Political Power in the Mid-1980S
Upon taking office in 1984, Taya pledged to promote political unity and stability by improving the economy, redressing the erosion of civil and human rights, and ensuring Mauritania's strict neutrality in the Western Sahara conflict. During the first two years of Taya's administration, Mauritania's economic performance improved, even though attempts to halt or slow desertification proved ineffectual. Revenues from agriculture, mining, and fishing increased from the depressed levels of the drought years; the rate of inflation decreased; and the World Bank stepped up lending, following a currency devaluation in 1985. In keeping with his promise concerning human rights, in late 1984 and early 1985 Taya freed many of the political prisoners jailed by his predecessor. More important, he successfully organized Mauritania's first elections.
Taya himself, known as a diligent, loyal, disinterested professional, remained a popular figure. At least at the outset, his tenure attracted support from Mauritania's principal constituencies, including harratin, labor, and students, as well as from the exiled, pro-Moroccan Alliance for a Democratic Mauritania (Alliance pour une Mauritanie Démocratique--AMD) based in Paris and the Organization of Mauritanian Nationalists (Organisation des Nationalistes Mauritaniens) formed in Senegal. His general amnesty for political prisoners pleased both domestic and external dissidents, and his ban on alcohol won support from Islamic fundamentalists.
In spite of Taya's successes, internal politics in 1987 remained unsettled. Alternative political choices were still banned, and neither of the two exiled dissident groups chose to return. Corruption, which had flourished under Haidalla, was still a significant problem. The number of nomadic herders dropped from 85 percent of the population to 15 percent, with former nomads settling in Nouakchott and other cities and vastly inflating the number of unemployed or underemployed living in kébés (shantytowns) surrounding Nouakchott. Harratin, who previously had worked for the nomads, also entered the labor market, often in competition with their former employers for scarce or nonexistent jobs. Wealthy speculators exploited the difficulties of the nomads by purchasing their herds at distress prices and then selling them to farmers in the south. The economy, which had rebounded somewhat during Taya's first two years in office, stagnated. The government raised prices for staples and simultaneously devalued the ouguiya. Revenues from mining, fishing and agriculture dropped. To prevent a financial collapse, the World Bank took control of the International Bank of Mauritania (Banque Internationale pour la Mauritanie--BIMA). Finally, southern blacks, and the Toucouleur in particular, charged the Taya government with discrimination and bias, and in frustration they took their grievances to the streets.
Internal divisions based on race remained Taya's most critical domestic problem in 1987, in spite of his insistence that racism was of no consequence in Mauritania. Since independence, some black groups repeatedly had charged the government with discrimination, alleging underrepresentation of blacks in important posts in government, education, and business. Other grievances included supposed favoritism by the state in allocating resources, such as bank loans and scholarships, and a land reform act that seemingly gave Maures preference in the acquisition of irrigated land along the Senegal River. The 1983 Land Reform Act maintained that as the owner of all unimproved and undeeded land, the state had an inherent interest in its development. The act stipulated that in accordance with relevant provisions of sharia, the government was permitted to cede land to those committed to improving it. Although the policy of providing parcels of fallow, irrigable land to those willing to farm it was economically sound, ambiguities surrounding the implementation of the Land Reform Act raised the specter of wealthy land speculators from Nouakchott and Nouadhibou appropriating tracts of rich agricultural land along the Senegal River and displacing blacks whose roots extended back for generations. Complicating the issue was the fact that wealthy blacks from the Senegal River Basin were also interested in assembling large, capital-intensive farms on riparian lands and were very much in favor of the government's efforts on their behalf.
President Taya attempted to deal with racial controversy by creating a national constituency to replace local or regional (often ethnically based) affiliations. To this end, he sought to eliminate racial and ethnic labels. He continued to bring southern blacks and harratin into his government, in mid1987 he named three women to cabinet positions, and he earmarked agriculture along the Senegal River, historically a black enterprise, for heavy investment. Notwithstanding such efforts, local blacks, Mauritania's black African neighbors, and many foreign observers shared the perception that Maures formulated and carried out the political agenda. Moreover, frequent cabinet changes, coupled with the rapid rotation of regional governors and military commanders, have prevented Mauritania's political leaders from acquiring managerial expertise.
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