Mauritanian proposed constitution put to the test

NOUAKCHOTT (AFP) — A new constitution proposed by Mauritania’s military junta with the aim of bolstering democracy will be put to the test Sunday when the country votes in a referendum.

The proposed law, to replace a former constitution dating back to 1991, has already won the approval of most political players and local civic and political rights groups.

It will be the first in a series of major democratic reforms the 17-member military junta council which rose to power in a bloodless coup last August would like to introduce in a bid to put to an end “more than 20 years of despotic rule.” The amendments to the old constitution — result of talks between parties, civil groups and government last October — limit the length of presidencies to two terms of five years and a maximum age of 75 for a president. Hitherto presidents in the Islamic state have been able to serve a six-year term of office renewable indefinitely.

Former president Maaouiya Ould Taya had ruled the country since a December 1984 coup d’etat. He had then been re-elected three times.

It will be mandatory under the new constitution for future heads of state to take an oath not to revise or back any efforts to change the premier law with respect to presidential terms.

To ensure the promise carries weight in this Muslim country, a president will be required to make that oath in the name of Allah.

African heads of state are notorious for changing constitutions to enable them to cling to power for as long as they possibly can.

The junta says the proposed constitution will form the backbone of all planned political reforms as it will “guarantee the peaceful and democratic changeover of power.” Only two small parties, the Alliance for Justice and Democracy and the Party for the Third Generation, and an exiled group campaigning for the rights of black Mauritanians, the African Liberation Forces of Mauritania, have called for a boycott of the vote.

They argue that the new constitution ignored issues of “cohabitation between the different national communities”, such as Arabs and black Africans, and does not address the thorny issue of slavery which was officially abolished in 1981, but is still being practised in parts of the country, according to rights activists.

The former french colony is composed of black and white Moors who make up more than 80 per cent of the population while black Africans are just about 18 per cent.

The government said more than 984,000 of the country’s 2.8 million people have been registered to vote.

The referendum is to set into motion a long democratic process to be followed by municipal and legislative elections in November and separate polls in 2007 to elect members of the upper house and a president.

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