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).

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.

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.

 

 

 

Mauritania Elections: Messaoud Ould Boulkheir and Ahmed Ould Daddah Too Old to Run?

In Mauritania, talk of a third term for incumbent President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz has given way to talk of a near-certain succession by his long-time right-hand man, current Defense Minister Mohamed Ould Ghazouani. Given the long-term dominance of the group of (former) military officers that Ould Abdel Aziz and Ould Ghazouani represent, Ould Ghazouani’s candidacy and victory do seem quite probable. But the overall composition of the presidential field does matter, not just for who wins and who loses but for what it tells us about the positions of different constituencies in Mauritanian politics and society.

One interesting item, then, is that it seems that the People’s Progressive Alliance* (French acronym APP) will not put forward its leader Messaoud Ould Boulkheir as a presidential candidate. Ould Boulkheir is arguably the most important, if no longer the most internationally famous, haratine politician in Mauritania – the haratine or “Black Moors” being a different socio-racial category in Mauritanian society than the bidan or “White Moors” such as Ould Abdel Aziz and Ould Ghazouani. Ould Boulkheir was president of the National Assembly from 2007-2014 and placed second in the presidential election of 2009, winning 16% to Ould Abdel Aziz’s nearly 53%. He also contested the 2003 and 2007 (first round) presidential elections, placing fourth in both.

Ould Boulkheir faces a legal obstacle to candidacy because he is, or will be, older than 75 at the time of the first round. This article details how the PPA had undertaken some initial legal consultations and had begun preparing his candidacy, before consulting more widely and concluding that he was/will be ineligible. The relevant portion of the Mauritanian Constitution (Title II, Article 26) can be found here.

I do not think, based on the obvious trend from past races, that Ould Boulkheir would have defeated Ould Ghazouani. And I don’t think that he was muscled out of contesting – unless one sees Article 26 (which is a new addition, if I am reading the constitution right, from the 2017 referendum) as something designed to target Ould Boulkheir (and, if one follows that logic, to target recurring contender Ahmed Ould Daddah, younger brother of Mauritania’s first president). But it does seem that whether by accident or design, Ould Ghazouani will face a field of lesser-known candidates than was the case in recent presidential elections in Mauritania. One final question is whether the age restrictions on Ould Boulkheir and Ould Daddah gives any advantage to Islamists, who are the second most important party in the country (after the ruling Union for the Republic) if one goes by the results of last year’s legislative elections, but whose room for maneuver is often seriously constrained by the administration.

*As a minor detail, al-tahaluf al-sha’bi al-taqadummi might also be translated “the popular, progressivist alliance.”

More on Mauritania’s New Cabinet and Succession Dynamics

As I’ve been writing about a bit recently, Mauritania has a new, technocratic prime minister (Mohamed Salem Ould Bechir), a new defense minister (longtime presidential right-hand man Mohamed Ould Ghazouani), and a new cabinet. Many observers, including me, have seen these changes in the context of the approaching end of President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz’s second term in 2019 – although, to me at least, it is not at all clear what these changes portend in terms of succession.

The Arab Weekly (h/t Judd Devermont) has a fascinating, if speculative, piece that raises doubt about the view that Ould Abdel Aziz is positioning Ould Ghazouani as a successor – instead, the author suggests, new speaker of parliament Cheikh Ould Baya might be a contender. More on Ould Baya here. Not mentioned in the Arab Weekly piece is new presidential spokesman and former ruling party head Sidi Mohamed Ould Maham, whose name has also been floated as a presidential successor. And of course there is still the strong possibility that Ould Abdel Aziz will simply seek a third term.

Meanwhile, as Ould Ghazouani moves to the defense ministry, the military has a new Chief of Army Staff, Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mohamed Lemine. This is an orderly transition – he was most recently Ould Ghazouani’s deputy, and he and the president attended the Military Academy of Atar together in the 1980s. So a lot of folks get promotions or make essentially lateral moves (the former PM has moved over to the presidency), but it’s unclear yet what it all means for the medium-term.

Update on Mauritania’s New Cabinet

Earlier this week, I wrote a bit about Mauritania’s new Prime Minister Mohamed Salem Ould Bechir. The members of his new government have already been announced – see the full list at Le 360 (see also RFI’s brief report). Aside from the change in prime minister (and here we should note that the departing Prime Minister Yahya Ould Hademine is not leaving government, but has accepted the post of minister of state to the presidency), there are – according to Sahara Medias – five new entrants to the cabinet.

Foremost among them is Mohamed Ould Ghazouani, who moves from Army Chief of Staff to Minister of Defense (perhaps partly because he was due to retire from the military based on age). Le 360 calls him President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz’s “dauphin,” and I can’t say that they’re wrong – if the president bucks most analysts’ expectations and does not seek a third term, one could easily imagine a scenario where his long-time right-hand man Ould Ghazouani would become the ruling party’s candidate.

The other notable entrant is Sidi Mohamed Ould Maham, who moves from being head of the ruling Union for the Republic (UPR) party to a kind of mega-post: Minister of Communication and Relations with Parliament, and Spokesman of the Government. Jeune Afrique argues that these moves add up to Ould Abdel Aziz placing his closest loyalists into the most key positions.

A few other sub-cabinet changes have also taken place, such as a replacement for the long-time director of the national television firm.

The cabinet held its first meeting today.

A New Prime Minister in Mauritania

In Mauritania, following the recent legislative (and regional and municipal) elections in September, there has now been a change in prime minister. On 29 October, Yahya Ould Hademine (in office since August 2014) offered his resignation, which was accepted. The new nominee is Mohamed Salem Ould Bechir, who has held multiple senior government appointments, including head of the Department of Water and Sanitation (September 2013-January 2015), Minister of Petroleum, Energy, and Mines (January 2015-August 2016), and CEO of the Société nationale industrielle et minière (National Industrial and Mining Firm, SNIM, from August 2016-present). You can find a brief, official biography of him at the SNIM website, and longer journalistic biographies of him here and here.

The new PM will present his policies to the National Assembly in a month, and the deputies will then vote on his confirmation.

The Mauritanian outlet Cridem (h/t Lissnup) notes a few factors that might have gone into President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz’s selection of Ould Bechir. First, Ould Bechir continues a pattern where Ould Abdel Aziz has chosen prime ministers from eastern Mauritania (as this longer biography discusses, Ould Bechir is from El Aioun in al-Hodh al-Gharbi). Second, Ould Bechir may be taking on “a mission less political than technocratic” in the months remaining in the president’s term, a mission that has to do with reviving the economy (although I could, and would, argue that this is actually highly political). Third, Cridem emphasizes the close relationship of trust between the president and this “faithful servant.” Cridem closes by saying that apart from anticipating some ministerial retirements due to age and health, there is no precise sense of whom the next cabinet will include.

Partial Results from Mauritania’s Legislative, Regional, and Municipal Elections

I’ve been waiting all week for definitive results from Mauritania’s recent elections, which included simultaneous legislative, regional, and municipal contests. Obviously, and in a much more urgent sense, Mauritanians have also been waiting for the results – and the slow pace of announcements has elicited complaints and protests, as well as accusations of fraud. The Independent National Electoral Commission (French acronym CENI, as in many other West African countries) is under some “pressure” from the opposition.

A few pieces of context. First, these elections come in advance of next year’s presidential contest. The biggest question in Mauritanian politics now is whether incumbent President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz will seek a (currently) extra-constitutional third term. Last year’s constitutional referendum, which made a combination of symbolic and structural changes to Mauritania’s political system, was seen in some opposition quarters as a step toward changing or removing constitutional provisions regarding term limits. Second, in terms of the present elections, it’s worth noting that last year’s referendum abolished the Senate – so voters are selecting deputies for a unicameral legislature now.

In terms of results, various counts have indicated that the ruling party (Union for the Republic, or UPR) and the Islamist party the National Rally for Reform and Democracy (Tewassoul) are leading the pack. Here is one count from 6 September showing that with nearly 62% of the votes counted (2,518 out of 4,080 polling offices), UPR has obtained 18.2% of the vote and Tewassoul 10.7%. No other party hits double digits in that count. Another count from 4 September, pertaining just to the parliamentary deputies’ list in the capital Nouakchott, shows that with 84% of the votes counted (551 out of 655 polling places), UPR has gotten 13% while Tewassoul has gotten 12.85%.

If these results hold, there are a few obvious takeaways:

  • The political landscape is fragmented. When and where the contest goes to a second round (scheduled for 15 September), it will be interesting to see how the dust settles.
  • To compare apples to oranges, Tewassoul has so far improved on its performance in the 2009 presidential elections, when its candidate Jamil Mansour scored less than 5% (Tewassoul boycotted in 2014).
  • To compare oranges to oranges, though, UPR and Tewassoul were the top two parties in the 2013 parliamentary elections. In comparison with 2013, both UPR’s and Tewassoul’s share of the first-round vote has fallen, but UPR’s has fallen more.

Hopefully complete results will be out soon, which will permit a more thorough analysis.

AFP has a short clip of the proceedings: