Nouakchott — President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz will face four rival candidates in Mauritania's 21 June elections, which are being boycotted by the main opposition coalition on grounds that they are a sham and its supporters claiming that the outcome is a foregone conclusion.
Cheikh Sidi Ahmed Ould Babamine, the head of the 17-member opposition National Forum for Democracy and Unity (FNDU) has denounced the elections as a "masquerade". Thousands of Mauritanians heeded opposition calls for a demonstration against the elections on June 4, flocking onto the streets of the capital, Nouakchott.
"We want to see free, transparent and consensual elections to allow for a peaceful change at the top," argued Jemli Mansour, president of the opposition Islamic Party, Tawassoul, and now the second strongest party in the country since its strong showing in the November 2013 municipal and legislative elections.
The case for standing
The only woman candidate, Lalla Mariam Mint Moulaye Idriss, says real transparency in the elections is not possible. "The role of the tribal chiefs and the political and social reality of this country transcend any political programmes or ideologies," she said.
While stressing that she understands the opposition's rationale for boycotting, she warned that it could lead to a "breakdown even more serious than the one witnessed in Mauritania in 2008, and that is not what the country needs."
Mauritania descended into a long period of political infighting that led up to the August 2008 military overthrow of President Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi.
Another candidate, Ibrahima Moctar Sarr, of the Alliance for Justice and Democracy/Movement for Renewal (AJD/MR), makes no apologies for standing. "We also have our doubts about the transparency of this election, because the state-backed system in place is racist, feudal and endorses slavery," Moctar acknowledged. "But we are going to compete all the same because it is necessary to play the political game, so at least we can hammer home our message at the national level."
To vote or not to vote?
"Why vote when you already know the result in advance? What credibility do you think the other candidates will have when Aziz's triumph is announced?" argued Messaoud Ould Abderahmane, a market trader in the capital and supporter of the opposition Union of Democratic Forces (UFD).
But others are keen to vote. Boubacar, a young salesman for a company selling electrical goods, said: "I will vote. It is the only kind of leverage that I can have on the destiny of my country even if my input is derisory on a national scale. I am simply doing my duty."
Boubacar has little enthusiasm for the candidates. "I think I will cast a blank vote because I don't see anyone on the ballot paper that can bring about the kind of structural changes that this country needs, particularly in sorting out once and for all the question of cohabitation between Black Mauritanians and Moors."
Questions on ethnicity will not go away
The complex history of race relations in Mauritania figures strongly in the programmes of at least two of the presidential candidates, who are addressing a subject often considered taboo.
Since independence in 1960 and particularly since the 1984 coup, the military and the administrative authorities have been dominated by the Moors to the detriment of 'Black Mauritanians'. In 1989, land ownership issues around the Senegal River Valley triggered inter-ethnic violence in both Senegal and Mauritania, with thousands of Black Mauritanians forced into exile. Veteran anti-slavery campaigner Birame Ould Abeid is amongst the candidates, his programme dwelling insistently on the historic grievances of the Haratines.
Voters want food questions answered
In addition to ethnic problems, many voters are focused on their daily needs, particularly food. At the SOCIM market, where most Nouakchott residents buy their main food staples, consumers lament how high prices have risen over the past five years despite constant advice from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to control inflation.
"The problem is with the traders who are not controlled and do what they want," argues Binta Camara, a housewife doing her weekly shopping at the market. "It is total anarchy."
"If I had to put a question to all the candidates it would be about just how expensive life has become here; it is more and more difficult to eat well because prices have gone through the roof".
Sociologist at the University of Nouakchott and writer Cheikh Sass Bouh Kamara says the city residents are suffering. "Endemic poverty is on the rise in Nouakchott. The rural exodus is becoming more and more important. In the most populated districts of Nouakchott you are now seeing an acute food crisis you would not have had seven years ago." Kamara blames the prices hikes on what he calls "a commercial oligarchy".
Mauritania is among the world's least developed food-deficit countries, ranked 155 out of 187 on the 2013 UNDP Human Development Index. Repeated droughts have slashed agricultural production. The World Food Programme estimates that between 20 and 30 percent of Mauritania's population is severely food insecure.
In Sélibabi, in south-eastern Mauritania, the concerns are even more straightforward.
This is the lean season and food needs are severe. People here have little time for the pomp and expenditure associated with the elections. "Our children need to eat, our livestock need water," argues Souleymane Diabira, who works for the state agricultural company SONIMEX.
Candidates and campaign promises
President Ould Abdel Aziz is standing for a second time. One of the main orchestrators of the 2008 coup against Abdallah, Abdel Aziz stood down as military leader to run for president in 2009. On that occasion, he used "the war against poverty" as the key campaign message. For 2014, he has switched his focus to youth and has been bringing this theme to the fore in debates and forums for several months, using the slogan: "a new impetus for Mauritania".
But youth unemployment remains a huge source of grievance. During his "meeting with the youth" organised several months ago, Abdel Aziz saw hundreds of young people coming in to take part in the debate, only to realize most were submitting their CVs.
Candidate Lalla Mariam Mint Moulaye Idriss, 57, who headed the Council of Administration at the state-owned Mauritanian Information Agency (AMI) right up until declaring her candidacy warns of "the growing impoverishment of the country and the rise in prices" and seeks the establishment of a stronger national identity and defusing inter-communal and tribal divisions.
She has also called for a more diversified economy, with more emphasis on its agricultural and livestock resources and less on mining, "whose benefits Mauritanians do not see on their plates".
Sixty-one year old Bodiel Ould Houmeid of the Party for Democracy and Entente says he is the one to get Mauritania out of its crisis, pointing to his experience in government and public administration.
Known primarily as an anti-slavery campaigner and head of the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement (IRA), Biram Ould Dah Ould Abeid, is championing the cause of racial equality in the run up to the polls. Slavery was criminalized in Mauritania in 2007 but the law has been difficult to enforce.
"Equality between Mauritanian citizens is at the heart of my engagement and my candidature," he told IRIN. "Ahead of economic or political questions is the question of survival in a country where communities do not talk to each other, where state racism is at its peak, where slavery persists, where Blacks do not have the same rights as Moors".
While offering a blunt critique of Abdel Aziz's record in office, AJD/MR candidate Ibrahima Moctar Sarr also raises arguments about race relations. "The question of cohabitation between Blacks and Moors can only be solved through democracy," he argues.
A foregone conclusion?
It seems highly unlikely that any of the four other candidates will pose much of a challenge to the incumbent.
"These elections are being played out in advance," argued Ahmed Fall, a philosophy teacher at the Al Baraka School in Nouakchott. "Look around in the streets, from Nouakchott to Sélibabi, you will only see the posters of Aziz and the loud-speakers blaring out his name. Have you ever seen a 'transparent election' with a 'credible opposition' as the authorities would say is taking place? You have the impression that the other candidates have gone for a very low profile approach".
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations. ]