MAURITANIA'S GOVERNANCE EPITOMIZES a cycle all too evident throughout sub-Saharan Africa. A civilian government, espousing the liberal democratic principles inherited from the colonial regime, came to power on the eve of independence. After it had ruled for nearly a generation, during which time the expectations born at independence remained largely unfulfilled and government became increasingly capricious and corrupt, a military regime toppled the civilian government and suspended the Constitution. In the following years, a succession of military rulers, each promising to end the corruption, abuse of authority, and economic waste of earlier regimes, proved as unwilling and inept as their civilian predecessor at ensuring the territorial integrity of the state, achieving national unity, and fostering economic development in the face of severe environmental challenges. The subsequent ascendancy in 1987 of what appeared to be a reformist government, albeit military, demonstrated for the first time Mauritania's growing understanding of the limits of government as this new regime grappled with the problem of adapting the longstanding cultural values of a very poor society to the needs of a modern developing state.
Prior to independence, Mauritania served as a bridge between the Maghrib and West Africa, with strong cultural links to the former and equally strong economic and administrative ties to the latter. Like Sudan and Chad, which also link Arab North Africa with black Africa, Mauritania suffered internal social and political problems as cultures collided. The potential for conflict was strengthened by the proliferation of particularist-regional political parties before independence. These parties, composed exclusively of either ArabBerbers (Maures) or one of several black ethnic groups and advocating union with Arab Morocco or with black Mali, tended to aggravate existing cleavages.
To overcome the structural problems intrinsic to the Mauritanian polity, its first president, Moktar Ould Daddah, resorted to one-party rule with a strong executive branch. Although the Constitution of 1961 called for some power-sharing between the president and the legislature, the National Assembly, in practice, routinely supported presidential initiatives, and government remained highly centralized. Daddah's ill-fated participation in the Western Sahara conflict and the resulting ruin of the Mauritanian economy led to a military coup in July 1978. Daddah was detained and later exiled, and his government was replaced by the eighteen-member Military Committee for National Recovery (Comité Militaire de Redressement National--CMRN) with Lieutenant Colonel Mustapha Salek as president.
During the next six years, ensuing military regimes failed to resolve the thorny issue of Mauritania's involvement in the Western Sahara and failed to improve Mauritania's dismal economic performance. On December 12, 1984, Chief of Staff and former Minister of Defense Maaouiya Ould Sid Ahmed Ould Taya led a group of dissident officers who staged a palace coup against head of state Lieutenant Colonel Mohamed Khouna Ould Haidalla.
Still in power in late 1987, the military government under President Taya has eschewed ideological labels. Initially, Taya's policies reflected the amalgam of private capitalism and state ownership of industry common throughout sub-Saharan Africa. In his first interviews as president, Taya pledged that his administration would respect human rights, end corruption, and promote national unity. In one of his first acts, he freed thirty-two political prisoners seized by his predecessor. He also promised to hold elections for municipal councils in Mauritania's thirteen largest urban areas before the end of 1986, ostensibly to encourage local initiatives but also to appease ethnically based interests. The elections, whose fairness was acclaimed by independent observers, took place on December 19, 1986, and more were promised for smaller towns. As for a return to civilian rule, Taya insisted in March 1985 that Mauritanians must first develop an understanding of civic participation in order to avoid the divisions and paralysis that characterized the final years of Haidalla's government.
Mauritania has joined the Nonaligned Movement and has sought to establish friendly relations with both East and West. In response to Morocco's irredentist claims through the 1960s, Mauritania appealed for and received support from France and Western and African allies. That support continued as Mauritania's fortunes in the Western Sahara conflict deteriorated in the late 1970s and Morocco's challenges to Mauritania's borders mounted. As its own economy faltered and its dependence on loans and grants deepened, Mauritania improved its ties with wealthier Middle Eastern and Maghribi states at the expense of its relations with black Africa. In a further attempt to find aid, the government has moved away from total reliance on the West and strengthened relations with the Soviet Union and China.
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