Photo Credit: @Billysidi
Today, the capital city Nouakchott has the largest opposition protest in the country’s recent history. Despite government attempts to limit participation in the protest by distributing free food in poor neighborhoods, 40000-60000 Mauritanians took to the streets to demand General Aziz’s departure from power.
But before getting into the nitty-gritty of Mauritania’s political crisis, one has to understand why the situation is serious, and how the protest wave is not merely about political grievances, but rather about demanding speedy measures in order to preserve the very survival of a vast number of communities across the nation.
Average Mauritanians are railing from the relentless rise in basic consumer goods’ prices. Both the coastal urban centers (2/3 of the population) and the semi-nomadic communities in the interior southern and eastern provinces. The latter are at the mercy of a drought threatening their very livelihood. Grain reserves are dropping to dangerous levels raising the specter of a famine in farming communities that in normal circumstances would sell, or trade, their excess reserves as means to get cash to provide for their other needs. Cattle-herding communities are equally vulnerable as they too are running out of grazing spaces for their livestock because of last year’s exceptionally bad rain season which normally start between August and October.
To further complicate matters, the ongoing Tuareg armed rebellion in Mali’s Azawad region, has effectively sealed off the traditional bad rain season alternative for Mauritania’s large camel herding communities in south-eastern Hodh region. In fact, 31000 Malians refugees crossed the border to seek refuge (1500 arrivals per day) thus adding to an already precarious food shortage crisis. The drought, and the refugee influx are the primary concern for Mauritanians, as opposed to foreign analysts (as evidenced by world media coverage) who seem to be more focused on the terrorist threat from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM.) To put it bluntly, it is seen in Mauritania as a “foreigners’ concern.”
Nouakchott’s mass protest were called for by the opposition parties after the regime’s so-called parliamentary brigades passed a constitutional reform with a series of amendments deemed illegal. Contrary to misleading reports on some foreign media, the “reform” extends the parliament’s mandate after government’s failure to organize elections to renew it in October 2011 as mandated by the constitution
What is new today, as opposed to five years ago during the post-Taya transition, is that the demands of regime change are coming from the bottom of the social ladder, and not from the elites, as was the case before. This does not mean that the opposition parties are not active. it is rather about hardening attitudes, and a sense of impending catastrophe as General Aziz is seen by an increasingly vocal population as an obstacle to alleviating poverty and corruption.
The mood of defiance and self-confidence amongst protesters was best captured by one February 25 protest movement blogger. he pointed out that thousands of politically unaffiliated protesters turned out in the street despite the regime “deploying its secret weapon: Super Yayboy,” which is a type fish handed out today by the ruling party in poor neighborhoods to keep citizens away from the anti-government demonstration. This vignette aptly describes a regime that implicitly recognizes the extent of misery in the country, and yet is unwilling to take responsibility for its failures.
The “Super YayBoy” strategy is likely to continue tomorrow Tuesday in Nouadhibou, where more fish is available, as General Aziz’s own party puts on a previously planned show of force for their boss. However, the problem for the General, and his party, is that the opposition too is hitting the streets there in a counter-demonstration to further drive the point home: it’s time to step down!