By Hannah Cross (POLIS, University of Leeds)
Mauritania: The Struggle for Democracy. Noel Foster. First Forum Press, Boulder, Colorado, 2011. Pp. 315. ISBN. ISBN 978-1-935049-30-2 (hb). $72.50.
“A growing urban underclass of disenfranchised Haratines, dislocated Bidan, and discontented Afro-Mauritanians, competing for jobs with an unceasing flow of destitute West African immigrants, is priming the country for an explosion of social unrest that can only favor extremists” (p282).
This Huntingtonesque quotation, taken from the start of the conclusion, is characteristic of a book that venerates US strategic thinking towards the Muslim world, to which we are constantly reminded Mauritania belongs. In this book, the author aims to “document and explain Mauritania’s ongoing struggle to democratize with scholarly precision and rigour”, noting that this is ambitious (vii). Indeed, while Foster quite thoroughly narrates the power struggles of the elites, the explanation and analysis is rudimentary and often erroneous. The opening quote for this review reveals a few of many hollow claims, in this case that ‘destitute’ West African immigrants compete for jobs with Saharan groups, and that the social unrest from this conceived problem should only favour extremists. Of greater concern is the repeated argument, knowingly provocative, that “Mauritania’s weakness proved its strength; that its dependency upon the outside world saved the country from an autocratic renewal” (p89). Thus a relationship is established between Mauritania’s rejection of ‘the West’ and an increase in repression in the late 1980s; never mind the chaotic outcomes of a steep devaluation of the ouguiya currency, a sharp increase in external debts, and conflict associated with the abolishment of the system of collective land ownership, emerging in IMF-guided macroeconomic policy.
It is the understanding of this book that ‘America’ is involved in a campaign to promote democracy within the Arab world, with the rationale that the future of Muslim nations, “linked to ours” depends on democratization (p7 – my emphasis). It is even considered that vis-à-vis France and Spain, “Washington had the luxury of principle” in its handling of Mauritania’s 2008 coup-d’état because it “had few interests” (p259). This claim runs in contradiction to US policy. The US European Command (EUCOM, to become AFRICOM in 2008) included Mauritania amongst other Saharan and Sahel countries in its meeting in 2004, establishing a military strategy in north and west Africa. The EUCOM Deputy Commanding General famously stated that “Africa is becoming a strategic area, whether we like it or not – a large population, many resources, lots of potential instability” (Koch 2005: 25). This strategy in reality undermines democracy rather than promoting it. In Mauritania’s part of the Arab Spring, protesters have demanded the retreat of the military from politics as well as measures to alleviate the hikes in food prices (Ahmed Salam and Samuel 2011; Ekine 2011). Therein lies the contemporary struggle for democracy, but this book instead focuses on theatrical descriptions of ethnic and party politics. Its discussion of democratisation is superficial, and its recommendations, particularly in the conclusion, are disconnected from the data in the core of the book, inconsistent and beyond the remit of the researcher.
The bibliography totals just over three pages; though it can be seen in the chapters’ endnotes that more sources, particularly from the local and regional media and from extensive interviews, have been consulted and compiled. However, this book does little beyond this to advance our knowledge of Mauritania’s political development or of democracy.
Ahmed Salem, Z.Ould and B. Samuel (2011) Aux frontières du printemps arabe: crises sociales et contestations populaires en Mauritanie, May, available: http://www.ceri-sciences-po.org (accessed 15 August 2011).
Ekine, S. (2011) ‘Mauritania: a simple citizen demanding his rights’, Pambazuka News, Issue 535, 16 June, available: http://pambazuka.org/en/category/features/74110 (accessed 18 June 2011).
Koch, A. (2005) ‘Briefing: the US in Africa’, Jane’s, 12 January.
[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 73 (December 2011), pp. 97-98]