Mauritania Moves Toward a New Lockdown Amid Rising COVID-19 Cases

Yesterday, December 2, Mauritania’s Minister of the Interior Muhammad Salim Ould Marzuk announced an initial 10-day closure of schools in the country amid concerns about a looming second wave of COVID-19 cases. Other measures include a reduction of personnel in government offices, and a more intensive schedule – meeting every 48 hours – for the ministerial committee charged with tracking the pandemic. Also on December 2, the Health Ministry announced that there had been 153 confirmed cases and 2 deaths during the previous 24 hours.

Per Google’s results, the first peak of COVID-19 in Mauritania came on June 24 with 227 cases in one day. Even by July, the country was mostly out of triple digits, and it was only recently that the numbers began to spike again.

The first lockdown, which ended around July, had significant effects on mobility and the economy. The government provided support and covered some expenses for some of the most vulnerable households in the country, and NGOs stepped in as well, but many households were forced into debt as pastoralism and other sectors suffered. This article, from early November, gives a stark portrait of the pandemic’s secondary effects in the Assaba region of southern Mauritania. I’m pro-lockdown, of course, but one can be pro-lockdown and also worry about all these secondary impacts. With that said, the government’s approach to this nascent second lockdown seems to be sober and, more important, fairly clear and straightforward.

A Few Stray Quotes Regarding the Reported Jihadist Presence in Mali’s Wagadou Forest

August 2011:

The return of [al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, AQIM] in the zone [after a June 2011 Mauritanian-Malian military operation] can be explained by several causes. The most evident is that the forest is strategic: it serves as natural air and ground cover. Satellites or drones cannot spot the elements of AQIM and access by the land route is difficult there.

May 2019:

The forest is a nearly uninhabited zone, frequented by nomads. The vegetation is dense and it is dominated by thorny bushes. The trees, larger in the eastern part of the forest, make the forest darker…The forest is traversed by the road which leaves Dioura for Toladji and Nampala, and also the road that links Diabaly to Nampala. Due to its density and its size, Wagadou offers an ideal refuge for malefactors escaping satellite surveillance and the airstrikes of conventional armies.

October 2020:

The village of Farabougou owes its misfortunes to its reputation as a locality home to intrepid warriors. Situated at the edge of the forest of Wagadou, Farabougou has always fiercely resisted razzias [raids], very frequent in the zone before the pacification imposed by colonization.

October 2020:

Cheick Oumar Sissoko of Espoir Mali Koura, part of the M5-RFP protest movement: “But where do all these motorbikes come from? All these people with transport who circulate as they like? Who come to attack as they like, at 5 o’clock in the morning, at 5 o’clock in the afternoon, where do they come from and where do they go afterwards? Where do they resupply themselves with gas, with food? It’s true that today at Dogofry and Farabougou, they took all the animals, the cows, the goats, but where do they come from and where do they go in this border zone with Mauritania? Or it seems that some can be in the forest of Wagadou. Do they not fall back to Mauritania?

A Statement Against Islamophobia from Mauritania’s Ruling Party (Excerpt and Brief Context)

Mauritanian’s ruling party, the Union for the Republic, yesterday (October 26) issued a statement against Islamophobia. The statement refers obliquely to recent “waves of offense to our pure (hanif*) Islamic religion and our Prophet, upon him be the best of blessings and the most befitting peace.” The statement goes on to argue, quite effectively in my view, that Islamophobia in the name of free speech undercuts “the spirit of openness and understanding the particularities of the other,” as well as the “goal of making humanity into a single society.” The statement does not call for other countries, in other words European countries, to ban anti-Islamic speech, nor does it call for any particular policy response, nor does it (in my reading) make any threats, it just condemns anti-Islamic speech and calls for a model of coexistence based on mutual respect.

Two contextual points:

  • The UPR is not an Islamist party but you do not have to be an Islamist to make a statement like this, especially in a virtually 100% Muslim society that proclaims itself an Islamic Republic. I think it can be assumed here that the UPR here speaks for the president as well.
  • I myself have only vaguely been following the latest developments in France and elsewhere, the developments that clearly prompted this statement from the UPR. Shoot the messenger if you like – but my point is that some people in the Sahel are clearly paying close attention to those developments and are very troubled by them. And issuing a statement like this does not mean the UPR is tacitly endorsing violence or anything like that.
  • The UPR is far from the only ruling party, or ruler, issuing statements like this. The tone varies a lot, though. See Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s statement, for example, which is much more direct about criticizing French President Emmanuel Macron.

*hanif is a hard word to translate; it can also mean “monotheist,” “sincere,” etc.

Mauritania: Moustapha Ould Limam Chafi Returns to Nouakchott

On October 18, Mauritanian national Moustapha Ould Limam Chafi returned to the country’s capital Nouakchott after what Le Figaro estimates is “a dozen years’ exile.” At least two Mauritanian regimes – that of Maaouya Ould Taya in 2004, and that of Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz in 2011 – issued warrants for his arrest (in 2004 over charges of helping to plot a coup, in 2011 over charges of colluding with al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb or AQIM). But he was never arrested by Mauritanian authorities, and is now back home roughly a year after Ould Abdel Aziz’s successor, President Mohamed Ould Ghazouani, canceled the warrants for Ould Chafi and two other prominent Ould Abdel Aziz-era dissidents/exiles.

How to classify Ould Chafi? Businessman, politician, intermediary, power broker? Jeune Afrique has covered his career extensively over the years, writing profiles and updated profiles in 2011, 2017, and 2019. In the first profile, we read, “His network goes from Niger to Cote d’Ivoire, where he spends a lot of time around Prime Minister Guillaume Soro, and to Mali, among other [places]. Outside West Africa, his connections go from Morocco to Darfur (Sudan), and also to Rwanda. But he is, first of all, a faithful companion of the Burkinabè president Blaise Compaoré, and has his house and family in Ouagadougou.”

The accusations of collusion with jihadists stem largely from his role in negotiating ransom payments for and releases of western hostages of AQIM, a role he sometimes undertook on behalf of Compaoré. Jeune Afrique‘s 2017 article discusses this dimension of his career a bit more. And nowadays, when accusations arise that Compaoré’s inner circle colluded with AQIM, Ould Chafi’s name continues to come up. I personally have not seen decisive evidence of collusion on the part of either Compaoré or Ould Chafi. I shed no tears when Compaoré was overthrown but in my eyes, negotiations or hostage payments are not tantamount to direct collusion. But I do not, and likely will never, know the full story on any of these dealings.

Back in Nouakchott, Ould Chafi is presenting his return home as purely personal and is disavowing any political agenda.

Very Quick Notes on the September 29 G5 Sahel-MINUSMA-European Union Meeting in Nouakchott

On September 29, the G5 Sahel, the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), and the European Union (EU) met in Mauritania’s capital Nouakchott. This was a coordination meeting for supporting the G5 Sahel’s Joint Force, which draws battalions from Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad. The meeting does not appear to have produced any dramatic news.

I’m a bit buried with work this week, so here are just a few links and notes:

  • The meeting was held in the context of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2531 (available here). Among other things, the resolution (p. 11, paragraph 30) “Requests the Secretary-General to ensure adequate coordination, exchange of information and, when applicable, support, within their respective mandates and through existing mechanisms, between MINUSMA, the MDSF [Malian Defense and Security Forces], the FC-G5S [G5 Sahel Joint Force], the French Forces and the European Union missions in Mali, and further requests MINUSMA to convene regular meetings of the Instance de Coordination au Mali as the main platform for such coordination, exchange of information and support.”
  • Here is MINUSMA’s short press release (French) on the coordination meeting.
  • Here is a longer readout (French) from the G5 Sahel. Again, no major news from what I can see.
  • Brief press coverage from RFI (French).

And a few photographs, via Twitter:

Mauritania: Ex-President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz Under a Police Microscope As Parliament Reconvenes

Mauritania’s former President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz (in power 2008-2009 as military ruler, and 2009-2019 as civilian president) faces an ongoing investigation into alleged corruption during his time in office. Here at the blog I last checked in on the story when Ould Abdel Aziz had given an interview to France 24 on September 10; in the interview, as in other press engagements, he dismissed the allegations and the investigation itself as baseless and politically motivated.

In August, Ould Abdel Aziz was held by the Economic Crimes Police for questioning for approximately a week, and then a few days later was briefly questioned again. On September 27 (more here, in Arabic), he was summoned once more, although he does not respond to questions in keeping with his legal team’s argument that he continues to benefit from presidential immunity. Meanwhile, his passport was confiscated in August, but he has now been barred from leaving the capital Nouakchott.

One source I missed in this story was this interview (Arabic) from August with the head of the parliamentary commission of inquiry, Habib Ould Brahim Diah. Jeune Afrique profiled Diah back in May, describing his background in the ruling Union for the Republic (French acronym UPR) party under both Ould Abdel Aziz and current President Mohamed Ould Ghazouani. The interview is worth a read. In it, Diah argues that there has been a clear separation between the executive and the legislature during the parliamentary corruption inquiry, implicitly rejecting Ould Abdel Aziz’s characterization of the inquiry as a political vendetta.

What comes next? On October 1, a new ordinary session of parliament starts – in a “heated atmosphere,” to loosely translate this headline (Arabic). Directly relevant to the corruption inquiry, and to Ould Abdel Aziz’s ultimate legal fate, is the question of (re-)establishing a high court of justice, the sole body constitutionally empowered to try a former head of state. In July, deputies voted to create such a court, so now comes the implementation.

I have no idea how all this ends. A prison term for Ould Abdel Aziz is certainly possible at this point, I’d say. But I could also see a scenario where he simply leaves the country for good. Or a scenario some former ministers get harsh sentences, but not the ex-president. I’m still a bit surprised that the inquiry got this far, actually. I suppose I’ve gotten used to a Sahelian (and global) norm of former heads of state mostly being beyond the reach of the law – although I should add that multiple things can be true at once: Ould Abdel Aziz almost certainly oversaw major corruption, and the parliamentary inquiry is in my view quite obviously politically motivated. You don’t have to pick between those two interpretations.

 

Biographies of Contemporary Sahelian Ulama 1: Shaykh Muhammad Salim Ould Addoud

(This is a series of short biographies of Sahelian and nothern Nigerian ulama from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and may broaden later to include some nineteenth-century figures. The selections and order are determined entirely by whim.)

Shaykh Muhammad Salim Ould Muhammad ‘Ali Ould ‘Abd al-Wadud, nicknamed ‘Addoud, was born in what is now Mauritania in 1929 (one source says 1930, but the 1929 date is much more widespread). He has a major legacy in Mauritania and more broadly, and is important not just for the depth of his learning and scholarly impact, but also for his long career in government.

His father, Shaykh Muhammad ‘Ali (d. 1982), merits a biography of his own – he was one of the most prominent scholars of his own generation. And another member of the family is even more famous now – Shaykh ‘Addoud was the maternal uncle (and Shaykh Muhammad ‘Ali was the maternal grandfather) of one of Mauritania’s best-known living scholars, Shaykh Muhammad al-Hasan Ould al-Dedew (b. 1963). The family is from Boutilimit (map) in the Trarza Region.

Shaykh ‘Addoud’s first and seemingly most important teacher was his father, who supervised a prominent mahdara (classical Islamic school). Here are the two men, Shaykh ‘Addoud on the left and Shaykh Muhammad ‘Ali on the right:

According to the short biography of him in this book, Shaykh ‘Addoud taught at his father’s mahdara as a young man. He then was recruited in the 1950s to teach at the Islamic Institute of Boutilimit. The Institute or University was a complicated project with backing from an influential Sufi leader, Abdullahi Ould Cheikh Sidiyya, as well as from the French colonial government (see here, pp. 114-115; a brief history of the town can also be found here). In the early 1960s, Shaykh ‘Addoud was chosen as part of a small delegation of young Islamic scholars sent to study law in Tunisia; he graduated with a license degree in law in or around 1965; the experience also included time spent training in Tunisian courts. In this way he obtained a hybrid education, traditionalist and state-backed, that gave him a rare profile especially in the context of early postcolonial Mauritania, where at first there were little more than a handful of people with college/university degrees.

His career afterwards, according to this obituary, involved a series of prominent government appointments in positions related to Islamic affairs and the judiciary, including lengthy tenures as deputy head and then head (1984-1987) of the Supreme Court; then Minister of Culture and Islamic Orientation (1987-1992); and then head of the High Islamic Council (1992-1997).

This period from 1984-1997, the apex of his professional career, coincided with the first phase of the military ruler Maaouya Ould al-Taya’s time in power (he led a 1984 coup and was deposed in a coup in 2005). Shaykh ‘Addoud also had, sometimes in parallel with his judicial and governmental appointments, a teaching career that included time at the University of Nouakchott and at another major institution in the capital, the High Institute for Islamic Studies and Research.

From what I can tell, Shaykh ‘Addoud retired after his time at the High Islamic Council. This obituary, which gives slightly different dates from some of the appointments mentioned above, says that he spent his last years teaching at his mahdara in the village of Umm al-Qura approximately 60 kilometers outside Nouakchott. He died in April 2009.

In terms of intellectual legacy, he left behind a massive trove of written works in fields such as creed and jurisprudence – including one versified commentary on a core Maliki legal text, the Mukhtasar of Khalil, where Shaykh ‘Addoud’s commentary reportedly runs to more than 10,000 verses. In my own trips to Nouakchott I have not succeeded in finding any printed copies of these works, nor have I yet found any online. Many of his works, I suspect, exist only in manuscript form or in very limited print runs.

In terms of students, the two most prominent ones I am aware of are (1) his famous nephew, mentioned above, Shaykh Ould al-Dedew, and (2) the Moroccan scholar Shaykh Sa’id al-Kamali. I am sure there are many others.

From what I can tell in relatively informal conversations in Nouakchott, Shaykh ‘Addoud is not perceived as a one-dimensional “Sultan’s scholar” – even critics of successive governments seem to consider Shaykh ‘Addoud as having an extra-special degree and depth of learning. At the same time, that long government service does mean that some Mauritanians today see him as relatively loyalist in his politics.

 

Notes on France 24’s Interview with Former Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz

Mauritania’s immediate past president, Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz (in office 2008-2009 as a military ruler, and 2009-2019 as an elected civilian president), is facing legal difficulties connected with a corruption investigation by the Mauritanian parliament. See my timeline of his encounters with parliament and the police here, and that post also links to pieces that give more context about the situation.

Ould Abdel Aziz gave a press conference on August 27, accusing the investigators (and, implicitly, his successor-turned-enemy, current President Mohamed Ould Ghazouani) of using the investigation to settle scores and damage his reputation.

On September 10, from his home in Mauritania’s capital Nouakchott, Ould Abdel Aziz gave an interview to France 24. Again, as France 24 noted in their writeup, the former president denounces a “political vendetta” but without directly naming Ould Ghazouani as the instigator of that vendetta.

Here are a few other notes and comments on the interview:

  • Ould Abdel Aziz describes himself, along with his son-in-law Mohamed Ould Mboussabou (who was questioned by police in late August) and one of his sons,* as the principal targets of the inquiry. He complains that out of the 317 people (his figure) named in the report, only he and his two family members have been detained at length.
  • Ould Abdel Aziz traces the genesis of his current troubles to the power struggles over the ruling party, the Union for the Republic (French acronym UPR), a contest he lost to Ould Ghazouani in late 2019/early 2020.
  • He describes the members of the parliamentary commission of inquiry as close associates of the current president – a claim with some truth, although as Jeune Afrique has noted, the head of the commission is a long-time UPR member, meaning he may have been close to Ould Abdel Aziz himself at some point.
  • Ould Abdel Aziz argues that his treatment has violated the Constitution and specifically Article 93, which basically grants the president immunity for all acts in office – except, and this is crucial, for high treason, and in that case an ex-president can be judged by a High Court of Justice. In late July, deputies voted in favor of re-establishing such a court in connection with the corruption inquiry. Asked directly about such a court, he dodged a bit, saying that the whole inquiry had been suffused with bias and irregularities from the beginning.
  • The second half of the interview is less interesting than the first; the second half basically consists of Ould Abdel Aziz mostly denying different things, including the suggestion that he wanted a third term or that, once out of office, he tried to organize a coup against Ould Ghazouani.
  • Ould Abdel Aziz is evidently frustrated and affronted, repeatedly saying that he had resisted all those close to him who encouraged him to seek a third term, and insisting that he left the country in excellent shape, stable, etc. He seems to have expected to receive a great deal of deference and exercise a great deal of influence in his post-presidency, and neither of those outcomes has occurred.

*I’m having trouble pinning this point down. He refers to the questioning of “the administrator of the foundation” connected with his son, and Al Jazeera refers to an accountant connected with that foundation being questioned. But I had trouble finding any more details. Relatedly, for what it’s worth, this columnist describes ex-Oil Minister Mohamed Abdel Ould Vetah as a kind of “adopted son” of Ould Abdel Aziz. So family connections appear to be involved in more ways than one. Readers’ insights on these points, and others, are welcome as always.

Muhammadu Buhari’s Comments on Third Terms Underline ECOWAS’ Credibility Gap on Democracy

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari was in Niamey, Niger on September 7 for an ordinary summit of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). He made headlines for the following comment:

More of his remarks quoted here:

As leaders of our individual Member-States of ECOWAS, we need to adhere to the constitutional provisions of our countries, particularly on term limits. This is one area that generates crisis and political tension in our sub-region.

Related to this call for restraint is the need to guarantee free, fair and credible elections. This must be the bedrock for democracy to be sustained in our sub-region, just as the need for adherence to the rule of law.

The obvious though unnamed targets of these remarks are Guinea’s Alpha Condé and Cote d’Ivoire’s Alassane Ouattara, both of whom are seeking third terms in elections that fall, respectively, on October 18 and October 31 of this year. One could also, although I’m not sure that this was Buhari’s intention, read his remarks as applying to other leaders in the region who have not sought third terms but who made the electoral playing fields very uneven when running for re-election – I am thinking of Senegal’s Macky Sall and Niger’s Mahamadou Issoufou, both of whom jailed their main opponents while running for (and winning) second terms. And then there is perhaps the most egregious anti-democratic case in the whole region – Togo’s Faure Gnassingbé, who won a fourth term this past February and whose family has been in power since 1967.

Buhari has many faults, but I think he has credibility on this issue of third terms – I do not expect him to seek a third one when his time is up in 2023, and he has repeatedly pledged not to do so. You never know, of course.

The context for Buhari’s remarks about third terms was the ongoing ECOWAS response to the August 18 coup in Mali, which removed second-termer Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta. ECOWAS leaders’ domestic efforts to bend and extend rules have implicitly weakened their credibility in negotiating with different actors in Mali – first the anti-Keïta protesters who threw Bamako’s politics into turmoil from June until the eve of the coup, and then more recently with the junta (the National Committee for the Salvation of the People, French acronym CNSP).

Newsworthy though Buhari’s remarks are, I don’t see pressure from him or others resulting in a course change for Condé or Ouattara. Once presidents start down the third term route they are usually (although not always, as the cases of Nigeria’s Olusegun Obasanjo and Mauritania*’s Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz exemplify) determined to go through with it.

I should probably do a separate post on the ECOWAS summit’s conclusions regarding Mali, but the final communiqué is here (French). The key paragraph on Mali is paragraph 16, page 6, where ECOWAS calls for a 12-month transition back to an elected president, and demands that the CNSP designate an interim president and prime minister, both of them civilians, by September 15. I wouldn’t hold my breath.

*Not an ECOWAS member currently.

A Table Comparing Seven 21st-Century Sahelian Coups

CountryYearCoup?Person RemovedOutcome
Mauritania2005YesMaaouya Ould al-Taya, dictator
in power since 1984 coup
20-month transition to a
civilian administration
with an elected president
who had not been a member of the junta
Mauritania2008YesSidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi, civilian president elected in 200712-month transition to a civilian administration with an elected president who had been the junta’s leader
Niger2010YesMamadou Tandja, civilian president elected in 1999, but who engineered an extra-constitutional third term in 200914-month transition to a civilian administration with an elected president who had not been a member of the junta
Mali2012YesAmadou Toumani Touré, civilian president elected in 20023-week transition to civilian-led transitional government, 17-month transition to elected civilian president
Burkina Faso2014Depends on definitions; came amid a popular revolutionBlaise Compaoré, dictator who came to power in a 1987 coup14-month transition to a civilian administration with an elected president who had not been a member of the junta
Burkina Faso2015YesMichel Kafando and Isaac Zida, who came to power as transitional authorities after 2014 revolution (Note: Zida participated in 2014 possible coup)6-day power struggle and reversal of the coup
Mali2020YesIbrahim Boubacar Keïta, civilian president elected in 2013TBD

I made the above table while working on a separate piece trying to place Mali’s coup, and the international reaction to it, into a wider context. Hopefully the table is relatively self-explanatory, and hopefully it will be useful to those considering historical precedents and contrasts for what is happening now. The one item perhaps not self-explanatory is how to categorize what happened in Burkina Faso in 2014. Clearly there was a popular revolution; the question is whether a military coup occurred in the closing stages of that drama. Here is some contemporaneous reporting about the immediate circumstances and aftermath of Blaise Compaoré’s resignation, and what appeared to be a power struggle between the Army’s General Honoré Traoré and the Presidential Security Regiment’s Colonel Isaac Zida.

We could make the table significantly more complex – adding the ranks of the junta leaders, etc. But I wanted to keep it relatively simple. Perhaps I will revisit it in a future post.