In Mauritania, an electorate of little over a million people wrapped veils and turbans around their faces on Sunday and went out into the oven-hot sirocco winds to vote for a new president.
In the past elections in this oil-rich desert nation in West Africa have been of little importance to Mauritanians themselves, let alone the outside world.
But this time the land of nomads is making history.
While in countries from Uganda to Zimbabwe Africa’s one-time revolutionaries have chosen to settle down as presidents for life, Mauritania has gone the other way and chosen to break with a dictatorship and install a democracy.
The European Union is calling it a “model transition”.
What makes it improbable that Mauritania should be bucking Africa’s trend is that it coincides with the beginning of oil exportation from the country – a factor which experts say normally increases the likelihood of governments moving towards greater autocracy.
It is even more incredible then, that the man who chose to install democracy should have been Mauritania’s long-time head of national security, a man at the heart of a two-decade long regime known for corruption and oppression.
Nonetheless, in what was dubbed a “good coup”, Colonel Ely Ould Vall seized power in August 2005 without firing a single shot. In the interest of stability he invited the former ruling party to form the transitional government under his military council. And then in a break with the past he barred it – and himself – from standing in elections which he promised to hold within two years.
On Sunday he fulfilled that promise, giving Mauritanians the opportunity to choose between 19 candidates, including the first black-African candidate and an Islamist who promises to sever links with Israel.
The contest is effectively between three candidates: one a product of the pre-2005 regime, a second seen as a puppet of the military junta and a former World Bank official. Provisional results were not expected before Monday but the election was moving toward a second round to be held on March 25.
As the country moves towards a second round on March 25, the question now is whether after decades of institutionalised clientelism, Mauritanian Moors will use their votes to further clan and tribal interests. Mauritania’s black-African voters say the elections are their first chance to make their voice heard after years of discrimination.
Self-interest probably played a great part in the actions of Mr Ould Vall. His coup was preceded by a series of failed attempts which highlighted widespread dissatisfaction with the clan-based regime of President Maaouiya Ould Sidi Ahmed Taya.
Sooner or later, a coup was bound to succeed and after 20 years at the top of the security services, Mr Ould Vall surely feared prosecution for a litany of state-perpetrated human rights abuses against black -African Mauritanians during their forced expulsion in 1989-91.
By taking the initiative Mr Ould Vall jumped ship from a sinking regime and secured his place in history as saviour of the nation.
The country’s oil trading partners dropped their calls for the reinstatement of President Ould Taya as soon as they had been reassured that agreements would be respected.
“It’s been a model transition,” said Marie Anne Isler Beguin, head of the EU election monitors. “They’ve neither dragged their feet over holding the elections nor held them too soon thereby depriving the opposition of time to get organised.”