|Mauritania Table of Contents
In the absence of political parties, in 1987 political demands found informal expression only through the various interest groups within Mauritanian society. Their interaction with the military government provided some indication of the regime's support. Four interest groups offered contrasts in how they related to government: blacks, who questioned the legitimacy of any government headed by Maures; traditional elites, whose importance diminished under the military; women, whose limited political strength has come only at the sufferance of the government; and labor unions. Mauritania's most important interest group was the military, for which the rules of politics were different.
In 1987 the most visible political organization among Mauritania's blacks was the African Liberation Forces of Mauritania (Forces Libération Africaine de Mauritanie--FLAM). Founded in 1983 and outlawed in 1984, the group has developed a complex and clandestine organization based in Dakar, Senegal. It drew its membership primarily from the Toucouleur. Among alleged FLAM members arrested by the government in September 1986 were Ibrahima Sarr, a television journalist; Tafsirou Djigo and Mamadou Ly, former cabinet ministers; Mahmoudi Ould Boukhreiss, a businessman and brother of Colonel Moulay Ould Boukhreiss, a former minister of justice known for his pro-Libyan sentiments; Tene Youssouf Gueye, a writer; Oumar Ba, a noted historian and linguist; and Def Ould Babana, a former diplomat. Several professors and researchers from the University of Nouakchott were also linked to FLAM.
FLAM members have claimed responsibility for distributing a highly articulate, fifty-page pamphlet entitled "Le Manifesto du Négro-Mauritanien Opprime" (The Manifesto of the Oppressed Black Mauritanian), documenting alleged examples of officially sanctioned discrimination. Copies of the manifesto were circulated in Addis Ababa during the spring 1986 meetings of the OAU and during the summer 1986 summit meetings of the Nonaligned Movement in Harare, Zimbabwe. FLAM adherents were also charged with instigating a series of attacks in September and October 1986 against a fish-processing facility in Nouadhibou, a pharmacy and gas station in Nouakchott, and three government vehicles. Although damage from the attacks was minimal, they were the first such acts of sabotage in Mauritania and thus represented a dramatic escalation in political violence.
The government responded quickly and harshly to these attacks. It labeled FLAM leaders as "misled persons" intent on "undermining the values and foundations of . . . society" by sowing "hatred and confusion" with the assistance of foreign enemies, possibly Libya. On September 4 and 5, 1986, army and police units arrested between thirty and forty suspected FLAM members. Twenty of the group were later given sentences ranging from six months to five years. Lieutenant Colonel Anne Amadou Babali, the black minister of interior, information and telecommunications, was dismissed from his post, allegedly for ignoring evidence of FLAM's existence. He was replaced by Lieutenant Colonel Djibril Ould Abdallah, who was known for his firmness. Also relieved of their positions were Captain Niang Harouna and Commander Diouf Oumar of the Mauritanian Army, as well as the director of BIMA and other highly placed officials elsewhere in government. Most of those dismissed blacks were replaced by other blacks from Wolof or Soninké groups, and only a few were replaced by Maures. None of the new black appointees, however, supported the FLAM agenda.
With its leadership imprisoned or in self-imposed exile, FLAM's activities through the first half of 1987 diminished considerably; nevertheless, discontent among blacks, and especially among the Toucouleur, simmered. Observers speculated that further outbreaks of violence might erupt if the government attempted to implement its 1983 land reform program on a large scale.
Although originally supported by Mauritania's leading chiefs, the PPM in 1963 made the policy decision to suppress the institution of chieftaincies in order to foster unity and allegiance to a national leader. Accordingly, no replacement was chosen for a chief who died or resigned. Nevertheless, traditional rulers continued to play a significant, if decreasing, role in the political system. At the local level, traditional rulers represented the administration with the peasantry, aided in the maintenance of public order, and mobilized resources for public works projects. Chiefs also collected taxes, and in return the government paid their salaries.
On the national level, traditional rulers were most often coopted and integrated into the party, where they played an important role. Some chiefs or their kin became secretaries of the party committee in their villages; others held civil service positions. Throughout Daddah's stay in office, nearly all his ministers and deputies came from the highest levels of traditional leadership, and especially from marabout castes. Daddah regularly brought new members of the old elite into the government to improve efficiency and to enlarge his base of support. This changed only when the costs of the war in the Western Sahara threatened the economic well-being of the growing class of technocrats--a new elite--at home.
The 1978 military coup brought another group of traditional elites into government, as leaders of what had been warrior castes (hassani) replaced those of maraboutic groups. Of far greater significance for the long term, however, has been the movement of civilian and military technocrats into positions of political leadership. Taya's 1987 cabinet appointments-- such as the new minister of mines and industry, Khadijatou Bint Ahmed, and the new minister of foreign affairs, Commander Mohamed Lemine Ould N'Diayane-- have tended to be young (Ahmed, a woman, and N'Diayane are under forty), well educated, motivated, articulate, and energetic politicians.
During the period of civilian government, women were most successful in fulfilling their political demands through the party. Although the constitution guaranteed equality before the law and full rights of political participation, traditional practices effectively denied women any major role in political life. To elicit the support of women, the PPM created the National Union of Mauritanian Women in 1961. At first oriented only toward such typically feminine issues as health, nutrition, and education, by 1964 it had become the women's political arm of the PPM and was renamed the National Women's Movement (Mouvement National Féminin). The organization of the women's movement paralleled that of the PPM, with local committees, sections, and federations, and was headed by an elected bureau. At each level in the hierarchy, an official of the women's organization participated as an ex officio member of the respective PPM bureau. Although most women were far from achieving political equality with men, they were able to bring about change in response to some of their demands.
Over the years, several political functions helped to improve the lot of women. The PPM party congress at Kaédi in 1964 condemned abuses of divorce and doweries. The congress at `Ayoûn el `Atroûs in 1966 made provisions for the support of dependent children who remained with their mothers following a divorce and created the Superior Council for Women (Conseil Supérieur des Femmes), which operated the National Women's Movement. At the Nouakchott party congress in 1968, women's issues received significant attention. The 300 participants, including 11 women, called for the obligatory registration of marriages and divorces to protect women, the enactment of laws to discourage polygyny, limits on the size of dowries, and a code to protect women's rights. In the 1971 elections, two women were elected to the previously all-male National Assembly, and one, Aissatou Kane, was named minister of health and social affairs, becoming the first woman to serve in the government. She remained in office until the 1978 coup.
The pace of change improved under the military government as more women enrolled in schools and joined the labor force. In May 1987, in what was a remarkable step for Mauritania, President Taya named three women to cabinet-level posts to "correct countless managerial mistakes committed in the past." Khadijatou Bint Ahmed of Boutilimit was appointed minister of mines and industries. Lalla Mariam Bint Moulaye was appointed associate director of the presidential cabinet, and N'Deye Tabar Fall became general secretary of the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs.
The Mauritanian Workers Union (Union des Travailleurs Mauritaniens--UTM), created in 1961, was a government-supported federation of all trade unions within the country. Until 1969 the UTM was completely separate from the PPM and the government, although it supported the party and had as many as seven representatives in the National Assembly. Initially, the UTM was conceived as a radical union in a class-oriented society and was pledged to forward the interests of workers as a class. Accordingly, union leadership ruled out integration with the party, as was customary in most other one-party states in subSaharan Africa. Consequently, union leaders were not averse to challenging the state. In May 1968, when news of student and worker demonstrations in France reached Mauritania, iron ore workers at Zouîrât struck to protest the pay differential, amounting to almost 1,000 percent, between the salaries of West Europeans and Africans. The government called on the army to restore order, a move that resulted in the death of eight workers and injuries to twenty-three.
At the fourth congress of the UTM, held in February 1969, party leaders and UTM leadership proposed incorporating the UTM into the PPM. Several member unions of the UTM denounced both the proposal and UTM leadership, which was described as no longer representing the interests of workers. Subsequently, several unions, including the National Union of Mauritanian Teachers, formally opposed integration with the party and voted to withdraw from the UTM. Under the Directing Committee of Mauritanian Workers, the "Progressive" UTM was formed. The new federation argued that the UTM was now under the control of management and could no longer represent the interests of the working class.
The PPM and the government refused to recognize the new labor federation, arguing that there could be no political activity outside the party. Mauritanian students, on the other hand, supported the new federation and in May 1971 challenged police and army units by demonstrating throughout Mauritania. Workers joined students in protest when miners at Fdérik closed the mines in September and October 1968.
Subsequent union activity under the military was marked by conflict and confusion. In 1983 Haidalla imprisoned UTM secretary general Elkory Ould H'metty for allegedly having used the UTM for political purposes and on behalf of Libyan interests. Taking over UTM leadership was H'metty's former assistant, Beijel Ould Houmeit, who had been a faithful Haidalla supporter. In 1985 H'metty was freed by President Taya. Nevertheless, Houmeit only begrudgingly yielded power to the erstwhile secretary general. From 1984 until mid-1987, the administration of the UTM was paralyzed, and union locals atrophied. In an effort to secure worker cooperation during the period of recession, the government decided to reinvigorate the UTM. In mid-1987 local offices were being reestablished in major urban areas, and a general UTM congress was tentatively planned for late 1987.
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Source: U.S. Library of Congress