/ 16 August 2008

Coup leader’s refugee promise

Recent meetings between Mauritania’s coup leader Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz and leaders from the African Union, League of Arab States, United Nations, and Mauritania’s major donors have ruffled feathers.

The new military council has pledged that it will hold free and fair elections. But the African Union has suspended Mauritania’s membership and the United States cut off more than $20-million in non-humanitarian aid last week.

Soldiers arrested President Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi on August 6 after he tried to dismiss high-ranking military personnel from his personal guard.

Also arrested, but since released, were Prime Minister Yahya Ould Ahmed Waghf and Moussa Fall, the government director in charge of overseeing the return of thousands of Mauritanian refugees.

Since 1989, tens of thousands of Mauritanians have fled brutal army crackdowns and ethnic clashes near the Senegalese border.

One of Abdallahi’s campaign promises last year was to bring these refugees home after almost two decades in exile.

Abou Ba (22) was five years old when his family, who are ethnic Pulaar’s, fled. He had resettled in Mauritania a month before the latest coup.

‘We are all worried. It was a military regime [the Maaouya Ould Taya government] that pushed us out and now it’s another military takeover.”

As a part of the reintegration process, a Mauritanian government initiative was under way to identify thousands of refugees. Ba was prepared to apply for his national identity papers. ‘But now, we need to wait. Again.”

Coup leader Aziz has said that the newly formed military council will respect the continued repatriation and rights of refugees. About 4 000 of the expected 24 000 have returned.

But refugee camp leader Amadou Samba Ba, speaking from Senegal, says he will not send any groups to Mauritania until the refugees’ safety is guaranteed.

Aziz led the 2005 coup that deposed Maaouya Ould Taya, who is facing a trial for alleged ethnic-cleansing crimes.

Ruling party infighting grew more vicious after a government reshuffle in May brought to power ministers who had served Ould Taya.

Abdel Nasser Ould Outhman Yessa, a human-rights lobbyist based in Dakar, says that he condemns the military takeover but understands its roots.

‘In recent months, Sidi [Ould Cheikh Abdallahi] has made overtures to Islamist groups, and brokered power exchanges with Ould Taya’s previous ministers. If this coup had not happened, a return to power from Ould Taya would have been inevitable.”