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