On June 22, 2019, Mauritania organized its latest president election, which led to the unsurprising replacement of a (retired) military officer, Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, by another comrade-in-arm, Mohamed Ould Ghazouani. This election provides a good opportunity to evaluate the country’s current challenges, in a regional context where a number of neighbors are spiralling into cycles of violence.
Not a long time ago, it was Mauritania which was initially at the frontstage of Sahelian violence, from 2005 to 2011, but since 2011, no terrorist attack occurred on Mauritanian soil, and Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso became the new hotbeds of violence. What does this say about (in)security in Mauritania since 2011? What does it tell us about the relationship between Mauritanian state rulers and their citizens, in a Sahelian region where this relationship explains a good deal of the violence unfolding before our eyes?
Ould Ghazouani’s victory reveals a number of enduring patterns about Mauritanian politics, but also some newer trends. The most obvious pattern is the following: forty-one years ago, in the summer of 1978, the Mauritanian military staged a coup against the civilian one-party rule of Mukhtar Ould Daddah. Ever since, wearing either military fatigues or a suit and a tie, military officers have systematically replaced one another at the top of the Mauritanian political system (the only exception, which confirmed the rule, was the short-lived civilian presidency of Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdellahi in 2007-2008).
This election also indicates that the presidency, and the political and economic prizes that come with it, is a reserved domain of selected officers who have worked closely one with another (and oftentimes, though maybe not this time, plotting against one another too). Both Ould Abdel Aziz and Ould Ghazouani were ‘aide-de-camp’ to Colonel Ould Taya (in power from 1984 to 2005), building key military institutions under his presidency (the Presidential Security Battalion and the Armed Vehicles Battalion, respectively), only to become the main architects of his ousting in 2005. Like most of their predecessors, they have occupied strategic seats in the security apparatus (head of the military intelligence bureau; Army chief of staff; ministry of Defence; top positions in the 2005-2007 and 2008-2009 military juntas). Like their predecessors too, they have also developed extended family, friendly, business and even religious connections across Mauritania’s complex Bidhân (White Moor) society. It would be too simplistic to say, for instance, that power was once monopolized by the Smâsid (president Ould Taya’s tribe), then by the Awlâd Bousba’a (the tribe of Ould Mohamed Vall and Ould Abdel Aziz) and now by the Ideyboussat (the tribe of Ould Ghazouani). Though there is no doubt that many individuals from the president’s tribe do benefit from his presidency, fierce rivalries amongst cousins are common currency (witness the rise and fall of Ould Abdel Aziz’s cousin, Ould Bouamatou, once one of the wealthiest businessmen in the country). Alliances across tribes are a necessity.
As well, the legislative and municipal elections of last year, in September and October 2018, confirmed another pattern: the military strongman of the moment is inevitably supported by the public administration and a ruling political party that crushes all its opponents: in the 2018 legislative elections, the number one opposition party, the Islamist ‘Tawassoul’ party, could not win more than 14 of the 157 seats in the national assembly (down from 16 in 2013, though this is better than any other opposition parties in all elections since 1992). The presidential party and its small allies also took control of all thirteen regional assemblies, which were created by the 2017 constitutional change to replace the Senate, while winning 162 of the 218 municipal councils. Under Ould Abdel Aziz’s reign, this party was (and still is) the Union pour la République (UPR); it had other names before that, and may or may not change again under Ould Ghazouani, but the system upon which the strongman’s party operates remains the same: it gathers a majority of local notables, high ranking civil servants, career politicians, businessmen and relatives of military officers, forming a vast patronage machine feeding on public resources, but also animated by fierce intra-party rivalries.
A key new element, however, appeared in this election: for the first time since independence in 1960, the transition did not involve a coup d’état of some sort. It is not the first time that an incumbent is replaced by a once trusted colleague, but in the past the departing head of state was usually jailed or exiled (or killed in a timely accident) by the said associate. In this case, however, the succession from one friend to another was peacefully and mutually planned. The condition that made this possible is also new in Mauritania, and unusual in comparison to what happened in about twenty African countries in the last decade: it occurred because Ould Abdel Aziz made the consequential decision not to change the constitution to extend his stay, and instead, to leave at the end of his second term. This may have set an interesting precedent.
Of interest also are the results of this presidential election. Whether one believes in the validity of these results or not (both options are plausible), they can teach interesting lessons. Ould Ghazouani obtained the same results as Ould Abdel Aziz in his first election (2009), 52%, which is, after all, not that impressive for a military leader in command of the administration and the security apparatus. It shows that the regime was willing to let the election be relatively free, which meant taking the risk to make public the fact that close to 50% of voters have voted against the strongman. If, however, these numbers are somehow made up, they nonetheless reveal that the regime was disposed to put forward a narrative that differs from those of most authoritarian regimes on the continent, where leaders have crafted for themselves super majorities in the 80% and 90%. This being said, the arrests of the leading opposition candidates in the days following the election and the shutting down of the internet reminded of practices seen in other autocracies.
The continuing domination of coalitions of military officers over Mauritania’s political system imposes that we explore once again the very concept of security. Reports on the current crises in Mali, Burkina Faso, or Niger indicate that, among various factors, the state, or rather its representatives, have often been part of the problem rather than the solution: failing to deliver much needed social, educational and development services across their country, while taking part in corrupt, authoritarian and repressive schemes, all of which have fuelled tensions. In Mauritania, though the state has developed solid formal and informal security infrastructures – note for instance the rapid materialization of its administrative and security presence in the once remote and isolated Bassikounou, in the southeastern corner of the country, or the basic but efficient activities of the air force in the northernmost part of the country – the elites that embody the state are often seen as a direct or indirect threat by various segments of Mauritanian society.
In effect, social movements and political activists representing the Haratin (the descendants of slaves in the Moorish community), as well as the ‘Black Africans’ (Haalpulaaren, Sooninko, Wolof and Bamana ethnic groups), have for a long time decried the injustices and inequalities the state, predominantly led by ‘White Moors’ (Bidhân), has reproduced over time. A number of these protestors have been jailed several times in recent years, the most famous of which being the Haratin activist Biram Dah Abeid, leader of the IRA movement (Resurgence of the abolitionist movement), and a candidate in the 2014 and 2019 presidential elections. He finished in second place in the 2014 presidential election, with 8.6%, and more than doubled his score in 2019, with 18.6%, in second place once again. Though a number of Haratin individuals have made it ‘to the top’, as politicians and high-ranking civil servants, for the vast majority of them, their social status is the best predictor of their dire socio-economic conditions. As for Black Africans, again with the exception of a few individuals, most denounce their exclusion from the key centers of power in the Mauritanian state apparatus. Social movements such as Touche pas à ma nationalité (TPMN), which was first created to decry the difficulties many Black Africans faced when trying to register for the civil registry, also saw some of its members arrested on various occasions. In the days following the June 2019 election, the arrests of several alleged West African immigrants, accused of being troublemakers, revived anxieties about how quickly it can tag Blacks as subversive people and intentionally blur the difference between Mauritanian and ‘foreign’ Black Africans.
These forms of exclusion, partially based on status and ethnicity, are also seen in the rising levels of inequality and the concentration of wealth amongst the regime’s cronies and their family networks since the early 1990s. Heavily dependent on the ups and downs of global markets (iron ore; oil; fish; and soon natural gas), Mauritania’s economy has been officially producing more wealth over the years (GDP growth of 4,7% in 2010 and 3,6% in 2018). But the country’s development indicators point to another reality: during Ould Abdel Aziz’s 10-year tenure, Mauritania’s Human Development Index ranking has barely changed: the country ranked 154th in the world in 2009 when he took over, and moved down for most of his reign (159th in 2011, 2017; 161th in 2014; 157 th in 2015).
Overall, the strongmen who have been in power formally and informally since 2005 have succeeded in maintaining a tight control of the security apparatus. They have operated in June 2019 a quiet transition which, even if it will probably lead the way to some tensions between the departing president and the new one over nominations and the redistribution of state patronage, is the smoothest alternation in power ever seen in the country. They have also adroitly played their cards internationally (mainly the security rent) and developed solid relations with their foreign partners, including European countries. However, the regime’s stability is founded on mechanisms of sociopolitical exclusion which have proven to be lethal in the country’s recent history, as well as in many of its Sahelian neighbors today.