WHILE Morocco and Tunisia, members of the dormant Arab Maghreb Union (UMA), have made moves to become members of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), Mauritania, another UMA member, is seeking to return to the West African regional economic grouping, which it left in 2000. But the question is: will Mauritania pass ECOWAS scrutiny when it comes to democratic principles and human rights?
ECOWAS has moved on since Mauritania left 17 years ago over issues relating to a common currency. Then, ECOWAS was embroiled in military interventions in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea Bissau. Now it is one of the most successful regional economic commissions (RECs) in Africa. Since then ECOWAS has bolstered its policing of human rights and constitutional order in the region.
So, observers believe that the organisation’s high standards for governance and democracy may present some difficulties for Mauritania’s President, Mohammed Ould Abdel Aziz, whose recent political manoeuvres have been decried as an unconstitutional power grab designed to keep him in charge. Currently in Mauritania, unlike in Morocco and Tunisia, there is a political impasse.
In August, President Abdel Aziz got his wish following a constitutional referendum that was in favour of abolishing the country’s Senate, which had been critical of his third term ambitions. The controversial referendum, which was boycotted by the opposition, had a poor national turnout of 53.75 per cent, with the figure as low as 36 per cent in Nouakchott
‘This move is in line with President Abdel Aziz’s move to go for a third term, which is against the constitution,’ noted an analyst. ‘He was being thwarted by the Senate so he called the referendum to do away with the legislative body, whose role has now been taken over by regional councils.
‘Morocco and Tunisia will not face the same difficulty as Mauritania because they are trying to keep to ECOWAS’s democratic principles. For Mauritania, membership of ECOWAS will bring increased scrutiny of human and political rights in the country that could make President Abdel Aziz uncomfortable,’ the analyst said.
‘Also, the 31st summit of the African Union is scheduled to take place in Nouakchott in July next year for the first time, and this will increase the spotlight on the activities of the Mauritanian government.’
Spearheading the drive for regional peace and stability is the West Africa Network for Peacebuilding (WANEP). It is providing robust monitoring of elections among ECOWAS member states, as well as supporting the work of regional civil society organisations.
WANEP is seen as one of the most successful civil society organisations in West Africa and activists are ready to take on the government of President Abdel Aziz if he continues with his push for a third term, while also cracking down on human rights activists.
The Mauritanian government has constantly been criticised for its ambivalent attitude towards slavery in the country, but things could become more heated, as it moves to re-join ECOWAS. WANEP will make sure that the anti-slavery movement in Mauritania gets a fair hearing.
In August, the American Federation of Labour and Congress of Industrial Organisations (AFL-CIO) issued a statement urging the US government to remove Mauritania from the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). AGOA enhances market access to the US for sub-Saharan countries that are considered to be ‘working to improve [the] rule of law, human rights, and respect for core labour standards.’
In its petition, the AFL-CIO said: ‘The government of Mauritania routinely fails to conduct investigations into cases of slavery, rarely pursues prosecutions for those responsible for the practice and fails to ensure access to remedy or otherwise support victims. This represents a total failure to take any meaningful steps to establish freedom from forced labour.’
The AFL-CIO does not think that the US government will immediately remove Mauritania from AGOA but warns that the petition has ‘put Mauritania on watch.’
Mauritania abolished slavery in 1981, the last country in the world to do so, but only made it a crime in 2007. Since then, campaigners say the government has passed a handful of inefficient reforms and failed to properly address the issue.
Problems could, therefore, be building for Mauritania within ECOWAS. The UMA, in contrast to ECOWAS, has not had a serious gathering since 2008. As the AU pushes for continental integration under the auspices of the various RECs, Morocco, Tunisia and Mauritania are looking to become part of one of these groupings for economic, political and security reasons.
Morocco returned to the AU at the beginning of this year, having pulled out of its predecessor, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), 33 years ago over the disputed former Spanish territory of Western Sahara, which Rabat claims is part of Morocco.
Addressing the AU summit in Addis Ababa in January, King Mohammed VI said the ‘flame of the Arab Maghreb Union has faded because faith in a common interest has vanished.’
The most recent intervention by ECOWAS to uphold democratic principles was in The Gambia at the beginning of this year when it sent troops to the country to ensure that the election victory of Adama Barrow December 2016 was not derailed by Yahya Jammeh who lost the presidential poll.
Given that ECOWAS has set a good example in so many areas of regional cooperation, experts agree that it makes sense for the three UMA countries to become part of the West African community. But whether Mauritania will pass the ECOWAS test is another thing.