August 7, 2008

President Toppled in Breakfast-Time Coup

By Claire Soares

HAVING FIRED his top military brass over breakfast yesterday, Mauritania's President was probably feeling supremely powerful. But, minutes later, commandos arrived at his suite in the heart of the presidential palace and took him hostage, executing a swift but bloodless coup and toppling the first democratically elected leader this desert nation has known.

The US, the European Union and Africa's powerhouses, Nigeria and South Africa, were quick to condemn the ousting of President Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi, who came to power via the ballot box last year.

"We are being kept in the house, forbidden to leave," the ousted President's daughter Amal told French radio. "There are guards posted in the kitchen, the bedrooms, even the showers. The phones have been cut. It is certainly a coup."

And, last night, the military was definitely back in charge in Mauritania, an oil-rich country on the edge of the Sahara that straddles black and Arab Africa. Soldiers seized state television and radio headquarters, and "Statement No. 1" was duly broadcast, announcing that General Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz, the man sacked as head of the presidential guard in the morning, would now lead a "State Council".

General Abdelaziz is no stranger to overthrowing governments. In 2005, he toppled the unpopular authoritarian president Maaouya Ould Sid'Ahmed Taya, a move that brought jubilant masses out on to the sand-strewn streets of the capital, Nouakchott. A military junta took over the running of the country with the general as the deputy leader. And, contrary to international fears, free and fair elections were held that propelled his current enemy, Mr Abdallahi, to the presidential palace. It seemed that a "good coup d'etat", a notion banished from the 21st-century diplomatic handbook, might actually have been happened.

Now, less than 18 months after that trumpeted election, turmoil has returned. "Political stability is on the precipice," said Kissy Agyeman, an analyst at Global Insight. "President Abdallahi ... was the first democratically elected leader since independence in 1960, thus the situation threatens the country's nascent democracy."

The EU threatened that $241m (121m) of aid for Mauritania could be at risk if the president and his prime minister were not released quickly and returned to their posts.

The country's main airport was closed and soldiers on jeeps stood guard outside government buildings. Police fired tear gas at a small group of Abdallahi supporters but, across much of the capital, Mauritanians went about their day-to-day business.

"No one is panicking, the streets are calm. We've had at least 10 coups here, we've seen it all before," said one Nouakchott resident. "The only thing different this time is that people are very divided about what's happened, some are for, some are against."

A political crisis had been brewing in Mauritania for a few months. In June, parliament called for a no-confidence vote in the President, after his appointment of 12 ministers, some of whom were accused of corruption. A cabinet reshuffle followed but, on Monday, about 50 MPs walked out of the ruling party, saying President Abdallahi was exercising too much personal power.

Although Mauritania has untapped oil reserves, most of the population lives on about $5 a day and the arid nation, which imports more than 70 per cent of its food, and has been hard hit by the global food crisis. The government's woes have been compounded by a series of attacks by the north African arm of al-Qa'ida, which killed four French tourists and led to the cancellation of this year's Paris-Dakar Rally.

(c) 2008 Independent, The; London (UK). Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.