I have a new piece out with World Politics Review that looks at Mauritanian politics, especially the rivalry between former President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz and new President Mohamed Ould Ghazouani. Readers’ feedback welcome as always!
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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:
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/