Month: May 2016

Unrest in Mauritania

Mauritanian president Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz allegedly wants to revise the Constitution, allowing him to run for a third term in office, as well as abolish the Senate, to mininise opposition within government. Opposition parties have warned the president to refrain from such action. Initial indicators of unrest are an uptick in demonstrations, in Nouakchott mainly, but if the public response to third term ambitions elsewhere on the African continent are anything to go by, Mauritania is likely to see a period of elevated civil unrest in the lead up to the presidential elections scheduled for 2019, or until President Aziz heeds the calls by the opposition to better manage his political ambitions.

The constitutional amendment to abolish the upper house of Mauritania’s Parliament  in favour of new regional councils appears designed to remove an obstacle to his third term ambitions. Aziz says the Senate hinders the legislative process. The opposition claim the move would consolidate power in the presidency, which would make it easier for Aziz to remove term limits. Referendums on the issues are likely to be held sometime in 2016.

When Aziz who leads the the ruling Union pour la République (UPR) party, took office in 2014, he promised to avoid any amendments to constitutional term limits. Now his justification appears to be, in the words of his supporters,  “so that he can accomplish the projects he started”. Two of the main opposition parties are the Tawassoul party, led by Mohammed Jemil Ould Mansour and the Forum National pour la Democratie et l’Unite (FNDU) led by chairman Saleh Ould Hanenna. Another powerful figure is Ahmed Ould Daddah, leader of the largest opposition party, the Rally of Democratic Forces (RFD). The FNDU, a coalition of opposition parties, trade unions and civil society bodies led protest action in Nouakchott on 9 May, which attended by thousands of people but concluded peacefully.

President Aziz has called for a political dialogue ahead of the referendum, but opposition figures have rejected this; “We are marching today to tell the president that the Constitution is a red line” said Saleh Ould Hanenna, adding that “The opposition will not accept entering into a dialogue when Ould Abdel Aziz has already defined the themes, but only to a process of consultation that would include guarantees and subjects that have been adopted by consensus.”

Henenna stated further that “The opposition will stand firm against any attempt by the regime to amend the national charter” and that “The president’s true intention is to remain in power by eliminating [constitutional] articles that bar him from standing for a third term in office”

A escalation of protest action centered on Nouakchott is likely in the coming months as the government continues with the referendum. Opposition parties are seeing a confluence of interests in their opposition to Aziz and the UPR, and if they don’t get their way, will probably end up boycotting parliamentary elections in 2018, which is what the FNDU did in 2013.

Senior military officials have not yet expressed opposition to these issues, probably due to the nexus between the military and presidency following the 2008 coup, and ‘la politique commercial’ – real power “firmly in the hands of an élite made up of ‘Big Tent’ families, cartels of merchants, and military personnel” according to Robin Selly in the New Internationalist.

By R Haussmann, Cesar Hidalgo, et. al. - Electronic Complexity Observatory, MIT Media Lab and the Center for International Development at Harvard University., CC BY-SA 3.0, commodity prices in recent years have hit Mauritania’s economy due to its over-reliance on metals and hydrocarbons. The EIU forecast’s GDP growth at 1.5% in 2016. Iron ore income has been particularly affected, with prices currently hovering around $55 a tonne compared to $190 a tonne in 2011. Things may improve in the medium term as the National Industrial and Mining Company of Mauritania (SNIM) pushes for higher ore output. In November 2015, the Guelb II expansion project in Zerouate was inaugurated, which will add over 4 million tonnes a year, and employ over 6,000 more people, once fully operational. Kinross Gold Corporation recently confirmed an expansion of the Tasiast gold mine, which could increase output to over 50% by 2018, from 8,000 to 12,000 tonnes of ore per day.

Featured image: A photo of the capital, Nouakchott. By William Darcy Hall – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Brazil: the mighty Lava Jato

The civil unrest that was sparked by a modest bus fare increase in 2013 culminated in the suspension of Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff on 12 May as opposition figures took advantage of popular grievances to oust the president in what Rousseff calls a “coup”. Millions of people took to the streets of Sao Paulo, Brasilia, and Rio de Janeiro in recent years, as well as in smaller cities throughout the country, to protest against a range of issues, including most recently, the president herself. Recent polls indicate that almost 70% of Brazilians support the impeachment proceedings against Rousseff; her recent approval ratings hovered near single digit figures compared to a high of 79% in March 2013 .

At this point, with public confidence in the government at all time lows, and the governing coalition divided and dysfunctional (Partido do Movimento Democrático Brasileiro (PMDB), the largest coalition partner to Rousseff’s Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT), announced it was quitting on March 29), it is highly unlikely that President Dilma Rousseff will complete the remainder of her term, due to the likelihood of a successful impeachment in the coming months. If the Senate votes by 2/3rds majority to convict Rousseff, Michel Temer will serve out her term until 2018. A provisional presidency under Michel Temur may fare no better – he will inherit a range of challenges, including Brazil’s worst recession since the 1930’s, a political system which limits effective governance, and may find himself under investigation for corruption – fresh elections would then follow.

The bus fare protests -“movimento passe livre” – which began in 2013, followed widespread dissatisfaction with the government channeling tax revenues into stadiums and other football World Cup expenses, at the expense of  education, transportation, and health care, which are of an obvious higher priority to the majority of people, namely the poor and middle classes.When the masses took to the streets, political paraphernalia was burnt, including the starry red flag of Rousseff’s Workers Party, by a mixture of demonstrators including supporters of the Workers Party. Flags and other symbols belonging to opposition parties were torched too – government incompetence and corruption was the issue, not the politics of who was in office.

Activists demonstrate in front of riot police outside the Mane Garrincha National Stadium in Brasilia June 15, 2013. Protests continued in Brasilia over the government's economic policies and the hosting of major sporting events as Brazil's national soccer team prepared to play Japan in the Confederations Cup opening match. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino (BRAZIL - Tags: SPORT SOCCER CIVIL UNREST) - RTX10OWU
Activists demonstrate in front of riot police outside the Mane Garrincha National Stadium in Brasilia June 15, 2013. Protests continued in Brasilia over the government’s economic policies and the hosting of major sporting events as Brazil’s national soccer team prepared to play Japan in the Confederations Cup opening match. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino (BRAZIL – Tags: SPORT SOCCER CIVIL UNREST) – RTX10OWU

Part of the story of those who ruffled the streets of Latin America’s largest nation, is the rise of millions of people from below, to above, the poverty line: according to a report from the Getulio Vargas Foundation, FGV, in 2011, over 40 million Brazilians rose to the level of middle class between 2003 and 2011. These people demand services commensurate with taxation levels – comprising 36% compared to the United State’s 25% for example, but getting little in return. Anderson Antunes writes that the “poorest citizens are the ones paying the biggest share of their income in tax and also the ones getting the least back from government spending.” 


Compounding discontentment related to service delivery failure was the government-toppling issue of corruption – a matter of existential seriousness amid rising levels of unemployment, a drop in living standards due to economic slowdown and rising inflation. In March 2014, Brazil, which enjoys a bit of drama, reeled following revelations of a massive corruption scandal involving politicians, billions of dollars, kickback and bribery schemes, and the state owned oil company, Petrobras.  The scandal is known as ‘Lava Jato’, or Operation Car Wash. In addition, Rousseff, who has been accused of involvement in the Petrobras scandal due to her position in the company as chairwoman from 2003-2010, stands accused of illegally manipulating finances to obscure public deficit figures prior to her re-election in 2014 – the main item on the current impeachment menu – although not an issue which many pro-impeachment politicians and senators  raised in their denouncement of Rousseff, giving weight to her statements of a political ‘coup’ in motion.

Corruption is a serious matter in Brazil: massive protests saw Brazil’s’ first democratically elected president, Mr Fernando Collor de Mello resign following impeachment proceedings on corruption charges in 1992. In recent years, the mood on the street in Brazil has been souring following the optimism of the boom years, such as 2010 when the economy grew at more than 7%, and inclusion in the BRICS seemed to confirm Brazil’s elevated global status. Corruption allegations was the right ammo for the right war at the right time, so reasoned the opposition, successfully. Mrs Rousseff has vowed to fight on however, and so have her millions of followers. The protests that began in 2013 continued through to 2016, although interestingly, the socioeconomic composition of the protesters was changing as anti-government protesters outnumbered pro-Rousseff supporters.

According to media reports in March 2016; “At the largest anti-Rousseff protest, in Sao Paulo, 77 percent of the demonstrators self-identified as white, and 77 percent were university graduates, according to polling firm Datafolha. Nationwide, those figures are 48 percent and 13 percent, respectively. Half the protesters in Sao Paulo last weekend earned between five and 20 times the minimum wage.”

The massive anti-government demonstrations on 13 March, attended by between one and five million people “were led by middle-class Brazilians angry over growing allegations of corruption in Rousseff’s administration. ” wrote Daniel Flynn and Alonso Soto in Reuters on 14 March.  

In other words, recent anti-Rousseff demonstrations were whiter, wealthier and better educated than those who took to the streets a few years back – despite dissatisfaction with the government being “more or less evenly distributed across the social spectrum”. What had changed and why were the plebs staying at home?

Rodrigo Nunes warns us against thinking along the lines of upper-class revolt vs. protests are by the majority, the truth he says lies somewhere in between.

Nunes writes of a “new silent majority in Brazilian politics: neither with the government nor actively against it”.  These are the millions of people who benefited from the social policies implemented by the PT during its 12 years in power. He writes that many now worry about “post-PT scenarios that for the poor are even worse than the present state of things”. These were the people who had previously taken to the streets to protest against the PT dominated government policies, but were now  present in diminishing numbers because the alternative – the opposition – was not seen as a solution.size_810_16_9_petro

Nunes writes that “the poor are more interested in better transport and health than impeaching the president” and if Mrs Rousseff and her left wing-leaning Workers Party lose power, what will become of social welfare programs like Bolsa Familia, which includes cash handouts to over 12 million Brazilians, and have played an important role in alleviating poverty, as well as contributing to the aforementioned tax base increase by getting people educated and working? (For an excellent overview of the success of Bolsa Familia, see the recent Foreign Affairs article on the matter.)

The poor, he writes, do not identify with the opposition, nor with a post-PT future, regardless of grand statements to the effect that a Brazil without Rousseff will be a great and prosperous one. It is no secret that a majority of the big players in the Brazilian political arena have been implicated in corruption scandals – indicted/mentioned/supreme court. The silent majority do not see the removal of Rousseff as being a solution to corruption in any meaningful way. It is political warfare by an equally corrupt opposition, that much is certain. Nunes writes that the poor view politics “as an exclusive sport for a self-serving elite”. This view applied in equal measure to the PT in recent years, which is of course guilty of corruption, and wasteful public spending. The silent majority appear to dis-identify with both the PT as well as with the opposition, including the large PMDB and PSDB parties. The reason, Nune writes, is a “a crisis of representation”. The left wing-Workers Party indulged in the usual graft at the expense of the economy and social services, and the liberal opposition, many fear are likely to be anti-poor as far as social spending goes. Nunes writes of a disconnect between the “politics of society and the politics of politicians”.

What began as a healthy broad based opposition to governmental incompetence and corruption led to the apparent seizure of power of a rival political faction, using popular grievances to maneuver the incumbent Rousseff out of office. Machiavelli would have been proud.

Header image by Isaac Ribeiro at