As a law student in Paris, he graduated as the first Mauritanian to hold a university degree.
He joined the Mauritanian Progressive Union (UPM) led by Sidi Moktar N’Diaye and was elected in March 1957 to the territorial assembly for Adrar. He became Vice-President of the Governing Council and Minister of Youth, Sports and Education in the entirely UPM government. Later he was elected President of the Executive Council. In 1958 he formed the Parti du Regroupement Mauritanien (PRM) in an attempt to bring the opposition elements into a united government-dominated party.
On November 28, 1958, he led the party in an affirmative vote on de Gaulle’s referendum for autonomy within the French Community. He also pressed for a new capital for Mauritania to be built by Nouakchott in place of the old government headquarters in Senegal. In March 1959 a new constitution was adopted, making Mauritania an Islamic republic, and in May he was returned as a member of the French National Assembly. In June he became Prime Minister as well as retaining his post as Minister of Interior. In November 1960 he led his country to independence, following most of the other Francophone countries.
He maintained good relations with France, but was glad he did not have to support French policies over Algeria, where “our brothers of race and religion live”. He took on the important portfolios of Defence and Foreign Affairs, banned the opposition Nahdati party which advocated union with Morocco and got the National Assembly to adopt a new Presidential type constitution. On December 4, 1960, the Soviet Union vetoed Mauritania’s application for membership of the United Nations, in retaliation for Western action against Mongolia, but he summoned maximum sympathy from his brother African states and eventually both countries were recognised on October 27, 1966.
On June 19, 1961, fresh agreements were signed with France, that allowed Mauritania to stay outside the French Community, but provided sizeable French aid and allowed French military presence.
In August 1961 he was unanimously elected President of the Republic, and in December he abolished all other political parties and formed a new government party, the Mauritanian Peoples’ Party (PPM).
In June 1972 he was the co-founder of the West African Economic Community (CEAO) formed by Francophone states. The conditions imposed by France on Mauritania in earlier cooperation agreements were irksome as he sought to direct the country towards its traditional “Islamic sources”. This brought about the struggle with France at the end of 1972 and early 1973 over the defence agreement and the question of the establishment of a separate Mauritanian currency. He first broached the subject in a letter to President Pompidou in June 1972, but France did not sign new agreements until February 1973.
Politically, he maintained complete control and coped with the divisive language problem by making Arabic the national language and French the official language. But in January 1966, introduced Arabic as a compulsory first secretary-general. In the first few years of power he had done a great deal to unite his nation, still divided between the Moors °f the north and the African Negroes along the Senegal river. By tough political action he suppressed the northerners who wanted union with Morocco and file southerners, who would have felt happier under Senegalese rule.
Faced with poverty and lack of development, he decided to use private foreign capital to get the economy moving. He encouraged the MIFERMA consortium of foreign firms to exploit the nch iron ore deposits at Zouerate in 1963. SOMIMA, the copper consortium, with Charter Consolidated the major shareholder, began to develop a mine at Akjoujt in May 1968. This policy brought riches but uneven economic growth.
Though cautious and diplomatic he has always shown that he considers the wishes of the Arab majority to be united. After the student riots he made the discussion of "race problems”. He played an important part in Pan tu Can affairs, becoming President of . African-Malagasy Common Organsation (OCAM) in 1965 but only fiefiy before withdrawing Mauritania of the Organisation. He was also a proponent of the Organisation of cnegal River States (OERS) formed, in which the four neighbouring nations agreed to develop the Senegal river basin.
His policy was cramped by Morocco’s claims to Mauritanian territory but gradually he persuaded the Moroccans to acknowledge Mauritania’s rights and grant official recognition in 1969. From that time onwards, he was able to reorient Mauritanian policy towards the north.
“It is true we are divided from North Africa by the Sahara and that the most densely populated part of the country borders on Senegal and Mali,” he said in February 1973, “but our links with the North are very solid because they are natural, cultural, religious and economic links.”
He has also applied to become a member of the Maghreb Union. But this did not prevent him becoming Chairman of the Organisation for African Unity in 1971 and a member of the Senegal Guinea Mediation Commission.