Putting oil before refugees

Observations on Mauritania

When the president of Mauritania was ousted in a bloodless coup a few weeks ago, the news didn't exactly make headlines in Britain. Maaouiya Ould Sid'Ahmed Taya, who had run the former French colony in West Africa for 20 years, made the mistake of attending the funeral of King Fahd in Saudi Arabia and a military junta seized power in his absence.

Another long-serving African autocrat gets his come-uppance. So what, you might ask. Well, Taya deserves a little more attention than that, and not just because 15 years ago he annoyed the west by declaring support for Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait.

Through much of his rule a tragedy has been unfolding in Mauritania that rivals in its cruelty and horrors Sudan's ethnic cleansing programme in Darfur, a tragedy which has not only been neglected in the western media but almost ignored by western governments.

More than 120,000 "Negro-Mauritanians" from the fertile southern valley have been forcibly expelled into neighbouring Mali and Senegal as the Arab-led government created space for Arab farmers from the north.

According to the African Liberation Forces of Mauritania (Flam), a group pressing for human rights mainly from exile, the security forces burned the villages of the displaced to prevent their return. Seen as undesirables by both their homeland and their host countries, the refugees were left to eke out their lives year after year in squalid frontier camps.

The engineer of this outrage was Taya, but despite his fall, according to Abda Wone, a spokesman for Flam, "things are not about to get any better". Indeed, regional famine has made things worse, bringing the large refugee communities along the borders of Mali and Senegal to the brink of collapse. Mamadou Barry, general secretary of Flam, says it is the vulnerable Mauritanian refugees who have been the most affected, "as they have no means to defend themselves".

Despite all this, Taya largely escaped the odium, international pressure and threats of sanctions experienced by his counterparts in Sudan. A 2004 State Department report described US-Mauritanian relations as "excellent", while the Foreign Office has declared its relationship with the country "cordial".

One possible explanation for this diplomatic anomaly is the recent discovery of oil and natural gas in Mauritania. Western oil companies were banned from investing in Sudan, because of the country's human rights record; that is not the case in Mauritania.

The industry newsletter Energy Bulletin reported this year how various oil companies have set their sights on the country. They include the British firms BG Group and Premier Oil and Australia's Woodside, in which Shell owns a big stake. BG, part of the old British Gas group, has already invested $137m in Mauritania's offshore Chinguetti oilfield and a spokeswoman for the company describes the country as "a great prospect".

The US government was very quick last month to condemn the military coup, but just days later it opened talks with the new junta - as soon as the regime promised to honour existing contracts with foreign oil companies. The UK is expected to follow suit. Adam Ereli, a US State Department spokesman, justified the approach:

"The guys running the country right now are the guys we are dealing with, because they are the ones making the decisions."

Flam is due in London in the next few weeks to lobby Tony Blair and his Africa Commission about declaring a right of return for the stateless black Mauritanians. With the principal architect of the displacement policy out of the way, it would seem to be a good moment to seek justice for its neglected victims, but the record is not encouraging and it will hardly be surprising if Britain's energy concerns are allowed to mute any criticism.

This article first appeared in the 19 September 2005 issue of the New Statesman, The gathering storm