Local Government

Local Government

The 1961 Constitution kept the highly centralized colonial structure of counties (cercles), subdivisions (souspréfectures ), and administrative posts. Local councils were established in the twelve cercles--the French created eleven cercles coterminous with the old amirates, and the newly independent government created a twelfth cercle, Tiris Zemmour, out of northern Adrar--as representative and administrative bodies to replace the chiefs and councils of notables through whom the French ruled. By 1961 urban and rural communes had been created, and rudimentary representative councils had been established with elected mayors in the urban communes. There were five urban communes modeled after similar bodies in France in Rosso, Kaédi, Atar, Bogué, and Nouakchott. Three experimental communes were established in Nouadhibou, `Ayoûn el `Atroûs, and Fdérik. Although the government attempted to give the councils and mayors of the communes control over communal legislation, the communes failed to fulfill any meaningful function for lack of trained and experienced managerial cadres and for want of resources to support local administration. With the Law of March 4, 1968, the rural communes were abolished, and less than a year later the urban and experimental communes were also eliminated. Local administration reverted to the traditional authorities, who became the links between the rulers and the rest of the population.

On July 30, 1968, the resources and functions of the former communes were transferred to twelve regions and one district (Nouakchott) in sweeping reforms of local administration. Each of the regions, which were generally coterminous with the former cercles, were subdivided into départements, generally coterminous with the former sous-préfectures, and further divided into arrondissements, corresponding to the former administrative posts. A thirteenth region encompassing al Gharbia (that part of Western Sahara claimed by Mauritania) was created in 1976; however, it was abandoned when Mauritania withdrew from the Western Sahara conflict. The state viewed the regions as serving as administrative subdivisions and as independent judicial districts.

Each region was headed by a governor representing the central government. The governor headed the administrative bureaucracy of the region, ensured the execution of laws and regulations, and coordinated state services (except for military and judicial activities). Under his authority were préfets, who administered départements, as well as other civil servants of the region. The governor's staff also included two assistants responsible for administration and economic and social development. The governor and his two assistants were appointed by the president.

Each region had a regional assembly of twenty to thirty members (conseillers) named by presidential decree from a list of nominees presented by the party. The conseillers served with no pay for five years. The regional assemblies had only minimal autonomy. The regional budgets for which they voted were prepared by the government in Nouakchott and included mandatory expenses, such as the cost of administration and maintenance of local roads and secondary airports. Regional assemblies could also levy taxes on certain specified goods and allocate a portion of their budgetary subvention from the central government to discretionary items. In spite of these apparent moves toward decentralization, effective control remained with the central government in the name of forging national unity. Regional assemblies served only to disseminate orders and information from Nouakchott, and not to mediate between local and centralized authority.

Under military rule, the government no longer pursued even the pretense of democracy. Although the office of regional governor was retained, the regional assemblies, like the National Assembly, were eliminated. In addition to a regional governor with responsibility for regional administration, six regions also had a regional military commander responsible for maintaining internal security, a task that included monitoring and controlling political dissent within his region. The two regions classified as autonomous military sectors also had military commanders with responsibilities similar to those of the regular commanders.


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