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.

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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:

Quick Preview of Mauritania’s Upcoming Legislative Elections

Mauritania will hold legislative, regional, and municipal elections on 1 September, with a runoff scheduled for 15 September. The official campaign period began on 17 August. The ruling Union for the Republic (UPR) is, of course, campaigning for an extension of its dominance.

RFI (French) has written a little on the campaign of the Islamist party, Tewassoul, which was legalized in 2007, participated in the 2009 presidential elections, and boycotted the presidential elections of 2014. Tewassoul, at its party congress in December 2017, replaced longtime leader Jamil Mansour (who stepped down due to internal term limits) with former cabinet minister and current deputy Mohamed Mahmoud Ould Seyidi. This display of internal party democracy was no accident – Tewassoul is keen to make the case, implicitly and explicitly, for its democratic bonafides, and is also keen to draw a contrast with UPR and the incumbent president, Mohamed Ould Abd al-Aziz, in case he ends up running for an extra-constitutional third term next year

Thus far, Ould Abd al-Aziz has not publicly stated any wish for a third term, although some of his allies and supporters are publicly encouraging such a move. Cynical observers saw last year’s constitutional referendum as a kind of testing-the-waters effort in the direction of a third term bid. Now, the opposition (including Tewassoul) is working to make the legislative elections a referendum on the specter of a third term.

VOA (French) has a bit on the campaign of the opposition Rally for Democracy (RFD), led by Ahmed Ould Daddah, longtime presidential aspirant and brother of Mauritania’s first president. Ould Daddah has denounced the “dictatorship” of Ould Abd al-Aziz and the UPR.

Here are a few important websites:

  • Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI): http://www.ceni.mr/
  • UPR: http://upr.mr/fr/
  • Tewassoul: http://tewassoul.mr/

The Shooting of President Mohamed Ould Abd al-Aziz Revisited, in a Mauritanian Courtroom

In October 2012, Mauritania’s President Mohamed Ould Abd al-Aziz was shot and wounded at a checkpoint by a soldier. He was flown to France for medical treatment and recovery, and returned home some six weeks later. Mauritanian authorities stated that Ould Abd al-Aziz had been accidentally shot by a soldier who did not realize the president’s identity. Coming as it did just four years after the coup that brought Ould Abd al-Aziz to power, and moreover coming in the waning phase of a protracted conflict between Mauritania and al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the incident raised more than a few eyebrows at home and abroad.

Recently, the dispute has resurfaced over what exactly happened at that checkpoint. This month, a trial began for Mohamed Ould Ghadda, a former senator and opposition member originally arrested in August 2017, just after last summer’s constitutional referendum (which he had opposed). Some more background on his arrest and charges can be found here. Ould Ghadda’s arrest also occurred in the context of the presidency’s charges against businessmen Mohamed Ould Bouamatou (see some background on that here).

The first session (Arabic) of Ould Ghadda’s trial was 9 August in Nouakchott, the capital. One central topic of the initial proceedings has been Ould Ghadda’s role in disputing the official story concerning the shooting of Ould Abd al-Aziz. In 2017, Ould Ghadda disseminated a video where a soldier named Mbarik (my transliteration), reportedly the companion of the soldier who fired on Ould Abd al-Aziz, cast doubt on numerous parts of the official story.

I have had some trouble reconstructing exactly what Mbarik said, so I want to a bit cautious here in how I describe things. Some of the video is available here, prefaced by Ould Ghadda’s remarks (wherein he called for Ould Abd al-Aziz to resign, due to what Ould Ghadda said was obfuscation surrounding the incident of the shooting). Ould Ghadda’s Facebook post commenting on the video has been reproduced in various places, including here (Arabic). From what I can tell (and here I may be wrong due to either sourcing problems or lack of Hassaniyya competency – commenters, please correct/add as necessary), neither the video nor the commentary advanced a full, alternative account of how and why Ould Abd al-Aziz was shot; rather, they raised doubts about parts of the official account. Among other comments, Ould Ghadda noted that the two soldiers were trainees who were not permitted to fire unless their training camp was directly under attack.

In any case, back in the present, Mbarik has recanted (Arabic) what he said in the video and has testified that Ould Ghadda pressured him to record the video and promised to pay him for it. The court has also heard testimony (Arabic) from the soldier who, according to the official account, accidentally shot Ould Abd al-Aziz; that soldier, whose surname I would transliterate as Ould Ahaymad, testified that the official story from 2012 is the truth. For his part, in court Ould Ghadda maintained that Mbarik had been forced to recant under pressure. The Mauritanian press seems more interested in the various recantations and counter-testimonies in the present than it does in the substance of the doubts raised about the official account. Significantly, however, the press has also noted that this is the first time the shooting has been discussed in any Mauritanian court.

In a sense, it doesn’t matter what happened in October 2012 – whether it was an accident or an assassination attempt, Ould Abd al-Aziz survived and remained in power. But in another sense, the questions surrounding the incident continue to reverberate periodically in Mauritanian politics, symbolizing – for the president’s critics and opponents – their doubts about transparency and secrecy in his administration.

 

 

Mauritanian Ulama Debate a Third Term for the President

Mauritania’s President Mohamed Ould Abd al-Aziz will reach the end of his second term next year, and with it the limit of what the current constitutional provisions allow him to serve. Talk of a third term, however, has circulated for quite some time, and now the country’s religious scholars – ulama – are joining the debate. Recently, one of the most prominent senior shaykhs in the country, Hamdan Ould al-Tah, led a delegation that met the president and urged him to seek a third term. The expression of support is not necessarily surprising – Ould al-Tah has been close to different governments in Mauritania almost throughout the postcolonial period, and served as Minister of Islamic Affairs in addition to serving on various official religious bodies. Moreover, from a religious point of view, many ulama see political stability as preferable to the potential risks of change.

On the other side of the religious debate is Mahfoudh Brahim Ould Vall, vice president of Markaz Takwin al-Ulama (the Center for the Training of Ulama). The Markaz’s president is the globally famous Muhammad al-Hasan Ould al-Dedew, who is also a symbol of sorts for the Islamist movement in Mauritania, though he is not a member of the Islamist Tawassoul party. I assume that Ould Vall speaks for a broader constituency within the Islamist movement. Ould Vall argues that president, like any state functionary, is morally bound to fulfill his original commitments – i.e, to serve only what he initially said he would serve. RFI sees a generational split in this debate, but I think it may be more about which ideological tendency one affiliates with.

A third perspective comes from another globally famous Mauritanian shaykh (and former Minister of Islamic Affairs), Abd Allah Bin Bayyah. In a recent interview, Bin Bayyah said in a general sense that he believes ulama should leave politics to a country’s rulers. He did not, however, comment specifically on the third term issue in Mauritania.