Mauritania’s Ahmadinejad?

Mauritania is one of those out-of-the-way off-the-radar Arab countries that rarely get much attention. I must admit I have never been there myself, though I have flown over it a couple of times – which in the circumstances probably makes me something of an expert.

Anyway, Mauritanians were voting in a presidential election yesterday, with nine candidates to choose from. The Moor Next Door blog gives a warts-and-all description of the main contenders, while a Telegraph correspondent in Nouakchott enthuses about anti-slavery candidate Messaoud Ould Boulkheir (yes, Mauritania has an estimated 600,000 slaves). 

Ould Boulkheir’s other electoral assets in the eyes of the Telegraph are that he looks like film actor Freeman Morgan and has been described as “the Obama of Mauritania”.

But Ould Boulkheir (and the Telegraph) may be disappointed. First reports since the polls closed suggest ex-general Ould Abdel Aziz will be declared the winner. Ould Abdel Aziz seized power last year in a military coup then abandoned his uniform in order to stand for election.

"Now he's trying to take over again dressed as a civilian, but it's a disguise," Mauritanian car salesman Yacoub Brahim tells the Associated Press. "He's only interested in power."

How is it, I wonder, that coup leaders almost always win elections, when they eventually get round to holding them? What makes them so popular? The Moor Next Door (which seems to be the only English-language blog covering the election in detail) suggestsa simple explanation: fraud. 

But, as the Associated Press notes:

While Washington never recognised Aziz's junta, it is keen to maintain Mauritania as a bulwark against the terror group [“al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb”] and prevent the moderate Muslim nation from sliding toward extremism.

So that’s all right, then. Mauritania is a bulwark.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 19 July 2009