Mauritania: Short Notes on the Presidency, Parliamentary Corruption Investigation, Counterterrorism, Racism, and COVID-19

As Mali, and to a lesser extent Burkina Faso, consume my and others’ attention, I don’t want to lose sight of events in and commentary on Mauritania (and elsewhere). Here are a few notable pieces and topics from May and June.

First, the relationship between current President Mohamed Ould Ghazouani and his immediate predecessor Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz continues to shape Mauritanian politics and to elicit analysis. The blogger Ahmed Ould Soueid Ahmed has written a post (h/t Geoff Porter) outlining some of his disappointments with Ould Ghazouani, whom he initially supported. Ould Soueid Ahmed writes that he was impressed by Ould Ghazouani’s scandal-free tenure as Chief of Defense Staff, and thought that Ould Ghazouani would bring change. Yet, Ould Soueid Ahmed writes, it is “the same regime, without Aziz.” He goes on to criticize Ould Ghazouani’s style of governing:

You discover a man who seeks by every means to avoid conflicts, to find an equilibrium, however precarious, between forces that were radically opposed until now; in a word, the man of consensus par excellence. But you realize too that governing the country as a dictator or an elected president would does not seem to be his passion, or at least he is too much the soldier to bear for long the gymnastics of the public scene. He governs as though he were still Chief of Defense Staff, in his corner, in his office, without noise and in peace, yet he is no longer in that post and where he is now, something completely different is now necessary. If not, one must fear what has never happened until now, namely the Army’s explosion into open clan warfare.

This description captures, I think, part of Ould Ghazouani’s style – yet the prediction about a fragmentation of the armed forces may be premature. In fact, on 8 June Ould Ghazouani reshuffled the top military brass, seemingly to further consolidate his loyalists’ control over different key posts and possibly to sideline underperforming incumbents as well. Consequential appointments include General Mohamed Ould Meguete’s promotion from head of the National Police to Chief of Defense Staff, as well as General Mohamed Ould Cheikh Ould Beyda to head a newly creates special forces service that will include the Presidential Guard and counterterrorism units. Find more details on who takes which post here.

Meanwhile, a parliamentary commission continues its investigation into corruption under Ould Abdel Aziz. In late May, Jeune Afrique profiled the commission’s head, Habib Ould Brahim Diah. A deputy representing Monguel (map), south central Mauritania, he belongs to the ruling Union pour la République (Union for the Republic, UPR). Seen as discreet and apparently respected by various opposition parties, Ould Brahim Dah is nonetheless also seen as close to both Ould Abdel Aziz and Ould Ghazouani, although he sided with the latter when the two leaders openly wrestled for control of the UPR last year.

Turning to another topic, counterterrorism, Anouar Boukhars has a new report out at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies titled “Keeping Terrorism at Bay in Mauritania.” The puzzle of why Mauritania has been nearly free of jihadist attacks since approximately 2011 has interested a lot of analysts, including me. Boukhars emphasizes changes in military posture, capabilities, strategy, and intelligence-gathering. To me, the most interesting passage concerned life in the desert near the border with Mali, where the situation is (to me, at least) quite opaque. An excerpt:

This strategy of community engagement in remote areas of the desert has been a critical component of the counterterrorism approach adopted by the Mauritanian government. To improve security and public service delivery, the government established small new cities in remote rural areas vulnerable to the infiltration of extremist groups to concentrate sparse and dispersed rural populations into larger settlements. Cities such as N’Bekeit Lahwach in eastern Mauritania have led to the regrouping of families depending on their social and economic needs. The intent is not to abolish nomadism—men continue to live in semi-nomadic surroundings around their herd while their families are settled in one place, benefiting from education services and other basic amenities—but to create focal sites and defensible positions in the immediate vicinity of the Malian border. In vulnerable areas where settlements of people already exist, the policy has been to improve the security and living conditions of the population to keep them there.

Boukhars’ comments reminded me of this 2011 paper by Cédric Jourde, whose analysis is still pertinent (and a bit more cynical):

Local politics can also seriously blur the differences between state and nonstate actors. It is no secret that some state officials from Mauritanian border regions (in the military, in the customs administration, and elsewhere) have used their position and resources to further their private or clan’s business interests. Similarly, “many agents of the state on the Malian and Algerian sides of the border consider their position in the state apparatus as a means to feed their tribal solidarity with state money.” In the zones inhabited by Malian Tuaregs, “customs officials and the smugglers often belong to the same clan.”

The argument that the state cannot control these illegal economic transactions, therefore, misidentifies the problem. In fact, some high-ranking military officers, as well as members of their families and tribes, play key roles in this illicit economy and are involved in numerous local power struggles. The result is a seemingly irreconcilable tension: the state as an abstract entity is threatened by this illicit business, yet simultaneously many state agents are deeply involved in these activities. The suggestion, then, that the Mauritanian state needs more technology, surveillance materials, vehicles, and capacity-building is true, but it misses the point. That state officials may follow private, social, and political incentives not congruent with the interests of the state indicates that the problem is less technical than political. Allegiances to one’s ethnic group, tribe, clan, or personal network can be stronger than those to the state.

For other perspectives on Mauritania’s security exceptionalism within the Sahel, see this paper by Frederic Wehrey, who emphasizes the regime’s relationships with clerics. Wehrey, with Boukhars, also authored a book on Salafism in North Africa that includes a chapter on Mauritania.

There are, meanwhile, serious criticisms of the Mauritanian security forces. One charge is that they are racist. Here is Middle East Eye’s Amandla Thomas-Johnson:

Mauritanian police officers have been accused of “behaving like American police” after kneeling on the neck of a Black man, the same restraint technique that led to the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis last month.

An image of two policemen pinning the man to the ground circulated over the weekend, prompting an outcry against racism and police brutality in the majority-Black country dominated by an Arab-Berber elite.

Mauritanian activists told Middle East Eye that the incident was a sign that the West African country still had “a lot of work to do before Black lives matter”, echoing the name of the protest movement highlighting racism in the US and worldwide.

Finally, COVID-19 has resurfaced as a major challenge for Mauritania after the authorities initially believed they had contained the virus. The Mauritanian journalist Maimouna Lo has become my go-to source for the confirmed case count, which is heading towards 4,000. That’s not good, to say the least. UNICEF’s latest situation report on COVID-19 in Mauritania, dated 15 June, can be found here, and some coverage of the country’s reopening can be read here.