Mokhtar Ould Daddah

First president of Mauritania

Saturday 18 October 2003 00:00 BST

Mokhtar Ould Daddah, politician: born Boutilmit, French West Africa 20 December 1924; Prime Minister, Islamic Republic of Mauritania 1959-78, President 1961-78; married (three sons); died Paris 15 October 2003.

Mokhtar Ould Daddah was the first president of Mauritania following independence from France in 1960. He ruled this large desert nation for 18 years before being overthrown in a bloodless coup in 1978.

He was born in 1924 in Boutilimit, about 100 kilometres south-east of the Mauritanian capital Nouakchott. His parents and grandparents were members of an important tribe in south-west Mauritania, and when France began to expand its colonialism in this part of West Africa in the early 20th century his tribe made little resistance.

The first modern French-Arab school had been established in Ould Daddah's home town in 1912. His father, Muhammadun Ould Daddah, enrolled his son here, rather than following tradition and sending him to an Islamic school. In 1940, Mokhtar continued his education at the noted French high school in Saint-Louis, Senegal.

In 1948, Ould Daddah went to France to pursue his studies, first to Nice, then to Paris, where he obtained his baccalaureate and then a law degree. In 1950 he married a French girl he met at the Faculty of Law in Paris and they had three children. After graduation, he became a translator, working in various French colonial offices in Mauritania and Senegal. In 1957, he worked for a period as a trainee in a French lawyer's office in Dakar, Senegal.

When Ould Daddah was studying in France, he did not take part in any political activities, although several political parties were established in Mauritania between 1946 and 1956. However, in 1957, Ould Daddah joined L'Union Progressiste Mauritanienne, which was supported by French colonial administrators, and a few months later he became vice-president of the party.

In early June 1959, Ould Daddah was elected to the first Mauritanian parliament. He became Prime Minister later that month, but had to wait until 19 October 1960 for the full transfer of power from the French authority. On 28 November, Mauritania became an independent nation and, on 20 August the following year, Ould Daddah was elected President of this sparsely populated country with its various nomadic and religious tribes. He renamed the country the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, although it did not strictly follow the laws and rules of an Islamic state as did, for example, Saudi Arabia.

His first task was to unify the various competing Arab, black African and slave tribesmen and to fight off the Moroccan claim over Mauritania. He also had to create a nation from scratch, building the capital city and creating an infrastructure. Morocco did not recognise Mauritania's independence until 1969.

Ould Daddah was a moderate African president and ruled Mauritania from 1960 until his overthrow on 10 July 1978. He was imprisoned for 14 months. In his memoirs, which he completed a few months ago and which will be published shortly, he blamed Algeria and Libya for the coup, because of his refusal to endorse their policy of supporting the Polisario Front against Morocco.

The next 23 years he spent in exile, mostly in Nice. When he and his wife arrived in France in 1979, they were penniless and his African friends, particularly President Habib Bourguiba of Tunisia, King Hassan II of Morocco and President Félix Houphouet-Boigny of the Ivory Coast, supported him throughout.

He returned to Mauritania in July 2001. There was no government official to welcome him nor any announcement on radio or television, but, to his surprise, he was greeted by 55,000 people. Although he found Mauritania had became a moderate country, he was disappointed with the regime's close relations with Israel while Sharon's army was killing Palestinians and most Arab countries had cut contact with Israel. He became an outspoken critic of the regime and of President Maaouiya Ould Sid Ahmed Taya. The authorities suspected Ould Daddah's involvement in an attempted coup last June, which was in fact organised by Mauritanian nationalists angered by the government's relations with the United States and Israel.

Mokhtar Ould Daddah will be remembered for his modesty and fairness and, unusually for leaders of African states, for his honesty and incorruptibility. On the negative side, he failed to abolish slavery in Mauritania. It was officially banned in 1981; the government has denied accusations that it is still practised.

Mohamed Ben-Madanie

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