October 2, 2006 Special Dispatch No. 1304

Mauritanian President Ely Ould Mohamed Vall on Reform in His Country: ‘It Was Necessary to Break... the Logic of Lifelong Rule’

October 2, 2006
North Africa, Mauritania | Special Dispatch No. 1304

Colonel Ely Ould Mohamed Vall came to power on August 3, 2005, through a bloodless coup that toppled the 20-year dictatorship of Maaouiya Ould Taya. He was named President of Mauritania by the Military Council for Justice and Democracy (MCJD), which he headed. It should be noted that on Monday, October 1, 2006, an official ceremony was held to mark a new law putting an end to the Interior Ministry's control over the press; in practice, no censorship has been exercised since President Mohamed Vall assumed power in 2005. During the July 2006 African Union summit at Banjul, a motion congratulating Ely Ould Mohamed Vall was thwarted by the opposition of the president of the AU commission, Alpha Oumar Konaré.

In July, the Paris-based newsweekly Jeune Afrique published an interview with the Mauritanian president, in which he discussed the reforms he has implemented - a new constitution, limitation of the presidential term, minimum representation level of 20% for women in political parties - as well as his plans for the future.

The following are excerpts from the interview: [1]

"The August 3, 2005 Popular Coup Was the Mother of All the Ensuing Changes"

Jeune Afrique: "You don't like it when people call your rise to power a coup. Why this reservation?"

President Ely Ould Mohamed Vall: "I see this as having been a major change, the mother of all the ensuing changes. I never conceived, experienced, and managed [the events of] August 3 as a coup. What existed before it was not order, but rather institutional disorder. From the beginning, our action has always rested on a national consensus. No one can deny this. Is there any better foundation or anything more legitimate than popular consensus?"

Jeune Afrique: "This can no longer be contested, since a new constitution was adopted on June 25 by a referendum in which 96% voted yes, with a 77% participation rate. This was a Soviet-style plebiscite!"

Vall: "Possibly, but without the Supreme Soviet, the sole party, the political commissars, and the stuffing of the ballot boxes. We proposed a plan, and the vast majority of citizens approved it of their own free will. [The meaning of this is] crystal clear."

"When the Same Person and the Same System Remain in Power for Three Decades, and the People Have No Prospect of Change, This Opens the Door to All Kinds of Incidents and Violence"

Jeune Afrique: "The new clauses ban, among others things, the amendment of the constitution on one key point: the duration of the presidential term. From now on, it will last for five years, with the possibility of a second five-year term, and no more…"

Vall: "The root of the Mauritanian ills was [in] the refusal to allow transfer of power at the summit, which made transfer of power impossible de facto, if not de jure. Hence the decision to make it obligatory after 10 years. When the same person and the same system remain in power for two or three decades, and the people have no prospect of change, this opens the door to all kinds of incidents and violence"...

Jeune Afrique: "Did you have a plan of action, a definite agenda, in mind when you took power?"

Vall: "Not really. I had a few ideas and an order of priorities. I knew that the new Mauritania would be built on three elements: justice, good management, and the [regular] transfer of power. Everything we have done since then has had to do with these three poles, and each time we took a step forward, we knew that the national consensus was with us."

Jeune Afrique: "Have there been disagreements within the Military Council [for Justice and Democracy] on the procedure to follow?"

Vall: "Not at all. From the beginning, all the Council members made the same diagnosis, and agreed on the same remedies. The Council both discusses issues and makes decisions. It convenes on a regular basis, two or three times every four months - and works in cooperation with the government."

Jeune Afrique: "But who is the boss? You or the Military Council?"

Vall: "The MCJD is a group that makes decisions on behalf of the country. I am the MCJD president and enjoy as such all the prerogatives connected with this function."

Jeune Afrique: "You have personally seen to it over the last year that there be no settling of scores and no witch hunt of the members of the former regime. Why? Is it because you yourselves are, in a sense, a part of it?"

Vall: "It has nothing to do with that. I believe that from the very first day, change had to be for the good of all Mauritanians and at the expense of no one. I never deviated from this line of conduct. You know, every single political leader in this country, including the former opposition members, has at some point served the autocratic system that was in place since independence. With such a general system that makes democratic change impossible, why should we stigmatize this or that regime? No one is entitled to teach others, no one is more legitimate than anyone else. The change that occurred on August 3 did not put an end to any regime in particular, but rather to a 45-year-old system that was completely worn out."

Jeune Afrique: "So there will be no investigations on the fortune or the propriety of this or that person?"

Vall: "If we begin investigating, we will have to go four decades back. This would cause serious damage. Seriously, it is out of the question. We would lose time and it would be an unending source of controversy."

Vall, MCJD Members Won't Run in March 2007 Elections: "It Was Necessary to… Break Once and For All the Logic of Lifelong Rule"

Jeune Afrique: "You made a commitment not to run in the March 2007 presidential election - neither you nor any other member of the MCJD or the government. I know you are a man who keeps his word, but still, can you repeat this here?"

Vall: "Listen, the Mauritanians don't doubt it at all, but since you insist, I will say it again. Never did I consider reneging on such a solemn commitment. It was necessary to make a significant symbolic rupture in people's minds and break once and for all the logic of lifelong rule. If I were to be a candidate next March, then you could justly claim that August 3 was yet another coup, and then all the changes that were introduced since then would not have been good for anything."

Jeune Afrique: "So on March 11, 2007, your work will be over."

Vall: "I am certain of it."

Jeune Afrique: "You request a significant sacrifice from your collaborators - and particularly from your ministers and Prime Minister. For five years they will not be allowed to hold any elective office, even though they probably did a good job."

Vall: "I believe our contract was clear. And I am sure they agree with me on the reasons for these limits. We all share the same ideal."

Jeune Afrique: "Will you support a given candidate for the presidency?"

Vall: "I have said, and I will repeat: we will not be supporting anyone."

Jeune Afrique: "And what if this or that candidate claims to be supported by you?"

Vall: "I will issue a communiqué to underscore that no one is authorized to claim that I support him."

Jeune Afrique: "What will happen to the military committee after the elections?"

Vall: "On the day of the elections it will dissolve itself."

"Had I Been Able to Impose [On the Political Parties] a 50% Quota for Women, I Would Have"

Q: "At the end of June, you took a step that is quite revolutionary for anyone who knows Mauritanian society. During the parliamentary and municipal elections to be held on November 19, 20% of each list and party will have to be women. This is the required quota. Are you a supporter of affirmative action?"

Vall: "I will make myself clear even if what I say seems shocking. One of our main problems in Mauritania is that women, who represent 50% of the population, for the most part do not work, are not productive, depend on men, and remain outside culture and education. For many this is a source of huge frustration, which they vent in wild expenditures. What a waste! What a jam for a developing country! The solution is simple: include women in the economical and political production process, with great determination. Had I been able to impose a 50% quota, I would have. This is how important it is."

Jeune Afrique: "Could a woman lead Mauritania one day?"

Vall: "In my opinion, yes."

"The Priority for Use of Oil Money Must Be Productive Investment... No Slush Funds or Bribes, Just Constant Honesty and Transparency"

Jeune Afrique: "Another - more passive - revolution occurred with oil. Since February 26, Mauritania has joined the club of the oil-producing countries. It has done so on a modest scale, but still, a $200-million income is expected for this year, which is not nothing. How do you intend to manage this manna?"

Vall: "By doing what is necessary so that it becomes a factor of development and not of criminalization. This means total transparency, the possibility of tracing every petrodollar upstream and downstream, the creation of a fund for future generations and the adhesion of Mauritania to all the international initiatives aimed at promoting and controlling management in this field. The aim of this country - and this has already been reached - is that no one, whether he be head of state, [a] minister, a company manager, or a foreign partner, will be able to play with oil money"...

Jeune Afrique: "What do you have to say to the Mauritanians regarding the oil issue: not to dream?"

Vall: "I tell the future leaders of this country, again and again: …The Mauritanians must not consider themselves an unproductive country with an income. It would be a serious mistake. The priority for use of oil money must be productive investment, rather than the functioning of the state. No slush funds or bribes, just constant honesty and transparency."

The Refugee Problem

Jeune Afrique: "There still is, on the other side of the Senegalese border, a few thousand black Mauritanian refugees who were expelled in 1989-90. They demand an organized return to the country. Why hasn't this problem been solved yet, one year after your rise to power?"

Vall: "Any person who claims to be Mauritanian can and must present himself at the border. We immediately check him, and if there is proof that he is a Mauritanian national, he is welcome home. You are inquiring about an organized, collective return? Why not? I am not against it - as long as no one escapes the individual checking of nationality when crossing the border. This checking can only happen before [crossing the border], not afterwards."


Ould Taya's People Took Violent Action to Prevent the Referendum

Jeune Afrique: "Half a dozen relatives of former president Ould Taya, both civilians and military men, were arrested on the eve of the June 25 referendum. What are they accused of?"

Vall: "We are talking about a very small group of individuals who are well-known and who have been kept track of for a long time. They had decided to take violent action in order to prevent that the referendum, which they saw as a point of no return, from taking place under normal conditions.On all other issues, the investigation is ongoing, and the courts will say what they have to say about this affair when the time comes."

Jeune Afrique: "They all have one common point: they are all linked to Maaouniya Ould Taya, who is exiled in Qatar."

Vall: "I do not want to deal with this issue. What I do want to say is that apart from a few isolated instances, I know of no one in Mauritania who is nostalgic for the former regime."...

Salafist Threat in Mauritania?

Jeune Afrique: "About 30 Islamists were arrested in May and June at Nouakchott for very serious reasons: They had weapons in their possession and were planning terrorist attacks. Is there a Salafist threat in Mauritania?"

Vall: "No more and no less than anywhere else. These people were for the most part linked to the Algerian GSPC, and some had taken part in the attack of the Lemgheity army base, in June 2005."

Jeune Afrique: "The Mauritanian borders have a reputation for being rather porous."

Vall: "This is completely wrong. No terrorist group ever passed through Mauritania to go and attack another country, and until now, thank God, our country was spared this plague. This is partly due to the efficiency of our security services. We often hear people say that Mauritania is weak, porous, open to all four winds. This is only in appearance. In reality, this country is much more solid and united than what people say."...

The West Sahara Conflict

Jeune Afrique: "You have an interest in the conflict in the Western Sahara to which - and this is the least we can say - we see no solution. Has your position evolved?"

Vall: "No. It is still the same: neutrality, respect of international legality - that is, of U.N. decisions. Beyond that, we support any consensus solution between the parties. This conflict has lasted for 30 years, and it affects us all."

Crisis "Should [Not] Put into Question Our General Approach to Relations with the Israelis and the Palestinians... We Advocate Restraint and Constant Search for a Political Solution"

Jeune Afrique: "There were demonstrations in support of the Palestinians a few days ago at Nouakchott. Won't the recent escalation of the crisis, in Gaza and in Lebanon, lead you to freeze your diplomatic relations with Israel?"

Vall: "Mauritanian demonstrations on this issue are not new, and today they can demonstrate without being repressed. The current crisis is indeed quite worrying, and we can only express our sympathy and solidarity with the brother peoples of Palestine and Lebanon, who are being struck hard by the conflict. But I don't think this crisis should put into question our general approach to relations with the Israelis and the Palestinians. With all, we advocate restraint and the constant search for a political solution."

"The Next President Will Not Be Accountable to Me, but to the Parliament and the Mauritanian People"

Jeune Afrique: "What part will the Mauritanian army play after this transition period?"

Vall: "That of a republican army respectful of the institutions."...

Jeune Afrique: "If the policy of the president to be elected next March does not suit you and undermines the interests of the country, what will you do?"

Vall: "The next president will not be accountable to me but to the Parliament and the Mauritanian people. With the new constitution, we provided the system with its own railings, in order to prevent it from going off track and in order to enable it to correct its own mistakes...."



[1] Jeune Afrique (Paris), July 23-29 2006. Jeune Afrique focuses mainly on North Africa and the French-speaking regions of sub-Saharan Africa. Its editor is Bechir Ben Yahmad.

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