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.

Notes on Yesterday’s G5 Security Summit in Nouakchott, Mauritania

Yesterday, 30 June, Sahelian heads of state, French President Emmanuel Macron, other top European leaders, and representatives of numerous multilateral bodies met in Nouakchott, Mauritania for a summit on Sahelian security. According to Macron’s agenda for the day, the event consisted of a working lunch for heads of state, followed by a larger meeting and then a joint press conference. The Elysée (French presidency) does not appear to keep permanent links for each separate day, so I am posting a screen shot:

Another version of the agenda, which differs just slightly from the times listed by the Elysée, was published by the Mauritanian outlet Mauri Actu and can be found here. That version gives a sense of the other participants in the event.

The Nouakchott summit is the sequel to one held at Macron’s invitation in Pau, France in January 2020. You can read the transcription of the joint press conference from that event in French here, and the New York Times‘ (appropriately critical) coverage is here. The Nouakchott summit also follows the 25 February G5 Sahel summit in Nouakchott as well as the recent virtual launch, on 16 June, of the French-backed Coalition for the Sahel. Nouakchott has been the site of several key meetings this year because Mauritania currently holds the rotating presidency of the G5 Sahel, a political (and now military-political) coordinating body for Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad.

In the lead-up to yesterday’s summit, a theme in Western press coverage was the suggestion that France is “gaining” militarily in the Sahel while the Sahelian governments are dysfunctional. I disagree with that framing, but let’s unpack it a bit first.

Here is AFP:

France is increasingly optimistic about the effectiveness of its anti-jihadist campaign in the Sahel, but experts caution that short-term successes will not by themselves bring lasting victory…

The governments of these countries, among the poorest in the world, are struggling to reinvest in the newly-retaken territories and win hearts and minds.

And here is Reuters, whose article is even more explicit that the assessment of “France is winning, Sahel governments are flailing” comes ultimately from the French government:

Mali and Burkina Faso must guarantee at a summit this week that their domestic political problems do not reverse fragile military successes against Islamist militants in the Sahel region, a French presidential source said on Monday.

“Domestic political problems” seems to mean the protests against President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta in Mali and the upcoming elections in Burkina Faso, or perhaps the phrase is also a veiled reference to widely reported security force abuses in those countries (and in Niger).

Clearly there is domestic turmoil in Mali and Burkina Faso – but I am uncomfortable with the framing that effectively says “African dysfunction is undercutting French accomplishments.” For one thing, I’m not sure what France’s “fragile military successes” really consist of, beyond the killing of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)’s emir Abdelmalek Droukdel on June 3. Aside from the killing of Droukdel, most of what I’ve seen recently from France’s Operation Barkhane reads to me as the same kind of operations it has been conducting for years, and any gains in one area inevitably seem to be paralleled by a degradation in another area. The press coverage of this summit is replete with references to French/Sahelian gains made in the tri-border zone (Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso), but the references are quite vague once you scrutinize them. Meanwhile, the events and reports coming out of the Sahel’s conflict zones seem quite grim to me – blockaded towns in northern Burkina Faso, villages under jihadist sway in the east, Mali’s premier opposition leader in presumed jihadist captivity for over three months, etc. Those are bad signs, and they don’t seem to indicate that the French and Sahelian militaries are on a path toward victory.

And then, to return to critiquing the framing of “French prowess, African dysfunction,” there is the fact that France is not merely a military actor in the Sahel but is, first and foremost, a political actor in its former colonies – and a military intervention is itself a political act, I might add. France appears most comfortable working, when possible, with strongmen; failing that, France leans on a particular type of technocratic, Francophone professional politician in its former colonies. I don’t think that French authorities hand-pick the candidates to run in Sahelian elections. But is it an accident that the heads of state so often look exactly what you would imagine the Elysée would dream up – an economist or banker turned lifelong politician, perhaps still a “socialist” according to their party’s name but generally neoliberal in economic policy and deferential to France and Europe when it comes to international relations? And then you add to that the optic of Macron basically publicly treating the current Sahelian heads of state as his subordinates and clients, and ultimately what you have is an extremely top-down and narrow conception of political authority in the region. Is it a surprise that such a system has proven brittle and fragile, especially amid a widening conflict? How the Sahel can move forward politically is an enormously complicated question and I do not have the answer, but I suspect that the answer does not begin with Macron instructing his counterparts to get their shit together.

</mini rant>

Turning to the substance of the summit, here are a few resources:

  • Here is the final joint communiqué. Honestly, very little stood out to me from the document, which mostly read to me as a restatement of the principles of the Coalition for the Sahel (counterterrorism, enhancing military capacity, “the return of the state,” and development) and a restatement of what was discussed at Pau. There are references in this latest communiqué to not tolerating human rights abuses, a major topic of discussion recently, and the Sahelien heads of state called for (even) more international security contributions, but otherwise I thought the document was bland.
  • Here is the video and transcript of Macron’s remarks on his arrival at the summit. His primary theme was “solidarity” in the face of COVID-19 and terrorism. A secondary theme was the “return of the state,” especially in parts of Mali and Burkina Faso. The “return of the state” is, again, one of four pillars of the Coalition for the Sahel.
  • Twitter posts from Sahelian heads of state, regarding their respective participation in the summit, can be found at the following links: Mohamed Ould Ghazouani of Mauritania; Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta of Mali; Roch Kaboré of Burkina Faso; Mahamadou Issoufou of Niger; Idriss Deby of Chad.
  • RFI’s readout of the summit, which notes the positive and optimistic tone that the heads of state struck.

Speaking of international security engagements, the next development on the horizon there is the anticipated deployment of the French-created Takuba Task Force. At Clingendael, Anna Schmauder, Zoë Gorman, and Flore Berger have written an excellent explainer about the force.

Ould Ghazouani posted a striking photo of the six heads of state; I leave you with that:

 

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.”

Mauritania: An Ould Ghazouani Presidency?

In Mauritania, what looked for a long time like a strong probability, if not certainty – a third term for President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz – now looks less and less likely. The next elections are expected to fall between April and June of this year, and Ould Abdel Aziz has publicly called on his supporters to cease efforts to modify the constitution. Even more tellingly, Ould Abdel Aziz has now publicly expressed support for current Defense Minister and long-time right-hand man Mohamed Ould Ghazouani as a successor and as candidate for the ruling Union for the Republic (UPR) party. Even last fall, it should be noted, some journalists were reading Ould Ghazouani’s appointment as Defense Minister as a sign that he was next in line for the presidency.

Geoff Porter has more on the recent developments and what comes next:

There will certainly be some opposition activity (which in sporadic instances may provoke a repressive response from the state, including disruption of Islamist activities and harassment of Mauritania’s human rights organizations), but ultimately, the UPR machine has a lock on electoral politics in Mauritania and “President El Ghazouani” is nearly a sure thing. With last week’s announcement and today’s tweet [from UPR head Sidi Mohamed Ould Maham], the elite will begin to rally round El Ghazouani. There was already a steady stream of late model cars outside El Ghazouani’s Nouakchott villa last week and visitors were stacked up in the waiting area outside his Ministry of Defense office. This will likely intensify in the weeks and months to come.

I would add that an Ould Ghazouani presidency would represent continuity not just with the administration of Ould Abdel Aziz, but with trends in Mauritanian politics dating back to the beginning of military rule in Mauritania in 1978. At that time, of course, Ould Abdel Aziz and Ould Ghazouani were just starting their careers, and they reportedly met in 1980 at the military training academy in Meknes, Morocco. Their rise through the ranks coincided with the reign of military dictator Maaouya Ould Sid’Ahmed al-Taya (1984-2005); ironically, however, they (and the late Ely Vall) became the key movers in overthrowing Ould al-Taya in order to preserve the system while shedding its increasingly erratic top man. They then staged another coup in 2008, following a short-lived experiment with a civilian president, and installed Ould Abdel Aziz. He then removed his uniform and ran as a civilian in 2009, and again in 2014, which brings us more or less up to the present. Ould Ghazouani has been a key figure in all these events, and it was Ould Ghazouani who acted as de facto president in 2012 while Ould Abdel Aziz was recuperating after being shot.

Ould Ghazouani’s biography and career are less well known, I would say, than one might expect for a figure of his stature. Most sources say that he hails from Assaba, southern Mauritania, from the Ideiboussat tribe. I don’t want to go too deep on “tribal” analysis, but for context the Ideiboussat is a zwaya or clerical tribe from among the “White Moors” (Bidan), who are at the top of Mauritania’s socio-racial hierarchy. Being from a clerical tribe does not make one a cleric, of course. For what it’s worth, Ould Abdel Aziz is from a tribe called the Awlad/Oulad Bou Sbaa (described in some sources as a zwaya tribe as well, though other sources call it a Hassan/warrior tribe), and he comes from Akjoujt. So one could say that in terms of tribes, there is some sort of basic continuity in terms of a White Moor succeeding another White Moor, but not in terms of the specific tribe. So one question will be how an Ould Ghazouani presidency would affect the business networks surrounding the current president, who is sometimes said to favor the Oulad Bou Sbaa for key positions and contracts.

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.