Contrasting President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz and Captain Amadou Sanogo

My colleague Andrew Lebovich and I were at the Center for African Studies at the University of Florida last week. I mention this not only to highlight the work the Center is doing, including on the Sahel, but also because a number of conversations I had with students and faculty there have affected my thinking on current issues in the Sahel. One conversation dealt with the contrast between Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, recently in the news after soldiers shot him, and Captain Amadou Sanogo, leader of the March 22 coup in southern Mali. The contrast raises important questions about how leadership structures in the Sahel evolve and how they interact with international norms.

General (now President) Abdel Aziz and Captain Sanogo both led military coups. Yet the differences between Abdel Aziz and Sanogo are large. The former was a senior officer, the latter a mid-level one. The former participated in a well-organized, premeditated, and successful coup (in 2005) before leading another successful one in August 2008; the latter came to power in what many view as an “accidental” coup. Within days of their respective coups, Abdel Aziz and Sanogo both promised that elections would be held quickly; but while Mauritania’s military leadership was willing to weather a period of international economic sanctions as it planned a transition, Mali’s junta rapidly gave in to economic and political pressure from the Economic Community of West African States and agreed on April 6 to hand over power (at least nominally) to a transitional civilian government headed by interim President Dioncounda Traore.

Abdel Aziz outlasted international pressure and legitimated his rule, at least formally, by winning the July 2009 presidential election as a civilian. Foreign donors began to resume aid within months of the election. Abdel Aziz has received important visits from European and American government personnel and military commanders interested in seeking his opinion and cooperation on security issues. International powers, in contrast, have been keen to sideline Sanogo in favor of civilian politicians. Abdel Aziz has (until now) wielded clear authority in Mauritania, partly due to outside powers treating him as a legitimate ruler, while the question of who rules southern Mali has remained blurred since April. Sanogo is, along with President Traore and Prime Minister Cheikh Modibo Diarra, one of three key political figures in southern Mali, but his formal role is heavily circumscribed.

Why did Abdel Aziz attain the status of a recognized president while Sanogo did not? Abdel Aziz’s path was undoubtedly made easier by the fact that his country did not face a major armed rebellion as Mali did when Sanogo took over in March 2012. I would also suggest that Abdel Aziz had a more sophisticated understanding of the international system and a more organized approach to taking and maintaining power. Abdel Aziz stressed his resolve to combat terrorism, projected a sense of direction and organization, and moved through a political transition which, even though some regarded it as mere pageantry, proceeded in an orderly fashion. Sanogo and his clique offered democratic verbiage (naming their junta the National Committee for the Restoration of Democracy and the State) and promised to reunify Malian territory after military triumphs by Tuareg separatists in the north. Yet the Malian junta projected an image of disorganization and inexperience, and regional and international actors quickly decided that it lacked credibility.

Another difference I would point to is the different expectations and perceptions outsiders may have held concerning these two countries. Mauritania was under military rule from 1978 to 2007, and experienced numerous coups. Mali, in contrast, had been considered a model for West African democracy since 1992. The coup in Mali horrified international observers, and attracted their attention, to a degree that the 2008 coup in Mauritania did not. International actors were probably less prone to “forgive” Sanogo than Abdel Aziz.

Finally, one should note that the “success” of coup-leader-turned-legitimate-President Abdel Aziz in Mauritania may prove fleeting, or at least vulnerable to the bullets of soldiers plotting a new coup, terrorists attempting an assassination, incompetents firing irresponsibly, or some combination of the above. If one lesson is that some coup leaders are more successful than others based on circumstances, background, and strategy, another lesson is that no one is invulnerable.

Africa Blog Roundup: Mali, Abdel Aziz Shooting, Illegal Fishing, Haiti and the AU, and More

Mohamed Vall: “Why Sorting Out Mali Remains an Uphill Task.” For more on the state of play with the United Nations Security Council, the Economic Community of West African States, and the situation in Mali, see Lesley Anne Warner.

The Moor Next Door on the shooting of Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz:

As things stand now, with Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz in France, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mohamed Ghazouani is the man in charge and among opposition types and some closer to the government there is a feeling that Ould Abdel Aziz is a dangerous position, and that remaining abroad too long could invite coup plots, political unrest or attacks from AQIM. Key variables at this point include the political ambitions of Gen. Ghazouani and the loyalty of the armed forces and intelligence service to the president – especially the commando units and BASEP (the republican guards), which Ould Abdel Aziz founded and led until ‘leaving’ army in 2009.

A public relations firm (that has the government of Kenya as a client) has produced a helpful timeline (.pdf) of Kenya’s “Operation Linda Nchi” in Somalia. The anniversary of the operation’s launch occurred last week on October 16.

Sarah Lazare and John Wesley Jones:

We look at the media strategies, messages, and images that underlie the dizzying success of the film Kony 2012 and Greg Mortenson’s book, Three Cups of Tea. We also examine the role that exploitation of children and youth, as well as concepts of education and child welfare, play in their respective fundraising efforts. We investigate the broader conditions that enabled their viral spread and allowed them to receive millions of dollars in donations from around the world. We aim to cut through the veneer and shed light on the gap between the stated and real impact these nonprofits have on the world and expose the acceptance of militarism that underlies their supposedly apolitical solutions to real problems.

Gernot Klantschnig:

Having observed West Africa’s role in the drug trade for more than 10 years, it is puzzling that Africa is still described as ‘the new frontier’, particularly by the experts who are supposed to know the situation best. An intention to galvanise public interest in drugs in Africa and a short institutional memory might explain some of these a-historical statements. I would also argue that the neglect of Africa’s long history in the drug trade has lead to some misunderstanding of its present and future role.

Dan Moshenberg: “Kenya’s #purplezebra Spring.”

A CNN/UNICEF report on child stunting.

Baobab on monitoring illegal fishing in Sierra Leone.

Joshua Keating on how Haiti may join the African Union.

What else is everyone reading?

Mauritania: President Abdel Aziz Shot, Speculation Ensues, and the Opposition Begins to React

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.

On Twitter, @weddady and @lissnup are giving frequent updates on the situation.

Mauritanian Islamists Reject the Idea of External Intervention in Mali

Amid Mali’s ongoing crisis, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has proposed to send some 3,000 troops there to help Malian government forces retake the Islamist-held north. Other external actors, such as France, have indicated that they would support such an intervention logistically. Talk of interventions is drawing reactions within Mali but also from its neighbors.

Reactions in Mauritania, Mali’s neighbor to the west, are worth watching. Mauritania sent troops into northern Mali on several occasions in 2010 and 2011 pursuing fighters from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). This August, Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz stated that his country will not intervene militarily in Mali. Mauritania is not a member of ECOWAS. Last week, Abdel Aziz met with General Carter Ham, head of US AFRICOM, to discuss the potential for intervention in Mali, but few details of the meeting are publicly available.

Some constituencies inside Mauritania strongly oppose an external intervention. One such constituency is the segment of Islamists represented by the political party Tewassoul (“The National Rally for Reform and Development”; Arabic site here). Yesterday, the party released a statement against intervention in Mali (Arabic). The statement partly blames Abdel Aziz’s regime for the current crisis in Mali, and has several key planks, paraphrased here:

  • The party supports the territorial integrity of Mali.
  • The party calls on neighboring countries, the African Union, and the United Nations to support negotiations and a non-violent solution to the crisis.
  • The party warns of “disastrous and negative consequences for the region as a whole from any foreign intervention guided by Western countries on the basis of their agenda and their interests.”
  • The party opposes any Mauritanian support, military or logistical, for a military intervention in Mali.

Mauritanian Islamists are far from being the dominant political players in the country – in the last presidential elections, Tewassoul’s candidate Jamil Mansour placed fourth in the official results, with around 5% of the vote – yet they have at times acted as a significant pressure group, particularly with regard to foreign policy. Analysts have cited Islamists’ street demonstrations and political mobilization as a factor in prompting Mauritania’s decision to suspend relations with Israel in 2009. Mauritanian Islamists have been effective in articulating popular sentiments against forms of perceived neo-colonialism in Mauritania and the region.

Tewassoul’s statement, then, has significance for understanding how Islamists of different stripes are reacting to the situation in Mali and how the issue is playing out in Mauritanian domestic politics. I don’t want to overstate the influence Tewassoul has, especially over Abdel Aziz. But Tewassoul may have some success mobilizing around this cause.

France, Morocco, and Mauritania on Intervention in Northern Mali

(For more context, see my previous posts on intervention in Mali here and here.)

France reiterates its position:

“It is not for France to take the military initiative in Mali,” [Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian] told journalists during a visit to Lorient in northwest France.

France, he said, “wants it to be the African forces, in particular those of ECOWAS (the Economic Community of West African States) and possibly the African Union, that take the initiative,” he said.

He said an African military intervention in northern Mali was “desirable and inevitable.”

“France will support it and, I hope, the European Union also.”

Morocco:

Morocco supports a political solution to the crisis in Mali but the regional community will have to consider “other options” if diplomacy fails, the foreign minister said in a newspaper interview.
The kingdom is encouraging its allies in the UN Security Council to find a political solution to the crisis in northern Mali, Youssef El Amrani told Le Matin in comments to be published on Tuesday.

Mauritania:

Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz on Monday ruled out sending troops to Mali, where the embattled government has lost control of the north to Al-Qaeda-linked militias.

“There will be no Mauritanian military intervention in Mali,” he said overnight at a local forum in the northern town of Atar marking the third anniversary of his rise to power.

“The problem there is very complex and we don’t have the solution,” he said, adding however that his country, which borders Mali, would take part in the international community’s efforts to restore peace.

Sahel-based journalist Hannah Armstrong calls Abdel Aziz’s words “doublespeak.” Mauritania has sent soldiers into northern Mali in the past in pursuit of fighters from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

Two related items:

  1. For those who read Arabic, Magharebia reports on how insecurity along the Mauritanian-Malian border has hurt trade in the area.
  2. BBC Hausa reports on a recent meeting of Sahelian foreign ministers in Niger, where the ministers discussed the crisis in Mali. I have not found any other reports on this meeting, though.

Protest Currents in Mauritania

Protests currently underway in Mauritania highlight the complexity of the movements that analysts have generalized as the “Arab Uprisings.” The relative lack of international coverage of Mauritania, meanwhile, shows the selective nature of how major media outlets have presented these uprisings to Western audiences. I have been hesitating for weeks to write a post about the protests in Mauritania because of how complicated the situation is there, but I want to offer a partial look at the protests today, hopefully as a basis for returning to the subject next week. Lissnup has written an indispensable background piece on the protests, and I recommend you read it before continuing with this post. Lissnup is also providing regular day-by-day updates such as this one.

I see at least four partly overlapping protest movements at work: one that the political opposition (especially the coalition called Coordination de l’opposition démocratique or COD) leads or claims to lead, one led by youth that defines itself specifically as an anti-regime protest movement (named after February 25, the date of the first major protest in 2011), one led by students, and one led by anti-slavery activists. The situation has presented Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz with plenty of challenges, but also with certain opportunities.

First, a look at the opposition-led protest actions this week:

Thousands of Mauritanian opposition activists staged a march and sit-down protest in Nouakchott Wednesday evening, calling for former coup leader President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz to step down.

The turnout was larger than on May 2, when the demonstrators tried to occupy a square in the centre of the capital before being dispersed by security forces.

Read about the May 2 sit-in here, and an April 22 demonstration led by opposition youth here (both French). Protesters’ central demand has been that President Abdel Aziz, whom they regard as a military ruler with a civilian veneer, step down. Major political figures in the opposition, including Ahmed Ould Daddah, runner-up in the 2009 elections, and former military ruler Colonel Ely Vall (French) have called for Abdel Aziz’s departure. The country’s largest Islamist party, Tewassoul, as well as labor organizations, have taken part in these protests (French, with video); Tewassoul is part of COD. The February 25 movement and other youth movements, such as the Mouvement des Jeunes de Mauritanie (Movement of Mauritanian Youth or MJM) have been important participants in these protests.

Meanwhile, students have been protesting and boycotting classes at the University of Nouakchott. Police arrested sixteen students this week, and clashes between students and police took place at the campus (Arabic). The national students’ union or UNEM has been a key force in organizing student protest actions. Some of the students’ demands concern quality of life issues (French), but the clashes with authorities have added other demands to this list: the return of expelled students, the “de-militarization” of the campus, etc. As perceived mistreatment by police becomes one of the protesters’ chief complaints, in other words, the student protests are taking on a self-perpetuating logic.

Finally, there are the protest actions by anti-slavery activists. Slavery is a lingering problem within Mauritania’s racially complex society. In late April, Biram Ould Abeid, the president of an anti-slavery organization called l’Initiative pour la résurgence du mouvement abolitionniste (The Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement or IRA-Mauritanie), staged the public burning of Islamic legal manuals that discuss slavery. Authorities detained him (French). In the resulting controversy, a leader of the Haratine or “black moor” community has warned of racial confrontation (French), while at least one imam in Nouakchott has called for Abeid to be punished (French). Haratine imams (French), meanwhile, are calling for a fatwa that would ban slavery.

Abdel Aziz is certainly under pressure. Opposition activists’ narrative that the country is in crisis seems to have real resonance, and gains strength from the existence and duration of the protests themselves. The protests have drawn large turnouts and have a consistent message, namely that the president should go. On the other hand, Abdel Aziz has some opportunities in the midst of crisis. One opposition leader (Arabic) says that Abdel Aziz has “exploited the recent issue of Biram Ould Abeid to defame the opposition and present himself to the public as Amir al Mu’minin,” or Commander of the Faithful, a title historically claimed by some Islamic political leaders. In a different but related vein, authorities’ recent claims that they foiled an Al Qaeda bomb plot may reinforce Abdel Aziz’s image as a tough figure on national security, an image that resonates abroad as well as at home. I would not count Abdel Aziz out.

Mauritania: Opposition Protests in Advance of Parliamentary Elections

Mauritania is scheduled to hold parliamentary elections on March 31. The vote, originally slated for last fall, was delayed (French) in response to objections from an opposition coalition called la Coordination de l’opposition démocratique (COD, “The Coordination of Democratic Opposition”). The COD is still unhappy with the regime and with the political environment in Mauritania as a whole.

On Monday, the COD held a march in the capital Nouakchott to “press for an end to military rule.” This demand implies that Mauritania’s ostensibly civilian government, headed by former general – and now president – Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, is just a front for continued military rule (the military ruled Mauritania from 1978 to 2007, and then took power again in a coup in 2008, before organizing elections in 2009). The COD’s broader list of demands (Arabic) includes a call for President Abdel Aziz step down. The COD also affirms its commitment to Islamic values (not an unusual statement in Mauritanian politics) and its opposition to any threat against national unity, particularly racial divisions.

Participants in the march (French) included the major opposition party le Rassemblement des forces démocratiques (RFD, “Rally of Democratic Forces”) and the Islamist party Tewassoul. Messaoud Boulkheir, president of the national assembly, and his l’Alliance populaire progressiste (APP, “Popular Progressive Alliance”) did not participate. This split reflects Boulkheir’s decision to participate in dialogues with the president last fall, dialogues that the COD boycotted.

What does the COD hope to achieve? The marchers have not, from what I have been able to tell, openly tied their protest to the electoral calendar. Yet the timing seems no accident. Perhaps the COD hopes to delay elections again, or perhaps they are preparing for a boycott. Additionally, some of the demands expressed in this march are similar to those put forth by youth protesters last spring, particularly the idea that the military still has too much influence in politics. But it does not seem (again, according to what I’ve read) that the march on Monday was explicitly tied to the rhetoric of the “Arab uprisings,” but rather to complaints about local Mauritanian affairs. Whatever the case, the COD is saying that this march marks the launch of a larger struggle. Taking them at their word, it seems we can expect more moves from their side soon.