Islamic Republic of Mauritania

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Islamic Republic of Mauritania

Type of Government

Mauritania is a multiparty republic. Its executive branch is led by a president, who serves as chief of state and is elected for a renewable term of six years. The president appoints a prime minister and a Council of Ministers. The legislative branch consists of a two-chamber parliament, made up of an eighty-one-member lower house called the National Assembly, and a fifty-six-member upper house, or Senate, both selected directly by municipal officials. Mauritania’s judicial system is based on a mixed set of principles. Social and family matters are based on Islamic law, known as sharia, while commercial cases are subject to a Western-style legal code.


Mauritania is a West African nation located on the continent’s Atlantic coast. Slightly larger than Texas and New Mexico combined, Mauritania’s coastal neighbors are Western Sahara to the north and Senegal to the south. Its other neighbors are Algeria to the northeast, and Mali to the east and south.

The land that is now Mauritania has a long, rich history. In the eleventh century, a Mauritania-based group of Muslim Berbers known as the Almoravids conquered most of northwest Africa and a large portion of Spain. The Almoravids had an alternatingly hostile and friendly relationship with neighboring black African empires, particularly Ghana. In the twelfth century, the Almoravid empire was conquered by the Mali Empire, which had succeeded Ghana in influence in the area. The region was subsequently controlled by the Songhai Empire, which in turn fell to Moroccan invaders in the late sixteenth century. Meanwhile, Arab tribes from the east gradually overtook the Berbers to dominate Mauritania. The Mauritanian Thirty Year War, which took place from 1644 to 1674, represented the Berbers’ unsuccessful final stand against the encroaching Arabs, though Berbers remained an important cultural influence.

The Portuguese were the first European traders to arrive in Mauritania, first appearing in the fifteenth century, and they were eventually followed by the French, Dutch, and English. France took the lead in exploring the inland regions, and signed numerous treaties with local leaders. After decades of French control, Mauritania was officially established as a French colony in 1920, becoming one of the eight territories that made up the federation called French West Africa. During the colonial period, black Africans from various neighboring territories trickled into Mauritania, creating the conditions for ongoing political tensions between those who like to see Mauritania primarily as part of the Arab world and those who would prefer to align the country with sub-Saharan Africa. Like the other territories in the federation, Mauritania’s status changed following World War II. In 1946 the colony gained a greater degree of control over internal matters, and a Mauritanian Territorial Assembly was formed. Political power gradually shifted into the hands of local leaders over the next decade. In 1958 Mauritania became a self-governing republic within the French Community. The Islamic Republic of Mauritania gained complete independence from France two years later.

Government Structure

Moktar Ould Daddah (1924–) served as Mauritania’s president from its inception as an independent republic until July 1978, when he was ousted in a military coup. The coup came at a time when Daddah’s government was weakened by a military dispute with Morocco over the resource-rich territory called Western Sahara, which was formerly controlled by Spain. Following the coup, the constitution was suspended and the National Assembly was dissolved, as was its dominant political party, the Mauritanian People’s Party (PPM). In 1980 Lieutenant Colonel Khouna Ould Haydalla emerged as chief of state and chair of the newly created Military Committee for National Salvation. Haydalla fought off a coup attempt in each of the next two years. His regime was finally toppled in December 1984 in a coup led by Col. Maaouya Ould Sid’Ahmed Taya (1943–), who became the new chief of state. He and his Democratic and Social Republican Party (PRDS) dominated Mauritanian politics for more than two decades.

Taya instituted a multiparty system during his reign, but elections were far from free and democratic. Leaders of opposition parties were routinely harassed and arrested. One politician, Cheikh Sadibou Camara of the Union for Democracy and Progress (UDP), was arrested twice during the 1990s for stating publicly that slavery was still happening in Mauritania. Journalists who reported on stories reflecting the government in an unfavorable light were similarly silenced. The United States revoked Mauritania’s trade privileges in 1993 due to its poor human rights record.

Taya was ousted in a 2005 military coup. Colonel Ely Ould Mohamed Vall was named head of the transitional Military Council for Justice and Democracy. Vall promised a return to civilian rule within two years, and his government made good on that vow with elections in 2007. Politics in Mauritania were opened considerably, as parties long suppressed by the Taya regime were allowed to participate fully.

Political Parties and Factions

Parliamentary elections in 2007 were dominated by Al-Mithaq, a coalition of moderate Islamist independents.

The Republican Party for Democracy and Renewal (PRDR) is the new incarnation of the PRDS. Following the 2005 coup that ousted Taya, the PRDR renounced its predecessor’s pro-Israel positions. The PRDR is now a minority party in the Mauritanian legislature, but still controls a significant handful of seats in each house.

The Rally of Democratic Forces is led by Ahmed Ould Daddah, the half-brother of Mauritania’s first president. This party, in coalition with another party called the Union of the Forces for Progress, is the second most potent political force in the Mauritanian legislature.

Other key parties include the Rally for Democracy and Unity, which captured nearly 10 percent of the popular vote in the most recent national elections; and a coalition composed of the People’s Progressive Alliance and the Mauritanian Party of Unity and Change.

Major Events

Tensions between the black minority, mostly located in the country’s south, and its Arab majority have been central to Mauritania’s political dynamics since the nation achieved independence. Flagrant human and civil rights abuses have repeatedly led to protests among blacks. Slavery was not officially banned in Mauritania until 1981, and there were no criminal penalties for slavery until August 2007. International antislavery organizations contend that slavery continues in Mauritania today.

Throughout its history as an independent nation, Mauritania’s ties to the Arab world have grown closer. In 1973 Mauritania joined the Arab League and withdrew from the franc zone (countries using French currency). Mauritania has nevertheless retained strong relations with Western Europe and the United States, and received substantial aid from those countries (as well as from the Arab states) during the massive drought that plagued the Sahel region—the border zone between the Sahara Desert to the north and the more fertile Sudan region (not to be confused with the country Sudan)—during the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Mauritania’s military skirmish over Western Sahara in the mid-1970s set the stage for the political instability that followed over the next several years. In November 1975, Mauritania, Morocco, and Spain reached a settlement under which Spain was to withdraw from the area. Mauritania and Morocco agreed on borders. Mauritania was granted control of a small portion of the region, but the nation’s weak military was unable to defend it successfully against nationalist guerillas known as the Polisario.

In the wake of the 1984 coup that brought Taya to power, Mauritania became a society starkly divided along racial/ethnic/class lines. The main division was between the Maurs (or Moors)—the privileged class that has dominated the Mauritanian government—and black Africans, many of whom are the descendants of slaves, or in some cases have even remained slaves themselves. Members of the black population, which is mainly concentrated along the Senegal River, which marks the nation’s southern border, formed an underground movement called the Front for the Liberation of Africans in Mauritania (FLAM).

Hostilities between the different ethnicities came to a head in 1989 when race riots in the capital city of Nouakchott erupted in the midst of a border dispute with Senegal. Hundreds of Senegalese were killed in the city. In Senegal outraged blacks retaliated by attacking members of the Moorish trading community. Refugees poured over the border in both directions, and Mauritania deported thousands of longtime residents who were of Senegalese origin. In late 1990 and early 1991, a violent purge took place in which about five hundred Mauritanian soldiers, most of them black, were killed. All of this was seen as part of a broad “Arabization” process being undertaken by Taya’s regime.

In 1991 Taya granted opposition parties legal status, and the following January he was elected president in Mauritania’s first-ever multiparty presidential election, receiving nearly two-thirds of the vote. The election was widely regarded as being horribly tainted by fraud, however, resulting in a boycott of the March legislative elections by six of the fourteen opposition parties. Consequently, Taya’s PRDS captured sixty-seven of seventy-nine seats in the National Assembly. The 1997 presidential election yielded an even more lopsided result: Taya won with 90 percent of the vote, amid opposition leaders’ cries of widespread fraud and irregularities.

PRDS continued to dominate Mauritanian politics into the twenty-first century despite mounting protests by opposition parties. Much of this opposition was based on Taya’s pro-Western/pro-U.S. foreign policy and, perhaps more significantly, his establishment of full diplomatic ties with Israel, a risky political move in a predominantly Muslim country. Mauritania was one of only three members of the Arab League with such ties. Outside observers assessed Mauritania’s 2001 Assembly elections as being relatively free and fair. In 2003 the government successfully repelled a coup attempt orchestrated by Sala Ould Henena, an army officer who had been fired because of his opposition to the government’s connections with Israel. Two days of fighting in Nouakchott left six people dead and forty injured. Taya was reelected to the presidency that year, receiving more than 60 percent of the vote.

Taya’s support deteriorated over the next two years, and there was little public outcry when he was deposed in 2005. In elections held in 2007, Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi was elected president.

Twenty-First Century

The military coup of 2005 ushered in a new period of hope for Mauritania. The newly elected civilian government, voted into power in 2007 in elections generally regarded as free and fair by international observers, faces significant challenges. The first will be to remain a stable force in a nation frequently shaken by violence, mired in extreme poverty, and pulled in opposite directions by the influence of radical Islam and the prospect of useful financial relationships with the West. The new government’s ability to maintain productive ties with both its fellow Muslim nations and with economic powers like the United States will be the determining factor in its success.

Claderini, Simonetta. Mauritania. Santa Barbara, CA: Clio Press, 1992.

Handloff, Robert E. Mauritania: A Country Study. 2nd ed. Washington, DC: Library of Congress, 1990.

Stewart, Charles C. “North-South Dialectic in Mauritania: An Update.” Maghreb Review 11, no. 1 (1986): 40–45.

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Islamic Republic of Mauritania

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