The coup in Mauritania and Islam in sub-Saharan Africa

mauritania.gifThe coup in Mauritania has had very little attention in the world’s media, but it raises some important questions.

In a nutshell, the Mauritanian army has overthrown the regime of of President Maaouiya Ould Sid Ahmed Taya.

It is hard not to have mixed feelings about this.  On the one hand, African leaders have resolved to put behind them the days of army coups, and committed themselves to peaceful, democratic change of government. On the other hand, Taya took power in 1984 in an army coup, and rigged subsequent elections, so it is difficult to feel that a legitimate government has been overthrown. The army say that they will hold elections within two years (but then, armies usually say after a coup, and then seem to forget about it).

Perhaps most interesting of all is what this says about the state of Islamic opinion in sub-Saharan Africa.  Mauritania is an Islamic republic, but the Taya regime has been moderately pro-Western and anti-fundamentalist, and Mauritania is one of the few Arab countries to have links with Israel. This is why the US and others has continued to prop up an unelected and corrupt Government. (This is, no doubt, the kind of policy that Condi Rice plans to stop now that the US will be putting democracy ahead of security.)  It is too early to know what has led to the coup in Mauritania, but it seems likely that the coup was organised by those who feel that Taya was too close to western powers and insufficiently pro-Islam.

If so, this appears to be another case in which the so-called war on terror is hardening divisions between moderate and fundamentalist Islam, and building support for anti-western attitudes among many of Africa’s muslims.  Islam is growing fast in sub-Saharan Africa – there are now more muslims in West Africa than there are Arabs in the whole world.  At least some of the London bombers appear to have been young East African muslims.  If we want to build a peaceful world, we need to pay at least as much attention to the evolution of Islamic thinking and fundamentalism in sub-Saharan Africa as we do to the Middle East.  The coup in Mauritania may be the first warning bell.  But because hardly anyone in Europe or America knows the difference between Mauritania and Mauritius, it is unlikely to be heard.

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