NOUAKCHOTT (Reuters) – Hundreds of people took to the streets in Mauritania on Friday calling for better living conditions and more jobs in the vast, impoverished desert nation that straddles black and Arab Africa.
Such demonstrations are rare in the West African country and few expect to see protests on the scale of those that have rocked Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and to a lesser extent, neighbouring Algeria.
A handful in the crowd of 1,000-1,500 mostly young people who took part in the peaceful protest demanded the departure of President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, but they were in the minority and there was only a light security presence.
“The president has to respect his people. Aziz has always said he’s the president of the poor; now the poor are in front of you asking for dialogue,” said Mocktar Mohammed Mahmoud, a social worker who said he had got involved through Facebook.
“There is no party behind us, there is no particular tribe behind this. We are behind you in your war against terrorism but you’ve got to stand behind us in our war against hunger.”
Abdel Aziz came to power first in a 2008 coup and then won an election in 2009, which has largely restored stability to the nation but failed to bridge the gap between the mostly rich Arab elite and the largely poorer African classes.
He has been at the forefront of the region’s fight against local al Qaeda factions but some of his rivals accuse him of using the Islamist threat to weaken his opponents while those around him have been accused of corrution.
“We don’t want soldiers in power … So many graduates are jobless. It’s enough,” said student Hanena Hohamed.
A number of protestors said they had heard about the march through Facebook and other social networking sites which have been key in the organisation of popular anti-government movements across the Arab world and North Africa.
Last month a Mauritanian man set himself on fire in front of the presidential palace in an echo of the suicide last December that triggered the popular revolt in Tunisia, followed by Egypt, both resulting in the ousting of authoritarian leaders.
Ahead of Friday’s planned demonstration, Prime Minister Moulaye Ould Mohamed Laghdaf said that the government would soon create 17,000 jobs, develop new infrastructure projects and boost local food production capacity to tackle spikes in prices.