from AD 1960
The foremost problem confronting Mauritania, on becoming independent in 1960 after the dissolution of French West Africa, is its relationship with its more powerful northern neighbour, Morocco. At first the Moroccan king refuses to acknowledge the existence of Mauritania, claiming that it is historically linked to Morocco (it is the region from which the Almoravids moved north in the 11th century to establish themselves at Marrakech).
In 1969 Morocco drops this claim and accepts the existence of Mauritania. But the conflict now shifts to a long-running dispute over the Western Sahara, the barren area to the west of Mauritania.
The Western Sahara: from AD 1976
The Western Sahara, colonized by Spain from 1884 and subsequently known as the Spanish Sahara, is a desert region between Mauritania and the ocean. Occupied only by a few nomadic tribes, it seems of little value until phosphate deposits are discovered in 1963.
By the 1970s it is an area disputed between Spain and the region's two neighbours, Morocco and Mauritania. In 1975 a United Nations mission reports that the scattered inhabitants of the region want independence and should be allowed to decide their own future. This prompts a dramatic response from the king of Morocco. He organizes a Green March (the colour of Islam), sending 350,000 unarmed Moroccans across the border. Their votes on the area's future can be relied upon.
Faced with this degree of determination, the Spanish withdraw their claim. The Western Sahara, as it now becomes, is entrusted by the UN in 1976 to joint Moroccan-Mauritanian adminstration.
It is never discovered whether this arrangement might have a chance of working, because since 1973 there has been a new element. In that year a local group of activists form the Polisario (Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el Hamra and Río de Oro). As guerrillas, supported by Algeria and Libya, they harass the Moroccans and Mauritanians. As politicians they declare, in 1976, that they are the government-in-exile of a new independent state, the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic. Their provisional government, based in Algeria, wins recognition from some seventy nations.
In the division of the Western Sahara after the departure of the Spanish, Morocco wins the northern two thirds (the region which includes the phosphates). Perhaps as a result of this, Mauritania opts out of the fighting and in 1979 makes peace with the Polisario. Morocco's response is to annexe the Mauritanian part of the territory.
The struggle therefore becomes a straight fight between the Moroccan forces and the Polisario. The Moroccans fortify the valuable areas against guerrilla intrusion. Eventually a peace is brokered in 1988 by the United Nations, leading to a ceasefire in 1991.
Internal politics: AD 1960-1999
The first president of independent Mauritania is Ould Daddah, who remains in power for eighteen years until toppled by a military coup in 1978. Thereafter, until 1991, the country is ruled by a Military Committee for National Salvation.
After several army-appointed presidents, power is taken in 1984 by Colonel Ould Taya, who appoints himself president after a bloodless coup. In 1991 Taya announces an amnesty for political opponents, a referendum on a proposed constitution and elections for a reconvened senate and national assembly. The constitution is approved in July 1991. Elections are held in March 1992, bringing a sweeping victory to Taya and his Republican Democratic and Social Party (PRDS).
The validly of the newly elected government is undermined by the fact that the main opposition group, the Union of Democratic Forces (UDF), has boycotted the election.
The same thing happens in the next parliamentary elections, in 1996, when the UDF withdraws after the first round of voting - claiming government fraud in the electoral process. The opposition parties similarly boycott the 1997 presidential election, in which Ould Taya is returned to power.
Apart from the problems of establishing democracy, the country's main area of friction is between two ethnic groups - the majority in the north, of Arab and Berber descent (a group which provides the ruling elite), and a minority of black Africans in the south.
Ethnic violence in 1990-91 (linked to a border dispute with Senegal) results in the deaths of several hundred black Mauritanians, and the flight of another 50,000 to take refuge in Senegal.
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