Opponents say vote paves way for Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz to seek third consecutive term
Mauritania is days away from a contentious referendum that may bring changes to the country’s constitution, after extensive campaigning that recently took a decidedly divisive tone.
The referendum, which was called by Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz and is to take place on Saturday, is most notably asking voters to approve the abolition of the country’s senate.
Also up for a vote is whether to add two red stripes - meant to symbolise the people who died defending Mauritania during the period of French colonialism - to the country’s flag.
Proponents of the changes, including Aziz and his government, are pushing for a “Yes” vote, while the main opposition bloc is advocating for an outright boycott of the ballot box, saying the referendum itself is unconstitutional.
We think that this referendum is illegal because it does not respect the constitution
- Cheikh Ould Sidi Ould Hanena
The decision to put the amendments to a public vote comes after members of the senate, some of whom belong to the president’s party, rejected the abolition of their own chamber in March.
“We think that this referendum is illegal because it does not respect the constitution, first of all,” said Cheikh Ould Sidi Ould Hanena, president of the follow-up commission of the project for constitutional reform in the senate, in June.
“Secondly, it is not consensual. Thirdly, it meets no real objective for the country. So we will not recognise the results of this referendum,” he said, according to a report in RFI-Afrique.
Aziz has been travelling across Mauritania to address crowds of supporters, often accompanied by high-ranking government ministers, as part of his “Yes” campaign.
"Your presence in such great numbers sends a message to those who don't want the country to move forward," the president told a crowd in Nouakchott on 21 July, according to an Agence France-Presse (AFP) journalist who was at the event.
Supporters of Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz hold a rally in the capital, Nouakchott, on 20 July (AFP)
If the vote passes, the senate would be replaced by elected regional councils.
An earlier amendment to abolish the High Court of Justice was removed from the ballot, a decision that the president attributed to the opposition’s efforts to “sabotage” the process.
The “Yes” side has the support of so-called “pro-dialogue” opposition parties.
But major opposition groups are pushing for Mauritanians to boycott the vote entirely, which they view as unconstitutional and the first step towards changes that could lead Aziz to seek a third consecutive term as president.
Aziz led a military coup in 2008 and was elected president a year later. He was re-elected in 2014, and has previously vowed not to seek a third term.
Under the current system in Mauritania, presidents can only stay in power for two consecutive, five-year mandates.
Meanwhile, local authorities have quashed opposition protests over the past week in Nouakchott.
Images shared on social media showed police firing tear gas on protesters and politicians at rallies held on 26 July in two neighbourhoods of the capital. Several people reportedly sustained injuries in the violence.
— UN Human Rights (@UNHumanRights) August 3, 2017
Police told AFP that the marches were dispersed because they were held illegally, while organisers said they informed the authorities about their plans.
“We advised the authorities of our decision to organise our programme of meetings and marches, as prescribed by the law, but the despotic regime ignores the laws and rules,” protest spokesperson Saleh Ould Henenna told AFP.
Several human rights groups, including anti-slavery activists, have also come out against the referendum process altogether.
Meanwhile, a group of senators staged a sit-in on Wednesday evening at the senate building in Nouakchott to protest against what they described as the "illegal referendum," according to a report in local media outlet Le Reflet.
The senate building was also cordoned off by police and gendarmerie, according to a statement put out by the United Nations human rights office on Thursday.
Your presence in such great numbers sends a message to those who don't want the country to move forward
- President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz
A spokesperson for OHCHR said the UN was concerned about "the apparent suppression of dissenting voices and the reported use of excessive force by the authorities against protest leaders".
“The authorities reportedly did not respond to the majority of requests for authorisation for the protests and actively dispersed gatherings. In several cases, protest leaders were reportedly beaten up and a number of them were arrested,” Ravina Shamdasani said in the statement.
Alassane Dia, head of the anti-discrimination group Don’t Touch My Nationality (Touche pas à ma nationalité), described the referendum as an exercise that “only accentuates the serious political and identity problems” in Mauritania, and “another coup d’etat”.
Constitutional reforms are necessary - to officially recognise all the languages spoken in the country and ensure equality between members of diverse ethnic groups, for instance - but that is not what the current referendum sets out to do, Dia wrote in a recent article.
“We must reform the constitution so that there are no longer any second-class citizens in Mauritania, citizens that are excluded on the basis of race, ethnic or tribal belonging,” he wrote.
On Monday, the National Independent Electoral Commission put out an appeal to respect the right of all parties to freely and equally address the electorate and put forward their positions.
The commission also called on all the parties to contribute to a clean electoral campaign "in order to organise a regular, transparent and credible vote”.
Almost 1.4 million Mauritanians are eligible to vote on Saturday.