Last Thursday, I wrote about the complexity of relations between Niger and Libya, as Niger seeks to honor its loyalties to the regime of fallen Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Qadhafi while simultaneously avoiding the anger of the new government in Libya. News that Niger had given a government appointment to one of Qadhafi’s former lieutenants put that complexity in the spotlight, though Niger ultimately withdrew the appointment to placate the new leaders in Libya.
Mauritania, too, must deal with the fallout of Qadhafi’s ouster. On Saturday, Mauritanian authorities arrested Abdallah al Senoussi, the Colonel’s former intelligence chief. Senoussi reportedly flew into Mauritania from Morocco, traveling on a “fake Malian passport.” The arrest marks the end of a months-long manhunt that had African and European officials searching for Senoussi inside Libya and Mali (at one time Libya also suspected he was in Chad). Senoussi is wanted for prosecution by both France and the International Criminal Court.
The dynamics of Senoussi’s arrest in Mauritania are markedly different than the issue of Bashir Saleh Bashir’s appointment in Niger, just as Mauritania’s stance toward the Libyan revolution was different from Niger’s. Mauritania was in fact among the first Sahelian governments to recognize the rebels and break with Qadhafi, and Mauritania has not openly sheltered Qadhafi’s family and comrades in the way that Niger has. Yet this does not mean that sorting out Senoussi’s fate comes with no diplomatic complexities:
Authorities from Libya, France and the International Criminal Court at The Hague quickly announced their resolve to have Mr. Senussi turned over to their jurisdictions. Each is focused on different prosecutions, making Mauritania’s decision over extradition politically sensitive and legally significant.
It isn’t yet clear how Mauritania will respond to the competing claims of extradition. A former French colony, Mauritania has had checkered relations with most Western nations—but close ties with Gadhafi—since the current president took over after a military coup in 2008. The country isn’t a signatory to the treaty that created the ICC, a court that is intended to try crimes against humanity or war crimes that national courts can’t or won’t prosecute.
France said over the weekend that Mr. Senussi’s arrest was the result of joint efforts by Paris and Nouakchott, but gave no other details.
Mauritanian Communications Minister Hamdi Mahjoud said his government was holding Mr. Senussi in a police station in Nouakchott and will consider the claims against him.
A Libyan delegation, headed by Deputy Prime Minister Mustafa Abu Shagour, is scheduled to meet with Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz today.
To say that Abdel Aziz had “close relations with Qadhafi” is a bit of a simplification. Qadhafi, indeed, initially opposed the coup that Abdel Aziz led. Also, as I mentioned above, Abdel Aziz was willing to break with Qadhafi relatively early in the game in 2011. But the larger point – that Mauritania’s decision about Senoussi will have ramifications for its future relationship with the new government in Libya – certainly stands. As I said with regarding Bashir’s case in Niger, Qadhafi may be gone, but his presence is still a force in Sahelian politics.
[UPDATE]: Senussi will go to Libya.