Mauritania’s Legislative Elections: A New Date, and a New Delay

On August 3, Mauritania’s Communications Minister Mohamed Yahya Ould Hormah announced that the country would hold legislative and municipal elections on October 12 of this year. The government has repeatedly delayed elections, originally scheduled for 2011, due to disagreements with the opposition. Unless I am mistaken, the last time Mauritania held parliamentary elections was in November/December 2006 for legislative and municipal seats, and January/February 2007 for senate seats. If this is correct then Mauritania has not held legislative elections since the military coup of August 2008 that brought current President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz (who won election as a civilian in July 2009) to power.

This month’s attempt to schedule an election also met with a delay. Parties within the Coordination of Democratic Opposition (COD) coalition swiftly announced their plans to boycott the October elections. Among those threatening a boycott were the left-leaning Union of the Forces of Progress (UFP) and the Islamist National Rally for Reform and Development (Tewassoul). Tewassoul and others cite concerns about transparency and fairness. Their stated concerns resemble those raised by other COD parties in August 2011. For those interested in further details, Tewassoul’s website features an August 12 COD statement (Arabic) entitled “Why is [the COD] Boycotting the Elections for Which the Regime Calls?”

In response to the boycott threat, the government on August 22 postponed the elections until November 23. A second round may follow on December 7.

The government’s responsiveness to the opposition’s boycott threats is noteworthy. What do you think? Does it bespeak fear, or political savvy, or both?

Mauritania’s Salafi Prisoners: A Release and Some Questions

This week, Mauritanian authorities released two prisoners (Arabic), Bashir Kharashi Sall and Sidi Ould Mamuri (my transliterations), who had been held for five years on charges of links to violent Islamic groups. The Mauritanian press often refers to such prisoners as “Salafis,” and I will too for the sake of shorthand, but it’s worth bearing in mind that Salafi is a theological category whose complexity such shorthand frequently masks.

From my limited research so far, it seems that the two men were held in connection with a gun battle between security forces and Al Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb that occurred on the outskirts of Mauritania’s capital Nouakchott in April 2008 (video report). My evidence is this 2010 list (Arabic) of accused persons from the “Santar Amtir incident” (my transliteration, which is likely wrong – the Arabic is صانتر أمتير), which from what I can deduce refers to the area where the April 2008 clashes occurred. The two men appear on that list.

The issue that the Mauritanian press (see first link above) raises this week in its coverage concerns not violence, however, but dialogue. Sall and Mamuri participated, as have numerous other Salafi prisoners, in government-facilitated conversations with Islamic scholars who attempted to alter the Salafis’ thinking on various issues. The linked article above hints that the dialogues have borne inconsistent or at least opaque fruit: the two men, despite their participation in dialogue, “were kept in prison without release despite the issuance of pardon for tens of prisoners who participated in the dialogue.” Other participants in the dialogue, the article continues, remain in prison today, awaiting pardon or sentencing.

Rehabilitation programs for jihadists raise concerns about how to measure success and prevent recidivism; the architects of such programs presumably wish neither to release potential recidivists nor to detain genuinely reformed individuals, and much less to detain people who were innocent in the first place. If I am right in detecting a critical tone in one Mauritanian press outlet’s coverage of these issues, then it seems segments of Mauritanian society would like their government to communicate more clearly the criteria it uses to keep certain individuals behind bars.

On Appraising Threats

Yesterday I published a piece at World Politics Review on assessing the threat that armed West African Muslim movements like Boko Haram might pose to the West. The piece is a sequel, in some sense, to two posts from earlier this month. The general stance I’m going for is anti-alarmism: I’m arguing for a perspective that takes these movements seriously, but that weighs evidence and probabilities carefully.

I had a very challenging time striking my own balance in writing the piece. To some extent a part of me will always feel that it is still 2001-2004, when some Americans, claiming to speak with a kind of super-patriotism, sought to shut down any nuanced discussion of terrorism’s causes and implications. Whenever I write anything anti-alarmist, I still brace myself for the possibility that one of my countrymen will accuse me of being an intellectual traitor to my country. But I hope that the parameters of the conversation on terrorism are wider in 2013 than they were in 2003. A cautious and judicious approach to questions of terrorist threats to the United States is, in my view, a truer form of patriotism than the alarmism that seeks to send US soldiers and dollars chasing after every possible threat or source of instability.

In terms of evaluating threats, the issue of weighing evidence is crucial. Murky events in Niger bring that home this week:

An inquiry into shooting at a military police academy in Niger’s capital Niamey found no evidence of an attack on the camp, suggesting it could have been an over-reaction by nervous guards, the foreign minister said on Sunday.

Niger’s government had said its security forces had repelled an overnight assault by gunmen on the academy on Tuesday, stoking concerns over an Islamist threat in the West African nation.

The incident followed a June 1 assault on a prison in the capital, during which more than 20 prisoners escaped including several Islamists, and twin suicide bombings at a French-run uranium mine and military barracks in Niger’s desert north in May.

“An investigation was not able to establish if anyone opened fire (on the camp),” Foreign Minister Mohamed Bazoum told Anfani radio. “There was no trace of bullet holes or cases. Nothing.”

This, too, may not be the final version of the story. The problem is when we simplify the murkiness inherent in events like these, which analysts (including me) do sometimes merely to meet word counts. Simplifications can reduce the descriptions of such events from paragraphs (as above) down to phrases like “Muslim militants’ alleged attack on a Niger police academy” and then to “Muslim militants’ attack on Niger police” (removing any trace of doubt) and finally to “a string of Muslim terrorist attacks in Niger,” where not only does doubt disappear, but the disputed incident gets folded into an alleged trend. There is a danger, in other words, of allowing language to play such tricks on us that we wind up with exaggerated constructs through which we read future events.

Nigerian critics may charge that I am downplaying the seriousness of Boko Haram. Not so. The question is who Boko Haram really has in its crosshairs, and in my opinion the answer is the Nigerian state, Nigerian Christians, and a host of other Nigerian targets. Western targets are secondary, from everything I can tell; perhaps the UN bombing proves me wrong, but Boko Haram’s aim there seemed to be, in part, to embarrass the Nigerian state and strike at its allies.

Mauritanian Politicians on Security and Mali

The war in northern Mali remains a source of contestation and debate in Mauritania.

President Mohamed Ould Abd al Aziz this week argued (Arabic) that the conflict in northern Mali arose from negligence in the face of regional terrorist threats, and urged a pro-active approach to terrorism going forward. Abd al Aziz, initially opposed to any armed Mauritanian involvement in the conflict in Mali (despite previous Mauritanian interventions there around 2010-2011), has expressed greater openness to such involvement recently.

The Coordination of the Democratic Opposition (CDO), meanwhile (Arabic), “attributed responsibility to Abd al Aziz’s government for the killing of Mauritanian citizens in Mali.” The Union of the Forces of Progress (UFP), a key player in the CDO, has called for an investigation (Arabic) into killings of Mauritanians in Mali. The shootings of sixteen Muslim preachers in central Mali in September 2012, a group that included numerous Mauritanians, remains a live issue in Mauritania today; the UFP referred specifically to that in their statement.

As Abd al Aziz negotiates his position on Mali, then, he faces a vocal opposition and complex intersections of domestic and foreign policy.

Portraits of Malian Refugee Camps in Niger, Mauritania, and Burkina Faso

Alongside armed conflict in northern Mali, Mali and its neighbors are experiencing a refugee crisis. I keep bringing this up in an effort to ensure that the scale of the crisis will not be ignored. UNHCR’s country pages for Mali and Mauritania show that massive numbers of people have been displaced: over 200,000 inside Mali, 70,000 Malian refugees in Mauritania, 50,000 in Niger, and 40,000 in Burkina Faso. Those numbers are all expected to rise by year’s end, to a total of approximately 540,000.

A few portraits from camps:

Niger:

The Mangaïze camp was officially created in May, following an influx of a large number of Malian families fleeing to Niger, said Idrissa Abou, a member of Niger’s National Commission for Refugees.
Besides a monthly food ration, refugees have access to drinking water from three small boreholes and primary health care. There are sanitation facilities with 250 showers and toilets, and a household waste management system. Refugees also have access to administrative services, a school and, with the opening of a police station, a security service.

“At the moment, there are 1,522 families, which amounts to a population of 6,037 mainly made up of Malian refugees, but there are also Nigerien returnees,” Abou told IPS, adding that an overwhelming majority of the refugees are from Ménaka, the closest Malian town to the Ouallam municipality in south-western Niger. He added that the numbers in the camp had increased in February after some 1,700 refugees from the nearby Bani Bangou camp were transferred to Mangaïze.

Mauritania:

Nearly 67,000 refugees—mainly women and children—have arrived in the border town of Fassala, Mauritania, since January 2012. “At the border crossing at Fassala, Mauritania, people are arriving thirsty and showing signs of fatigue,” explains Karl Nawezi, MSF project manager in Mauritania. After being registered by the authorities, refugees wait in a transit camp before being transferred to Mbera, a small, isolated village in the Mauritanian desert, just 30 kilometers [about 19 miles] from the Mali border.

The refugees in Mbera are totally dependent on humanitarian aid. An insufficient number of tents has been distributed, however. Families are assembled under large tents called “meeting points” that leave them exposed to the elements. Fed up with waiting, some construct their own makeshift shelters out of straw mats and pieces of fabric to protect themselves from sand and dust storms. “In Mauritania, as is the case elsewhere [in the Sahel refugee camps], people are suffering from diarrhea, respiratory infections, and skin infections because of the poor conditions in the camps,” says Nawezi.

And France24 has a video report from Burkina Faso here.

Quick Items: Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz on Mali, Goodluck Jonathan Visits Yobe and Borno [Updated]

Two noteworthy stories:

Mauritania and Mali

In a speech on Monday, Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz expressed greater openness than in the recent past to the idea of Mauritanian deployments in Mali. Mauritanian forces chased fighters from Al Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb into northern Mali at several points in 2010 and 2011, but during 2012 Abdel Aziz stated repeatedly that Mauritania would not intervene in Mali.

On Monday Abdel Aziz also emphasized his country’s role in “encircling [hardline Islamist fighters] in the north of Mali in order to enable Malian units to intervene and finish them off in their dens.” ANI (Arabic) has more on the speech.

Nigeria

On February 28, governors from an alliance of Nigerian opposition parties held a day-long conference in the northeastern city of Maiduguri, epicenter of the violent Boko Haram sect. The Nigerian newspaper Daily Trust commented, “the fact that the governors took the bull by the horns and held their meeting in Maiduguri, despite security reports that there may be attacks and blasts by suspected insurgents speak volume of their determination to give the [ruling] Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) a run for its money.”

Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan is set to visit the northeastern states of Yobe and Borno (where Maiduguri is the capital) today. One source says this visit “will be his first to the troubled states since his assumption of office.” Residents in Borno and Yobe interviewed by Leadership expressed a range of views about the visit, with some optimistic that Jonathan may use the moment to announce compensation programs or other initiatives, and others fearful that the visit will bring an even tighter security lockdown.

The Sultan of Sokoto, meanwhile, called on Jonathan this week to offer an amnesty to Boko Haram fighters. The Sultan said, “If there is amnesty declared we believe so many of those young men who have been tired of running and hiding will come out and embrace that amnesty.”

UPDATE: Reuters:

“I cannot talk about amnesty with Boko Haram now until they come out and show themselves,” Jonathan told reporters in Yobe state capital Damaturu, a town regularly hit by the sect’s guerrilla-style bomb and gun attacks.

See also Chike’s remarks in the comments section below.

A Call for De-Salafization in Mauritania

Mauritania’s Al Akhbar (Arabic) reports that a group of political and human rights activists in that country have released a statement calling for “confronting Salafi thought.” These campaigners “expressed their displeasure with the security services’ tolerance of ‘activists for the idea of hatred’.” I could not find the text of the statement. The signatories, as mentioned by Al Akhbar, include prominent anti-slavery activists like Boubacar Ould Messaoud (bio in French here) and Biram Ould Abeid (article on him in French here).

As described in the article, the statement links the spread of “Salafi culture” (issues of dress, gender, etc.) with political “extremism” and with forced Arabization of black Africans. “The utopia Salafis preach is founded on nothing but the ruins of African culture, through a continuous, deceitful Arabizing process characterized by terrifying the masses and tearing them away from their roots.”

It is no accident that the statement comes in the context of military intervention in neighboring Mali. Its signers support the intervention. The statement frames Islamist rule in northern Mali as part of the effort to enforce Arabization against black Africans.

Mauritanian authorities have arrested a few Salafis in recent weeks on suspicions of having links to jihadist groups. This does not mean that anti-slavery activists’ concerns are driving state policy. Anti-slavery activists in Mauritania have their own difficulties with the state – Abeid was detained for four months in 2012 (.pdf) over politico-religious controversies, and there is a long history of racial tensions in Mauritania. It should also be said that if authorities detain Salafis with family ties to imprisoned jihadists, or arrest students, that is not necessarily a country-wide crackdown on Salafis. Yet anti-Salafi discourses do seem to be coming from several corners of Mauritanian society right now, and as the war in Mali continues we may hear more calls for de-Salafization in Mauritania.