The Washington Post

Mauritania's Poor Skeptical on Oil Riches

By NAFI DIOUF

The Associated Press
Sunday, August 28, 2005; 1:34 PM

NOUAKCHOTT, Mauritania -- This country hasn't even started exporting oil yet, and already some Mauritanians are demanding a share of the hoped-for profits.

Hundreds of professors at Nouakchott University have backed their demands for better health insurance and housing with a threat to strike this fall, illustrating how oil's promise has raised expectations _ and tensions.

"I am convinced that oil money will go into the pockets of the rich," said Mohammed El Abd Ould Ramdane, standing ankle-deep in muddy rain water stagnating outside his home in the slum of El Mina.

Just a few blocks away stands the new and immaculate white building housing Mauritania's Oil Ministry. Flush businessmen drive luxury cars and enjoy meals in fancy restaurants while clusters of buildings spring up in this once sleepy nomadic capital of a country where 28 percent of the 2.7 million inhabitants live on less than $1 a day.

A history of cracking down ruthlessly on opponents and anger over allying this Muslim nation with the United States in the war on terror and opening full diplomatic relations with Israel six years ago were cited as the prime reasons for a bloodless Aug. 3 coup that toppled President Maaouya Sid'Ahmed Ould Taya. But a power struggle over oil also may have played a role.

Bickering over oil comes despite economic improvements in recent years, even before the first oil revenues in this West African nation.

The World Bank says access to primary health care rose from 30 percent in 1990 to 70 percent in 2001 and primary school enrollment increased from 49 percent in 1987 to 88 percent in 2001. It attributed the gains to a shift in public spending to social sectors and poverty reduction programs.

Still, there are widespread suspicions about the offshore oil fields, where Woodside Energy of Australia expects to begin pumping early next year, at a rate of 75,000 barrels of oil a day.

Executives of Woodside, which has invested $600 million in the field, will not comment on the terms of the contract with the Mauritanian government, citing a clause of confidentiality. Mauritanian officials also are tightlipped.

"With oil, the gap between the rich and the poor will be wider," said Messaoud Ould Boulkheir, a 2003 opposition presidential candidate. "Revenues from the fisheries and iron industries have never trickled down to the poorest. How long do you think they will wait?"

Ramdane, the shack-dweller, lives on less than $2 a day, earned selling water. The 55-year-old can afford to send only two of his 11 children to school. At night, their makeshift home is so crowded that some of the children have to sleep with neighbors.

"I only count on myself to get out of this situation," Ramdane said.

___

Associated Press reporter Ahmed Mohamed contributed to this report.

 2005 The Associated Press