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Consolidation of Power

In Mauritania, Haidalla was faced with the daunting task of consolidating power. To his credit, in January 1980 he proclaimed Mauritanian neutrality in the Western Sahara conflict and convinced Morocco to evacuate all its troops from Mauritanian soil. From the beginning of his regime, however, Haidalla was viewed with hostility by the southern black population; a native of the Western Sahara, he was perceived by the blacks as an Arab and a northerner. He was also mistrusted by pro-Moroccan political groups because he had signed the peace treaty with the Polisario. To ensure strict Mauritanian neutrality in the ongoing conflict, he reshuffled the top echelons of the government, removing both pro-Moroccan and staunchly pro-Polisario factions. He also assumed the title of president and removed Louly and CMSN vice president Ahmed Salem Ould Sidi from office, thereby eliminating all serious political competitors.

Haidalla initiated several important policy changes to broaden his base of support. In 1980, to further strengthen his position with Mauritania's blacks and to undercut black opposition groups in Senegal, he officially abolished slavery. In December 1980, in the face of growing apprehension among CMSN members, he formed a civilian government, naming Ahmed Ould Bneijara prime minister. He also initiated steps to draft a constitution establishing a multiparty, democratic state.

Among Mauritanians both inside and outside the country, however, political opposition to Haidalla grew. In May 1980, following Haidalla's dismissal of Louly and Sidi, a number of foreign-based opposition movements joined together in France to form an opposition group called the Alliance for a Democratic Mauritania (Alliance pour une Mauritanie Démocratique--AMD). The AMD wanted to restore civilian rule and introduce a multiparty democracy in Mauritania. Its principal political supporter was former President Daddah, who as a result of French pressure had been released from prison in August 1979. Also joining the AMD was former Vice President Sidi. The AMD received financial support from those Arab states of the Persian Gulf that opposed Haidalla's anti-Moroccan leanings--he had moved to eliminate proMoroccan members of the CMSN--and his support of selfdetermination for the radical SADR. The same Arab states also reduced their aid to Mauritania, which only encouraged Haidalla to strengthen ties to more radical Arab countries like Libya and Iraq.

Meanwhile, relations with Morocco continued to deteriorate (see Relations with Morocco , ch. 4). Discord between the two countries had been mounting since early 1981, when Morocco accused Mauritania of sympathizing with the Polisario and harboring its fighters. Morocco was also responsible for rumors suggesting that Libya was shipping arms to the guerrillas via a landing strip at Chegga in northeastern Mauritania. On March 18, 1981, pro-Moroccan members of the AMD led by Sidi and former air force commander Mohamed Abdelkader attempted to topple the government. The coup failed, and both were subsequently executed. In April, following the attempt, Haidalla and the CMSN decided to abandon civilian rule and replaced the fledgling constitutional government with a six-member military government headed by Colonel Maaouiya Ould Sid Ahmed Ould Taya.

As Mauritania's relations with Morocco worsened, its ties with Algeria improved (see Relations with Other States of the Maghrib , ch. 4). Algeria cultivated a friendship with Haidalla and supplied him with sophisticated military equipment, ostensibly to deter invasion from Morocco. In June 1981, in an effort to restore diplomatic relations with Morocco, Haidalla agreed to a summit meeting to be arranged and hosted by Saudi Arabia, one of Mauritania's largest aid donors. At the summit, Morocco's King Hassan II and Haidalla signed an agreement restoring diplomatic relations and prohibiting the transit through either country of forces hostile to the other. This last provision alluded to both the Polisario and the Moroccan branch of the AMD. The reconciliation, however, was short lived. On the one hand, Morocco refused to expel AMD members, and on the other hand King Hassan accused Mauritania of allowing Polisario guerrillas to launch attacks against Morocco from Mauritanian base camps. Subsequently, Moroccan aircraft bombed the Mauritanian city of Bir Aidiat near the border with the Western Sahara, where Polisario guerrillas had taken refuge, and threatened further reprisals against Mauritania.

In February 1982, former CMSN president Salek and former Prime Minister Bneijara, among others, tried unsuccessfully to oust Haidalla. Having survived a second coup attempt, Haidalla relied on his forceful personality, self-discipline, and integrity to gain the respect of many of his countrymen. The eleven-month period between February 1982 and January 1983 gave the regime the opportunity to politicize the population. Haidalla hoped that by establishing a working foundation of civilian politics he could abolish the military regime and be elected to office as a civilian. Accordingly, in 1982 the government organized what were labeled Structures for Educating the Masses (Structures pour l'Education des Masses--SEM), which acted on a range of public issues through elected delegates. Haidalla also pursued his goal of national reconciliation by releasing some of the political prisoners incarcerated since the overthrow of the Daddah regime.

Domestic peace was shattered briefly in January 1983, first when Haidalla discovered a coup plot supported by Libya and, later, when a Moroccan gunboat attacked a Mauritanian garrison near La Guera, the only Western Sahara territory still occupied by Mauritania (see fig. 11). Although neither incident caused any casualties or serious diplomatic repercussions, the Moroccan attack demonstrated Mauritania's continuing vulnerability (see Relations with Other States of the Maghrib , ch. 4). Haidalla responded to these incidents by strengthening relations with France; the latter had already been instrumental in reestablishing communication between the Mauritanian and Moroccan governments following their 1981 break (see Regional Security Concerns , ch. 5). The more significant diplomatic movement, however, saw Haidalla develop warmer relations with Algeria and the SADR. During the June 1983 summit meeting of the Organization of African Unity in Ethiopia, Haidalla joined Senegalese president Abdou Diouf and Ethiopian leader Mengistu Haile Mariam in drafting a resolution calling for a cease-fire and peace negotiations in the Western Sahara. Morocco failed to comply with the resolution by the end of the year, and Haidalla recognized the SADR in February 1984.

The January 1983 Libyan-supported coup plot had soured relations between Mauritania and Libya; however, Libyan leader Muammar al Qadhaafi, a strong supporter of the Polisario, took advantage of Mauritania's break with Morocco and began a new campaign to reestablish cordial ties with Haidalla. Haidalla's warming relations with Libya, Algeria, and the Polisario, however, alienated the conservative Arab countries on which Mauritania depended for most of its economic aid and also factions in his own government, which favored ties to Morocco, and those who opposed the existence of the SADR. Moreover, Haidalla angered many CMSN members by his decision to recognize the SADR without consulting them.

More ominous was Morocco is movement of troops toward Mauritania's northern border in the aftermath of Mauritania's recognition of the SADR. The presence of thousands of Moroccan soldiers on the Mauritanian border, only four kilometers from Mauritania's key economic center at Nouadhibou, again raised the possibility of another Moroccan attack on La Guera. In addition, Morocco had begun to construct a berm (see Glossary) near the Mauritanian border that would restrict Polisario guerrillas to Mauritanian territory for their rear bases, thus providing Morocco with justification for attacking northern Mauritania.

Data as of June 1988

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