Three Items on Mauritania

  1. Jeune Afrique has a good article (July 15, French) on Mauritanian policy towards Mali – and why Mauritania has opted to keep the relationship functional and functioning despite many, many problems next door, including the deaths of Mauritanian citizens in Mali. One Mauritanian minister, quoted anonymously, sums it up, referring specifically to the decision to keep export corridors open during the period Mali was under sweeping sanctions: “We would derive no benefit from the collapse of our neighbor. Starving the populations was totally out of the question.”
  2. Mauritania’s ruling party was renamed and rebranded earlier this month, changing its name from the Union for the Republic (French acronym UPR) to al-Insaf, Arabic for “equity” (the translation that French-language Mauritanian media outlets are using) or perhaps “even-handedness.” (The root n-s-f has to do with halving and sharing, as in nisf, “half.”) The party also has a new president, Mohamed Melaïnine Ould Eyih, who is also minister of national education – you can read a short biography of him here (French). There is a long backstory involving the party and a power struggle between former President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, the party’s founder, and current President Mohamed Ould Ghazouani – who appears to be in firm control of the current iteration of the party.
  3. In the course of one of my research projects I finally tracked down the text of a 2015 fatwa (Arabic) by a Mauritanian cleric, Shaykh Ahmad Jiddu Wuld Ahmad Bahi, giving a blanket condemnation of present-day slavery. The lines of argument will likely be familiar to anyone who has looked in depth at the “Islam and slavery” debate (if you haven’t, you might start here), but to simplify greatly, the fatwa says that early Islam acknowledged the reality of slavery but worked to improve slaves’ conditions and end the practice, and that public interest, as well as what he views as legal consensus among states (Muslim and non-Muslim) against slavery, should compel present-day Muslim societies to completely eradicate slavery. There’s a lot more to the fatwa than that, of course, but those are a few of the key points. You can also watch a rich discussion between the shaykh and a Mauritanian journalist here (Arabic).

Mauritania: Moustapha Ould Limam Chafi Returns to Nouakchott

On October 18, Mauritanian national Moustapha Ould Limam Chafi returned to the country’s capital Nouakchott after what Le Figaro estimates is “a dozen years’ exile.” At least two Mauritanian regimes – that of Maaouya Ould Taya in 2004, and that of Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz in 2011 – issued warrants for his arrest (in 2004 over charges of helping to plot a coup, in 2011 over charges of colluding with al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb or AQIM). But he was never arrested by Mauritanian authorities, and is now back home roughly a year after Ould Abdel Aziz’s successor, President Mohamed Ould Ghazouani, canceled the warrants for Ould Chafi and two other prominent Ould Abdel Aziz-era dissidents/exiles.

How to classify Ould Chafi? Businessman, politician, intermediary, power broker? Jeune Afrique has covered his career extensively over the years, writing profiles and updated profiles in 2011, 2017, and 2019. In the first profile, we read, “His network goes from Niger to Cote d’Ivoire, where he spends a lot of time around Prime Minister Guillaume Soro, and to Mali, among other [places]. Outside West Africa, his connections go from Morocco to Darfur (Sudan), and also to Rwanda. But he is, first of all, a faithful companion of the Burkinabè president Blaise Compaoré, and has his house and family in Ouagadougou.”

The accusations of collusion with jihadists stem largely from his role in negotiating ransom payments for and releases of western hostages of AQIM, a role he sometimes undertook on behalf of Compaoré. Jeune Afrique‘s 2017 article discusses this dimension of his career a bit more. And nowadays, when accusations arise that Compaoré’s inner circle colluded with AQIM, Ould Chafi’s name continues to come up. I personally have not seen decisive evidence of collusion on the part of either Compaoré or Ould Chafi. I shed no tears when Compaoré was overthrown but in my eyes, negotiations or hostage payments are not tantamount to direct collusion. But I do not, and likely will never, know the full story on any of these dealings.

Back in Nouakchott, Ould Chafi is presenting his return home as purely personal and is disavowing any political agenda.

Mauritania: Ex-President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz Under a Police Microscope As Parliament Reconvenes

Mauritania’s former President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz (in power 2008-2009 as military ruler, and 2009-2019 as civilian president) faces an ongoing investigation into alleged corruption during his time in office. Here at the blog I last checked in on the story when Ould Abdel Aziz had given an interview to France 24 on September 10; in the interview, as in other press engagements, he dismissed the allegations and the investigation itself as baseless and politically motivated.

In August, Ould Abdel Aziz was held by the Economic Crimes Police for questioning for approximately a week, and then a few days later was briefly questioned again. On September 27 (more here, in Arabic), he was summoned once more, although he does not respond to questions in keeping with his legal team’s argument that he continues to benefit from presidential immunity. Meanwhile, his passport was confiscated in August, but he has now been barred from leaving the capital Nouakchott.

One source I missed in this story was this interview (Arabic) from August with the head of the parliamentary commission of inquiry, Habib Ould Brahim Diah. Jeune Afrique profiled Diah back in May, describing his background in the ruling Union for the Republic (French acronym UPR) party under both Ould Abdel Aziz and current President Mohamed Ould Ghazouani. The interview is worth a read. In it, Diah argues that there has been a clear separation between the executive and the legislature during the parliamentary corruption inquiry, implicitly rejecting Ould Abdel Aziz’s characterization of the inquiry as a political vendetta.

What comes next? On October 1, a new ordinary session of parliament starts – in a “heated atmosphere,” to loosely translate this headline (Arabic). Directly relevant to the corruption inquiry, and to Ould Abdel Aziz’s ultimate legal fate, is the question of (re-)establishing a high court of justice, the sole body constitutionally empowered to try a former head of state. In July, deputies voted to create such a court, so now comes the implementation.

I have no idea how all this ends. A prison term for Ould Abdel Aziz is certainly possible at this point, I’d say. But I could also see a scenario where he simply leaves the country for good. Or a scenario some former ministers get harsh sentences, but not the ex-president. I’m still a bit surprised that the inquiry got this far, actually. I suppose I’ve gotten used to a Sahelian (and global) norm of former heads of state mostly being beyond the reach of the law – although I should add that multiple things can be true at once: Ould Abdel Aziz almost certainly oversaw major corruption, and the parliamentary inquiry is in my view quite obviously politically motivated. You don’t have to pick between those two interpretations.

 

Notes on France 24’s Interview with Former Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz

Mauritania’s immediate past president, Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz (in office 2008-2009 as a military ruler, and 2009-2019 as an elected civilian president), is facing legal difficulties connected with a corruption investigation by the Mauritanian parliament. See my timeline of his encounters with parliament and the police here, and that post also links to pieces that give more context about the situation.

Ould Abdel Aziz gave a press conference on August 27, accusing the investigators (and, implicitly, his successor-turned-enemy, current President Mohamed Ould Ghazouani) of using the investigation to settle scores and damage his reputation.

On September 10, from his home in Mauritania’s capital Nouakchott, Ould Abdel Aziz gave an interview to France 24. Again, as France 24 noted in their writeup, the former president denounces a “political vendetta” but without directly naming Ould Ghazouani as the instigator of that vendetta.

Here are a few other notes and comments on the interview:

  • Ould Abdel Aziz describes himself, along with his son-in-law Mohamed Ould Mboussabou (who was questioned by police in late August) and one of his sons,* as the principal targets of the inquiry. He complains that out of the 317 people (his figure) named in the report, only he and his two family members have been detained at length.
  • Ould Abdel Aziz traces the genesis of his current troubles to the power struggles over the ruling party, the Union for the Republic (French acronym UPR), a contest he lost to Ould Ghazouani in late 2019/early 2020.
  • He describes the members of the parliamentary commission of inquiry as close associates of the current president – a claim with some truth, although as Jeune Afrique has noted, the head of the commission is a long-time UPR member, meaning he may have been close to Ould Abdel Aziz himself at some point.
  • Ould Abdel Aziz argues that his treatment has violated the Constitution and specifically Article 93, which basically grants the president immunity for all acts in office – except, and this is crucial, for high treason, and in that case an ex-president can be judged by a High Court of Justice. In late July, deputies voted in favor of re-establishing such a court in connection with the corruption inquiry. Asked directly about such a court, he dodged a bit, saying that the whole inquiry had been suffused with bias and irregularities from the beginning.
  • The second half of the interview is less interesting than the first; the second half basically consists of Ould Abdel Aziz mostly denying different things, including the suggestion that he wanted a third term or that, once out of office, he tried to organize a coup against Ould Ghazouani.
  • Ould Abdel Aziz is evidently frustrated and affronted, repeatedly saying that he had resisted all those close to him who encouraged him to seek a third term, and insisting that he left the country in excellent shape, stable, etc. He seems to have expected to receive a great deal of deference and exercise a great deal of influence in his post-presidency, and neither of those outcomes has occurred.

*I’m having trouble pinning this point down. He refers to the questioning of “the administrator of the foundation” connected with his son, and Al Jazeera refers to an accountant connected with that foundation being questioned. But I had trouble finding any more details. Relatedly, for what it’s worth, this columnist describes ex-Oil Minister Mohamed Abdel Ould Vetah as a kind of “adopted son” of Ould Abdel Aziz. So family connections appear to be involved in more ways than one. Readers’ insights on these points, and others, are welcome as always.

Muhammadu Buhari’s Comments on Third Terms Underline ECOWAS’ Credibility Gap on Democracy

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari was in Niamey, Niger on September 7 for an ordinary summit of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). He made headlines for the following comment:

More of his remarks quoted here:

As leaders of our individual Member-States of ECOWAS, we need to adhere to the constitutional provisions of our countries, particularly on term limits. This is one area that generates crisis and political tension in our sub-region.

Related to this call for restraint is the need to guarantee free, fair and credible elections. This must be the bedrock for democracy to be sustained in our sub-region, just as the need for adherence to the rule of law.

The obvious though unnamed targets of these remarks are Guinea’s Alpha Condé and Cote d’Ivoire’s Alassane Ouattara, both of whom are seeking third terms in elections that fall, respectively, on October 18 and October 31 of this year. One could also, although I’m not sure that this was Buhari’s intention, read his remarks as applying to other leaders in the region who have not sought third terms but who made the electoral playing fields very uneven when running for re-election – I am thinking of Senegal’s Macky Sall and Niger’s Mahamadou Issoufou, both of whom jailed their main opponents while running for (and winning) second terms. And then there is perhaps the most egregious anti-democratic case in the whole region – Togo’s Faure Gnassingbé, who won a fourth term this past February and whose family has been in power since 1967.

Buhari has many faults, but I think he has credibility on this issue of third terms – I do not expect him to seek a third one when his time is up in 2023, and he has repeatedly pledged not to do so. You never know, of course.

The context for Buhari’s remarks about third terms was the ongoing ECOWAS response to the August 18 coup in Mali, which removed second-termer Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta. ECOWAS leaders’ domestic efforts to bend and extend rules have implicitly weakened their credibility in negotiating with different actors in Mali – first the anti-Keïta protesters who threw Bamako’s politics into turmoil from June until the eve of the coup, and then more recently with the junta (the National Committee for the Salvation of the People, French acronym CNSP).

Newsworthy though Buhari’s remarks are, I don’t see pressure from him or others resulting in a course change for Condé or Ouattara. Once presidents start down the third term route they are usually (although not always, as the cases of Nigeria’s Olusegun Obasanjo and Mauritania*’s Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz exemplify) determined to go through with it.

I should probably do a separate post on the ECOWAS summit’s conclusions regarding Mali, but the final communiqué is here (French). The key paragraph on Mali is paragraph 16, page 6, where ECOWAS calls for a 12-month transition back to an elected president, and demands that the CNSP designate an interim president and prime minister, both of them civilians, by September 15. I wouldn’t hold my breath.

*Not an ECOWAS member currently.

Mauritania: A Timeline of Former President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz’s Legal Woes During Summer 2020

Here on the blog I try to keep pretty current on events from Mauritania to Chad but it’s hard not to fall behind with so much going on. In this post I’m going to try to catch myself (and you, if you need it) up on the corruption investigation into Mauritania’s immediate past present, Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz (in power 2008-2009 as a military ruler, and 2009-2019 as a civilian president). For my last post on the investigation, see here, and for broader background on the falling out between Ould Abdel Aziz and his successor, current President Mohamed Ould Ghazouani, see here.

For now, I want to assemble the timeline of key events this summer:

  • July 6: The Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry summons Ould Abdel Aziz to appear at a July 9 hearing; he refuses.
  • July 27: The Parliamentary Commission presents its final report, and a majority of parliamentary deputies vote to reinstate the High Court of Justice, the sole institution capable of judging past presidents.
  • August 17: Ould Abdel Aziz questioned and detained by the police, specifically by the Directorate-General of National Security.
  • August 23-24: Ould Abdel Aziz released, but banned from leaving Nouakchott.
  • August 25: Ould Abdel Aziz summoned again for questioning by police.
  • August 27: Ould Abdel Aziz gives a press conference and charges that the Parliamentary Commission’s real goal is to settle scores and ruin his reputation.

For analysis of the most recent developments, see Geoff Porter’s briefing (available to those who sign up) at North Africa Risk Consulting.

Mauritania’s New Government: Continuity, and a Corruption-Related Mini-Exodus

On August 6, Mauritania’s President Mohamed Ould Ghazouani replaced his prime minister. I wrote about the new prime minister, the engineer and former housing minister Mohamed Ould Bilal, here. Ould Bilal then formed a government whose members were announced on August 9. The full list is here. The new cabinet met for the first time on August 12.

Jeune Afrique points out that the new government largely comprises members of the old government: “Out of 23 ministers, only 8 are new.” (Le Monde‘s count varies from that a bit, saying that 18 ministers have returned – I have not found time to go through to confirm who is correct.) Among the continuing/reinstated ministers are some of the most important ones: Ismaël Ould Cheikh Ahmed at Foreign Affairs, Hanenna Ould Sidi at Defense, and Ahmed Salem Ould Merzoug at Interior.

Yet there are some important new appointments, as the Mauritanian journalist Bakari Guèye points out in this interview: Ousmane Mamoudou Kane at Economy (replacing Abdel Aziz Ould Dahi, who remains in government but as Minister of Fishing and the Maritime Economy); Abdessalem Ould Mohamed Saleh at Petroleum; and Mohamed Mahmoud Ould Cheikh Abdullah Ould Boya at Justice.

There is a double context for the specific ministers who were removed and replaced. First, some were named in the July 26 report from a parliamentary commission investigating corruption under former President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz (in power 2008-2019), Ould Ghazouani’s immediate predecessor. As the above-linked Jeune Afrique article mentions, on August 9, three days after the new prime minister was appointed, a presidential spokesman explicitly confirmed that the cabinet reshuffle was linked to the corruption investigation and its fallout. Among those named in the parliamentary investigation was the outgoing prime minister, Ismaïl Ould Bedda Ould Cheikh Sidiya. The presidency’s spokesman said that those under investigation will now have time to prepare their defenses – but clearly the president also wishes to distance himself and the serving government from the corruption case.

Second, at least according to Guèye, the number of ministers carried over from Ould Abdel Aziz’s time is now down to just one: Sidi Ould Salem, Minister of Higher Education. If this is right (again, I haven’t found time to confirm), then it would represent a furthering of a wider process of Ould Ghazouani replacing Ould Abdel Aziz’s people within the ruling party, the military, and the civilian government.

When Ould Bilal was selected as prime minister, I speculated a bit that Ould Ghazouani might be attempting to fulfill his (somewhat vague) campaign promises to have greater inclusivity of different socio-racial categories within government and society. Ould Bilal hails from the Haratine, a socio-racial category of Arabic speakers who are defined as “black,” in contrast to the Arabic-speaking “whites” or Bidan. In Mauritania there are also “Afro-Mauritanians” from ethnicities such as the Wolof and Peul. At first glance, the new government looks relatively diverse, with several Haratine in prominent posts, several recognizably Afro-Mauritanian surnames, and several women. That kind of diversity, however, does not necessarily translate into a shakeup in terms of how power and race operate within the elite or within the society more broadly.

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.