mauritania could make these councils less effective than the Senate has been. Groups of slaves owned by just a few people might begin to make up large proportions of the area’s constituents and could turn these councils into fiefdoms. Estimates of the prevalence of slavery range from 4% to 20% of the population and slaves may be unable to vote freely. There is little information about this condition, partly because Abdel Aziz arrested a group of anti-slavery activists in 2016, but the high turnout rates in rural Mauritania could be linked to the high incidence of slavery amongst farm labourers. Mauritania’s enduring slave caste – the Haratine – generally work in the farming industry or in housekeeping.
Aside from the possible flaws in these results Abdel Aziz’s success in eroding the constitution is worrying. The Economist recently examined a series of African leaders abolishing term limits and Abdel Aziz appears to be following. Mauritania, hosting many refugees from Mali, is often given slack by western leaders and is seen as a key ally in the fight against jihadism. Far from liberal, however, the country still has laws against “apostasy,” and Cheikh Ould Mohamed Ould Mkhaitir, a blogger, was lucky enough to have his death sentence for the crime commuted by the Supreme Court earlier this year. The leading scholar Tariq Ramadan has been expelled from the country eight times, preventing him from attending conferences because of his critical writings on Islam.
Whether or not the results of the referendum were compromised by the significant slave population or by other sorts of fraud, many western leaders have remained silent. They may be motivated by their desire to retain Mauritania as their ally or just aware of their waning influence in Africa as China’s influence begins to grow. One thing is certain: Mauritania’s future as a democratic country is under threat.
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