Mauritanians go to the polls

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Mauritanians will vote for a new president on Saturday in what is expected to be the West African country’s first peaceful transfer of power since independence from France in 1960.

President Mohammed Ould Abdel Aziz will step down after serving two five-year terms since he took power in a coup in 2008, resisting a trend in which post-colonial African leaders sought to extend their rule beyond constitutional limits.

Togo and Chad have in the past two years capped presidential mandates to two five-year terms – but those laws will not be applied retroactively, allowing current presidents to potentially stay in power for more than 10 years.

Abdel Aziz, an ally of Western powers in the fight against Islamists in the Sahel region, leaves an economy that has picked up since 2017 after a drop in the price of iron ore dented export profits.

The International Monetary Fund expects growth of nearly 6% this year, up from 3.5% in 2018. The economy will receive a boost when a large offshore gas field starts producing early in next decade.

All six presidential candidates, including a prominent anti-slavery campaigner and a former prime minister, face widespread discontent among young people who see few prospects in the vast, thinly populated desert country where less than one percent of land is arable, corruption is rife and salaries stagnate.

“The people are suffering, we are being wronged, there is no work, people employ you for a miserable salary,” said a man at a market in Nouakchott. “Then tax collectors take what they have to take from that miserable salary.”

Mauritania, which straddles black and Arab Africa, was the last state in the world to outlaw slavery in 1981. Two percent of its people still live as slaves, according to the 2018 Global Slavery Index.

Rights groups say dissent against Abdel Aziz was forcibly put down by government troops, including protests calling for an end to the persistent slave trade.

“Young people have had enough,” said a young voter who asked not to be named. “All the government opponents who denounced the state, they all left, they all escaped because there are no equal rights.”

Mauritania ranked 159th out of 189 in the latest United Nations’ Human Development Index.

Saturday’s candidates include former prime minister Sidi Mohamed Ould Boubacar, ruling party candidate Mohamed Ahmed Oudl Ghazouani and anti-slavery campaigner Biram Dah Abeid, Abdel Aziz’s closest rival in 2014.