Fighting the Desert War
In 1976, when Mauritanian troops occupied the Western Sahara province of Tiris al Gharbiyya, as per terms of the Madrid Agreements, they were immediately challenged in fierce fighting with Polisario guerrillas. The fighting would drag on for two years, draining an already improvised economy, provoking ethnic conflict, and causing large numbers of casualties. The direct cost of Mauritania's colonial venture proved exorbitant. Mauritania rapidly increased its armed forces from only 3,000 at the beginning of 1976 to about 12,000 at the beginning of 1977; by mid-1978 the Mauritanian armed forces numbered between 15,000 and 17,000. Between 1975 and 1977, the government's expenditures increased by 64 percent, most of which was allotted for defense. This military buildup placed a heavy burden on the weak economy and diverted funds badly needed development projects. Further alienating the population was a special defense tax, which the government levied against the entire population; despite the tax, the country was on the verge of bankruptcy by late 1977. Moreover, as the war progressed, the power of the Mauritanian military grew, contributing to internal disunity and a weak civilian government unable to solve the problems of nation buildings.
Having more than 6,400 kilometers of undefended borders with Mali and Algeria, Mauritania was highly vulnerable to attacks by Polisario guerrillas, who were armed and supported by Algeria. The government's inability to protect Mauritania's major towns, even Nouakchott, which was attacked in June 1976, raised fears that Moroccan troops would move into Mauritania, ostensibly to interdict the guerrillas but also as an expansionist vanguard. There was also fear of a possible plan on the part of Morocco's enemy, Algeria, to replace the Daddah government with a puppet regime.
Involvement of Foreign Countries
For their part, Polisario strategists sought first to remove Mauritania from the conflict and then to direct their efforts against the far stronger Moroccan forces. In mid-1977 the Polisario launched a general offensive against Mauritania to cripple its economy and incite internal opposition to the war, hoping thereby that the government either would withdraw from the conflict or would be overthrown by one more sympathetic to the Polisario cause. In May Polisario guerrillas attacked the SNIM operations at Zouīrāt, killing two French technicians and capturing another six. The remaining expatriates at Zouīrāt immediately left, and Mauritania promptly requested aid from Morocco. In June 1977, Morocco's military command merged with Mauritania's in the Supreme Defense Council, and 600 Moroccan troops arrived to protect Zouīrāt. Following further attacks against the railroad linking the SNIM iron ore mines with the port at Nouadhibou, the Mauritanian government reversed an earlier position and requested--and received--military aid from France. In December 1977, French aircraft, in their first action, attacked Polisario guerrillas returning from raids into Mauritania.
Several wealthy Arab oil-producing states, such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Abu Dhabi, also provided Mauritania with significant aid to contain the revolutionary fervor advocated by the Polisario. Between 1976 and 1978, Saudi Arabia, in particular, provided funds amounting to twice Mauritania's annual budget.
In spite of the military aid it received, Mauritania was not able to prevent the Polisario from bombarding Nouakchott for a second time, in July 1977. The rocket attack against the capital stunned Daddah, who immediately reorganized both the army and the government, appointing for the first time a military officer to the post of minister of defense. Daddah previously had resisted bringing the military into his civilian government for fear of a military takeover.
By the end of 1977, Daddah faced growing opposition to the war and to his administration. In the military, black recruits from the south, who had joined the army because they lacked other employment opportunities and who formed a majority of the ground troops, had little interest in fighting Polisario guerrillas in the north. Moreover, black civilians resented having to pay a tax to support a war between Arabs. In addition, many Maure soldiers sympathized with the objectives of the Polisario, with whom they shared ethnic ties. Finally, anti-Moroccan nationalists within the PPM opposed the war on the grounds that it afforded Morocco opportunities to expand its influence.
Overthrow of the Ould Daddah Regime
Economic hardship also weighed heavily on the Daddah regime. During 1977, defense expenditures increased as international demand for iron ore (Mauritania's major source of foreign exchange) fell. Drought conditions that devastated crops and herds further strained the economy. Mauritania survived only with the help of grants and loans from Saudi Arabia, France, Morocco, and Libya.
In January 1978, during a special congress of the PPM, Daddah unsuccessfully tried to seek a path out of the Western Sahara war; however, the increasingly isolated leader proved unable to undertake any diplomatic or political initiatives. In addition, relations between Daddah and senior army officers were strained because the president constantly shifted senior officers from posting to posting to guard against a possible coup.
In February 1978, in a desperate move, Daddah appointed Colonel Mustapha Ould Salek to be army commander. In the late 1960s, Daddah had relegated Salek, who was suspected of proFrench leanings, to the reserve corps. (Salek had reentered active duty only in 1977, when he was made commander of the Third Military Region, at Atar, and relations between Daddah and Salek were still strained.) On July 10, 1978, the newly appointed army commander led a group of junior officers in the bloodless overthrow of the eighteen-year-old Daddah government.
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