Government candidate wins Mauritania’s first democratic transition

Mohamed Ahmed Ould Ghazouani is the current defence minister
Mauritania’s electoral commission says Mohamed Ahmed Ould Ghazouani, a close ally of outgoing President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, has won Saturday’s presidential election with 52% of votes. If his victory is confirmed, it’ll mark the country’s first transfer of power through the ballots since the military ousted the West Africa nation's first civilian president in 1978. The BBC’s Louise Dewast explains the significance of the vote.

(Picture: Mohamed Ahmed Ould Ghazouani. Credit: EPA/Mohamed Messara)

Why Mauritania’s vote matters

Supporters attend a political rally of Union pour la Republique

Change is on the cards in Mauritania, the vast desert country in West Africa which has been a key ally of the West in the fight against Islamist militancy in the Sahara, with elections scheduled for Saturday.

Mauritania’s current President Mohamad Ould Abdel Aziz is stepping down after 11 years in power. He led a military coup in 2008, and won subsequent elections in 2009 and 2014.

It is the first time in years that opposition groups have taken part in the presidential race. It is also due be the first peaceful transition of power in a country accustomed to military takeovers.

Who is in the running?

Six candidates are running, including three first-timers.

One, Mohamad Ould Ghazouani, has the backing of President Aziz and is seen as the frontrunner, partly because the opposition has failed to agree on a single challenger.

Mohamad Ould Boubacar is believed to be the strongest opposition candidate. A French-educated technocrat, he has spent some 35 years in government, five of them as prime minister. He enjoys the support of several groups including the Islamist Tawassoul party – the most powerful opposition force in parliament. He has also been endorsed by exiled multi-millionaire Mohamed Ould Bouamatou, a cousin of the president who is now backing the opposition.

Unlike Mr Ghazouani, who is a retired general, Mr Boubacar has no military experience and describes himself as the “candidate for civilian change”.

Another candidate is Biram Dah Ould Abeid, an anti-slavery campaigner and the son of a former slave.

On policies, none of the opposition candidates has an especially unique campaign. All have focused on anti-corruption and the reform of education and healthcare.

Government-backed Mr Ghazouani has stayed away from the issue of corruption, but has promised to invest in massive infrastructure projects.

Will it be free and fair?

Oppositions groups have repeatedly expressed concerns about electoral rigging. Most members of the national election commission belong to parties that support Mr Ghazouani.

Calls for foreign observers have also been largely ignored by the government. It has allowed the European Union to send two experts, but only after the election.

There have also been calls for Mauritanians living abroad to have better access to voting stations, and for the electoral roll to be reviewed. More than 1.5 million people are currently registered, less than half its total population.

This will be the first race with ballot papers printed by a Mauritanian company. However, opposition members allege that the company is owned by someone who has raised money for Mr Ghazouani’s campaign.

A victory for Mr Ghazouani would be seen as a victory for Mauritania’s status quo. But if none of the candidates gets 50% of the vote, the election will go into a second round on 6 July. Should this happen, it may indicate that the country is witnessing its first free and fair election for the top political job.

Mohamed Ould Boubacar looks on during a campaign rally in Nouakchott
Technocrat Mohamed Ould Boubacar is viewed by many as the opposition favourite
West African fishermen: Foreign trawlers are taking our fish
Fishermen in Senegal and Mauritania say the mass production of fishmeal by foreigners is depleting fish stocks.

Mauritania moon rock on sale

BBC World Service

A meteorite that is one of the biggest pieces of the moon ever put up for sale is being auctioned online by a Boston based firm.

The moon rock, weighing about 5.5kg was found last year in a remote area of Mauritania.

It is thought to have plunged to earth thousands of years ago.

Its large size and composition are very unusual. It could fetch around $0.5m (£380,000) at auction.

Former slave to run for office in Mauritania

Khady Lo

BBC Afrique

Habi Mint Rabah, pictured here in 2015
Colleagues say Habi Mint Rabah is militant and determined

A former slave who was released from bondage in 2008 is to stand in September's parliamentary elections, the anti-slavery group IRA-Mauritania says.

Habi Mint Rabah hopes to be elected as an MP for the recently formed IRA/Sawab coalition - which is comprised of IRA-Mauritania and the more established Sawab party.

"I became a slave at the age of five. Every day I had to take care of the cattle. Every night I was raped by my master," Ms Rabah said shortly after her release.

"I always thought, without really understanding, that it was normal."

Activists at a rally in Mauritania
Getty Images
Activists have long demanded an end to slavery in Mauritania

Slavery was outlawed in Mauritania but remains widespread, according to human rights groups. Black people of certain ethnic groups are often enslaved as domestic workers by lighter-skinned Mauritanians.

Convictions are rare, and the country has jailed more anti-slavery activists than slave owners, rights groups say.

Habi Mint Rabah was saved thanks to her brother Bilal Ould Rabah, who had managed to free himself. He alerted human rights organisations and the IRA movement, whose mobilisation resulted in the release of his sister after more than 35 years in bondage.

"She is a victim of slavery who we freed. She joined us, is militant, and will prove herself against the dominant pro-slavery group in the coming parliament," says IRA's President Biram Dah Abeid.

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