Friday, January 4, 2008

2007: The Year of Mauritania?

This investigation in the Arab Reform Bulletin on Mauritanian governance is a few weeks old, and I was going to introduce into a more thorough year in review regarding governance in Africa, but we’d most likely be ringing in 2009 before the larger piece ever saw the light of day.

Nonetheless, the story provides a good primer on current Mauritian politics, which is undergoing a process of wholesale democratization. On paper, at least, slavery has been outlawed; the government passed a law forcing senior officials to declare their assets; also, the government allows the press and media to work largely unmolested (it ranks 50 out of 169 countries in the Reporters Without Borders Freedom Index, the highest ranking for any Arab state.) However, the government remains shaky because most people suffer severally from a lack of economic choices, and long-term sustainable growth will continue to be a problem, which the author lays the blame on “deeply entrenched socio-economic challenges.”

The government, which inherited a troubled, corruption-ridden economy, has placed high hopes on the recent discovery of oil. Mauritania began oil production in February 2006, but output is so far lower than expected. The Chinguetti field is currently producing around 20,000 barrels per day, not the projected 75,000 barrels. Lower production levels also afflict the fishing industry, and agricultural production is vulnerable because of unstable weather conditions. Manufacturing industries also suffer due to unreliable power supplies. While oil-driven economic growth in 2006 was 11.7 percent, non-oil GDP growth was only 4.1 percent, marking a decline from the 2005 rate of 5.4 percent. According to the World Bank, Mauritania's income per capita in 2006 was only $740, while the inflation rate was 29.8 percent.

Yet a further challenge to democratic consolidation in Mauritania are the socio-economic divisions arising from the country's complex ethnic composition, which includes Arab White Moors (Bidan), former Black Moor slaves (Harratin), and Afro-Mauritanians. Despite the president's pledge to promote national unity and equality, the country's African population continues to suffer from a historically disadvantaged socio-economic position exacerbated by the continuation of slavery practices, illiteracy, and weak central government institutions.

Perhaps it’s the oil, or the government’s commitment to reform (or both), but the country is becoming more skillful securing foreign aid. The World Bank recently promised $1.14 billion in credits and grants; U.S. economic aid is slated at $5.23 million for 2008; And a group of Middle Eastern and European countries recently penned a $2.1 billion, three-year investment program.

These economic issues, along with the attempted refugee repatriation and reconciliation of the country’s ethnic groups, catapults Mauritania to the top of the list that ranks West Africa’s most fascinating countries. All in all, I think Mauritania became one of the most compelling stories of the past year.

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