Mauritania’s parliament elects Arab Berber as speaker
TUNIS - Mauritania’s parliament, dominated by supporters of President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, elected an ex-army colonel and close friend of the country’s leader as its speaker.
The election of former Colonel Cheikh Ould Baya, a prominent Arab Berber, breaks with a longstanding tradition to elect a member of the Haratin community as speaker. Bjiel Ould Hamid, who is Haratin, was elected deputy speaker.
Haratins, Mauritania’s largest minority group, are a distinct ethnic group that descends largely from black African slaves. They are discriminated against in the country, where many view them as an underclass.
The position of parliamentary speaker was previously held by Mohamed Ould Iblil Ould Embarak, a Haratin member of the ruling Union for the Republic (UPR) party. Before him, the speaker was Messoud Ould Boulkhier, who heads the People’s Progressive Alliance and is an outspoken anti-slavery advocate.
De facto slavery exists in Mauritania, which formally abolished the practice in 1981.
Local rights groups say thousands of people, including Haratins and other black Mauritanians of African origin, are forced to work as domestic servants, camel herders or farmers. It is estimated that up to 20% of Mauritania’s population is forced to work without pay and denied basic rights, such as access to education.
Half of Mauritania’s Haratin population live as freed slaves but Arab Berbers are viewed as the country’s elites and maintain the highest positions in government, business and the military.
The selection of Ould Baya as parliament speaker fuelled speculation over what role he could play in government next year when Ould Abdel Aziz, said to be ailing, is to leave office.
Ould Baya, a confidant of the president, with whom he has family ties, is widely viewed as a potential successor. He previously served as mayor of Zouerat, an important mining town in northern Mauritania and head of the country’s mayors’ association. Ould Baya also played a key role in the UPR’s “Reinvigoration Committee,” which helped boost the party in the parliamentary election in September.
UPR won 89 seats in the 157-member National Assembly, far more than the Muslim Brotherhood’s branch in Mauritania, the National Rally for Reform and Development, also known as Tewassoul, which won just 14 seats despite forming an alliance with several opposition groups.
Ould Abdel Aziz has promised to step down at the end of his second term next year, ending speculation over whether he would scrap presidential term limits and extend his tenure. However, some government ministers have pushed for him to run again, arguing that the needs of the country and the people should come before the constitution.
Ould Abdel Aziz has vowed to secure “the continuity of the regime and the pursuit of the country’s development project” after he leaves office, leading many to believe he will either support a confidant such as Ould Baya to succeed him or have parliament vote him in for another term.
Ould Baya, who is recovering from a road accident, asked parliamentarians to keep their speeches short during the opening session, saying that his “back pains make (it) very difficult for him to sit for a long period of time.”
He returned to France on October 11 for medical treatment, leaving Ould Hamid, previously an opposition figure, in charge.
Government spokesman Mohamed Lemine Ould Cheikh said: “Ould Hamid was granted the position of deputy speaker as part of an agreement that he would join the majority in parliament.”
Ould Abdel Aziz’s supporters are fiercely competing to gain the support of the Haratin minority, which makes up 40% of the population. However, Haratin anti-slavery activists have been the most outspoken critics of Ould Abdel Aziz’s government.
They staged a demonstration October 8 outside parliament demanding the release of their jailed leader Biram Ould Abeid, who was recently elected as a member of parliament.
Ould Abeid heads the anti-slavery organisation Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement, which has called on opposition parties and anti-establishment forces to join arms “to prevent the evil regime of Ould Abdel Aziz (from staying) another five years.”