In the West African country of Mauritania, Messaoud Ould Boulkheir, the new president of the national assembly, says people are united and ready to work together to advance the country. Boulkheir was elected by a near unanimous vote of national assembly members on Thursday. Naomi Schwarz has this story from VOA's regional bureau in Dakar.

Massaoud Ould Boulkheir is the first descendant of former slaves to become president of the country's national assembly.  He is also a leading member of Mauritania's opposition.  But he says he does not see himself representing either group as he assumes the role of national assembly president.

Mohamed Lamine Ould Naty, Boulkheir's spokesman during the March presidential campaign in which Boulkheir placed fourth, says this was an important factor in his election to head the national assembly.

Naty says everyone supported Boulkheir for the position, because they see in him the person who can assure and reinforce national unity.

Mauritania's black population and its ethnic Arabs have historically had tense relations.  The Arabs have typically held most of the power and wealth.

Boulkheir won the parliamentary position with 91 out of 93 votes cast. The two other candidates did not vote for him.

Significantly, Boulkheir also had the strong backing of the newly-elected president, Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi.

Boulkheir surprised some people by giving his support in the presidential runoff to Mr. Abdallahi. Mr. Abdallahi was close to Mauritania's former president, Maaouya Ould Sid'Ahmed Taya, who was overthrown in a 2005 coup. Boulkheir opposed Mr. Taya's authoritarian regime.

But Naty says Boulkheir is confident Mr. Abdallahi was the right candidate.

Boulkheir says he and Mr. Abdallahi hold similar views on solving the nation's problems.

Journalist Salem Bokari says Boulkheir's new position represents a historic first for Mauritania, even if Boulkheir downplays it.

"It is the first time in this west African nation that a former slave [takes on] in the second big[gest] important function in this nation," he noted.

Slavery in Mauritania was only abolished in 1981, and human rights groups have criticized the country for not doing enough to enforce the ban.

Although Boulkheir has been a leader in the movement opposing slavery, he did not mention the topic when he addressed the nation on Thursday.

Bokari says even without an explicit reference, the underlying message is clear.

"He [said] that he will be [doing] the same work to realize the justice, equality, and good governance and development and progress, prosperity for all Mauritanians," he added.

Thousands of black Mauritanians who feel persecuted remain in Senegal as refugees.