On the night of October 13, soldiers fired at Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz in Tweila/Touela, located approximately 40 kilometers north of the capital Noakchott (French), as he returned from a weekend retreat. The New York Times:
Mr. Abdel Aziz, 55, was returning to Nouakchott after one of his habitual weekend excursions in the wilderness, Mr. Mahjoub said, when he came on a military checkpoint, which are scattered throughout the country, ostensibly to counter the threat from Al Qaeda.
The president was driving the unmarked car, with one passenger, Mr. Mahjoub said, and there was no escort in the immediate vicinity. Mr. Abdel Aziz is known for sometimes driving himself around Nouakchott, and for occasionally wading into crowds with minimal security.
The shooting apparently began when the car’s driver refused soldiers’ orders to stop at the checkpoint (Arabic). The official Mauritanian account holds that the shooting was an accident. Abdel Aziz gave what the NYT calls a “halting” televised speech from his hospital bed affirming this version of events. The Christian Science Monitor:
“I want to reassure everyone about my state of health after this incident committed by error,” Abdel Aziz said from his bed. “Thanks to God, I am doing well.”
He was covered in a sheet up to his neck and the extend of the wounds was not clear. Medical sources said he had been shot in the abdomen.
On October 14 (yesterday), Abdel Aziz was flown to a military hospital outside Paris, France, where he is currently receiving treatment.
Voices in both the local (French) and international media have questioned the idea that the shooting was accidental. CNN cites anonymous witness accounts to the effect that the “incident was an assassination attempt.” Many analyses have emphasized Mauritania’s history of coups (Abdel Aziz himself took power in a 2008 coup, and was involved in the 2005 coup that preceded it) to imply that the shooting was part of yet another coup attempt. Some have suggested that militants from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) conducted the attack, and some perceive a connection between events in Mauritania and the instability in neighboring Mali, where AQIM is a member of the Islamist coalition that rules that country’s northern regions. Under Abdel Aziz, Mauritania has taken a hard stance against AQIM. While I think it is natural and appropriate to question the official account, I also think it is wise to keep a rein on one’s tendency to speculate. The full details of what happened in Tweila may never be known.
The reaction from the Mauritanian opposition has included an announcement from the Coordination of the Democratic Opposition (Arabic) that they will suspend their protest activities, and an announcement from the same bloc that they have formed a commission (French) to track the consequences of the shooting and to demand the truth. The security forces are reportedly conducting their own investigation (Arabic).
Situations like this can move rapidly. I am reminded of when Captain Moussa Dadis Camara of Guinea was shot by his soldiers in December 2009. He never returned to retake power. Yet the Mauritanian case, it seems to me, already presents a significant contrast to the Guinean one. If Abdel Aziz can speak and walk, he is faring better than Camara, who was shot in the head and not seen for days or even weeks. Here I am speculating myself after having discouraged it, but it seems to me that given how tightly the Mauritanian authorities are managing information about the incident (which indicates discipline and control) and the fact that Abdel Aziz still seems lucid, his regime has a decent chance of weathering the incident. We will have to see now whether and how quickly he returns to Mauritania; his absence in and of itself could generate further uncertainty and instability.