Freedom in the World 2004

Ratings Change: 

Mauritania's political rights rating declined from 5 to 6, and its status from Partly Free to Not Free, due to presidential elections that were held in an atmosphere of intimidation and were not conducted fairly.


President Maaouya Ould Sid Ahmed Taya won presidential election in November 2003 that lacked transparency and was held in an atmosphere of intimidation. Authorities detained Taya's main challenger and several of his supporters the day after the election. A coup attempt was put down during the year.

After nearly six decades of French colonial rule, Mauritania's borders as an independent state were formalized in 1960. A 1978 military coup ended a civilian one-party state led by Moktaar Ould Daddah. Another coup in 1984 installed Colonel Taya as Mauritania's leader. The absence of an independent election commission, state control of broadcasts, harassment of independent print media, and the incumbent's use of state resources to promote his candidacy devalued Taya's presidential victories in 1992--the country's first, and deeply flawed, multiparty poll--and again in 1997. Taya's Social Democratic Republican Party (PRDS) ruled the country as a de facto one-party state after the main opposition parties boycotted National Assembly elections in 1992 and 1996.

In 2001 municipal and National Assembly elections, Mauritanians were, for the first time, permitted to exercise their constitutional right to choose their representatives in relatively open, competitive elections. More than a dozen parties participated in the elections to choose 81 members of the National Assembly. However, the ruling PRDS was the only party to present candidates in every constituency, and the electoral law was modified to ban independent candidates, whose seats went mainly to the PRDS. The PRDS won 64 assembly seats, while opposition parties won 17. The banning of two political parties in 2002 devalued opposition gains in the National Assembly elections. In the municipal polls, the opposition secured 15 percent of available posts.

In June 2003, the Taya government weathered a coup attempt that triggered two days of fighting in the capital. More than 30 soldiers faced trial late in the year in connection with the coup attempt, and more than 50 Muslim clerics and opposition activists were also arrested.

The November 2003 presidential election saw the issuance of new voter cards that were difficult to falsify, the publication of a list of registered voters, and the use of transparent ballot boxes. However, although each of the six candidates was allocated equal time on state-run broadcast media, Taya received more than his share. Civil society groups were barred from forming an independent body to monitor the poll, and many foreign observers declined to participate after Taya's main challenger, Mohamed Khouna Ould Haidalla, was briefly detained on the eve of the election. Police raided the home of Haidalla, whom Taya had overthrown nearly two decades ago, reportedly on suspicion that he and his supporters were plotting to overthrow Taya if Haidalla lost the election. Opposition members said some voters were allowed to cast ballots without proper identification and that opposition representatives were barred from polling stations. They also reported double voting, voting by proxy, and vote buying.

Taya was reelected to another six-year term with 67 percent of the vote compared with 19 percent for Haidallah. The day after the election, authorities detained Haidallah, and he and more than a dozen of his supporters were to go on trial for allegedly threatening state security. Although opposition candidates disputed the results of the election, they did not choose to take their complaints to court.

Mauritania has been cultivating closer ties with the United States and is undergoing free-market reform. The country is one of three Arab League states, along with Egypt and Jordan, that has diplomatic relations with Israel, despite domestic criticism. Diplomatic ties were established in 1999.

Mauritania is one of the world's poorest countries, although recently oil has been discovered offshore. Much of the country's wealth is concentrated in the hands of a small elite that controls an economy based on iron ore exports and fishing.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Mauritanians cannot choose their government democratically. The National Assembly exercises little independence from the executive. The country's narrowly based, authoritarian regime has gradually become liberalized, but most power remains in the hands of the president and a very small elite. The November 2003 presidential poll lacked transparency and was held in an atmosphere of intimidation.

Prepublication censorship, arrests of journalists, and seizures and bans of newspapers devalue constitutional guarantees of free expression. The state owns the only two daily newspapers and monopolizes nearly all broadcast media. Independent publications openly criticize the government, but all publications must be submitted to the Interior Ministry prior to distribution. The constitution forbids dissemination of reports deemed to "attack the principles of Islam or the credibility of the state, harm the general interest, or disturb public order and security." The government does not impede Internet access.

Mauritania is an Islamic state in which, by statute, all citizens are Muslims who may not possess other religious texts or enter non-Muslim households. The right to worship in another faith, however, is generally tolerated. Non-Muslims are permitted to worship privately, and some churches operate openly. President Maaouya Ould Sid Ahmed Taya has targeted Muslim extremism. Academic freedom is guaranteed and is not restricted, although security forces have cracked down violently on student demonstrations in the past.

Freedom of association is restricted, and infrequent demonstrations are often violently suppressed. The law requires all recognized political parties and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to apply to the local prefect for permission to hold large meetings or assemblies. While numerous NGOs, including human rights and antislavery groups, operate, a handful of black African activist groups and Islamist parties are banned. The banned El Hor (Free Man) Movement promotes black rights, while widespread discrimination against blacks continues.

The constitution provides for the right of citizens to unionize and bargain for wages. All workers except members of the military and police are free to join unions. Approximately one-fourth of Mauritania's workers serve in the small formal (business) sector. The right to strike is limited by arbitration.

Mauritania's judicial system is heavily influenced by the government. Many decisions are shaped by Sharia (Islamic law), especially in family and civil matters. A judicial reform program is under way. Prison conditions in Mauritania are harsh, but the construction of a new prison has reduced crowding and improved treatment.

Mauritania's people include the dominant Beydane (white Maurs) of Arab extraction and Haratine (black Maurs) of African descent. Other, non-Muslim, black Africans inhabiting the country's southern frontiers along the Senegal River valley constitute approximately one-third of the population. For centuries, black Africans were subjugated and taken as slaves by both white and black Maurs. In 2003, the government passed a law that makes slavery a crime and provides for punishment of violators. Although the government does not officially sanction slavery, a few thousand blacks still live in conditions of servitude. A government campaign against the mainly black southern part of the country in the late 1980s culminated with a massive deportation of blacks to Senegal, and relations between the two countries remain strained.

Societal discrimination against women is widespread, but is improving. In 2003, for the first time, a female candidate participated in the presidential election and the first Haratine female was appointed to the cabinet. Under Sharia, a woman's testimony is given only half the weight of a man's. Legal protections regarding property and equality of pay are usually respected only in urban areas among the educated elite. At least one-quarter of women undergo female genital mutilation; the government has intensive media and education campaigns against this practice.

2004 Scores


Not Free

Freedom Rating

(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Civil Liberties

(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Political Rights

(1 = best, 7 = worst)