As the president steps aside and his fellow coup instigator and former army chief of staff looks set to win the election, Mauritania could struggle to shake the military’s iron grip on power.
Mauritania has been home to several military coups, leaving its people with the unfulfilled dream of a peaceful government transition.
Its most recent coup took place in 2008, instigated by General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz and his friend Mohamed Ould Ghazouani, ousting Mauritania’s first elected civilian president Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi.
Ould Abdel Aziz ruled for ten years and is now preparing to relinquish power to an elected president. Many believe that he will continue to rule from behind the scenes, as his compatriots and friends remain in positions of authority.
One of the candidates for the election is a close friend of the resigning president.
The Coups Begin
A string of coups began in Mauritania after its independence in 1960. In 1978, a mere 18 years later, Colonel Mustafa Ould Salek overthrew the country’s first President Moktar Ould Daddah.
Since then, military rule has become a fact of life in Mauritania.
Colonel Mustafa only stayed in power for a year, before being similarly ousted by Lt. Col. Mohamed Mahmoud Ould Louly, who also barely remained in power for another year before being overthrown by Colonel Mohamed Khouna Ould Haidalla in 1980.
The unbroken streak of coups would continue. After four years of Haidalla’s rule, Maaouya Ould Sid'Ahmed Taya, an army officer, instigated another coup d’etat and assumed the reins of power in 1984.
The First Civilian President
Maaouya Ould Sid'Ahmed Taya managed to rule for 40 years, surviving a coup attempt in 2003, only to be overthrown in 2005 at the hands of a military council led by Colonel Ely Ould Mohamed Vall. The military council held presidential elections in 2007, which saw the victory of Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi.
His election victory marked him as the first democratically elected president of Mauritania, but it would not last.
Shortly after assuming power, he came to realise the extent of the military’s influence and power after trying to marginalise the Presidential Guard’s Chief of Staff Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz and the Army’s Chief of Staff Mohamed Ould El Ghazouani.
In courting danger, President Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi was summarily removed from power and imprisoned. Instead, Ould Abdel Aziz rose to power through elections in 2009.
After ruling for two terms, he presented his partner in the coup Ould El Ghazouani as a candidate for the elections.
Different Coups, Same Army
Political activist Khaled Veten who spoke to TRT World, believes it's necessary for the military to leave the political arena, even if that’s difficult to achieve.
He adds that these elections may be the chance Mauritania needs to gain its freedom by defeating the regime’s favoured candidate and electing a civilian candidate.
The alternative is grim. Marzouk believes that civil society and political parties need to unite against the greater threat to Mauritania’s democracy, to ensure the end of military rule.
Activists from the February 25 movement that took place against military rule emphasised that even the success of the regime candidate would not mean an end to the movement which fights corruption, deteriorating living standards and autocratic rule.
In 2011, Mauritania re-criminalised coup d’etats.
“In spite of this, we’re not safe from a military overthrow of power, because the military is effectively the only power with the ability to mobilise against an already fragmented civil society divided by having occasionally supported coup d’etats in the past,” said Marzouk.
The government is now using the latest means of regime change, says the General Coordinator for the ‘We Can’ movement, speaking to Aljazeera.
It is supporting the former chief of staff’s race in presidential elections that already forbid the opposition from serving as representatives on its own independent election committee. More critically, state funds are used to ensure that power is inherited by continued military rule.
Views are conflicted over the possibility of bringing complete change to Mauritania, which largely depends on whether civilian leadership will assume the presidency and if the era of military coups is over. Many believe that the military’s iron grip is not over yet, and will continue with no visible end.