History of Mauritania (1978–91)

History of Mauritania (1978–91)

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This article is about the history of Mauritania from 1978 to 1991. Mauritania, officially the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, is an Arab Maghreb country in West Africa. It is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean in the west, by Western Sahara in the north, by Algeria in the northeast, by Mali in the east and southeast, and by Senegal in the southwest. It is named after the ancient Berber Kingdom of Mauretania, which later became a province of the Roman Empire, even though the modern Mauritania covers a territory far to the south of the old Berber kingdom that had no relation with it.


  • Military withdrawal from the Western Sahara 1
  • Downfall of Ould Salek 2
  • The Haidalla regime 3
    • Consolidation of power 3.1
    • Political disintegration 3.2
  • 1985-1991 4
  • References 5
    • Notes 5.1
    • Works cited 5.2

Military withdrawal from the Western Sahara

Under Mustapha Ould Salek, a twenty-man junta calling itself the Military Committee for National Recovery (Comité Militaire de Redressement National, CMRN) assumed power. The CMRN was a centrist, moderate, pro-French and pro-Moroccan regime, whose first mandate was to bring peace to Mauritania. The Polisario, which believed Mauritania would withdrew from the war if given the opportunity, declared a unilateral cease-fire, which the CMRN accepted at once.[1]

Salek and the CMRN then directed its collective diplomatic attention to Morocco, whose troops were still thought necessary to protect the operations of the National Mining and Industrial Company (Société Nationale Industrielle et Minière, SNIM) and thus enable the Mauritanian economy to recover. Following Morocco's lead, the CMRN opposed the creation of a new, independent state in the Western Sahara, although Salek did not rule out the possibility of a federated state with limited autonomy. In the meantime, while Polisario guerrillas and Moroccan troops continued to fight, the Mauritanian Army withdrew from active participation in the war, although the CMRN was constrained from signing a peace treaty in order to placate Morocco. Within a short time, however, Polisario leaders had become increasingly impatient with Mauritania's inability to make a conclusive commitment to peace, and in April 1979 they demanded the evacuation of Mauritanian troops from Tiris al Gharbiyya as a precondition for further talks.[1]

Downfall of Ould Salek

The difficulties facing the Salek government multiplied and soon proved to be insurmountable. His regime failed to overcome Morocco's resistance to any settlement of the Western Sahara conflict. The death of Algerian president Houari Boumediene in December 1978 further heightened tensions. Also, Senegalese president Léopold Sédar Senghor, who was displeased with Salek's ties with Morocco, instigated a press campaign that highlighted racial problems in Mauritania. Salek did little to ease the racial problem when, in March 1979, he named eighty-one Maures and only seventeen blacks to his new national advisory committee. Finally, the French government lost confidence in Salek's ability to extricate Mauritania from both the Western Sahara war and Moroccan influence. Isolated and weak, Salek's government was overthrown on April 6, 1979, by Colonel Ahmed Ould Bouceif and Colonel Mohamed Khouna Haidalla, who formed the Military Committee for National Salvation (Comité Militaire de Salut National, CMSN). Salek, however, was permitted to remain in the government as a figurehead president. In late May, Bouceif was killed in an airplane crash; Haidalla was designated prime minister, and Colonel Mohamed Louly was named president.[1]

The Haidalla regime

Like its predecessor, the CMSN sought first to negotiate peace with the Polisario without sacrificing its friendly ties with Morocco and France. In its domestic policies, the Maure-dominated CMSN embittered both black and Maure civilians because it refused to share power with either group. In addition, the government insisted on using Arabic exclusively in the secondary schools, provoking a wave of student protests in April 1979.[2]

In July 1979, its patience exhausted, the Polisario ended its cease-fire. Confronted with endless warfare and total economic collapse, the CMSN on August 5 signed a peace treaty in Algeria with the Polisario, according to which Mauritania renounced all territorial and other claims over the Western Sahara. The Polisario, in return, renounced all claims regarding Mauritania. Most significant, Mauritania recognized the Polisario as the sole legitimate representative of the people of the Western Sahara, although in an effort to convince Morocco of its neutrality in the conflict, it did not recognize the Polisario's governing arm, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). The CMSN government also agreed to withdraw from Tiris al Gharbiyya. However, just a few days after the signing of the peace treaty, Morocco occupied Tiris al Gharbiyya, rendering the issue moot and threatening the peace.[2]

Consolidation of power

In Mauritania, Haidalla was faced with the daunting task of consolidating power. To his credit, in January 1980 he proclaimed Mauritanian neutrality in the Western Sahara conflict and convinced Morocco to evacuate all its troops from Mauritanian soil. From the beginning of his regime, however, Haidalla was viewed with hostility by the southern black population; a native of the Western Sahara, he was perceived by the blacks as an Arab and a northerner. He was also mistrusted by pro-Moroccan political groups because he had signed the peace treaty with the Polisario. To ensure strict Mauritanian neutrality in the ongoing conflict, he reshuffled the top echelons of the government, removing both pro-Moroccan and staunchly pro-Polisario factions. He also assumed the title of president and removed Louly and CMSN vice president Ahmed Salem Ould Sidi from office, thereby eliminating all serious political competitors.[3]

Haidalla initiated several important policy changes to broaden his base of support. In 1980, to further strengthen his position with Mauritania's blacks and to undercut black opposition groups in Senegal, he officially abolished slavery. In December 1980, in the face of growing apprehension among CMSN members, he formed a civilian government, naming Ahmed Ould Bneijara prime minister. He also initiated steps to draft a constitution establishing a multiparty, democratic state.[3]

Among Mauritanians both inside and outside the country, however, political opposition to Haidalla grew. In May 1980, following Haidalla's dismissal of Louly and Sidi, a number of foreign-based opposition movements joined together in France to form an opposition group called the Alliance for a Democratic Mauritania (Alliance pour une Mauritanie Démocratique, AMD). The AMD wanted to restore civilian rule and introduce a multiparty democracy in Mauritania. Its principal political supporter was former President Moktar Ould Daddah, who as a result of French pressure had been released from prison in August 1979. Also joining the AMD was former Vice President Sidi. The AMD received financial support from those Arab states of the Persian Gulf that opposed Haidalla's anti-Moroccan leanings—he had moved to eliminate pro-Moroccan members of the CMSN—and his support of self-determination for the radical SADR. The same Arab states also reduced their aid to Mauritania, which only encouraged Haidalla to strengthen ties to more radical Arab countries like Libya and Iraq.[3]

Meanwhile, relations with Morocco continued to deteriorate. Discord between the two countries had been mounting since early 1981, when Morocco accused Mauritania of sympathizing with the Polisario and harboring its fighters. Morocco was also responsible for rumors suggesting that Libya was shipping arms to the guerrillas via a landing strip at Chegga in northeastern Mauritania. On March 18, 1981, pro-Moroccan members of the AMD led by Sidi and former air force commander Mohamed Abdelkader attempted to topple the government. The coup failed, and both were subsequently executed. In April, following the attempt, Haidalla and the CMSN decided to abandon civilian rule and replaced the fledgling constitutional government with a six-member military government headed by Colonel Maaouiya Ould Sid Ahmed Ould Taya.[3]

As Mauritania's relations with Morocco worsened, its ties with Algeria improved. Algeria cultivated a friendship with Haidalla and supplied him with sophisticated military equipment, ostensibly to deter invasion from Morocco. In June 1981, in an effort to restore diplomatic relations with Morocco, Haidalla agreed to a summit meeting to be arranged and hosted by Saudi Arabia, one of Mauritania's largest aid donors. At the summit, Morocco's King Hassan II and Haidalla signed an agreement restoring diplomatic relations and prohibiting the transit through either country of forces hostile to the other. This last provision alluded to both the Polisario and the Moroccan branch of the AMD. The reconciliation, however, was short lived. On the one hand, Morocco refused to expel AMD members, and on the other hand King Hassan accused Mauritania of allowing Polisario guerrillas to launch attacks against Morocco from Mauritanian base camps. Subsequently, Moroccan aircraft bombed the Mauritanian city of Bir Aidiat near the border with the Western Sahara, where Polisario guerrillas had taken refuge, and threatened further reprisals against Mauritania.[3]

In February 1982, former CMSN president Salek and former Prime Minister Bneijara, among others, tried unsuccessfully to oust Haidalla. Having survived a second coup attempt, Haidalla relied on his forceful personality, self-discipline, and integrity to gain the respect of many of his countrymen. The eleven-month period between February 1982 and January 1983 gave the regime the opportunity to politicize the population. Haidalla hoped that by establishing a working foundation of civilian politics he could abolish the military regime and be elected to office as a political prisoners incarcerated since the overthrow of the Daddah regime.[3]

Domestic peace was shattered briefly in January 1983, first when Haidalla discovered a coup plot supported by Libya and, later, when a Moroccan Ethiopia, Haidalla joined Senegalese president Abdou Diouf and Ethiopian leader Mengistu Haile Mariam in drafting a resolution calling for a cease-fire and peace negotiations in the Western Sahara. Morocco failed to comply with the resolution by the end of the year, and Haidalla recognized the SADR in February 1984.[3]

The January 1983 Libyan-supported coup plot had soured relations between Mauritania and Libya; however, Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi, a strong supporter of the Polisario, took advantage of Mauritania's break with Morocco and began a new campaign to reestablish cordial ties with Haidalla. Haidalla's warming relations with Libya, Algeria, and the Polisario, however, alienated the conservative Arab countries on which Mauritania depended for most of its economic aid and also factions in his own government, which favored ties to Morocco, and those who opposed the existence of the SADR. Moreover, Haidalla angered many CMSN members by his decision to recognize the SADR without consulting them.[3]

More ominous was Morocco's movement of troops toward Mauritania's northern border in the aftermath of Mauritania's recognition of the SADR. The presence of thousands of Moroccan soldiers on the Mauritanian border, only four kilometers from Mauritania's key economic center at Nouadhibou, again raised the possibility of another Moroccan attack on La Guera. In addition, Morocco had begun to construct a berm near the Mauritanian border that would restrict Polisario guerrillas to Mauritanian territory for their rear bases, thus providing Morocco with justification for attacking northern Mauritania.[3]

Political disintegration

By 1984 the Haidalla regime was under siege not only for its regional policies but also for corruption and mismanagement, especially within the SEMs, which were viewed by the population as vehicles for advancing the president's own interests. Furthermore, upheavals in the military compromised the loyalty of key officers, particularly at a time when the army was being asked to perform the impossible task of protecting Mauritania's vast northern regions from Morocco's attacks across the border. A severe drought compounded the regime's difficulties, forcing much of the population into the country's few urban areas and increasing Mauritania's dependence on foreign economic aid.[4]

In the third ministerial purge in six months, Haidalla named himself prime minister in March 1984 and took over the defense portfolio. Taya, who had held both positions, was demoted to chief of staff of the armed forces. The move infuriated Taya's allies on the CMSN. As chairman of the CMSN, Haidalla was supposed to represent a collective body. Instead, he attempted to amass considerable personal power and alienated many in the top echelons of government. On December 12, 1984, while Haidalla was out of the country, Taya, in a quiet and bloodless coup d'état, became Mauritania's president.[4]


In April 1986, the [5]

In October 1987, the government allegedly uncovered a tentative coup d'État by a group of black army officers, backed, according to the authorities, by Senegal.[6] Fifty one officers were arrested and subjected to interrogation and torture.[7] The torture consisted of “beatings, burns, electric shocks applied to the genitals, stripping prisoners naked and pouring cold water over them, burying prisoners in sand to their necks, and subjecting prisoners to jaguar, which consists of tying a victim’s hands and feet, suspending him upside down from a bar, and beating him particularly on the soles of the feet”.[8] They were accused of “endangering the security of the State by participating in a conspiracy to overthrow the government and to provoke killing and devastation among the inhabitants of the country” and tried following a special summary procedure.[8] Three of the officers arrested in October were sentenced to death; eighteen were sentenced to life imprisonment (including two who died in detention in 1988); nine were sentenced to twenty years; five were sentenced to ten years; three were given five years; six were given five-year suspended sentences with heavy fines; and seven were acquitted. None of those convicted were permitted to appeal.

The discord between conflicting visions of Mauritanian society as either black or Arab, again rose to the surface during the intercommunal violence that broke out in April 1989 (the "1989 Events"), when a Mauritania-Senegal border dispute escalated into violence between the two communities.

In villages of the South, blacks were indiscriminately expelled by security forces, who forced them to cross the Senegalese River to Senegal, taking their identity card and their belongings. Those who resisted or who tried to flee with their belongings were arrested, imprisoned and sometimes executed.[5]

In the larger towns and cities, the authorities targeted black civil servants, employees of private institutions, trade unionists, former political prisoners and, in some instances, the wives of political prisoners.[9]

Tens of thousands of black Mauritanians fled or were expelled from the country,[1] and many remain in Senegal as refugees. This is also where the black Mauritanian movement FLAM is based. Although tension has since subsided, the Arab-African racial tension remains an important feature of the political dialogue today. The country continues to experience ethnic tensions between its black minority population and the dominant Mauri (Arab-Berber) populace. A significant number from both groups, however, seek a more diverse, pluralistic society.



  1. ^ a b c Warner, Rachel. "Military withdrawal from the Western Sahara". In Handloff.
  2. ^ a b Warner, Rachel. "The Haidalla regime". In Handloff.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i Warner, Rachel. "Consolidation of Power". In Handloff.
  4. ^ a b Warner, Rachel. "Political disintegration". In Handloff.
  5. ^ a b Mauritania’s campaign of terror
  6. ^ Mauritanie 1945–1990 ou l'État face à la Nation, Pierre Robert Baduel, Revue du monde musulman et de la Méditerranée, 1989, Volume 54, pp. 11–52.
  7. ^ Mahamadou Sy, L'enfer d'Inal. Mauritanie l'horreur des camps, ed. L'Harmattan, Paris, 2000 ISBN 2738495419
  8. ^ a b Human Rights Watch World Report 1992: Mauritania
  9. ^ Amnesty International, Mauritania: Human rights violations in the Senegal river valley, 2 October 1990

Works cited