Mauritania Step Closer to Civilian Rule

By TODD PITMAN
The Associated Press
Monday, June 26, 2006; 6:47 PM

NOUAKCHOTT, Mauritania -- A critic of Mauritania's government used to hide his children upstairs each time the doorbell rang, fearful they would see him being hauled away by state security agents.

Now that critic is hopeful that such tactics could be a thing of the past _ Mauritania's military junta held a weekend constitutional referendum that brought the African nation a step closer to civilian rule.

Voters overwhelmingly adopted changes ensuring future heads of state will never again be able to stay in office for life.

Similar pledges to restore civilian rule have rung hollow in the wake of other African coups, but Mauritania's junta leaders appear to be following through.

On Monday, they said constitutional amendments were approved in the vote limiting future heads of state to two five-year terms in office _ no small feat in a coup-prone country that has never seen power change hands via the ballot box.

Interior Minister Mohamed Ahmed Ould Mohamed Lemine announced Monday that final results showed nearly 97 percent of voters supported the changes. The constitutional court must confirm them before they can become law. Turnout was more than 76 percent, Lemine said. About 980,000 of Mauritania's nearly 3 million people were registered to vote.

"Mauritania has changed for good, there is no going back," said the government critic and 46-year-old journalist Mohamed Fall Ould Oumeir, who was jailed four times under the former regime and had entire editions of his weekly Tribune newspaper repeatedly seized.

Perched on the edge of the Sahara desert, Arab-dominated Mauritania has been wracked by 10 coups or attempted coups since independence from France in 1960.

Maaoya Sid'Ahmed Ould Taya ruled for 21 years before being ousted Aug. 3 and replaced by his soft-spoken longtime national police chief, Col. Ely Ould Mohamed Vall. Tired of decades of repression and economic stagnation, most Mauritanians welcomed the change.

"Taya was only interested in staying in power at all costs, including that of our own freedom," said lawyer, Brahim Ould Ebeti, echoing the thoughts of many in the humble seaside capital, Nouakchott. "He did nothing to develop the country. For him, the rest of Mauritania did not exist."

The international community condemned Taya's bloodless toppling, but the junta has since garnered praise for putting the country on the democratic track.

"They used to think they could stay in power for eternity," businessman Abdallah Ould Mohamed said of the country's past heads of state. "That's no longer possible. We have the right to throw them out."


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