Politics in Mauritania have always been heavily influenced by personalities, with any leader's ability to exercise political power dependent upon control over resources, perceived ability or integrity, and tribal, ethnic, family, and personal considerations. It is likely that during the civilian transition still underway, the chief of state, though very powerful, will continue to be subject to tribal and ethnic pressures. Conflict between Moor and non-Moor ethnic groups, centering on language, land tenure, and other issues, continues to be the dominant challenge to national unity.
The government bureaucracy is composed of traditional ministries, special agencies, and parastatal companies. The Ministry of Interior controls a system of regional governors and prefects modeled on the French system of local administration. Under this system, Mauritania is divided into 13 regions (wilayas) and one district (Nouakchott). Control is tightly centralized in Nouakchott. However, partly because of 1992 national elections and 1994 municipal elections, a decentralizing trend in the bureaucracy is underway.
Political parties, illegal during the military period, were legalized again in 1991, as a sign of democratic reform. By April 1992, when the civilian transition occurred, 15 political parties had been recognized. Although most are small, there are two main opposition parties. Most opposition parties boycotted the first legislative election in 1992, and the parliament is dominated by one party, President Taya's PRDS (Parti Republicain et Democratique Social). The opposition participated in municipal elections in January-February 1994 and subsequent Senate elections, gaining representation at the local level as well as one seat in the Senate.
Much social status is determined by descent from either the region's Arab-Berber conquerors or the Caucasoid-Negroid peoples they enslaved. A distinction between aristocracy and servant historically defined Maure (Moor) society as "white" and "black"--traditionally the enslaved indigenous class came to be called black Moors--although such status differences are declining.
The ethnic conflict that troubled Mauritania in the late 1980s and early 1990s has lessened, although political parties still reflect the country's social division. Many of the country's non-Arabic- speaking black citizens support opposition parties, while others are active in the PRDS.
Mauritania maintains an embassy in the United States at 2129 Leroy Place NW, Washington, DC 20008 (tel. 202-232-5700).
Between 1983 and 1991, when the USAID (U.S. Agency for International Development) mission in Mauritania ceased operations, the United States provided $67.3 million in development assistance. The U.S. also provided emergency food assistance through bilateral channels until 1992 and, subsequently, through multilateral channels. Since 1981, the United States has provided about $100 million in economic and food assistance.
The 1989 rupture between Mauritania and Senegal that resulted in the deportation of tens of thousands of Mauritanian citizens negatively affected U.S.-Mauritanian relations. Moreover, Mauritania's perceived support of Iraq prior to and during the Gulf war of 1991 further weakened the strained ties.
Relations between the U.S. and Mauritania reached a low in the spring of 1991, as details of the Mauritanian military's role in widespread human rights abuses surfaced. The United States responded by formally halting USAID operations and all military assistance to Mauritania.
Since late 1991, the Government of Mauritania has expressed a desire to restore good relations with the United States. It has implemented democratic reforms such as the legalization of political parties, a free press, and presidential and legislative elections. The government has also improved its overall performance on human rights.
The prospects for resuming U.S. military and development assistance to Mauritania hinge on Mauritania's continued progress on human rights.
Trade and Investment
In 1995, an American firm was awarded a $17 million contract for projects in Mauritania in telecommunications and other fields, indicating that bilateral commercial ties are expanding.
Mauritanians would welcome U.S. investment, particularly in fisheries. U.S. exporters have been active in the mining sector, although primarily through European offices or agents. Export opportunities exist in transportation, agriculture, boat repair, and port handling equipment.
The address of the U.S. embassy in Mauritania is BP 222, Nouakchott, Islamic Republic of Mauritania. Tel. (222)(2) 526-60/526-63; Telex AMEMB 5558 MTN; Fax (222)(2) 515- 92.