Mauritania: Donors on standby while EU considers next step

News and Press Release
Originally published
NOUAKCHOTT, 20 November 2008 (IRIN) - One month after setting a deadline for Mauritania's coup leaders to restore constitutional order or face sanctions, the European Union said the junta's efforts have been "insufficient" and that the EU will examine "appropriate measures," according to a 20 November statement by France's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The EU, which following an August coup d'état threatened to withhold US$230 million in development funding, had set a sanctions deadline of 20 November. Other donors also suspended aid projects following the coup.

Earlier this week French foreign affairs ministry official Alain Joyandet said 20 November was not an "official deadline" and that the Cotonou Accord that governs EU-Africa relations allows more time before sanctions take effect. France currently holds the rotating leadership of the EU.

Coup leaders are requesting additional dialogue with the EU.

Weeks after meeting with donors in Brussels on 20 October, coup leaders moved the detained President Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi to his home village Lemden, 190km from the capital Nouakchott on 13 November.

In a meeting with IRIN on 14 November, President Abdallahi said he is under restriction: "I can't move from Lemden. In addition, I would have preferred to stay at my house because my house in Nouakchott is only a few hundred metres from where I was held for three months. But now, they tell me I must go to Lemden. So, I consider that I am still deprived of my freedom."

On standby

The World Bank announced a freeze on $174 million in undistributed funds shortly after the coup , suspending some 17 development projects. In addition, in the pipeline were a $1-million project to improve access to justice for vulnerable communities and a $9-million project to improve villages' food stocks.

According to internal planning documents, the food security programme and related activities would have restocked wheat in 120 cereal banks, known locally as SAVS (Stock Alimentaire Villageois de Securité), at a cost of more than $500,000.

A World Bank staffer, who requested anonymity because of a post-coup no-comment policy, said the suspension has squeezed government financing.

"In unofficial conversations with our counterparts, they are eager for reconciliation," the Bank staffer said. "The government is paying officials three to four times what civil servants typically earn to essentially do nothing. They can't be let go, so they are paid to be on standby while the projects are not operational."

This employee said each World Bank-funded project unit has a local coordinator, paid in the range of $3000 per month, plus at least four other government staff, equipment, maintenance costs, at least one all-terrain car, housing, branch offices throughout the country and rented office space.

Scaling back

The UN maintains all of its programmes except policy assistance, according to UN Resident Representative Maria Ribeiro.

The United States has pulled out soldiers working on counterterrorism trainings, abandoned plans to build a counterterrorism unit and suspended about $6 million in development activities, according to embassy officials.

Also on hold is Mauritania's Millennium Challenge Compact, worth up to $600 million. Mauritania was to receive $30 million in late August 2008.

Still waiting

On 12 November, coup leaders adopted a 2009 budget that proposed about a 13-percent reduction in spending.

Independent economist Isselmou Ould Mohamed told IRIN the government has been able to continue paying civil servants but that if programme suspensions continue that could become difficult.

"The coup leaders are trying to buy time to improve their image in the country, especially among the poor. Everything they are doing is to try and win legitimacy. Until now, they have been able to keep the government running, initiate populist initiatives, and have been lucky with international prices."

The price of fuel has decreased by nearly one-half over the past three months, with the price of a barrel of oil falling from $119 to $52 as of 20 November.

Mohamed said if fuel and food prices continue to drop a donor pullout will be difficult but not disastrous. "The situation is not alarming based on current pricing and economic data. But if prices return to 2007 levels, then that would be disastrous. Right now, it would be difficult, but not catastrophic."

According to the US-funded food security monitoring group, FEWSNET, Mauritania imports about 70 percent of its food.

The African Union is expected to meet on 21 November to discuss the sanctions standoff.