- On the eve of Mauritania's oil production launch, the transitional government has installed a committee to oversee the use of revenue from oil and other natural resources to ensure it benefits the people. "The time has come" for the average citizen to reap the benefits of the nation's resources, the head of government said yesterday at an opening ceremony in the capital Nouakchott.
With Mauritania set to begin pumping oil any day, the world is watching to see whether the country will achieve what many other nations have pledged and failed to do - ensure that oil money reduces poverty and improves the lives of the masses. Mauritanian leaders earlier have pledged to avoid the so-called "oil curse".
In inaugurating the committee, Mauritania's Prime Minister Sidi Mohamed Ould Boubacar said: "The government is determined to take the necessary measures to prevent [the misuse of revenues as seen in other countries] and to guarantee that natural resource income contribute to economic development and the reduction of poverty."
The Prime Minister continued: "The time has come for the Mauritanian citizen to be able to gain from the exploitation of [the country's] natural wealth on the basis of fairness and equality." Citizens so far have been unsatisfied with the management of the country's significant natural resources.
In addition to its newfound oil stores, Mauritania has mineral resources such as iron ore and copper, and some of the richest fishing waters in the region. But the country's wealth historically has not meant big benefits for the general population.
The new state committee is part of the government's endorsement of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) - an international mechanism for improving transparency and accountability in the use of natural resources. Analysts say the junta's oft-stated commitment to EITI is a good sign, but that there must be national enforcement mechanisms in place for it to really count.
Since seizing power in a bloodless coup in August 2005 that was welcomed by the majority of citizens, Mauritania's popular military junta has repeatedly vowed to bring forth a new era of openness and transparent democracy.
The new oil revenue committee comprises representatives of government, the oil industry and civil society, including the press, unions and non-governmental organisations (NGOs). The initial make-up drew criticism from local and international observers who said while the process is laudable, local civil society was not adequately represented. But on Thursday sources in Nouakchott said after appeals to the government, two civil society representatives were added to the panel, including one from a local NGO coalition.
Mauritania's Chinguetti offshore oil field - located in the Atlantic Ocean about 70 kilometres from Nouakchott - is expected to produce 75,000 barrels per day. Oil exploration is underway and more reserves are expected to be tapped in the coming years.
Mauritanians could use a boost from a fair share of petrodollars. Abject poverty is rampant in the Sahel country of some 2.9 million people, over half of whom live on subsistence agriculture and livestock.
But if precedent in the region is anything to go by, significantly improving the people's living conditions through oil revenues would be quite a feat. Nigeria's oil-producing south is one of the poorest regions in the country, and the government of Chad - one of Africa's newest oil-producers - recently gutted a World Bank-backed framework meant to ensure that oil money benefit the poor and future generations. In a host of other countries, including Angola and Equatorial Guinea, oil has been far from a blessing for most.
The transitional government's launching of the national EITI committee is another public demonstration of commitment to openness and good governance. Analysts say the thing to watch will be whether amid a booming oil trade, the junta will stick to its promise of handing power over to an elected civilian government by March 2007.
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