Mauritania: A Change in Prime Minister Amid the Parliamentary Corruption Investigation

Yesterday, August 6, Mauritania’s Prime Minister Ismail Ould Cheikh Sidiya resigned, along with his government. President Mohamed Ould Ghazouani has tapped an engineer and former minister, Mohamed Ould Bilal, as the next Prime Minister and has tasked him with forming a new government. My impression from the news stories I’ve read is that the president does not need parliamentary approval to make this change.

Biographies of Ould Bilal can be found here (Arabic) and here (French). Born in 1963, he hails from Keur-Macene (map) in the Trarza region. Ould Bilal rose through the ranks of development and food security agencies before his appointment as Minister of Equipment, Urban Planning, and Housing under the civilian President Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi (in office 2007-2008). Under the next head of state, Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz (in power 2008-2019), Ould Bilal briefly served as director the Mauritanian Electricity Company (Somelec). Under Ould Ghazouani he has been working as an advisor within the Prime Minister’s office, so he is being promoted from within.

Ould Bilal is from the Haratine, meaning that he comes from a socio-racial category of Arabic speakers who are defined in Mauritanian society as racially black, unlike the Bidan who are Arabic speakers socially defined as white. Mauritania’s elite largely hails from the Bidan even though the Bidan are a demographic minority in the country.

In the press and beyond, the change in prime minister is almost universally seen as connected to the ongoing parliamentary investigation into alleged corruption under Ould Abdel Aziz (the immediate past president, if you’re losing track of all the names). As Reuters points out, “several ministers” from the departing government of Ould Cheikh Sidiya may be implicated in scandals.

My hot take is that the appointment of (a) a technocrat and (b) a Hartani* may be intended to project an image of professionalism and inclusivity at a delicate moment for the president. During his election campaign last spring and summer, Ould Ghazaouni indicated that he would take a more inclusive approach than past (Bidan) heads of state – through the appointment of Ould Bilal, the president may be seeking (among other goals) to show that he will make good on such intentions. This is not the first time that a Hartani has held a senior post in the government (Messaoud Ould Boulkheir, for example, served as president of the National Assembly), but the racial politics of the appointment are notable.

*Singular of Haratine

Mauritania: Latest Developments in the Parliamentary Inquiry into Alleged Corruption under Former President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz

In Mauritania, former President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz (ruled as military head of state 2008-2009, and as an elected civilian 2009-2019) is under investigation by the parliament over allegations of corruption. See here for a previous post of mine on the investigation.

This week two important developments occurred in his case:

  • On July 27, the National Assembly voted to pass a law allowing for the creation of a High Court of Justice, the only institution authorized to judge ex-presidents. The law now goes to the Constitutional Council for review and validation, a process that can take 8-30 days; and then the law goes to the current president, Mohamed Ould Ghazouani, for promulgation, a process that can also take 8-30 days. Opposition deputies, however, have expressed skepticism that anything substantive will come out of the process.
  • On July 29, President Ould Ghazouani approved the parliamentary commission of inquiry’s report on Ould Abdel Aziz’s tenure. One major allegation in the report is that Ould Abdel Aziz may have tried to sell/give an island within the Banc d’Arguin National Park (official website here, map here) to the Emir of Qatar in 2012.

More on the island issue herehere, and here:

Parliament is now in recess. On July 30, Justice Minister Haïmouda Ould Ramdane stated that the government will follow normal legal procedures in pursuing the inquiry and stated that the process would be apolitical and objective – obviously, though, many observers read the corruption investigation partly or heavily in the context of the falling-out between Ould Abdel Aziz and Ould Ghazouani, who were close associates for decades prior to the latter’s election.

A notable statement on the whole affair has come from Sidi Mohamed Ould Maham, a former president of the ruling Union for the Republic (French acronym UPR). On Facebook, Ould Maham warned, “There is an organized campaign in a deliberate fashion aiming to absolve the former president of this corruption and offer these [former ministers and officials] as a sacrificial ram* to the people and to the judiciary.” The statement could be parsed in a lot of different ways, to say the least. More coverage of Ould Maham’s statement can be found here.

*It is not an accident that Ould Maham used the phrase “sacrificial ram” in a statement made in the lead-up to Eid al-Adha (which falls today). The phrase evokes the ram sacrificed by the Prophet Ibrahim/Abraham as a ransom for his son (usually thought to be the Prophet Ismail, rather than the Prophet Ishaq/Isaac, in the Islamic tradition).

Heavy Rains and Risks of Flooding in Parts of the Sahel

Flooding is a recurring problem in parts of the Sahel – in 2019, floods in Niger affected over 200,000 people. Water damage to houses displaces people and elevates disease risks. An excerpt from the link:

OCHA spokesman Jens Laerke says the last time the Niger basin reached this level was in 2012.

“At that time, the floods left dozens of dead and affected nearly half-a-million people… Each year, there has been an upward trend in how many people are affected by these seasonal rains.  We have seen a doubling of the number of people affected since 2015, as well as increasing material damage including destruction of crops and loss of livestock,” Laerke said.

This year, above average rains are expected for much of the Sahel. That pattern may accelerate various grim domino effects:

Given the overall wet situation expected for the 2020 rainy season and the ongoing locust crisis in Eastern Africa and the Horn of Africa, it is very likely that there will be an incursion of desert locust swarms due to the early onset of the rainy season in the Sahelian band.

Combined with the situation related to the COVID19 pandemic, this risk of desert locust invasion could increase the risk of food insecurity for millions of people in the Sahel and West Africa.

Heavy rains are already taking a toll in Niger – the Ministry of the Interior recently stated that from the beginning of the rainy season through July 20, nine people had died, seventeen had been wounded, and 20,000 had been affected. Earlier in July, the government had warned that 300,000 people across Niger face flood risks this year.

In Mali, flooding is also beginning to take a toll. The below tweet shows the situation in Douentza, Mopti Region, where 2,200 people have already been affected. Some 110,000 people face flood risks in Mali:

Here is a Red Cross report on the response to flooding last August in multiple regions of Mali.

In Chad, over 170,000 people were affected by floods last year. Heavy rains have hit N’Djamena, with residents of some quarters disputing with each other over how to deal with the water.

Heavy rains can also cause other problems, less serious than loss of life and mass displacement but still tremendously disruptive. In Mauritania, rains this year have made some roads impassable, damaged bridges, dams, and wells, knocked out electricity in some areas, etc.

Finally, writing in Le Faso, Felix Alexandre Sanfo makes some important points that apply not just to Burkina Faso but also to the wider region. He commends the Burkinabè government for its June 30 directive to regional and municipal authorities to begin preparing in case of floods – but he points out that such instructions could come earlier, given the predictability of the cycle. He goes on to argue for unifying the partly overlapping roles of the two main emergency services in the country, as well as for creating more robust early warning and reaction mechanisms.

To close with a nod to the big picture, the flooding raises questions about the links between climate change, disasters, food insecurity, and conflict. Crisis Group put it well, in a report back in April:

Climate change has certainly contributed to transforming the region’s agro-pastoral systems. But the direct relationship sometimes posited between global warming and dwindling resources, on one hand, and growing violence, on the other, does not help policymakers formulate appropriate responses…It is essential to consider the impact of climate change in the Sahel. But the climate component must be linked to a broader set of causalities, notably the political choices – including those made by states – governing access to resources.

In any case, amid the region’s many other crises, flooding appears likely to affect tens if not hundreds of thousands of people across the region in the coming months.

Snapshots of Sahelian Pastoralism Under Strain

Across the Sahel, pastoralists face threats and disruptions due to jihadists, cattle rustling, COVID-19, and other forces. Here are several key pieces that have appeared in recent months:

Loïc Bisson, in a paper for the Clngendal Institute (10 July), analyzes how all these problems intersect with long-term vulnerabilities in the sector. Here is the abstract:

In the Sahel, market closures, border closures and movement restrictions to stop the spread of COVID-19 have disrupted the structurally weak pastoral sector, already made vulnerable by conflict. There are several signs of the negative impacts of COVID-19, such as difficulties in moving food and people, poor access to markets, rising food prices and loss of livelihoods. In Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad, the pandemic adds to ongoing problems of conflict and political instability. The threat to pastoralists is to lose their herds through overgrazing, zoo-sanitary diseases or lack of income to feed the animals. If pastoralists go bankrupt, they could be forced to sell their livestock at devastatingly low prices to large landholders or wealthy neo-pastoralists. This scenario would aggravate an already-growing trend in the region – escalating economic inequality and the consolidation of wealth among an elite. This risks fuelling inequality and deepening existing fault lines. The priority for Sahelian governments should be clear: keep food coming and people moving, and develop a post-COVID-19 strategy to tackle the vulnerabilities revealed by the pandemic.

Le Monde (French, 31 May), in an article titled “Livestock Thefts, a Collateral Effect of Terrorism, Destabilize Central Mali,” discusses how such thefts sometimes run to hundreds of cattle or sheep in a single incident. The article notes how livestock theft helps to fuel a grim cycle – jihadists and bandits steal animals and sell them at reduced prices in unofficial markets, financing crime; the losses of animals spell economic difficulty or doom for many families; tensions between communities rise; and displacement increases. One thing I learned from the article is that livestock is Mali’s third most important export after gold and cotton.

Financial Afrik (French, 6 July) discusses rising prices for animals in Burkina Faso.

The International Organization for Migration comments on COVID-19 and the transhumance corridors between Mauritania and Mali (14 July):

As a result of border closures decreed by Governments across West and Central Africa to limit the spread of COVID-19, herders and cattle who took to the corridor between Mauritania and Mali during the lean season now are stranded in border areas without resources to feed their livestock.

“Herders can no longer travel to Mali. They are stranded at the border and feel deprived. A large concentration of herders and their herds has been reported in the commune of Adel Bagrou, on the border with Mali,” explained Aliou Hamadi Kane, coordinator of the Groupement National des Associations Pastorales (GNAP), a Mauritanian herders association.

To monitor the situation and better address the needs of stranded herders, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) conducted a flow monitoring survey between May and June 2020. IOM learned a sizeable minority of herders – 16 per cent – were unaware of preventive measures to ward off the disease.

An article in The Guardian (10 July), based on satellite imagery collected by the World Food Program, focuses on how insecurity is affecting farmers in central Mali, but also has a few comments on the situation of pastoralists.

Finally, you’d be crazy not to follow Alex Orenstein on Twitter for regular, as he calls them, #cowfacts.

Mauritania: Two Corruption Investigations Proceed Simultaneously

In Mauritania, two major investigations into alleged corruption are unfolding simultaneously. One has to do with the immediate past President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, and the other concerns a scandal that just broke under current President Mohamed Ould Ghazouani.

To begin with Ould Abdel Aziz, he left office in August 2019 after what initially appeared to be a very smooth handover to his long-time associate Ould Ghazouani. Within months, the relationship soured, making Ould Abdel Aziz quite politically vulnerable. A parliamentary commission of inquiry is looking into possible corruption during Ould Abdel Aziz’s 2008-2019 time as head of state. The inquiry concerns alleged corruption in the oil sector and beyond. The latest key development is that the former president refused to honor the commission’s summons for a hearing on 9 July. Apparently the former president and former members of government enjoy immunity from such summons and even from prosecution – except in what would be a truly dramatic development, namely charges of “high treason” before a High Court of Justice (more on how that would be “fairly juridically complex” here). On 13 July, however, the prominent and controversial deputy (and runner-up in the 2019 presidential election) Biram Dah Abeid called for the convocation of just such a court.

The parliamentary inquiry extends beyond Ould Abdel Aziz himself to encompass some of his team, including his son-in-law “Mohamed Sidi M’Bareck Msabour, his cousin Ahmed Ould Abdel Aziz, and his close collaborate, the businessman Mohamed Lemine Bobati.” Petroleum, Energy, and Mines Minister Mohamed Abdel Vetah, appointed by Ould Abdel Aziz, may be summoned before the parliamentary commission as well.

The second corruption investigation concerns a brand new scandal, namely the reported disappearance of nearly 1 million euros and over $350,000 from the reserves of the Central Bank of Mauritania in June. According to the RFI at that link, “Many employees of the bank as well as outside persons may be implicated in this affair,” and some employees have been arrested. A parliamentary deputy from the ruling party has called for a commission of inquiry. It is not clear how high the scandal reaches, and whether it will touch former Bank director and current Economy and Industry Minister Abdel Aziz Ould Dahi.

Three Recent Journal Articles on Mali and Mauritania

Three journal articles with crucial perspectives on Mali and Mauritania have appeared recently.

1. Adib Bencherif, Aurélie Campana, and Daniel Stockemer, “Lethal Violence in Civil War: Trends and Micro-Dynamics of Violence in the Northern Mali Conflict (2012-2015),” in Studies in Conflict & Terrorism. The abstract:

This article discusses the trends and micro-dynamics of violence in northern Mali. Using a mixed research design, we focus on the violence used by jihadist groups during the first phases of the Malian civil war (2012–2015). Integrating research on civil war and terrorism, we distinguish between direct and remote violence. Quantitative analyses show that the involvement of jihadist groups in this conflict had a strong impact on the level and intensity of violence of all warring parties. Qualitative analysis of data collected during field research done in Mali between 2016 and 2017 complements the quantitative work. It enlightens that relational dynamics strongly influence the decision to resort to violence within non-state armed groups, including jihadist ones, while local contexts often explain temporal and geographic variations in violence.

And one very interesting excerpt, from pp. 12-13 of the .pdf version:

The Timbuktu region illustrates another kind of relational dynamics between secular rebel and jihadists groups. These dynamics affected the level and intensity of violence and show how pragmatic these groups were. The factions of secular rebel groups operating in this region chose not to confront AQIM and fled to areas outside those controlled by jihadist groups. AQIM was the dominant jihadist group in Timbuktu. AQIM took control of Timbuktu on June 28, 2012, and Lere on November 28, 2012, with- out any major violent confrontations. Given their lack of military capability, MNLA leader in the Timbuktu region decided on a pragmatic retreat.93 Furthermore, at that time the relationships between the different communities living around Timbuktu were relatively stable. Armed groups were reluctant, at least in 2012, to exploit latent inter and intra-community tensions to expand their control over these communities as they had done in Gao. For example, the Front de liberation nationale de l’Azawad (FLNA), an Arab militia created in April 2012, was opposed first to the Tuareg rebels and also the jihadists. They occupied a part of Timbuktu on April 26, 2012. Abou Zaïd, one of the leaders of AQIM, asked the FLNA to leave to avoid death among civilians. On April 27, 2012, they left Timbuktu without a clash.97 Among the Timbuktu region, numerous notables had and are going to have relations with jihadist groups. One young Tuareg from Timbuktu and member of the MNLA summarized: “One of the few who rejected any collaboration with the jihadist groups was the colonel Abass who fled with his group to the Mauritanian border [on November 28, 2012]. (…) After that, in Timbuktu, you could find the true terrorists and Arab and Tuareg who were only collaborating with them because of fear or economic interests.”

2. Oumar Ba, “Governing the Souls and Community: Why Do Islamists Destroy World Heritage Sites?Cambridge Review of International Affairs. The abstract:

From Bamiyan to Timbuktu and Palmyra, Islamic fundamentalist groups have willfully destroyed cultural edifices which were listed as world heritage sites. Yet, beyond the criminal acts and their shock value, this article argues that attacks on cultural and religious sites may be viewed as actions embedded in a political project of gouvernement. In this regard, spectacular destruction of cultural heritage may not be simply a signal sent to the international community, but rather an action embedded in a broader political project of governing territory and its inhabitants, aimed at building a new political community based on a new ethos that includes the control of the economyof cultural heritage sites. This article uses the destruction of cultural heritage sites in Timbuktu in 2012 to show the ways in which they fit within the political project of the Ansar Dine jihadist group. Furthermore, the Islamic State’s attacks on cultural sites in Syria and Iraq are also analyzed in light of a political project to govern the territory and communities. The broader implications of this study include the need to pay closer attention to perpetrators’ claims and justifications and to take them seriously, by both international justice scholarship and policy circles. Doing so does not absolve the crimes or mitigate their gravity, but rather allows for better approaches to identify, protect or rebuild cultural heritage in conflict settings.

Ba’s book States of Justice: The Politics of the International Criminal Court has also just come out with Cambridge University Press.

3. Elemine Ould Mohamed Baba and Francisco Freire, “Looters vs. Traitors: The Muqawama (“Resistance”) Narrative, and its Detractors, in Contemporary Mauritania,” African Studies Review (link is to full .pdf version). The abstract:

Since 2012, when broadcasting licenses were granted to various private television and radio stations in Mauritania, the controversy around the Battle of Um Tounsi (and Mauritania’s colonial past more generally) has grown substantially. One of the results of this unprecedented level of media freedom has been the propagation of views defending the Mauritanian resistance (muqawama in Arabic) to French colonization. On the one hand, verbal and written accounts have emerged which paint certain groups and actors as French colonial power sympathizers. At the same time, various online publications have responded by seriously questioning the very existence of a structured resistance to colonization. This article, drawing predominantly on local sources, highlights the importance of this controversy in studying the western Saharan region social model and its contemporary uses.

One interesting paragraph, from p. 261:

To the best of our knowledge, the existing body of academic discussion on this topic—the rivalry between Hassān and Zwāya status groups— predominantly relies on historical documentation. We draw rather on other elements, analyzing, in particular, documents emanating from different media outlets such as newspapers, radio, TV shows, and social media. Our approach is important insofar as it incorporates a significant corpus of nonreferenced bibliographical materials, largely published online on Mauritanian media platforms or newspapers. This methodological option effectively broadens the scope of available sources on contemporary Mauritanian debates and authors. It should also classify and validate such sources as significant elements in the understanding of regional history. Our selection incorporates the authors—often with a limited track record of published materials (books)—who, through their public voices (in Arabic and French), have more clearly delineated the muqawama controversy.

Finally, you can watch the authors discuss the battle of Oum Tounsy in a video here (in French):

Notes on Yesterday’s G5 Security Summit in Nouakchott, Mauritania

Yesterday, 30 June, Sahelian heads of state, French President Emmanuel Macron, other top European leaders, and representatives of numerous multilateral bodies met in Nouakchott, Mauritania for a summit on Sahelian security. According to Macron’s agenda for the day, the event consisted of a working lunch for heads of state, followed by a larger meeting and then a joint press conference. The Elysée (French presidency) does not appear to keep permanent links for each separate day, so I am posting a screen shot:

Another version of the agenda, which differs just slightly from the times listed by the Elysée, was published by the Mauritanian outlet Mauri Actu and can be found here. That version gives a sense of the other participants in the event.

The Nouakchott summit is the sequel to one held at Macron’s invitation in Pau, France in January 2020. You can read the transcription of the joint press conference from that event in French here, and the New York Times‘ (appropriately critical) coverage is here. The Nouakchott summit also follows the 25 February G5 Sahel summit in Nouakchott as well as the recent virtual launch, on 16 June, of the French-backed Coalition for the Sahel. Nouakchott has been the site of several key meetings this year because Mauritania currently holds the rotating presidency of the G5 Sahel, a political (and now military-political) coordinating body for Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad.

In the lead-up to yesterday’s summit, a theme in Western press coverage was the suggestion that France is “gaining” militarily in the Sahel while the Sahelian governments are dysfunctional. I disagree with that framing, but let’s unpack it a bit first.

Here is AFP:

France is increasingly optimistic about the effectiveness of its anti-jihadist campaign in the Sahel, but experts caution that short-term successes will not by themselves bring lasting victory…

The governments of these countries, among the poorest in the world, are struggling to reinvest in the newly-retaken territories and win hearts and minds.

And here is Reuters, whose article is even more explicit that the assessment of “France is winning, Sahel governments are flailing” comes ultimately from the French government:

Mali and Burkina Faso must guarantee at a summit this week that their domestic political problems do not reverse fragile military successes against Islamist militants in the Sahel region, a French presidential source said on Monday.

“Domestic political problems” seems to mean the protests against President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta in Mali and the upcoming elections in Burkina Faso, or perhaps the phrase is also a veiled reference to widely reported security force abuses in those countries (and in Niger).

Clearly there is domestic turmoil in Mali and Burkina Faso – but I am uncomfortable with the framing that effectively says “African dysfunction is undercutting French accomplishments.” For one thing, I’m not sure what France’s “fragile military successes” really consist of, beyond the killing of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)’s emir Abdelmalek Droukdel on June 3. Aside from the killing of Droukdel, most of what I’ve seen recently from France’s Operation Barkhane reads to me as the same kind of operations it has been conducting for years, and any gains in one area inevitably seem to be paralleled by a degradation in another area. The press coverage of this summit is replete with references to French/Sahelian gains made in the tri-border zone (Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso), but the references are quite vague once you scrutinize them. Meanwhile, the events and reports coming out of the Sahel’s conflict zones seem quite grim to me – blockaded towns in northern Burkina Faso, villages under jihadist sway in the east, Mali’s premier opposition leader in presumed jihadist captivity for over three months, etc. Those are bad signs, and they don’t seem to indicate that the French and Sahelian militaries are on a path toward victory.

And then, to return to critiquing the framing of “French prowess, African dysfunction,” there is the fact that France is not merely a military actor in the Sahel but is, first and foremost, a political actor in its former colonies – and a military intervention is itself a political act, I might add. France appears most comfortable working, when possible, with strongmen; failing that, France leans on a particular type of technocratic, Francophone professional politician in its former colonies. I don’t think that French authorities hand-pick the candidates to run in Sahelian elections. But is it an accident that the heads of state so often look exactly what you would imagine the Elysée would dream up – an economist or banker turned lifelong politician, perhaps still a “socialist” according to their party’s name but generally neoliberal in economic policy and deferential to France and Europe when it comes to international relations? And then you add to that the optic of Macron basically publicly treating the current Sahelian heads of state as his subordinates and clients, and ultimately what you have is an extremely top-down and narrow conception of political authority in the region. Is it a surprise that such a system has proven brittle and fragile, especially amid a widening conflict? How the Sahel can move forward politically is an enormously complicated question and I do not have the answer, but I suspect that the answer does not begin with Macron instructing his counterparts to get their shit together.

</mini rant>

Turning to the substance of the summit, here are a few resources:

  • Here is the final joint communiqué. Honestly, very little stood out to me from the document, which mostly read to me as a restatement of the principles of the Coalition for the Sahel (counterterrorism, enhancing military capacity, “the return of the state,” and development) and a restatement of what was discussed at Pau. There are references in this latest communiqué to not tolerating human rights abuses, a major topic of discussion recently, and the Sahelien heads of state called for (even) more international security contributions, but otherwise I thought the document was bland.
  • Here is the video and transcript of Macron’s remarks on his arrival at the summit. His primary theme was “solidarity” in the face of COVID-19 and terrorism. A secondary theme was the “return of the state,” especially in parts of Mali and Burkina Faso. The “return of the state” is, again, one of four pillars of the Coalition for the Sahel.
  • Twitter posts from Sahelian heads of state, regarding their respective participation in the summit, can be found at the following links: Mohamed Ould Ghazouani of Mauritania; Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta of Mali; Roch Kaboré of Burkina Faso; Mahamadou Issoufou of Niger; Idriss Deby of Chad.
  • RFI’s readout of the summit, which notes the positive and optimistic tone that the heads of state struck.

Speaking of international security engagements, the next development on the horizon there is the anticipated deployment of the French-created Takuba Task Force. At Clingendael, Anna Schmauder, Zoë Gorman, and Flore Berger have written an excellent explainer about the force.

Ould Ghazouani posted a striking photo of the six heads of state; I leave you with that:

 

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.

 

 

 

France’s Coalition for the Sahel Gets Going

On January 13 of this year, French President Emmanuel Macron hosted Sahelian heads of state for a summit in Pau, France. Among the outcomes of the summit was the announcement of a new “Coalition for the Sahel,” which will focus on four “pillars”: counterterrorism, military capacity-building, supporting the return of the state, and development. The Coalition is meant to coordinate existing activities, with France and the G5 Sahel as it primary members. A major question is whether the Coalition is merely a rebranding of pre-existing elements, or whether it will represent something genuinely new.

On June 12, the Coalition for the Sahel held its first (virtual) meeting. This ministerial-level meeting was hosted jointly by Mauritanian Foreign Affairs Minister Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed (Mauritania holds the rotating presidency of the G5 Sahel for 2020), European Commission Vice President Josep Borrell Fontelles, and French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian. The “informal conclusions” can be found here (English) and here (French). My read is that the meeting was mostly a stock-taking, a review of initiatives currently underway such as the G5 Sahel Joint Force, France’s Sahel Alliance, France’s Takuba Task Force, etc. You can read a French government English-language explainer on the G5 Sahel and the Sahel Alliance here, and an Al Jazeera report on the Takuba Task Force here.

My usage of “France’s this” and “France’s that” could be debated, but I do it deliberately. The rhetoric of “coalition” and “alliance” is deliberate on France’s part, meant to imply a collective stake in the Sahel crisis, but to me the vibe is one of top-down French influence, and I can’t tell what level of buy-in there is from Sahelian heads of state. Notably, for example, I could not find mention of the Coalition in the final communiqué from the last G5 Sahel summit, held in Nouakchott in February. And here is Reuters, also describing France as the driving force and discussing the Coalition in terms of French government goals:

France launched a coalition of West African and European allies on Friday to fight jihadi militants in the Sahel region, hoping more political cooperation and special forces would boost a military effort that has so far failed to stifle violence.

I don’t think that’s going to pan out. The different components of the Coalition have already been struggling to reverse some of the worst trends in the Sahel, and I don’t think coordination is the most important missing element. The criticism leveled at the French government after the Pau summit, namely that France lacks a genuine political strategy, still holds. And the Pau summit may have even inadvertently upped the pressure for Sahelian soldiers to commit abuses against civilians, abuses that are themselves a key driver of insurgency.

In any event, the Coalition’s official description can be found here, along with various resources. France’s Envoy for the Sahel, Christophe Bigot, is on Twitter here, as is the Coalition itself.

In terms of what comes next, I’m not sure – readers may know. The next G5 Sahel summit is scheduled for February 2021 in Chad’s capital N’Djamena, but I suspect we will hear from the Coalition before then.

Roundup of IMF Statements on Disbursements to Sahelian Countries amid COVID-19

On April 15, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) approved six-month debt service relief for twenty-five low-income countries, including the Sahelian countries Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, and Niger.

The IMF has also given disbursements to each of those countries to help offset the impact of COVID-19.

Burkina Faso ($115.3 million, approved April 14):

The immediate challenge is to contain the spread of COVID-19, strengthen medical care, implement the social distancing and other containment measures, and mitigate the socio-economic impact of the pandemic, especially on the most vulnerable.

[…]

The economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in Burkina Faso is rapidly unfolding, with the short-term outlook worsening quickly. The pandemic comes at a time when Burkina Faso was already gripped by a heightened security crisis. The authorities responded by putting in place measures to help contain the spreading of the virus, including by closing schools and universities, banning mass gatherings, and suspending international travel. Though absolutely needed to contain the outbreak these measures, together with the global response, have significantly worsened the economic outlook in the near term, with real economic growth declining substantially, and both the fiscal and balance of payments deficits widening significantly.

Chad ($115.1 million, approved April 14):

Due to a significant deterioration of the macroeconomic outlook and weakening of fiscal situation, urgent external and fiscal financing needs have emerged. The IMF’s support will make a substantial contribution to filling immediate external needs and preserving fiscal space for essential COVID-19-related health expenditure. It is also expected to help catalyze additional donor support.

Mali ($200.4 million, approved April 30):

This assistance will help support urgent spending on health services and assistance to affected firms and households, while preserving overall social spending.

[…]

The COVID-19 shock hit the economy hard amid an already challenging social and security situation. The economic outlook has deteriorated significantly, and growth is expected to slow to below 1 percent, increasing already high unemployment and poverty.

Mauritania ($130 million, approved April 23):

The COVID-19 pandemic is having a dramatic human, economic, and social impact on Mauritania. The short-term economic outlook has deteriorated rapidly and growth is expected to turn negative this year, with severe hardships for the population, and the outlook is subject to considerable uncertainty. These developments have given rise to urgent balance of payment and fiscal financing needs.

[…]

The IMF’s financial assistance under the RCF will provide a sizable share of the financing needed to implement the anti-crisis measures. Additional concessional and grant financing from the international community will be critical to close the remaining financing gap and help Mauritania respond effectively to the COVID-19 crisis.

Niger ($114.5 million, approved April 14):

The COVID-19 pandemic is having a pronounced negative economic impact on Niger and downside risks are significant. The economic downturn, fiscal pressures, and tightening financial conditions are giving rise to large financing gaps in Niger’s public finances and balance of payments this year.

[…]

A substantial widening of this year’s budget deficit is appropriate, reflecting unavoidable revenue shortfalls and pressing spending needs for health care, social protection, and support for hard-hit businesses.

Senegal ($442 million, approved April 13):

The Covid-19 pandemic is hitting Senegal hard. The sharp global economic downturn and domestic containment measures have led to a substantial reduction in economic activity, with sectors such as tourism, transport, construction, and retail particularly hard-hit, and the pandemic in Europe is also translating into lower remittances. As a result, the short-term economic outlook has deteriorated significantly, with large uncertainties surrounding the duration and spread of the pandemic.