It sounds like the plot of a bad African spy movie.
In a little-known country on the fringes of the Sahara Desert, where oil is just about to start flowing, the president leaves on an overseas trip and the army seizes power.
But what seemed like a potential disaster has played out surprisingly well in Mauritania. The notion of a "good coup d'etat" might not figure in the 21st-century diplomatic handbook, but so far, that's what Mauritania appears to have gotten.
Nine months after a bloodless ouster of President Maaouya Ould Sid'Ahmed Taya, residents say they are happy the days of police harassment and self-censorshipare over. Analysts say that a tougher line by the new military rulers is benefiting Mauritania's oil and fish industries.
The European Union resumed aid to the nation this month, perhaps spurred by the military junta's promise to hold elections next March, five months ahead of schedule.
"It's a bit of a one-off case. Probably a coup was the least worst option [for Mauritania]," says Olly Owen, an Africa analyst at Global Insight, an independent international forecasting group. "If you look at the measures taken by the international community, they were absolutely the weakest measures you could take against people seizing power over the barrel of a gun."
Residents, who poured into the streets when Taya, under fire for corruption and cronyism, was toppled, seem pleased so far.
"Since independence, we have not had a stable democracy here. But now ... I am optimistic. Before, there were too many secret agents and you were always looking over your shoulder or talking in whispers," says Pape Hamath N'Gaede, a young computer technician in the sand-blanketed capital, Nouakchott. "We are more at ease now, and there is at least hope."
But analysts caution that Mauritania still faces challenges in avoiding the pitfalls of leaders who overstay their welcome and turn oil resources into sources of blight rather than economic benefit.
"There are encouraging signs that we should receive with a certain caution. We should applaud but not read too much into them," says Kurt Shillinger, a research fellow at the South African Institute of International Affairs. "Any time a country goes through a coup, it's necessary to retain a healthy dose of skepticism."
Mauritania began producing oil in February at its Chinguetti site. The oil minister has said he expects the state to make about $200 million a year from the offshore field. That could boost the fortunes of Mauritania's 3 million people, two-thirds of whom live on less than $2 a day.
The revenue expectations reflect a new attitude toward foreign investment. Toward the end of his rule, as his unpopularity soared, Taya cut unfavorable deals in the interest of maintaining allies. But the military council insisted that Australian oil giant Woodside amend a production-sharing agreement just as Chinguetti was about to come on line. The council argued that the previous agreement, made by a former minister who has since been charged with fraud, were illegal and would cost them $1 billion over 10 years. The startup was delayed until Woodside backed down.
"Foreign companies were taught a lesson - that Mauritania will stand up for itself," says Mohamadou Dia, an accountant at an oil firm.
The Chinguetti field, discovered in 2001, is now running at a top production of 75,000 barrels a day. State officials hope the country will produce 300,000 barrels a day by the end of the decade. That would put Mauritania on par with Equatorial Guinea, which went from no drilling to being sub-Saharan Africa's third-largest producer in 10 years.
But even with its oil reserves and the accompanying spike in economic growth, Equatorial Guinea has slumped further into poverty. That weighs on the mind of Nouakchott residents like Mr. N'Gaede. "Before oil, we had fish and iron ore that could have helped reduce poverty," he says. "And we saw nothing; it evaporated into thin air."
The head of the junta, Col. Ely Ould Mohamed Vall has vowed that Mauritania will not become a hotbed of corruption. He has signed the World Bank's Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, and pledged to put oil revenues in an account that can be clearly monitored.
But Chad, Africa's newest oil producer before Mauritania, made similar promises in return for World Bank support. Yet less than three years after oil started flowing, President Idriss Deby ripped up the deal that committed the country to putting most of its oil revenues toward poverty reduction and 10 percent to a "future generations fund."
"As the recent collapse of the World Bank/Chad arrangement shows, putting oil revenues under a separate accountability 'roof' only goes so far," says Mr. Owen. "There's no real substitute for proper audit procedures, and recent assessments by the IMF note that Mauritania has weak capacity in this department."
A key issue, say analysts, is whether domestic workers are tapped in lieu of foreign workers, whose presence has roiled Africa's top exporter, Nigeria.
The country's new oil wealth is also concentrated in a few hands. Senior civil servants say it will take time to undo a situation in which many of the expatriate workers live in houses owned by Taya's family, and buy cars from their dealerships.
But progress has been made, according to a recent report from the Brussels-based think tank, International Crisis Group (ICG). "The regime has taken some anticorruption measures, including creating an inspector general's office, ratifying international conventions, and investigating the ex-oil minister. But it needs to fairly allocate public contracts, challenge private import and distribution monopolies, and more systematically fight trafficking," it says.
The first test for Mauritania will come on March 11, 2007, when the junta is to hold presidential elections in which none of its members will stand.
Hugh Roberts, co-author of the ICG report, sees hope in the fact that early on, the rulers published a calendar of steps. The first of these - a referendum on the constitution - is due June 25."Arguably, this is more and better than most observers initially expected last August," he says.
Even if the junta does bow out, some Mauritanians are uneasy. "I have confidence in the current guys," says Ahmed Abeid, a black-market money-changer. "But after elections, who knows. We have little long-term stability."