MAURITANIA: A coup for good
Thomas Cromwell

Mauritania is one of those far-off countries which rarely rate an international headline. About three times the size of New Mexico, it is largely desert, with 40 percent of its three million people living below the poverty line. In August last year, however, the world heard of a bloodless coup that ended the 21-year rule of Maaouya Ould Sid Ahmed Taya, who himself had seized power in a 1984 coup.

To all appearances, the new leaders in Nouakchott are serious about turning over power to an elected government in March 2007, and the head of the ruling Military Council for Justice and Democracy, Colonel Ely Ould Mohamed Vall, continues to insist that he will not run for president.

Mauritania’s ambassador to Washington, Tijani Ould Kerim, told in a recent interview that democratic and economic reforms under Taya had not been complete and that radical Islamist opposition elements were gaining ground. “It was getting out of hand with two or three coup attempts,” he said.

He said, “The new democratic era which started in 1991 was not complete because the opposition did not have an opportunity to compete,” and that the coup was carried out “to set up the basis for a real democracy in Mauritania.”

He noted that the “people are very excited by the changes” taking place in the country, and support the new leadership. He ticked off several encouraging steps taken by the ruling Council: the release of political prisoners, including Muslim leaders; the return from abroad of opposition figures; consultations set up with political parties, including the Islamists; creation of an independent electoral commission, the establishment of term limits for the president (two five-year terms) and liberalization of the media.

The ambassador said that Washington was initially very skeptical about the coup, but that the view has changed as the Council members have proven themselves serious about democratic change and handing power to an elected civilian government. As evidence of these good intentions, the ambassador pointed out that the Council had reduced the time it would remain in power from two years to 19 months. “There is no doubt they are leaving,” he said.

There are a series of elections that will demonstrate the real situation. In November there will be local and parliamentary elections, and on January 7 elections for the Senate, followed by a March 7 presidential election.

Mauritania in the meantime has joined the club of oil exporting countries. Exploration off-shore indicates that it has reserves of some 700 million to one billion barrels, and in March this year it began pumping some 75,000 barrels per day.

The ambassador said that his country has seen the harm of an ‘oil curse’, and was determined for the new income to be a blessing for Mauritania. “We took the experience from other countries,” he said.

He said the key to keeping oil revenues from causing problems is maintaining full transparency regarding how they are spent. He said Mauritania had learned from Norway’s example of setting up a special fund with oil export revenues, for future generations. Mauritania plans to use a major part of the oil income for current budget needs, such as infrastructure, health, education and poverty alleviation.

Also offshore are some of the world’s richest fishing grounds. In the past, these have been worked primarily by European trawlers. Now, though, the Mauritanian authorities want to protect the fish stocks and negotiate better terms with foreign fishing companies. They are in the process of negotiating a new agreement with the European Union.

For American companies, he said, there are opportunities for investment in oil, diamonds, gold and infrastructure, among other sectors. “US companies should be more aggressive,” he said, citing laws to protect investments and other incentives instituted by the government.

The ambassador said that he sees Mauritania as a “link between the Arab world and Africa, “as it has been for centuries.” The country sits on three main roads, running north to the Western Sahara and Morocco, east to Mali, and south to Senegal. In fact Mauritania has become a major staging area for Africans headed for Europe. They take boats from the Mauritanian shore, trying to enter Spain illegally. “Mauritania is tackling this problem,” the ambassador said, “but the solution is to fight poverty in Africa.”

Biography of Ambassador Tijani Ould Mohamed El Kerim

Last Name: Ould Mohamed El Kerim
First Name: Tijani
Date of birth: December 31st, 1951
Place of birth: Mederdra (Mauritania)
Marital status: Married and father of five (5) children
1957-1963 Elementary:
Elementary School of Mederdra

1963-1971 High School:
Baccalaureate Option Literature Modern, July 1971

1971-1975 University:
University Pantheon-Sorbonne (Paris III)
Master Degree of Literature

1986 National Conservatory of Arts and Crafts, Paris:
Science Studies of the Organization (Methods and Procedures)  1976-1977 :Teacher-High School of Nouakchott.

1977-1978: President of High Council of Young, High Commissioner of the Youth.

1978-1979: Director of Studies at the high school of Atar.

1979-1980: Teacher at the high school of Aïoun.

1984-1985: Teacher, Pedagogic Advisor, National Pedagogy Institute.

1985-1988: Chief of Project of School Printing-IPN.

1988-1989: Consul General to Dakar (Senegal).

1990-1992: In Charge of Inspection-General Inspection of High School.
1992-1996: Member of the National Parliament.
1996-1999: Consul General to Banjul (Gambia).
1999-2002: 1999-2002 Ambassador to Ivory Cost.
2002-2004: Ambassador to Canada.
2004-Present: Ambassador to the United States of America.
Languages: French, Arabic, English