Controversy around a Mauritanian Atheist

Reportedly (Arabic), A Mauritanian man recently professed atheism on Facebook. I haven’t been able to find the original page, but the incident has caused controversy in the country. The government’s High Council for Fatwa and Grievances released a statement (Arabic) announcing “our distress and our disapproval” of the man’s words and calling for legal action against him.

This incident is the latest in a series of high-profile instances of alleged unbelief, apostasy, or blasphemy in Mauritania. 2014 saw a wave of such events. One man was jailed in January and then sentenced to death in December for writing an online article perceived as blasphemous. Another man was arrested for allegedly urinating on a copy of the Qur’an in February 2014, while March 2014 saw protests over an incident in which a small group of men allegedly desecrated copies of the Qur’an. Those events were seemingly unconnected, but coming in rapid succession they elevated tensions around issues of apostasy and blasphemy.

Other events have had a more political tinge. Also last year, Mauritanian religious scholars accused leftist writers of spreading atheism. In 2012, the anti-slavery activist Biram Ould Abeid publicly burned texts from the Maliki legal school (one of Sunni Islam’s four major schools, and the one most widespread in northwest Africa) in protest at the ways in which such texts had been invoked to justify slavery. The burning triggered protests and resulted in his arrest. It’s important to note that burning Maliki texts is categorically different from desecrating a Qur’an, and that Ould Abeid was not making a symbolic gesture of unbelief but rather was attempting to confront and overturn a certain interpretation of tradition.

In any case, the point is that accusations of blasphemy can be directed at both isolated individuals and opposition movements. Also, the issue has become sensitive enough that even one individual’s Facebook posts can elicit a government response.

Mauritania’s Legislative Elections: A New Date, and a New Delay

On August 3, Mauritania’s Communications Minister Mohamed Yahya Ould Hormah announced that the country would hold legislative and municipal elections on October 12 of this year. The government has repeatedly delayed elections, originally scheduled for 2011, due to disagreements with the opposition. Unless I am mistaken, the last time Mauritania held parliamentary elections was in November/December 2006 for legislative and municipal seats, and January/February 2007 for senate seats. If this is correct then Mauritania has not held legislative elections since the military coup of August 2008 that brought current President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz (who won election as a civilian in July 2009) to power.

This month’s attempt to schedule an election also met with a delay. Parties within the Coordination of Democratic Opposition (COD) coalition swiftly announced their plans to boycott the October elections. Among those threatening a boycott were the left-leaning Union of the Forces of Progress (UFP) and the Islamist National Rally for Reform and Development (Tewassoul). Tewassoul and others cite concerns about transparency and fairness. Their stated concerns resemble those raised by other COD parties in August 2011. For those interested in further details, Tewassoul’s website features an August 12 COD statement (Arabic) entitled “Why is [the COD] Boycotting the Elections for Which the Regime Calls?”

In response to the boycott threat, the government on August 22 postponed the elections until November 23. A second round may follow on December 7.

The government’s responsiveness to the opposition’s boycott threats is noteworthy. What do you think? Does it bespeak fear, or political savvy, or both?

Mauritania’s Salafi Prisoners: A Release and Some Questions

This week, Mauritanian authorities released two prisoners (Arabic), Bashir Kharashi Sall and Sidi Ould Mamuri (my transliterations), who had been held for five years on charges of links to violent Islamic groups. The Mauritanian press often refers to such prisoners as “Salafis,” and I will too for the sake of shorthand, but it’s worth bearing in mind that Salafi is a theological category whose complexity such shorthand frequently masks.

From my limited research so far, it seems that the two men were held in connection with a gun battle between security forces and Al Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb that occurred on the outskirts of Mauritania’s capital Nouakchott in April 2008 (video report). My evidence is this 2010 list (Arabic) of accused persons from the “Santar Amtir incident” (my transliteration, which is likely wrong – the Arabic is صانتر أمتير), which from what I can deduce refers to the area where the April 2008 clashes occurred. The two men appear on that list.

The issue that the Mauritanian press (see first link above) raises this week in its coverage concerns not violence, however, but dialogue. Sall and Mamuri participated, as have numerous other Salafi prisoners, in government-facilitated conversations with Islamic scholars who attempted to alter the Salafis’ thinking on various issues. The linked article above hints that the dialogues have borne inconsistent or at least opaque fruit: the two men, despite their participation in dialogue, “were kept in prison without release despite the issuance of pardon for tens of prisoners who participated in the dialogue.” Other participants in the dialogue, the article continues, remain in prison today, awaiting pardon or sentencing.

Rehabilitation programs for jihadists raise concerns about how to measure success and prevent recidivism; the architects of such programs presumably wish neither to release potential recidivists nor to detain genuinely reformed individuals, and much less to detain people who were innocent in the first place. If I am right in detecting a critical tone in one Mauritanian press outlet’s coverage of these issues, then it seems segments of Mauritanian society would like their government to communicate more clearly the criteria it uses to keep certain individuals behind bars.

Mauritanian Politicians on Security and Mali

The war in northern Mali remains a source of contestation and debate in Mauritania.

President Mohamed Ould Abd al Aziz this week argued (Arabic) that the conflict in northern Mali arose from negligence in the face of regional terrorist threats, and urged a pro-active approach to terrorism going forward. Abd al Aziz, initially opposed to any armed Mauritanian involvement in the conflict in Mali (despite previous Mauritanian interventions there around 2010-2011), has expressed greater openness to such involvement recently.

The Coordination of the Democratic Opposition (CDO), meanwhile (Arabic), “attributed responsibility to Abd al Aziz’s government for the killing of Mauritanian citizens in Mali.” The Union of the Forces of Progress (UFP), a key player in the CDO, has called for an investigation (Arabic) into killings of Mauritanians in Mali. The shootings of sixteen Muslim preachers in central Mali in September 2012, a group that included numerous Mauritanians, remains a live issue in Mauritania today; the UFP referred specifically to that in their statement.

As Abd al Aziz negotiates his position on Mali, then, he faces a vocal opposition and complex intersections of domestic and foreign policy.

Africa News Roundup: Kenya, South Sudan, Algeria, Nigeria, and More

VOA:

The runner-up in Kenya’s presidential election is filing a petition with the Supreme Court Saturday challenging the results.  The party of Prime Minister Raila Odinga says it will present to the court evidence of electoral fraud. Odinga’s CORD alliance has refused to accept the first-round victory of Jubilee candidate Uhuru Kenyatta.

Results released last week by the country’s electoral commission, the IEBC, declared Mr. Kenyatta had won 50.07 percent of the vote, just enough to avoid a run-off with Mr. Odinga.

Reuters: “After a Long Fight for Freedom, South Sudan Cracks Down on Dissent.”

Bloomberg:

South Sudan’s government said it signed an agreement with Ethiopia and Djibouti that may enable the East African nation to export oil by truck from July, while a study on a pipeline linking the three countries is completed.

An accord signed on March 12 in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, envisages crude being exported via Djibouti’s Red Sea port of Douraleh, South Sudan Deputy Petroleum Minister Elizabeth James Bol said in an interview today. Douraleh is 1,469 kilometers (913 miles) northeast of Juba, the South Sudanese capital.

[…]

South Sudan is considering building two pipelines, one via Ethiopia and another across Kenya to the port of Lamu, as an alternative to the conduit that runs through neighboring Sudan.

Magharebia reports on Morocco’s diplomatic outreach to Mauritania, which is partly motivated by concern over the crisis in Mali.

IRIN: “Call to End Neglect of Emergency Education in Mali.”

Bloomberg: “Senegal Seeks to Become West Africa Hub for Islamic Finance.”

Al Jazeera: “Thousands Protest Unemployment in Algeria.”

VOA: “Development Improves in Ethiopia, But Just Slightly.”

The Guardian (Nigeria): “Northern Christians, Emir [of Anka, in Zamfara State] Oppose Amnesty for Boko Haram.” The titular Christians are the Northern Christian Elders Forum (NORCEF).

Osun Defender:

Two top leaders of the Peoples Democratic Party in Borno State were yesterday assassinated by gunmen suspected to be operatives of the Islamist militant group Boko Haram. The slayings came less than one week after the officials participated in welcoming President Goodluck Jonathan during his tour of the troubled state.
The victims were Usman Gula (who was the PDP’s vice chairman for Southern Borno), and Hajia Gamboa, who served as the party’s women’s leader for Shehuri ward in Maiduguri.

What else is happening?

Portraits of Malian Refugee Camps in Niger, Mauritania, and Burkina Faso

Alongside armed conflict in northern Mali, Mali and its neighbors are experiencing a refugee crisis. I keep bringing this up in an effort to ensure that the scale of the crisis will not be ignored. UNHCR’s country pages for Mali and Mauritania show that massive numbers of people have been displaced: over 200,000 inside Mali, 70,000 Malian refugees in Mauritania, 50,000 in Niger, and 40,000 in Burkina Faso. Those numbers are all expected to rise by year’s end, to a total of approximately 540,000.

A few portraits from camps:

Niger:

The Mangaïze camp was officially created in May, following an influx of a large number of Malian families fleeing to Niger, said Idrissa Abou, a member of Niger’s National Commission for Refugees.
Besides a monthly food ration, refugees have access to drinking water from three small boreholes and primary health care. There are sanitation facilities with 250 showers and toilets, and a household waste management system. Refugees also have access to administrative services, a school and, with the opening of a police station, a security service.

“At the moment, there are 1,522 families, which amounts to a population of 6,037 mainly made up of Malian refugees, but there are also Nigerien returnees,” Abou told IPS, adding that an overwhelming majority of the refugees are from Ménaka, the closest Malian town to the Ouallam municipality in south-western Niger. He added that the numbers in the camp had increased in February after some 1,700 refugees from the nearby Bani Bangou camp were transferred to Mangaïze.

Mauritania:

Nearly 67,000 refugees—mainly women and children—have arrived in the border town of Fassala, Mauritania, since January 2012. “At the border crossing at Fassala, Mauritania, people are arriving thirsty and showing signs of fatigue,” explains Karl Nawezi, MSF project manager in Mauritania. After being registered by the authorities, refugees wait in a transit camp before being transferred to Mbera, a small, isolated village in the Mauritanian desert, just 30 kilometers [about 19 miles] from the Mali border.

The refugees in Mbera are totally dependent on humanitarian aid. An insufficient number of tents has been distributed, however. Families are assembled under large tents called “meeting points” that leave them exposed to the elements. Fed up with waiting, some construct their own makeshift shelters out of straw mats and pieces of fabric to protect themselves from sand and dust storms. “In Mauritania, as is the case elsewhere [in the Sahel refugee camps], people are suffering from diarrhea, respiratory infections, and skin infections because of the poor conditions in the camps,” says Nawezi.

And France24 has a video report from Burkina Faso here.

Quick Items: Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz on Mali, Goodluck Jonathan Visits Yobe and Borno [Updated]

Two noteworthy stories:

Mauritania and Mali

In a speech on Monday, Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz expressed greater openness than in the recent past to the idea of Mauritanian deployments in Mali. Mauritanian forces chased fighters from Al Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb into northern Mali at several points in 2010 and 2011, but during 2012 Abdel Aziz stated repeatedly that Mauritania would not intervene in Mali.

On Monday Abdel Aziz also emphasized his country’s role in “encircling [hardline Islamist fighters] in the north of Mali in order to enable Malian units to intervene and finish them off in their dens.” ANI (Arabic) has more on the speech.

Nigeria

On February 28, governors from an alliance of Nigerian opposition parties held a day-long conference in the northeastern city of Maiduguri, epicenter of the violent Boko Haram sect. The Nigerian newspaper Daily Trust commented, “the fact that the governors took the bull by the horns and held their meeting in Maiduguri, despite security reports that there may be attacks and blasts by suspected insurgents speak volume of their determination to give the [ruling] Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) a run for its money.”

Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan is set to visit the northeastern states of Yobe and Borno (where Maiduguri is the capital) today. One source says this visit “will be his first to the troubled states since his assumption of office.” Residents in Borno and Yobe interviewed by Leadership expressed a range of views about the visit, with some optimistic that Jonathan may use the moment to announce compensation programs or other initiatives, and others fearful that the visit will bring an even tighter security lockdown.

The Sultan of Sokoto, meanwhile, called on Jonathan this week to offer an amnesty to Boko Haram fighters. The Sultan said, “If there is amnesty declared we believe so many of those young men who have been tired of running and hiding will come out and embrace that amnesty.”

UPDATE: Reuters:

“I cannot talk about amnesty with Boko Haram now until they come out and show themselves,” Jonathan told reporters in Yobe state capital Damaturu, a town regularly hit by the sect’s guerrilla-style bomb and gun attacks.

See also Chike’s remarks in the comments section below.