I have a new piece out with World Politics Review that looks at Mauritanian politics, especially the rivalry between former President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz and new President Mohamed Ould Ghazouani. Readers’ feedback welcome as always!
In Mauritania’s capital Nouakchott, the municipal authorities in Tevragh Zeina, a large and relatively upscale neighborhood, have decided to rename several major streets. Charles de Gaulle Avenue becomes Al-‘Allama al-Hajj ‘Umar Tall Avenue, John Kennedy Avenue becomes Al-‘Allama Buddah Ould al-Busayri Avenue, and Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasir Avenue becomes National Unity Avenue.
At least to me, the symbolism reads as the replacement of foreign, decolonization-era figures with regional/local Islamic leaders. ‘Umar Tall (d. 1864) was a leader within the Tijaniyya Sufi order, and the architect of a pre-colonial jihad state extending deep into present-day central and northern Mali. He is the subject of a great deal of Western scholarship, including by David Robinson. Tall, significantly, was ethnically Toucouleur, rather than Arab, and it is possible to see this street renaming as a gesture toward the idea/hope of Islam as a basis for racial unity in Mauritania.
Buddah Ould al-Busayri (1920-2009) is actually the topic of my next book project (so perhaps I’m on the right track, research-wise!). He was imam of Nouakchott and mufti of Mauritanian throughout much of the postcolonial period, and acted as a kind of “papal” figure (somewhat similar to Stéphane Lacroix’s depiction of ‘Abd al-‘Aziz Ibn Baz in Saudi Arabia) during a period of rising Islamic/Islamist activism in the 1970s and after.
Are these renaming a form of decolonization? I’m not sure. But it’s interesting that figures such as de Gaulle, JFK, and ‘Abd al-Nasir have lost some of their resonance, perhaps above all for younger generations born long after the independence era.
In Mauritania, talk of a third term for incumbent President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz has given way to talk of a near-certain succession by his long-time right-hand man, current Defense Minister Mohamed Ould Ghazouani. Given the long-term dominance of the group of (former) military officers that Ould Abdel Aziz and Ould Ghazouani represent, Ould Ghazouani’s candidacy and victory do seem quite probable. But the overall composition of the presidential field does matter, not just for who wins and who loses but for what it tells us about the positions of different constituencies in Mauritanian politics and society.
One interesting item, then, is that it seems that the People’s Progressive Alliance* (French acronym APP) will not put forward its leader Messaoud Ould Boulkheir as a presidential candidate. Ould Boulkheir is arguably the most important, if no longer the most internationally famous, haratine politician in Mauritania – the haratine or “Black Moors” being a different socio-racial category in Mauritanian society than the bidan or “White Moors” such as Ould Abdel Aziz and Ould Ghazouani. Ould Boulkheir was president of the National Assembly from 2007-2014 and placed second in the presidential election of 2009, winning 16% to Ould Abdel Aziz’s nearly 53%. He also contested the 2003 and 2007 (first round) presidential elections, placing fourth in both.
Ould Boulkheir faces a legal obstacle to candidacy because he is, or will be, older than 75 at the time of the first round. This article details how the PPA had undertaken some initial legal consultations and had begun preparing his candidacy, before consulting more widely and concluding that he was/will be ineligible. The relevant portion of the Mauritanian Constitution (Title II, Article 26) can be found here.
I do not think, based on the obvious trend from past races, that Ould Boulkheir would have defeated Ould Ghazouani. And I don’t think that he was muscled out of contesting – unless one sees Article 26 (which is a new addition, if I am reading the constitution right, from the 2017 referendum) as something designed to target Ould Boulkheir (and, if one follows that logic, to target recurring contender Ahmed Ould Daddah, younger brother of Mauritania’s first president). But it does seem that whether by accident or design, Ould Ghazouani will face a field of lesser-known candidates than was the case in recent presidential elections in Mauritania. One final question is whether the age restrictions on Ould Boulkheir and Ould Daddah gives any advantage to Islamists, who are the second most important party in the country (after the ruling Union for the Republic) if one goes by the results of last year’s legislative elections, but whose room for maneuver is often seriously constrained by the administration.
*As a minor detail, al-tahaluf al-sha’bi al-taqadummi might also be translated “the popular, progressivist alliance.”
In Mauritania, what looked for a long time like a strong probability, if not certainty – a third term for President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz – now looks less and less likely. The next elections are expected to fall between April and June of this year, and Ould Abdel Aziz has publicly called on his supporters to cease efforts to modify the constitution. Even more tellingly, Ould Abdel Aziz has now publicly expressed support for current Defense Minister and long-time right-hand man Mohamed Ould Ghazouani as a successor and as candidate for the ruling Union for the Republic (UPR) party. Even last fall, it should be noted, some journalists were reading Ould Ghazouani’s appointment as Defense Minister as a sign that he was next in line for the presidency.
Geoff Porter has more on the recent developments and what comes next:
There will certainly be some opposition activity (which in sporadic instances may provoke a repressive response from the state, including disruption of Islamist activities and harassment of Mauritania’s human rights organizations), but ultimately, the UPR machine has a lock on electoral politics in Mauritania and “President El Ghazouani” is nearly a sure thing. With last week’s announcement and today’s tweet [from UPR head Sidi Mohamed Ould Maham], the elite will begin to rally round El Ghazouani. There was already a steady stream of late model cars outside El Ghazouani’s Nouakchott villa last week and visitors were stacked up in the waiting area outside his Ministry of Defense office. This will likely intensify in the weeks and months to come.
I would add that an Ould Ghazouani presidency would represent continuity not just with the administration of Ould Abdel Aziz, but with trends in Mauritanian politics dating back to the beginning of military rule in Mauritania in 1978. At that time, of course, Ould Abdel Aziz and Ould Ghazouani were just starting their careers, and they reportedly met in 1980 at the military training academy in Meknes, Morocco. Their rise through the ranks coincided with the reign of military dictator Maaouya Ould Sid’Ahmed al-Taya (1984-2005); ironically, however, they (and the late Ely Vall) became the key movers in overthrowing Ould al-Taya in order to preserve the system while shedding its increasingly erratic top man. They then staged another coup in 2008, following a short-lived experiment with a civilian president, and installed Ould Abdel Aziz. He then removed his uniform and ran as a civilian in 2009, and again in 2014, which brings us more or less up to the present. Ould Ghazouani has been a key figure in all these events, and it was Ould Ghazouani who acted as de facto president in 2012 while Ould Abdel Aziz was recuperating after being shot.
Ould Ghazouani’s biography and career are less well known, I would say, than one might expect for a figure of his stature. Most sources say that he hails from Assaba, southern Mauritania, from the Ideiboussat tribe. I don’t want to go too deep on “tribal” analysis, but for context the Ideiboussat is a zwaya or clerical tribe from among the “White Moors” (Bidan), who are at the top of Mauritania’s socio-racial hierarchy. Being from a clerical tribe does not make one a cleric, of course. For what it’s worth, Ould Abdel Aziz is from a tribe called the Awlad/Oulad Bou Sbaa (described in some sources as a zwaya tribe as well, though other sources call it a Hassan/warrior tribe), and he comes from Akjoujt. So one could say that in terms of tribes, there is some sort of basic continuity in terms of a White Moor succeeding another White Moor, but not in terms of the specific tribe. So one question will be how an Ould Ghazouani presidency would affect the business networks surrounding the current president, who is sometimes said to favor the Oulad Bou Sbaa for key positions and contracts.
Yesterday marked the first time that Mauritanian activist Biram Dah Abeid (or Ould Abeid), president of the Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement (IRA), set foot in parliament as a member of the body. He was arrested last August along with another IRA leader and two journalists, then was elected to the National Assembly in September’s legislative elections. He was released from prison in late December (RFI gives the date as December 31). In the parliamentary elections, he ran on the list of the Baathist Sawab Party, in an alliance that may have more to do with strategic partnership than with ideological affinity. Overall, of course, the ruling Union for the Republic is the largest party in parliament.
Numerous profiles have been written about Abeid over the years. One of the best appeared in the New Yorker in 2014. An excerpt:
When Abeid was eight, his father told him that he had been born to a slave, and was therefore supposed to be a slave, too. But, while his mother was pregnant, her master had fallen ill, and, heeding the Koranic idea that acts of benevolence will be rewarded, had released him from slavery before he was born. As a young man, Abeid’s father crossed the river to work for a time in Senegal, where he felt free from racial discrimination. Back in Mauritania, he met and married a woman who was a slave, and they had two sons. Full of pride, he went to his wife’s master to ask to take his family to Senegal. The master refused. His father went to court, but the judge said, “This is his slave—unless you want to buy her from him.” His father did not have enough money, so he pleaded to at least take his sons, but the judge refused him again. The French colonial governor told Abeid’s father that the dispute fell under Islamic law and that he could not interfere. Defeated, the father left his wife and children and went back to Senegal. Later, a friend introduced him to Abeid’s mother, and they were married.
There is also a wider discussion of race and Islam in Mauritania in Zekeria Ould Ahmed Salem’s Prêcher dans le désert.
I’m up at the Berkley Center with a piece I co-authored with Mike Farquhar (read his book!). Our post looks at religious contacts between Mauritania and Saudi Arabia; this is part of a larger project, led by Peter Mandaville, on the “Geopolitics of Religious Soft Power.”
Here’s an excerpt from our piece:
It was certainly not the case, however, that such Saudi influence overwhelmed the Mauritanian religious sphere. For many scholars, the dominant religious references remained the classical paradigm of northwest Africa—the Ash‘ari creed, the Maliki school of jurisprudence, and membership in a Sufi order. All of these, especially Ash‘arism and Sufism, are rejected by Salafis/Wahhabis and are officially frowned upon in Saudi Arabia. Yet the classical paradigm of northwest Africa holds continued sway, even hegemony, in many of Mauritania’s Islamic schools or mahadir (singular mahdara). Moreover, scholars with classical or neo-classical outlooks served prominently as ministers of Islamic affairs or as heads of religious associations throughout the post-colonial period and up to the present.
Even Mauritanian scholars whose outlook is much closer to the Saudi Arabian religious establishment’s take care to show their independence. Among an older generation, now largely deceased or aging, Buddah Ould al-Busayri (1920-2009) came to have significant overlap with Salafis in terms of creed and legal methodology. As imam of the “Saudi mosque,” as the quasi-official (though stubbornly non-salaried) “mufti of Mauritania,” and as the mentor to several generations of Islamist and Salafi activists, al-Busayri wielded significant influence. He enjoyed warm relations with Saudi Arabian scholars, particularly ‘Abd al-‘Aziz Ibn Baz (1910-1999), a prominent pro-government scholar who eventually became Grand Mufti. Yet al-Busayri remained committed, at least nominally, to the Maliki school of jurisprudence, and there is some evidence that he returned to Sufism at the end of his life.
As I’ve been writing about a bit recently, Mauritania has a new, technocratic prime minister (Mohamed Salem Ould Bechir), a new defense minister (longtime presidential right-hand man Mohamed Ould Ghazouani), and a new cabinet. Many observers, including me, have seen these changes in the context of the approaching end of President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz’s second term in 2019 – although, to me at least, it is not at all clear what these changes portend in terms of succession.
The Arab Weekly (h/t Judd Devermont) has a fascinating, if speculative, piece that raises doubt about the view that Ould Abdel Aziz is positioning Ould Ghazouani as a successor – instead, the author suggests, new speaker of parliament Cheikh Ould Baya might be a contender. More on Ould Baya here. Not mentioned in the Arab Weekly piece is new presidential spokesman and former ruling party head Sidi Mohamed Ould Maham, whose name has also been floated as a presidential successor. And of course there is still the strong possibility that Ould Abdel Aziz will simply seek a third term.
Meanwhile, as Ould Ghazouani moves to the defense ministry, the military has a new Chief of Army Staff, Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mohamed Lemine. This is an orderly transition – he was most recently Ould Ghazouani’s deputy, and he and the president attended the Military Academy of Atar together in the 1980s. So a lot of folks get promotions or make essentially lateral moves (the former PM has moved over to the presidency), but it’s unclear yet what it all means for the medium-term.