Mauritanians head to polls in controversial referendum

Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, President of Mauritania, during a press conference in March 2015 (Archives)
Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, President of Mauritania, during a press conference in March 2015 (Archives) AFP PHOTO / WATT ABELJELIL

Mauritanians voted Saturday in a referendum on constitutional reform that would mean abolishing the country's Senate and changing the national flag. Critics see it as a covert power grab.


The constitutional changes that more than one million Mauritanians were asked to endorse in Saturday's referendum,were already rejected in March this year by the country's Senate.

The senators refused to sign their own death warrant in a manner of speaking, because, if the reform does go through, they’ll be out of a job.

They're not the only ones who are opposed to the proposals.

Most of Mauritania's opposition parties reject the proposed amendments, which they believe would cement President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz's grip on power.

"We feel that removing the Senate is just an excuse for President Aziz to run for a third term," Moussa Sylla, a Mauritanian activist told RFI.

On Thursday, clashes broke out in the capital, Nouakchott, between demonstrators -- mostly anti-slavery activists and Islamists -- and security forces, marring the final day of campaigning.

Decentralisation and term limits

"This referendum is the final straw," says Sylla. "There are more urgent problems, more important than reforming the constitution!"

Or changing the national flag and anthem, which is also what the referendum calls for.

Despite the resistance, Aziz has pressed on with his proposals.

If constitutional reform is voted through, the country's three branches of the judiciary will be folded into one and the Senate will be replaced by new regional councils, which the president's supporters argue will decentralise power.

Mauritania, which bridges north Africa and western sub-Saharan Africa, is a large and highly centralised country.

"These changes make sense," Ibrahima Dia, Mauritania's former ambassador in Washington told RFI. "The Senate doesn't have real added value. The regional councils will bring about decentralisation if well-designed and well-implemented."

Fears of a constitutional coup

Aziz's opponents fear that Mauritania could follow in the footsteps of countries like Burundi and Rwanda, where their presidents have attempted to extend their terms in office through constitutional or other legal amendments.

It's a trend that Joseph Bukeye, the vice-president of the Rwandan opposition party FDU-Inkingi, in exile in Brussels, says is catching.

"Really I think it is a trend in most of African countries, where people are denied the right to true leaders, whether it is in Mauritania or in Rwanda, in Congo and elsewhere. It's really similar."

Rwandans went to the polls on Friday and overwhelmingly reelected incumbent Paul Kagame.

"The only country in Africa that has tried such a democracy that I can talk about is Kenya. But otherwise most of these other African countries really do not allow space for the opposition."

Former ambassador Dia rejects the argument that Aziz is trying to prolong his stay at the top.

"These changes cannot lead to further changes in the constitution. In no way can we touch term limits," he insists.

Social problems behind controversy

Some Mauritanians have spoken out against the proposed constitutional reforms and have been on the streets of the capital venting their anger. For Sylla, they're angry because they see the referendum as a pure distraction.

"Today there are many people who are stateless inside their own country!" he says. "They don't have a nationality, because they weren’t included in the national survey."

In 2011 the government launched a national survey to try and keep track on all of its citizens, especially returning slaves who'd been trafficked abroad, as efforts to tackle the scourge of slavery gather pace. But not fast enough for some activists.

"Heratins, sometimes referred to as Black Mauritanians with a sub-Saharan heritage," continue to face discrimination, Mark Lattimer, the executive director of Minority Rights Group International based in London, told RFI.

"They are born into slavery, it's passed by descent, their kids are slaves at birth, they don't get an education, and the ruling classes have really no interest in trying to bring the practice to an end."

For Sylla, the government needs to "nationalise stateless people before reforming the constitution".

Whether Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz runs for a third term or not, he says, is irrelevant.

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning