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LYMAN: Impact of Mauritania Coup Unclear

Interviewer: Esther Pan
Interviewee: Princeton N. Lyman
August 4, 2005

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A group of military officers staged a coup in the oil-rich western African nation of Mauritania August 3, deposing President Maaoya Sid’Ahmed Ould Taya and declaring they will hold power for two years and then hold elections. Princeton Lyman, the Ralph Bunche senior fellow in Africa policy studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, talks about the coup’s impact.

What has happened in Mauritania?

Well, when the president went to the funeral of King Fahd [bin Adbul Aziz, who died August 1] in Saudi Arabia, military officers staged a successful coup and took over the government. Taya, the former president—the president who has been overthrown—himself came to power in a coup in 1984, [and] he has been elected since then a couple of times.

Elected in free elections?

I think that’s the source of part of the problem. In recent years, President Taya has accused his opposition of being extremists and terrorists, and has either jailed them or put them on trial or driven them out of the country. So the system was clearly not [open] there.

Will the new leader [Colonel Ely Ould Mohammed Vall, 55, chief of the national police since 1987] take Taya’s place?

Well, what the military leaders of the coup are saying is that they plan to be in power for two years and then stage elections. Now, it raises a very serious question for the African Union and for the international community, because the African Union has said it will not recognize any government that comes to power through unconstitutional means. So the Africans will put a great deal of pressure on the coup leaders to stage elections a lot earlier than two years [from now].

Did the African Union recognize Taya’s government?

Yes, they did.

But he came to power through unconstitutional means.

And we—the United States—are in a delicate position here, because we have been engaged with Mauritania as well as other countries in the region on a major antiterrorism program: training forces to go after largely Algerian terrorists, who have been using that area of Africa as a safe haven for recruiting and training. I think Mauritania—as well as Chad, both of which participate in that program—raises serious questions about our approach, because we were dealing with governments that on the one hand were controversial and, to some extent, unpopular. And in particular in Mauritania, Taya seemed to be driving the opposition more and more into an extremist Islamist corner. That was a worrisome thing beforehand, and now it’s, of course, exploded into a coup.

Do you feel that the opposition was leaning toward Islamic extremism itself, without Taya’s pressure?

I think the opposition is more Islamist [and against] some of the steps the government [was taking]. Mauritania is one of the few Arab League members to have relations with Israel [the two countries established full diplomatic relations in 1999]. But I think the issue is much more [about] domestic power than it is anything else.

Do you think the new government will ally itself with al-Qaeda or other extremists?

No, I don’t think so. I do think that we will have to sit down very carefully and review with them their policy on general terrorism, but I would be surprised if they moved over to supporting al-Qaeda or any [other] such extreme organizations. But the [new] state may be a little less cooperative [with the U.S.] antiterrorism campaign if they perceive it as having supported oppression of the legitimate opposition [during the Taya regime].

Will the new leadership change Mauritania’s relationship with Israel?

So far, it’s unclear. The coup leaders have said that they are going to respect all existing international agreements, etc. The Israelis have said they have no plans to evacuate their embassy, so we’ll just have to see. It’s unclear at this point.

Will there be violence?

So far, there has not been. Some celebrations in the city [the capital Nouakchott], but modest, and so far it’s been quiet.

One last thing, of course, is that Mauritania is on the brink of becoming a significant oil producer. [Mauritania has about one billion barrels of oil reserves and some 30 billion cubic meters of natural gas reserves, according to government estimates.Experts say Mauritania stands to receive $400 million dollars per year from oil and gas, almost half of its current $1.1 billion gross domestic product (GDP).]

And how will this change of government affect that?

I think it might slow down some of the arrangements, but no one in charge of a government would not want to get the revenue from oil. And although the production is just getting underway, the revenues won’t come in until 2007. Still, I think oil exploration and production will go forward.

It’s very early to say, but what are the chances this government will actually hold power for two years and then have elections? What’s the precedent in this part of the world?

Well, I think the prospects are good, because of the pressure [from] the African Union and the general trend toward not recognizing military governments. So they will be under a great deal of pressure to do so. The question is, will they be under pressure to do it much sooner than two years?

How fair would the elections be?

It’s unclear at this point how closely this military group, which took over, is linked to the former opposition. I haven’t seen any signs yet that they either were encouraged [by], or they’re sympathetic to, the opposition. They didn’t say anything about that in their statement. They simply said there was oppression and it was ruining the country, etc. So I’m not so clear on that, and we’ll have to see whether this group really wants free and fair elections, or wants to stay in power one way or another.