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Democracy's misfire in Mauritania

The US should have helped this African nation.

By Caroline Baxter / August 20, 2008


In March 2005, President Bush exhorted all free nations to "stand with the forces of democracy and justice that have begun to transform the Middle East." Having committed itself to an increasingly difficult war in Iraq, the administration searched for those forces in Baghdad – and missed them by nearly 4,000 miles.

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These forces were at work in the North African country of Mauritania. Some six months after the Bush speech, a group of officers overthrew Mauritania's long-reigning despot, President Maaouya Ould Sid'Ahmed Taya, and launched an ambitious 19-month plan for democracy that began with a constitutional referendum and ended with a presidential election. Because the 2005 coup was condemned by both Western and African governments, the task of shepherding Mauritania's transition fell to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

This was how I found myself in the Mauritanian capital of Nouakchott. Working for an NGO (for safety reasons, I can't name it) that specializes in global democracy promotion, I helped manage an international mission to monitor the presidential elections. On March 24 and 25, 2007, Mauritania held its first truly free and fair democratic elections, and on April 19, 2007, swore in its first democratically elected president, President Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi. Here was an example of the transformation that the US said it was championing. Because of its preoccupation with the war in Iraq, however, the Bush administration did virtually nothing either to encourage or to nurture the new Mauritanian government.

And two weeks ago, after just 15 months, the first democratically elected government of Mauritania ended the way it began: in a coup d'état.

It would be easy to dismiss Mauritania's story as just another sad example of how democracy can't take root in an impoverished country, or an Islamic country. Mauritania is desperately poor. Bigger than Texas, with a population smaller than that of Los Angeles, it has virtually no infrastructure; some Mauritanians still remember when the country's first highway was paved.