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Part 3 What Kind of Government: Civilian or Military?, 3.3 The Changing Role of the Military in Mauritania

Mohamed Driss Horma Babana

From: Constitutionalism, Human Rights, and Islam after the Arab Spring

Rainer Grote, Tilmann J. Röder

From: Oxford Constitutions (http://oxcon.ouplaw.com). (c) Oxford University Press, 2023. All Rights Reserved. Subscriber: null; date: 07 June 2023

(p. 355) 3.3  The Changing Role of the Military in Mauritania

I.  Introduction

In October 1960, a series of negotiations began in Paris culminating in the Treaty of October 19, 1960, under which Mauritania came out of the French Community to gain independence. The treaty was ratified by the French National Assembly on November 28, 1960, which was the first day in the history of the independent Islamic Republic of Mauritania. When Mauritania gained full independence, it was in a desperate state in all social, economic, and military domains. It did not have then a national army, except for a set of ground army units mostly formed of light Camel Corps, which were equipped with individual weapons and were limited in number and led by French officers who were attached to the National Authority. With colonialism coming to an end, Mauritania embarked on building itself under critical international circumstances which made it possible for it to accelerate the establishment of a Mauritanian Defense Force. Thus, the law establishing the Mauritanian army was passed three days before the declaration of independence, in view of its importance in building the state and accomplishing the establishment of its institutions. Law No. 60-1891 providing for the establishment of the military structures under the name of the Armed Forces of Mauritania was issued on November 25, 1960. Consequently, work began on forming the military units inherited from French colonialism, whose role was to preserve the unity of the country and to defend it, maintain order and security, and ensure (p. 356) the application of laws and regulations. These armed forces consisted of light Camel Corps equipped with individual weapons and some light machine guns. As already mentioned, they were limited in number and led by French officers who were attached to the National Authority. The Camel Corps assumed the two roles of ordinary soldiers and judicial police. From a combat standpoint, they performed the same role assigned to other units. It should be noted, however, that the positions of the army chief of staff and heads of offices continued to be occupied by French citizens until 1964. Mauritanian armed forces nowadays consist of several formations, namely:

The National Army, which consists of ground forces, navy forces, and air forces, the National Gendarmeries, established under Law No. 62-121, issued on July 18, 1962,2 as an integral part of the national army and are charged with tasks throughout the national territory for ensuring public security, protection of property, maintenance of order, and law enforcement, and the National Guards, armed formations directly attached to the Ministry of the Interior under the Legal Order 80-174, issued on July 22, 1980.3 They are charged with permanent tasks such as maintaining security and order in cooperation with the Gendarmeries and the police, and like the rest of the armed forces they contribute to the defense of the homeland. The National Guards are also charged with the task of intelligence and have for this purpose a large network covering all provinces and administrative centers in the country.

The fledgling state attached high hopes to the national armed forces in pushing forward the process of economic and social development while keeping them away from being indulged in the political domain so as to preserve their unity and effectiveness. However, the events of ethnic bloodshed witnessed by the country in 1966 made the government modulate the prevailing view of keeping the military away from politics. Therefore, it was decided to integrate the army in the People’s Party of Mauritania; this was actually done in the party’s second conference held in 1971 at which it was emphasized that the integration of the armed forces in the party would serve the supreme national goals. Pursuant to the decisions taken by the conference, forums were held for the leaders of the national army and the party during which a theoretical perception of the army’s political direction was developed aimed at defending the territorial integrity, fighting poverty, maintaining national unity against regional, tribal, and racial conflicts, and consolidating a sense of duty.4

II.  The Implication of the Conflict Between the Al-BidĀn and the Black-African Population

The military establishment has played an important role in establishing security and order and exercising control over the state of chaos and putting a limit to the confusion resulting from the cultural crisis the country has experienced since its inception. These events (p. 357) have also prompted the military toward seizing power. From the time France created Mauritania under the ministerial decree issued on December 27, 1899,5 Black-Africans living in Mauritania had been enjoying a distinct status as a result of their motivation to access French schools, which were vehemently resisted by al-Bidān, “the Arab race”. Therefore, individuals of the Black-African community had occupied important positions in the colonial power and also in the administration of Mauritania upon independence, due to the difficulty of finding Arabs with fluency in the French language during that period of time.6 The colonial power had fueled the nationalist sentiments of the Black-African community and their pride of Afrikaans, thereby spreading an atmosphere of distrust between them and the Arab community to the extent that if one community had intended to take a certain step, the other community would interpret this as being designed to damage its interests and compromise its own culture and identity. Consequently, access to and the maintenance of power, which were the focus of the conflict that raged between the two communities in independent Mauritania, were critical means for each community in preserving their gains and maintaining their cultural affiliations and specificities. Neighboring countries were not immune to the manifestations of the Mauritanian conflict between the Arab and Black-African communities. The former always looked forward to being linked to their Arab roots in the north, whereas the other tended toward the south on the grounds that their fellow compatriots constitute the communities of sub-Saharan African countries.7 In 1961, only one year after independence, the first flagrant conflict erupted between the two communities during the founding conference of the Mauritanian People’s Party, which was solely to lead the country until 1978, the time when Mukhtār Ūld Dādāh was overthrown.8 In that conference, dispute developed over the level of Black-African representation in the party, since the Black-African community felt that the number and quality of positions being assigned to its members in the party did not reflect their number and their influence in the new Mauritanian society.9 Thereafter, crises and conflicts rolled on between the two communities with the result that any decision taken by the ruling authority was seen by Black-Africans as a detriment to their interests and aimed at increasing their exclusion from decision-making positions and, even, at wiping them out of the state apparatus, which the Black-African community believed had been hauled by the Arab element since independence.10 In each of those crises and conflicts, the ruling authority in Mauritania did not exclude the possibility that Senegal had been playing a role, since it had always showed interest in, and support for, the Black-African movements. The most serious cultural conflict between the two communities broke out when the authorities imposed the teaching of the Arabic language in schools. This led to a strike by Black-African student classes in January and February 1966. Certain Black-African prominent figures showed solidarity with the state of turmoil, which escalated from protests in classrooms into clashes in which sticks (p. 358) and edged weapons were used on the streets of many neighborhoods in the capital city of Nouakchott, resulting in several deaths and casualties.11 Ethnic clashes recurred in 1968 when the Arabic language was announced as an official language along with French. The Black-African community was afraid that the steps being taken by the Mauritanian regime in the field of Arabization would threaten their status in the state and marginalize their role in the society while strengthening the ability of al-Bidān to control and their monopoly of power.12 The Arabization procedures and the gradual departure from the Black-African environment led to increasing reactions on the part of the organized Black-African community.13 The community carried out several activities to translate its position into action, but was faced each time with repression and arrests. Its action movement reached a peaked in October 1987, when the then existing regime declared that it had thwarted an attempted coup hatched by officers of the Black-African community to seize power.14 This declaration was followed by extensive campaigns to purge the administration and the army of the al-Takulor,15 the execution of three Black-African officers, and the death of certain prominent Black-African figures who were reportedly tortured under detention.

III.  The Military and Their Role in Confronting Crises

The role of the military is not confined to the traditional tasks of external defense in the event of war or to internal security, but they contribute more and more to the overall development effort. The following paragraphs will discuss two samples of crises which are at the core of the routine tasks assigned to the armed forces and which have contributed in one way or another to the evolution of the role of the military in society.

A.  The Military and the Western Sahara Crisis

Desert warfare had a significant impact on increasing the numbers of the members of the national army, which did not exceed 1,500 troops in the first years of independence, but reached 35,000 troops with the end of War. Mauritanian foreign relations marked a qualitative change in the early 1970s. After Mauritania was recognized by Morocco, at a time when the region witnessed intensified tripartite activity to liquidate Spanish colonialism of the desert,16 the relationship between those two countries was characterized by Mauritania’s subordination to the Moroccan track. Initially, the signing of the Treaty of Solidarity and Cooperation between Mauritania and Morocco took place on July 8, 1970, and the Tlemcen Algerian-Moroccan summit was held on May 27, 1970. The most important activity in this connection was the holding of the “Town of Nouadhibou” summit in Mauritania on September 14, 1970, which included the respective three heads of state and from which a tripartite representative committee emerged, comprised of the foreign ministers of the (p. 359) three countries for the purpose of following up on the political and diplomatic efforts aimed at decolonizing the desert. The final statement of the Nouadhibou summit reflected divergence of views among the three party states on the content of coordinating the matter of self-determination. Such divergence marked all subsequent bilateral and trilateral meetings alike.17 The follow-up committee met in Algeria on January 5, 1973, and in Nouakchott on May 9, 1973, to prepare the way for a tripartite summit, which was then held in Agadir, Morocco, on July 24, 1973, and culminated in the agreement of the three heads of state to adhere closely to the right to self-determination for the desert and to ensure the application of this principle within a framework, guaranteeing the desert population their right to express their will.18 During that period, Morocco sought to establish a bilateral coalition with one of the parties. It was extremely hard on Morocco to make concessions to Algeria. Therefore, making concessions to Mauritania, being the weaker link, was the only choice available so as to exclude Algeria from the tripartite claim, thereby exercising control over the desert, and to impose a fait accompli on it. Search went on in order to find a way to tempt the Mauritanian rulers to abandon their former ally, Algeria. During the conference of the Organization of African Unity held in Rabat in 1972, Morocco and Mauritania agreed on finding a bilateral solution to ensure the achievement of the respective interests of both parties.19 Morocco and Mauritania stepped up diplomatic efforts to resolve the desert issue. This was evident from the meetings which were held, almost daily, by the foreign ministers of the two countries with their Spanish counterpart and which led, following a number of developments, to Mauritania, Morocco, and Spain signing the Madrid Agreement on November 14, 1975. The Agreement provided for Morocco and Mauritania to take over the administration of the territory and for the Spanish presence to come to an end before February 28, 1976.20 Based on the Madrid Agreement and the decision of the International Court of Justice on the desert issue,21 which opened the door to all kind of interpretations,22 Morocco annexed the northern part of the desert (i.e., al-Sāqīyah al-Ḥamarāʾ) to its territory, while Mauritania annexed the southern part of it (i.e., Wādī al-Dhahab). As a reaction to these events, especially following the incursion of Mauritanian and Moroccan troops into the desert land, Algeria sought to join and embrace the “Liberation Front of al-Sāqīyaha Al-Ḥamarāʾ and Wādī Al-Dhahab”, known as the Polisario.23 Immediately after the Spanish withdrawal on December 12, 1975, and the appointment of two governors in (p. 360) al-Sāqīyah al-Ḥamarāʾ and Wādī al-Dhahab to represent Morocco and Mauritania therein, respectively, Algeria mobilized its troops deep in the desert along with the Polisario fighters and insisted on securing the transfer of the largest possible number of the desert population to Tindūf, i.e., the western-most province of Algeria, under the pretext of an existing security vacuum and prospects of imminent war. Diplomatically, Algeria declared—following talks held in Libya—the creation of the “Ṣaḥrāwī [Desert] Arab Democratic Republic” on February 27, 1976, as a message addressed to the international community. Ṣaḥrāwī-Algerian coordination had later developed into a comprehensive diplomatic, media, and military action strategy against the Mauritanian-Moroccan coalition, which resulted in an abrupt end to Mauritanian-Algerian diplomatic relations on March 7, 1976, as well as to the Moroccan-Algerian diplomatic relations.24 The Polisario managed to form a Ṣaḥrāwī force using the resources and means placed at its disposal by regional powers (Algeria and Libya). War of attrition had thus begun against the Mauritanian-Moroccan coalition. The Polisario began launching their military operations from the Algerian territory in December 1975, focusing on the Mauritanian side, which was the weaker of the two rivals in the struggle, in an attempt to force it to abandon Morocco, and so as to use it later on as a friend through whose borders attack on Moroccan forces would be facilitated. Mauritania incurred serious damage as a result of the Polisario’s intensive attacks, especially after the presidential palace in Nouakchott had been hit and the ore iron mines bombarded; the harshest of all was the Zouérate operation perpetrated in 1977, in which Mauritania incurred heavy losses.25 With its meagre resources and given the fact that the Mauritanian army consisted then of 2,000 troops only, the government of Mukhtār Ūld Dādāh was confronted with two difficult choices as a result of the desert military operations; either it had to be aligned with the Moroccan plan while bearing its consequences, or it had to gradually withdraw from a war the brunt of which it could not endure.26 Suffering from the Polisario’s blows, Mauritania was finally forced to sign a mutual defense treaty with the Kingdom of Morocco on June 18, 1977, which provided for the formation of the “Supreme Moroccan-Mauritanian Defense Body” under which 9,000 Moroccan troops had been deployed in garrisons on the Mauritanian soil. France also intervened in the conflict following the bombing of the ore iron mine in Zouérate, a main supplier to the French car factories, under the pretext of protecting the French community in the north of Mauritania, especially after the capture and killing of French persons. The French intervention was manifested in the provision of “Jaguar” fighter air cover for the Mauritanian-Moroccan combat forces. This French move was regarded as a retreat on the part of the Mauritanian regime from the gains it had achieved at the beginning of the 1970s.27 Grumbling began developing about the war, which threw Mauritania once again into the arms of the former colonial power and turned it (p. 361) into a playing yard for Moroccan forces.28 The situation got worse day by day, with the result that on July 10, 1978, a military coup overthrew the civilian government and announced the country’s withdrawal from the desert war, which it described as “fratricidal war”.

B.  The Military and Environmental Crises

In Mauritania, the Sāḥal, i.e., coastal, region has been exposed to waves of migrant locusts and bird populations, which are serious agricultural pests that cause damage to crops and spoil pastoral areas. Such disasters have resulted in negative residuals which are harmful to agricultural and animal wealth. To address this situation, the armed forces, especially the Air Force, have conducted extensive campaigns in cooperation with the departments of the Ministry of Rural Development, in which large areas of the country have been sprayed with insecticides, thus helping to eliminate most of these pests and reduce their negative effects. Also, in the context of the fight against desertification and in the field of re-vegetation, and with a view to reducing the remnants ensuing from the long years of drought which the country has experienced since the beginning of the 1970s, the armed forces have implemented a large part of the relevant strategy set in that regard. Many flights have been conducted over wide regions of the country in which a process of aerial seeding has been carried out, resulting in considerable areas of land being afforested and creeping sand in vital areas being stabilized. Such efforts have also encouraged major segments of the population to stay in their places of origin, thus enabling them to engage in pastoral and agricultural activities. It must be noted as well that the armed forces have been carrying out search-and-rescue operations and providing assistance to stranded people in remote areas of the country. Such activities have saved the lives of many people, whether by way of providing them with medical evacuation or providing guidance to afflicted people who go astray or fall thirsty in difficult terrains of the country. In addition to the armed forces’ contribution in various areas of economic and social development, they are committed to countering many threats posed by piracy, smuggling, terrorism, and illegal immigration.

IV.  The Power of the Military in the Context of Government

The interest of the Mauritanian army in politics has been clearly demonstrated through the toppling of existing regimes and the seizure and exercise of power. The phenomenon of seizure of power by the military through military coups is a global phenomenon which began developing in the 1920s. It gained momentum in the 1950s and 1960s until it has become a general, striking phenomenon in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. The number of military regimes in these regions has exceeded that of the civil regimes altogether, whether totalitarian or democratic. In other words, military coups have developed as the most prevalent way of gaining control of the supreme power in such regions. The intervention of the military in politics mostly results from two factors, namely: First, the military’s inability to achieve their political goals through persuasion and expressed desire, which drives them to resort to a military coup. Second, the nature of the political system and its negative features, which may sometimes drive the military to intervene with the intent of undertaking correctional action or exerting pressure in favor of one party or another.

(p. 362) A.  The Impact of Military Coups d’État in Mauritania

Like other states, Mauritanian passed through a series of military coups during the past four decades. The first phase, which started in 1978, was marked with direct intervention of the military in the management of the political system, while the second phase, which started in 2005, to a varying degree involved civilians in the political game, but under the tutelage of the military leadership. The coup of July 10, 1978, was the first direct move of the military to seize power. It was carried out by a group of officers who formed what was known as the “Military Commission for National Rescue” headed by Colonel Muṣṭafā Ūld Muḥammad Sālak. Within one year Officer Muḥammad Ūld Būsīf carried out a new coup, converting the aforementioned military body to the “Military Commission for National Salvation.” The cycle of internal coups in the Military Commission and the numerous counter coup attempts altogether led to significant change in the Military Commission, which brought Colonel Muʿāwiyah Ūld Ṭāyaʿ on December 12, 1984, to the chairmanship of the Military Commission and the presidency of the state.29 Muʿāwiyah’s rule was also confronted with many failed coup attempts until on Wednesday, August 3, 2005, the “Military Council for Justice and Democracy” succeeded in overthrowing this rule, which had lasted for twenty-one years. Three years later, another coup took place, on August 6, 2008, led by General Muḥammad Ūld ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz, by which he ended the powers of President Sīdī Ūld Shaykh ʿAbdallāhi. The phenomenon of military coups, especially on the African continent, has been studied with varying interpretations.

Many African countries have acquired independence while lacking the means of survival due to the nonexistence of the necessary infrastructure, economic backwardness, and a nomadic state of life, which are usual in communities that are unable to successfully regularize their entry into a modern state. In these countries, the army then is the only organized force, and the seizure of power by the armed forces is not a transient state, but rather a natural stage in the evolution of the respective communities.30 Nevertheless, the idea that the military’s seizure of power is attributed to the mentality of civilians who always drive the state toward an abyss due to their inefficiency and the spread of corruption in their ranks and the political rivalries which paralyze them31 is inconsistent with the situation in Mauritania, where many of the coups and coup attempts were actually directed against existing military regimes.

The coups witnessed by Mauritania led to constitutional charters being drafted, which gave absolute powers to the armed forces in running the country and even went to the extent of rendering the armed forces alone the sovereign power as provided for in the Charter of 1985.32 These charters differ in the degree of involving civilians in the conduct of public affairs, and they are also characterized by lack of detail in organizing public authorities on the grounds that their period of validity is of a temporary and transitional nature pending the establishment of institutions to rule the country. The reasons usually advanced by the military to justify their toppling of a regime, which are often the lack of democracy or the deviation from the right track, have raised the ire of many writers, especially in Egypt, after the success of the revolution and the control of power by the Military Council, when (p. 363) President Ḥusnī Mubārak stepped down in January 2011. They have amply explained that democracy and militarism are two opposites which proceed on two parallel lines that will never intersect at any single point and that nothing else is more hostile to real democracy and genuine pluralism than the military due to the nature of their upbringing, their duties, and the objectives assigned for them to fulfill. Therefore, how could they be affiliated with democracy? In an article published in the New York Times, Steven Cook, an expert at the American Council on Foreign Relations, emphasizes that “the interests of the military are in conflict with the fundamentals of democracy which encompass the concept that the people shall be the source of legitimacy and that the activities of the military shall be subject to civilian control”.33 It is certain that the armed forces in Mauritania, which advance the foregoing justifications to support their actions, did not claim that the military entities they set up for the purpose of running country’s affairs were democratic, even though such entities made “democracy” part of their names.34 Nor did they claim that they only exercised control on the institution of the head of state while unleashing the elected parliament and the political parties and public freedoms, such as the Supreme State Council of 2008, to play their respective roles. It is also certain that all these military entities had decided that they were of a temporary nature and that they would disappear once the democratic institutions they were putting in place had been established during a longer or shorter term, depending on the amount of internal and external pressures.35

B.  External Factors Influencing the Military’s Role in Government, Leading to Internal Reform

External factors have had a clear impact on accelerating an end to the control of the Military Commission for National Salvation, which carried out the first coup in Mauritania in 1978, and on reaching an acceptable conclusion of the democracy which had been promised and awaited for thirteen years.

Mauritania was afflicted by the plight of its dispute with Senegal and the second Gulf War and the resulting deterioration of Mauritanian-Western relations. France sided in favor of Senegal in the crisis that erupted between the two neighbors in April/May 1989, whose devastating repercussions undermined the relations between ethnic groups. Also, the Second Gulf War in 1991, during which Mauritania showed sympathy with Iraq, caused damage to the Mauritanian diplomacy, whose margins of movement shrank significantly.36 Inevitably, the Mauritanian authorities then had no choice but to shift over in the direction of Paris as a way to avoid the collapse of the state due to the suffocating and dreary isolation they were passing through because of their position in the Gulf War and the reluctance of the financial community to lend a helping hand to them as a punishment for the position they had taken in favor of Baghdad. The new international order of “market democracy” which had become the main driving force and the pillar of the international order after the fall of the Berlin Wall led to the speech made at the La (p. 364) Baule summit, which linked provisions of aid to democratization and which is referred to by African regimes “to ease” their totalitarianism under the labels of multiparty systems and democracy, by way of adopting a variety of procedures and methods. In that French-African summit held in La Baule, in June 1990, French President Mitterrand announced in his speech the principle that would govern French-African relations. The granting of French aid to African states would henceforth be linked to the efforts made by them to establish a democratic system.37 The French president specified the nature of democratic systems which would be eligible for support, namely those which were based on a multiparty system, free elections, and respect for human rights.38 This speech was fully understood by the Mauritanian military regime. It led democratic changes with support from France and in the absence of the opposition, which was more preoccupied with personal differences and did not pay attention to laying down a social base or developing a political program. In the following year, 1991, a referendum was conducted on a constitution,39 which was based on the principles and foundations of respect for human rights; adoption of political and intellectual pluralism; promotion of growth of civil society organizations; adoption of the principle of separation of powers and respect for the independence of the judiciary; provision of the requirements for achieving political participation; and adoption of the principle of peaceful transfer of power. Thus, political parties were established; and legislative elections were held, in which the party led by the head of state won. Also, presidential elections were held, in which the head of state, namely, Muʿāwiyah Ūld Ṭāyaʿ, won as well.40 This old-new regime continued until it was overthrown on the morning August 3, 2005, by a military coup led by Colonel Eʿlī Ūld Muḥammad Wall, who, as stated in the first communiqué, moved together with his compatriots to put an end to the despotic practices of that regime which the people had suffered from during recent years and which led to serious deviations threatening the future of the country. The new leaders promised to establish a genuine democratic system. They launched a national dialogue which resulted in a referendum on constitutional amendments reducing the presidential term from six to five years, preventing the renewal of such term more than once, and banning the amendment of these constitutional provisions. In 2006 and 2007, municipal, legislative, and presidential elections were organized without any member of the ruling military council or the government running for elections.41 A new civilian regime was set up based on the amended 1991 Constitution under the leadership of Sīdī Muḥammad Ūld Shaykh ʿAbdallāhi, who was ousted after one year and four months in a coup on August 6, 2008, led by the two generals Muḥammad Ūld ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz and Muḥammad Ūld Shaykh Muḥammad Aḥmad (the latter known as Al-Baghzuwānī), both of whom were discharged with others from the leadership of the Republican Guard and the National Chiefs of Staff, (p. 365) respectively, just a few hours before they staged their coup. The Supreme State Council stressed, five days after the former president was overthrown, that

the intervention of the armed forces and security forces was the result of republican institutions being paralyzed, living conditions of citizens being deteriorated and the collapse of the state, in addition to the irresponsible and the totally illegal decision dismissing all leaders of the armed forces and security forces.42

The intervention “came on this occasion to revive the high-level and responsible national conduct of the armed forces and security forces which were almost driven by that unusual decision to a state of rivalry among themselves.”43 The new military regime, in turn, promised to take the necessary measures in order to ensure the continuity of the state and to oversee—in consultation with institutions, political forces, and civil society—the work of organizing presidential elections, which would enable the democratic process to be resumed in the country as well as be re-established on solid and permanent foundations. It also stressed that these elections would be organized within the shortest possible period and that the Council would ensure conducting them in a free and transparent way to enable a continuous and consistent exercise of constitutional authorities in future. Mauritanians have been split for the first time in such circumstances into two directions, one of which follows the Mauritanian Front to Defend Legitimacy—which considers the coup in August 2009 as destroying legitimacy and as a setback and calls for the reinstatement of the elected president and distancing the army from political affairs—while the other direction, which includes the former opposition parties, sees that the coup was a necessary step to set the political scene in a more organized manner as a prelude to entering in a robust and steadfast way into a safe democratic system. The political parties have obligated the Military Council, inter alia, to specify the period of the transitional phase in order to ensure rapid return to normal constitutional life, and to set the transitional phase program in consultation with the various political actors in the country, and to involve all political actors in the implementation of such a program, taking into account the criterion of competence and integrity in the selection of the officials needed for the transitional phase, and to provide serious assurances about holding free and transparent elections.

Presidential elections were organized in July 2009 under the supervision of a coalition government, two-thirds of its members were from the opposition, which rejected the coup, and of an independent election commission, whose chairmanship was entrusted to the opposition with international observers being present. These pluralistic elections resulted in the victory of the head of the Supreme State Council, i.e., the former head of state, upon his resignation from the Council. The question that arises in this connection is: What are the grounds that sustain the responsibility of the armed forces to seize power in order to ensure respect for human rights, assertion of freedoms, expansion of political participation, adoption of the principle of separation, and cooperation of powers and achievement of the peaceful transfer of power? It was stated in the first military constitutional charter dated July 10, 1978,44 that the armed forces, conscious of their responsibilities toward the people, have seized power to save the state and the nation from collapse and fragmentation and to safeguard national unity and the continuity of the state. In this context, the provisions of the constitution relating to legislative and executive powers have been abolished. The National (p. 366) Assembly and the only existing party, namely, the Mauritanian People’s Party, have been dissolved. The Military Council for Justice and Democracy, led by Eʿlī Ūld Muḥammad Wall, emphasized in the constitutional charter, which it issued in 2005,45 on the organization and functioning of the constitutional public authorities during the transitional period, that the armed forces and security forces had taken upon themselves the pledge toward the people of Mauritania on August 3, 2005, to create conditions conducive to fair and transparent democracy and to establish genuine democratic institutions after the completion of a transitional period not exceeding two years. Also, it announced the discontinuation of certain provisions of the constitution and dissolved the parliament. While the text of the Constitutional Order of 2008,46 which governs the interim powers of the Supreme State Council, provided that the powers of the President of the Republic who took office on April 19, 2007, were conclusively ended and that the Supreme State Council was exercising, in a collective manner, the powers entrusted to the President of the Republic by the Constitution of July 20, 1991, as amended, it also pointed out that the armed forces and security forces were exercising, through the Supreme State Council, the necessary powers to reorganize and run the state and public affairs during the period needed to organize a presidential election. In fact, this role utterly contradicts what is stated in Art. I of Law No. 60-189, issued on November 25, 1960, which provides for the establishment of the national armed forces of the Islamic Republic of Mauritania. It reads: “In order to ensure that the national territory be defended and to maintain order and respect for laws, armed forces have been established in Mauritania.” The aforementioned law was issued by the late President Mukhtār Ūld Dādāh. Perhaps he had that article in mind on the day the military turned against his rule. He reported in his memoirs, entitled Mauritania Is Destined for Major Challenges,47 that the military escort who approached him on the coup day had said to him: “Mr. President, the army has withdrawn its confidence in you; would you be kind to accompany me”.48 He also reported that he was overwhelmed by a fleeting desire at that moment to get engaged in a legal discussion in order to explain that the army could not grab what was not its property and that it ought to adhere to the bounds of lawful legality. No one can deny that whenever the military succeeds in seizing power, crowds march and demonstrate, in an apparently automatic way, in support of the new rulers. Could this be ascribed to what was expressed by Jean Biddle Bokassa I, the Emperor of Central Africa, who was showing off how his people gave him support in whatever he did, but was interrupted all of a sudden by a journalist, who said to him that the people, nevertheless, had rejoiced at his fall in a military coup; Bokassa retorted confidently: “[T]‌he reason is that peoples are eager for change”.49 It is certain in Mauritania that despite the support a coup receives, thinking starts focusing immediately thereafter on preventing the reasons that usually lead to it and on setting up obstacles to avoid its recurrence. The Military Council for Justice and Democracy emphasized in 2005 that one of the most important reasons for coups was the exasperation caused by the length of time spent by one person at the head of the state, thereby referring to the twenty years’ rule by Muʿāwiyah from 1984 to 2005. Therefore, it found a solution to this by amending the constitution to reduce the presidential term and by only allowing its renewal once. When things devolved to the president-elect, he took the (p. 367) initiative to ratify the African Charter on Democracy, Elections, and Governance,50 which condemns nonconstitutional means to gain power and refuses to recognize coup perpetrators and prohibits standing for pro elections in the signatory countries. The interlocutors in the dialogue held in Dakar, in 2009, for developing a road map to address the crisis caused by the 2008 coup, stressed the necessity of defining the role of the military, thereby expressing their refusal to let the armed forces be involved in politics. It was also agreed by interlocutors in the dialogue held in 2011 between the majority supporting President Muḥammad Ūld ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz and certain opposition parties to include within the amendments to the constitution a provision to the effect that “political power shall be acquired, exercised and devolved within the framework of the peaceful transfer of power in accordance with the provisions of this constitution. Coups and other forms of change of power that are contradictory the constitution shall constitute crimes not liable to limitation. Perpetrators and those who collide with them shall be punishable under the law, whether they are natural or legal persons”.51 This article has been detailed by Law No. 2013-010 on January 23, 2013, on combating coups crimes and other forms of unconstitutional power change as crimes against the security of the state52 Senior state officials are still lauding the results of the dialogue held in 2011, “which prohibits the military from undertaking politics”.53

V.  Conclusion

Mauritania acquired independence in 1960 and spent most of its existence under the control of military authorities. Therefore, the role of the armed forces in shaping the Mauritanian political scene cannot be ignored. However, the greatest difficulty in this connection lies in defining the role of the military in the political system,54 as reflected in the adoption, but in the abolition thereafter, of a second paragraph to Art. 34 of the draft revision of the constitution, which was introduced at a plenary meeting of the parliament in February 2012 for adoption.55

The paragraph in question reads as follows: “The armed forces and security forces shall constitute a republican institution which shall be guarantor of national sovereignty and territorial integrity of the State and shall be dedicated to the task of defending democracy and the State of law”.(p. 368)


The author and the editors sincerely thank Mr. Mohammad A. El-Haj for translating this article into English.

1  Art. 1 of Law No. 60-189 of November 25, 1960, establishing the National Armed Forces of the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, provides: “Pour assurer la défense du territoire national, le maintien de l’ordre et le respect des lois des forces armées nationales sont créées en Mauritanie,” Source: Journal Officiel de la République Islamique de Mauritanie 1961 49.

2  Law No. 62-121 of July 18, 1962 on the service of the Gendarmerie Nationale, Source: Journal Officiel de la République Islamique de Mauritanie 1962 91/92.

3  Order No. 80-174 of July 22, 1980 repealing and replacing the Law No. 63-018 of January 18, 1963 on the organization and status of the National Guard, Source: Journal Officiel de la République Islamique de Mauritanie 1980 522/523.

4  Resolution of the Second Ordinary Congress of 1966, Source: Archives Nationales de Mauritanie, Nouakchott.

5  Philippe Marchesin, Tribus, ethnies et pouvoir en Mauritanie (Karthala, Paris 1992) 72.

6  Charles C. Stewart, “Une interprétation du conflit sénégalo-mauritanien” (1990) 54 Revue du monde musulman et de la Méditerranée 161, 162.

7  Philippe Marchesin (n 5) 71.

8  Mukhtār Ūld Dādāh was the first president of Mauritania. Further reading on him and his governance: Alfred G. Gerteiny, Mauritania (Praeger, New York 1967).

9  Parti du Peuple Mauritanien (PPM): Congrès constitutif 1961, Source: Archives Nationales de Mauritanie, Nouakchott.

10  See in this connection: Amadou Tidiane Bal, “L’évolution de la politique extérieure de la République Islamique de Mauritanie depuis 1960 et ses incidences sur la question nationale,” mémoire de séminaire de relations internationales (I.E.P. de Grenoble 1984).

11  Agence France Press, “Six morts dans une bagarre raciale,” Le Monde (May 13, 1967) 5.

12  Pierre Biarnës, “L’ordre a été rétabli en Mauritanie mais le conflit ethnique n’est pas résolu pour autant,” Le Monde (February 19, 1966) 4.

13  Amadou Tidiane Bal, “L’évolution de la politique extérieure de la République Islamique de Mauritanie depuis 1960 et ses incidences sur la question nationale” in mémoire de séminaire de relations internationales (I.E.P. de Grenoble 1984).

14  Philippe Marchesin (n 5) 340.

15  One of the components of the Black-African community in Mauritania.

16  By “tripartite activity,” the author refers to the cooperation between Mauritania, Morocco, and Algeria in the face of the conflict over the former Spanish territory of Western Sahara.

17  Ali Al-Shami, Western Sahara, the crux of fragmentation of the Arab Maghreb [title translated from Arabic] (Arab World Publishing House, Beirut 1980) 232.

18  This, at least, according to the UN Resolutions. See only UN GA Res.3458 (December 10, 1975) UN Doc A/RES/3458.

19  Word went around then about a secret agreement concluded between Morocco and Mauritania to share the desert.

20  For more information on the preparation for, as well as the consequences of the Madrid Agreement, see Carlos Ruiz Miguel, “Spain’s Legal Obligations as Administering Power of Western Sahara” (paper for the ARSO—Association de soutien à un référendum libre et régulier au Sahara Occidental), http://www.arso.org/CRuizPretoria.pdf, accessed April 1, 2014.

21  Western Sahara (Advisory Opinion) 1975, http://www.icj-cij.org/docket/index.php?sum=323&p1=3& p2=4&case=61&p3=5, accessed April 1, 2014.

22  See in this connection: Maurice Flory, “L’avis de la C.I.J. sur le Sahara occidental (16 octobre 1975)” (1975) 21 Association Française du Droit de l’Informatique 253; Maurice Barbier, “L’avis consultatif de la Cour de La Haye sur le Sahara occidental” (1976) 30 Revue Juridique et Politique Indépendance et Coopération 67; Charles Vallée, “L’affaire du Sahara occidental devant le Cour de La Haye” (1976) 71 Revue Maghreb-Machrek 47; Mohamed Bennouna, “Le Sahara occidental devant la Cour international de Justice” (1976) RJPEM No. 1 81.

23  The Polisario had an office in Nouakchott and have exercised their activities freely in Mauritania since 1973.

24  There was talk at the beginning of 1975 about a secret agreement concluded between Spain on the one hand and Algeria and the Polisario on the other hand, whereby Spain would bring the desert to independence through controlled self-determination guaranteeing the interests of the former colonial power with the Spanish troops abandoning their positions gradually in favor of the Polisario in exchange of the release of captive officers held by them. See: Constant Hames C.R.E.S.M., C.E.A.N. “Introduction à la Mauritanie” (1979) 48 Archive des sciences sociales des religions 273.

25  For further reading: Philippe M. Voute, “Zouérate 1978—Supporting Air Operations, an Army Team Amidst France’s African Strategy” (1997) USAWC strategy research project.

26  Cf. Daniel Junqua, “La Mauritanie prise au piège,” Le Monde (February 15, 1978) 3.

27  Guy Feuer, “La révision des accords de coopération franco-africains et franco-malgache” (1973) Annuaire français de droit international 730; Robert Taton, “Les accords de coopération: réaménagement ou révision fondamentale?” (1972) Europe—Outre-mer no. 512 7–10.

28  See in this sense: Howard Schissel, “Le prix de la Guerre des sables: la Mauritanie dans l’engrenage saharien,” Le Monde diplomatique (June 1977) 1, 23.

29  Ūld Ṭāyaʿ was the fifth president of Mauritania since the state’s independence from France and after Ūld Sālak the second to gain the presidency of the state by means of a coup d’état.

30  See Mustapha Benchenane, Les coups d’Etat en Afrique (Editions Pubisud, Paris 1983) 30.

31  Mustapha Benchenane (n 30) 17.

32  See in this connection: Ahmed Salem Boubout, “Regard sur la Charte Constitutionnelle du 9 février 1985” (1987) 2 Revue mauritanienne de droit et d’économie; and Pierre Robert Baduel, “Baath, crise du Golfe et relance démocratique en Mauritanie” (1992) Annuaire de l’Afrique du Nord 26.

33  Steven Cook, “Egypt’s Never-Ending Revolution,” New York Times (February 10, 2012).

34  Such as the Military Council for Justice and Democracy of 2005.

35  For an overview on the military governments and their objectives, including relevant declarations and the evaluation thereof, see Anthony G. Pazzanita, “Historical Dictionary of Mauritania” in Jon Woronoff (ed), Historical Dictionaries of Africa (3rd edn Scarecrow Press, Lanham 2008) 160 et seqq.

36  Pierre Robert Baduel, “Chronique mauritanienne: 1990–1991, de la répression à l’esquisse d’une transition démocratique ou capacité d’adaptation d’un régime autoritaire” (1991) Annuaire de l’Afrique du Nord 886.

37  François Mitterrand, speech at the Franco-African summit in La Baule (1990), http://www1.rfi.fr/actufr/articles/037/article_20103.asp, accessed August 21, 2015.

38  Interview with François Mitterrand, Le Monde (June 20, 1990) 3.

39  Constitution de la République Islamique de Mauritanie, Source: Journal Officiel de la République Islamique de (1991) 763.

40  See in this connection: Ahmad Salem Boubout, “La nouvelle constitution mauritanienne” (1994) PENANT (RDPA) 815, 129; Pierre Robert Baduel, “Baath, crise du Golfe et relance démocratique en Mauritanie” (1992) Annuaire de l’Afrique du Nord 263.

41  For further information about the two transitional periods, see: Ahamdy Ould Hamady, “Système politique mauritanien: d’une transition militaire a une autre: 03 Août 2005–18 Juillet 2009” (Mémoire DEA Université Gaston Berger de Saint-Louis 2007–2008).

42  Article in Horizons (August 12, 2008) 1.

43  Article in Horizons (August 12, 2008) 3.

44  Journal Officiel de la République Islamique de Mauritanie (1978) 474–475.

45  Journal Officiel de la République Islamique de Mauritanie (2005) 1100.

46  Journal Officiel de la République Islamique de Mauritanie (2008) 1173.

47  Moktar Ould Daddah, La Mauritanie contre vents et mares (Editions Karthala, Paris 2003).

48  Id. 20.

49  Interview “Jeune Afrique fait parler Bokassa,” Jeune Afrique (September 2, 1981).

50  Law No. 2008-016 of April 29, 2008, authorizing the ratification of the “Charte Africaine de la Démocratie, des Elections et de la Gouvernance” signed in Addis-Abeba on January 30, 2007, Source: Journal Officiel de la République Islamique de Mauritanie (2008) 1169.

51  Constitutional Law No. 2012-2015 of March 20, 2012, revised form of the Constitution of July 20, 1991, Source: Journal Officiel de la République Islamique de Mauritanie (2012) 1262.

52  Journal Officiel de la République Islamique de Mauritanie (2013) 98.

53  “Intervention of the Prime Minister of Mauretania in front of the Parliament,” Horizons (June 10, 2012) 1, 3.

54  Some people argue that the best way to shut the door against the return of the military to power is not to let leave completely, but to retain them in one way or another. See in this connection: Ahmed Baba Miské, “L’armée et la démocratie” (2006) Nouakchott Info quotidien indépendant 1132.

55  For an English version of the constitution, see https://www.constituteproject.org/constitution/Mauritania_2012.pdf, accessed March 17, 2014.