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Presidential Campaigning Ends in Mauritania

Presidential campaigning in Mauritania ends Thursday.  Saturday's vote is meant to restore constitutional order following a military coup that ousted the nation's first freely-elected leader.

Supporters of opposition leader Ahmed Ould Dadah cheered their candidate at a rally in the southern city of Rosso.  He is from this farming community along the border with Senegal and is expected to do well here.

Dadah finished second in the 2007 election, behind Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi, who was toppled in a military coup 11 months ago.  Soldiers eventually yielded power to a transitional government that is organizing Saturday's vote.

Dadah tells his supporters they have a choice between the cycle of coup d'etat - transitional government - coup d'etat-transitional government, or a real democracy where the decision is made by people in the polling stations.  Make your choice, he tells them, it is up to you to choose.

Dadah's party holds the most seats in parliament.  He says he was quiet after, what he claims was, the electoral fraud that denied him power in 1991 and 2007 because he did not fear for the future of the country.  But this time he says he is not prepared to be silent if the election is stolen, and, he tells his supporters, neither should they.

Sixteen kilometers up the road, supporters of former military leader Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz say the retired general is the right man to lead Mauritania because he is determined to fight corrupt politicians.

Corruption is one of the reasons Aziz gave for leading the coup against the Abdallahi government last August.  He ignored African Union demands to restore civilian authority because he said that would not be in Mauritania's best interest.  Instead, he changed the constitution to allow retired officers to run for political office before resigning his commission to contest this vote.

Aziz says the real people of the agricultural region around Rosso support him because they know he is committed to helping the poor.  He says his civilian opponents in this election are all criminals, and after he beats them he is going to jail them.  To the cheers of his supporters, he vows to build more prisons to hold the country's political elite.

If no candidate wins more than 50 percent of Saturday's vote, there will be a second round of balloting August 1st.  Of the seven other candidates in this race, most political observers say the main challenger to Dadah and Aziz making it through to the second round is opposition legislator Massoud Ould Belkhare.

He is the descendent of freed slaves in a country where black Mauritanians in the south have generally had little political power.

Belkhare says this is a vote about defeating those who take power through military force.  It is part of the continuing fight between democracy and dictatorship, and he says Mauritanians want to see the triumph of democracy.

Belkhare and Dadah have both vowed publicly to support the other if the vote comes down to one of them in a second-round run-off against Aziz August 1 

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