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Allegations of Vote Fraud Could Mean More Trouble for Mauritania - 2003-11-09

Mauritania's presidential election is over and President Maaouiya Sid Ahmed Ould Taya has won another term in office. But opposition parties and independent experts say the polls were not conducted either freely or fairly.

Mohamed Khouna Ould Haidallah came in second place in Mauritania's presidential election, clearing 18.73 percent of the vote. Angered at the rigging that he says has distorted the result and enabled incumbent president Ould Taya to seal another term in office, he warned that a civil war could erupt in Mauritania.

After his rally cry, made late Saturday, police visited the house of Mr. Ould Haidallah and took him into police custody.

Other opposition figures were arrested during the night. What if any charges have been made against them remains unclear. But it is not just the opposition that is crying foul.

A professor of sociology at the University of Mauritania, Cheikh Saad Bouh Kamara, set up a team of observers to monitor the presidential elections, but the government refused to accredit them as official poll observers.

Nonetheless, he and his team said they carried out their monitoring as best they could, and their findings back the opposition claims. "We heard, but we do not have proofs, but I think it is so, they bought some cards from electors. You say to somebody who is very poor, 'I give you 10,000 ouguiya and you give me your card.' This was very often in areas where the opposition is very strong. People are very poor, and it was easy to corrupt them," he says.

Ten thousand ouguiya is nearly $40, a substantial amount of money for many of Mauritania's urban poor.

Professor Kamara said the business sector, which is closely aligned to President Ould Taya, was complicit in this fraud, offering money in exchange for the voting cards of poor workers and their families.

But this was just one of many examples of alleged fraud and irregularity given. If the polls had been conducted freely and fairly in Mauritania, said Professor Kamara, there was no way that Mr. Ould Taya could have cleared the 66.69 percent of the votes that he claims. "I am sure that if there was a real transparency it would be a second election. It was not possible mathematically that at the first vote one of them could have or can have more than 50 percent," he says. "Because they were four big candidates, and I suppose the will of the population, they want to change."

Mauritania, though, is a deeply divided society, and while there are many who want change, there are others who are happy to maintain the status quo.

President Ould Taya has been in office for 19 years and in that time, disparities between rich and poor have become wider and wider.

The rich, who are largely white Moors, are the main holders of the power and wealth in the country. On the night that election results were released, after the prayers and the feast that marks the end of the day during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, they took to the streets to celebrate.

Young and affluent, these Mauritanians are doing well under President Ould Taya. They honked the horns of their four-by-four vehicles and waved his picture in the air. Special celebratory music booms out from their car stereos.

But not all Mauritanians are doing well. Half of the country survives on less than $1 a day. The slum areas of the capital, Nouakchott, have no running water, and unemployment levels are high.

Offshore oil finds are set to bring millions of dollars into government coffers as early as 2004. Expectations that this money can change Mauritania for the better is high, and if those hopes are not met, Professor Kamara warns that civil unrest could follow.

President Ould Taya survived, but was shaken by an attempted coup in June this year. Meanwhile, opposition to his government still runs strong within the lower ranks of the armed forces. The elections may be over, but the call for change is not going away.