(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