Thursday, April 24, 2008

In Mauritania, the future's so bright, they gotta wear shades?

Mauritania’s first democratically elected civilian president in nearly five decades, Sidi Mohamed Abdallahi Ould Cheikh, recently celebrated his first year in office. IRIN has an interesting piece on the changes he’s brought to the country and the obstacles he faces.

He has allowed long-banned political and religious associations, a very popular move. Islamist-leaning parties like Tawassoul and the Rally for National Reform and Development are now well established.

Cheikh campaigned for the post on a pledge to end slavery in the country, and signed that into law less than nine months ago. While it’s immediately hard to tackle such an institutional problem, at least one human rights campaigner gives him props for trying. Another bonus is thelong-standing issue of nearly 20,000 Mauritanian refugees living in Senegal has also begun to be seriously addressed.

His more limited success has come in the battle against corruption and modernizing the public sector. All this happens with the backdrop of Mauritania’s 2001 discovery of large oil deposits, which has yet to really pay off. The government recently estimated the unemployment rate to hover around 32 percent. Things are made worse by the world’s rising food prices, especially in light that sandy, dry and hot Mauritania can only grow 30 percent of the food stocks necessary to feed the population.

Adding more economic pressure to the country is what the Western media perceives as a growing terrorist threat, especially after four French tourists were killed and another wounded on Christmas eve by members of an Al-Qaeda linked terror group. The killings led to the cancellation of the Paris-Dakar rally, usually an economic boom for the country. In early February, gunmen attacked the Israeli embassy in Nouckchott, wounding three people. The tourism industry continues to suffer from the fallout of these attacks.

Another pressing issue is the pan-West African problem of drug smugglers using the long, deserted West African coastline as a port to transfer drugs to Europe. If smugglers, who rely on corrupt military and government officials, become entrenched in the country, it could lead to instability and lawlessness.

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