Mauritania’s government-backed candidate Mohamed Ould Ghazouani won the presidential election, cementing the power of a ruling party positioning itself as an ally of the West against Islamist militants.
The electoral commission declared Ghazouani winner late on Saturday with 52% of the vote. His nearest rival, anti-slavery campaigner Biram Dah Abeid, came second with 18.58%, while third place candidate Mohamed Ould Boubacar, backed by Mauritania’s biggest Islamist party, got 17.85%.
The election was the first since independence from France in 1960 to choose a successor to a democratically elected president.
None of the three other candidates polled more than 10%.
Ghazouani campaigned on continuing economic and security progress made under outgoing president Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, who took the helm in a 2008 coup, then won elections in 2009 and 2014.
Under the leadership of the 62-year-old president, the economy grew and will receive an extra boost when a large offshore gas field starts producing early next decade.
Hours before government spokesman Sidi Mohamed Ould Maham declared Ghazouani “president-elect” at a news conference opposition candidates represented by Abeid said they would contest the results.
“This seems like a coup d’etat,” Ghazouani’s nearest rival, Biram Dah Abeid, representing himself and other opposition leaders, said. “We are united and will lead contestation of the results.”
The election was largely peaceful, apart from some Riyadh, Elmina, and Sebkha regions of Nouakchott, where protesters burned tyres and trash before police dispersed them.
Abdel Aziz surprised many of his compatriots and international observers by stepping down after serving the maximum two five-year elected terms in Mauritania, a country of less than five million comprising a large chunk of the western Sahara Desert.
His decision bucked a trend in which African leaders, including Rwanda and Congo Republic, changed or abolished term limits to stay in power.
Despite his economic record, Abdel Aziz was criticised for not facing up to Mauritania’s most searing injustice: the persistence of slavery. Tens of thousands of black Mauritanians still live as domestic slaves, rights groups say, usually to lighter-skinned masters of Arab or Berber descent.
That despite the practice being abolished in 1981 and criminalised in 2007, the year before he took power.