NOUAKCHOTT, Mauritania (AP) — Nearly 2 million people go to the polls on Saturday in Mauritania, a vast desert nation in West Africa which positions itself as a strategic ally of the West in a region swept by coups and violence, but has been denounced for rights abuses.

President Mohamed Ould Ghazouani, widely expected to win a second term, is a former army chief who came to power in 2019 following the first democratic transition in the country’s history. He’s also the current president of the African Union.

Last year, his El Insaf party scored a crushing victory in the legislative election, taking 107 of the 176 seats in the National Assembly.

Ghazouni faces seven opponents, among them Biram Dah Abeid, an anti-slavery activist who is a candidate for the third consecutive time, leaders of several opposition parties and a neurosurgeon.

The vote is taking place in a particularly tense regional climate, with Mauritania’s neighboring countries shaken by military coups and jihadi violence. Mauritania, one of the most stable countries in the Sahel region, has been hailed as a key partner in curbing migration and fighting extremism, and hasn’t suffered any attacks since 2011.

Earlier this year, the European Union announced a 210 million-euro ($225 million) fund to help Mauritania crack down on people smugglers and deter migrant boats from taking off, as the number of people attempting the dangerous Atlantic Ocean crossing from West Africa to Europe rises sharply. It also announced an additional 22 million euros ($23.5 million) for a new anti-terrorism battalion in Mauritania that will patrol the border with restive Mali.

Ghazouni used his electoral campaign to highlight Mauritania’s security commitments, a message that experts believe is addressed first to the military juntas in neighboring countries and the Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group present in the region, but also to the jihadi groups, which have carried out incursions into Mauritanian villages.

″I advise against anyone, an internal or external party, from thinking of destabilizing Mauritania or its territorial integrity,” he said during one of the campaign meetings.

But the opposition candidates accused his government of corruption and clientelism. There was “a catastrophic management of the state” under Ghazouni’s rule, said Biram Dah Abeid, an anti-slavery activist and Ghazouni’s main rival in the quest for the presidency.

Mauritania is rich in natural resources such as iron ore, copper, zinc, phosphate, gold, oil and natural gas. Yet almost 60% of the population lives in poverty, according to the United Nations, working as farmers or employed in the informal sector. There are few economic opportunities for young people, with many attempting to cross the Atlantic to get to Europe.

“The Mauritanian regime has always lived on the pillage of wealth, the repression of populations and the use of forgery,” Dah Abied told The Associated Press after a rally in Nouakchott, the country’s capital, where he was greeted with slogans “Zero Ghazouani” and “Long live Biram.”

Under Ghazoumi’s rule, he said, “corruption is in full swing alongside squandering of state money.”

There is no real separation of powers either, Dah Abied said. “In reality, justice is not independent and there is no independent legislative power,” he said.

The country has also been denounced for human rights abuses, with the continuous existence of slavery casting a long shadow over its history. For centuries, the country’s economic and political elite of Arab and Amazigh people enslaved Black people from the northwest Sahara.

Mauritania outlawed slavery in 1981, the last country in the world to do so. But the practice continues, human rights groups said, with around 149,000 people in modern slavery in this nation of less than 5 million, according to the 2023 Global Slavery Index.

Dah Abied is a descendant of slaves, and made fighting the practice the cornerstone of his political career — and of his life. He founded the Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement, an anti-slavery group, and has been arrested and imprisoned several times by Mauritanian authorities.

“My father was freed from slavery when he was in his mother’s womb,” he told the AP. But then he married a woman in the situation of slavery, Dah Abied said, and he saw his children being sold.

“My father was driven by the concern to fight against slavery, and he made it his legacy,” Dah Abied said. “I promised him that I would fight against slavery all my life, and that is what I am doing.”

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