Independence and Civilian Rule

Independence and Civilian Rule

The political crisis in France that saw the birth of the French Fifth Republic in 1958 necessitated a new French constitution. Also adopted by the people of Mauritania in a referendum in September 1958, this new constitution provided for a French Community whose members would be autonomous republics. But status as an autonomous member of the French Community quickly lost its appeal as Mauritania witnessed the wave of nationalism sweeping the African continent. As soon as the Islamic Republic of Mauritania was proclaimed in October 1958, the Territorial Assembly changed its name to the Constituent Assembly and immediately initiated work to draft a national constitution; the document was unanimously adopted by the Constituent Assembly in March 1959 in place of the French constitution, and on November 28, 1960, Mauritania declared its independence.

The molding of a new political entity was a challenge in a country in which the gradual breakdown of a well-entrenched tribal hierarchy and its authority was still under way. Also, Mauritania's predominantly nomadic society did not lend itself to the establishment of administrative agencies; consequently, numerous political parties formed around those leaders who already exercised tribal authority. Most of the population, who observed democratic nomadic traditions--in which influence did not always pass directly from father to son, land was not owned by individuals, and material wealth was widely distributed rather than concentrated in a few hands--eventually accepted a centralized government.

With the advent of independence, party leaders recognized the need to consolidate to ensure the establishment of a strong and independent government that also represented Mauritania's regional and ethnic diversity. Consequently, there was a tendency on the part of some to try to put aside their differences. Daddah was able gradually to gain the support of numerous opposition parties because of his demonstrated willingness to include in his government those who previously had opposed him. Thus, even after Daddah charged Nahda with corruption, banned the party from participation in the elections to Mauritania's first National Assembly in May 1959, declared the party illegal, and placed five of its leaders under arrest, Nahda still responded to Daddah's urgent appeal to preserve unity and independence.

In a new election, held in accordance with provisions of the new constitution in August 1961, Nahda campaigned for Daddah, who won the election with the additional support of the black party, the Mauritanian National Union. The new government formed in September 1961 included representatives of both Nahda and the Mauritanian National Union in important ministries. This electoral, then governmental, coalition was formalized in October 1961 with the consolidation of the Mauritanian Regroupment Party, Nahda, the Mauritanian National Union, and the Mauritanian Muslim Socialist Union into the Mauritanian People's Party (Parti du Peuple Mauritanienne--PPM). On December 25, 1961, the PPM was constituted as the sole legal party. Its policies included a foreign policy of nonalignment and opposition to ties with France.

In accordance with the new government's objective of acquiring support from blacks, Daddah included two blacks in his cabinet. Also, the National Assembly, headed by a black, comprised ten blacks and twenty Maures. As a final development in the emergence of a dominant single party, Daddah, the party's secretary general, further concentrated power in his hands. The PPM proclaimed Mauritania a one-party state in 1964, and the National Assembly passed a constitutional amendment in 1965 that institutionalized the PPM as the single legal party in the state. Organized opposition was henceforth restricted to channels within the party.

Emerging Tensions

Tight control of political life by the PPM reinforced the highly centralized system. The imposition of single-party rule over a highly diverse population caused underlying tensions to emerge, especially among the southern black population, who feared Arab domination. Their fears were exacerbated by the 1966 decision to make the study of Hassaniya Arabic compulsory in secondary schools and the decision in 1968 to make Hassaniya Arabic, as well as French, an official language. Differences over linguistic and racial issues subsequently caused strikes and demonstrations by students and trade unionists in 1968, 1969, and 1971; all demonstrations were harshly repressed by the government, which in 1966 had banned discussion of racial problems. Other tensions existed among black Maures, who were still considered members of a slave class even though slavery had been outlawed under the French and by the Mauritanian Constitution.

Political divisions within the trade union movement also erupted, causing the movement to split in 1969 into two factions, one favoring integration into the PPM and the other lobbying for an independent form of trade unionism. The PPM, ignoring the latter faction, integrated the trade unions in 1972. Their action followed a series of strikes in late 1971, including a two-month shutdown of the iron mine operated by the Mauritanian Iron Mines Company (Société Anonyme des Mines de Fer de Mauritanie-- MIFERMA). Soon after the integration of the trade unions, an unofficial trade union movement was formed, and in 1973 a clandestine leftist political party, the Mauritanian Kadihine Party, was created. Another clandestine group, the Party of Mauritanian Justice, was formed in 1974 and called for more political freedom.

Time of Radicalization

In 1969 following Morocco's official recognition of Mauritania, the government pursued a more radical political agenda to reduce its economic dependence on France. The first major step toward this aim was taken in 1972, when the government announced that it would review the agreements signed with France at independence and would sign new, more stringent agreements on cultural, technical, and economic cooperation in 1973. New agreements on military and monetary cooperation were pointedly eliminated, and Mauritania soon declared its intention of leaving the West Africa Monetary Union and its Franc Zone and introducing its own currency, the ouguiya, with the backing of Algeria and other Arab countries. In 1974, MIFERMA, which was controlled by French interests and provided 80 percent of national exports, was nationalized and the name changed to National Mining and Industrial Company (Société Nationale Industrielle et Minière-- SNIM). Also in 1974, Mauritania joined the League of Arab States (Arab League). Finally, during the August 1975 congress of the PPM, Daddah presented a charter calling for an Islamic, national, centralist, and socialist democracy. The charter was so popular that both the Mauritanian Kadihine Party and the Party of Mauritanian Justice withdrew their opposition to the Daddah government.

In the early 1970s, the Daddah government made some progress toward achieving national unity and economic independence. These gains, however, were more than offset by the economic hardship caused by a Sahelian drought that lasted from 1969 to 1974. Thousands of nomads migrated to shantytowns outside the cities, increasing urban population from 8 percent of the total population to 25 percent between 1962 and 1975. But other problems forced Mauritania's leaders to shift their focus from internal to external events: the decolonization of the neighboring Western Sahara at the end of 1975; the subsequent occupation of that former Spanish territory by Morocco and Mauritania; and the liberation struggle of the indigenous people of the Western Sahara, which embroiled Mauritania in a long and costly war.

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