Mauritania: “Business as usual,” the business of failure

“It’s a new hour in our history,” Chavez said today. “We have many great leaders, many of them here today.”

Chavez, Qaddafi Seek Africa-South America NATO, Bank,” Bloomberg, 27 September, 2009.

Yesterday, the Venezuelan president hosted a pow-wow of African and Latin American leaders, dressing themselves in the language of South-South cooperation, Third Worldism and all the rest of what today’s dictators and despots use to form perversions of what were once “progressive” ideologies. Mauritania was in attendance, its delegation said to include among others Sid Ahmed Ould Taya, the former president that sitting Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz deposed in 2005 — a mistake on the part of the Venezuelans, showing the depth of their solidarity with Mauritania and Mauritania’s own marginality even among the most pointlessly rebellious of marginal states. Mauritania’s participation in the summit, which Ould Abdel Aziz’s government hoped to hold up a success, came after Venezuela’s Chavez announced plans to build an oil refinery in Mauritania. Things are not quite so sunny, though.

The Mauritanians themselves had little time or appetite for celebration, being submerged and without power, sometimes for days on end, and this even in elite Tavregh Zeina. Ould Abdel Aziz, who spend some two weeks on holiday — with his wife, her familial entourage and personal fortune teller, who spent €17,000 a day — while torrential rains battered the West African coastline, hitting Mauritania especially hard, has sought assistance from his wealthier Arab brethren. Libya, long supportive of Ould Abdel Aziz’s coup, has offered assistance on the sidelines of the Afro-Latin Summit. His big hope, though, was to secure monies from Saudi Arabia to ameliorate the humanitarian effects of this autumn’s floods. The Saudi monarch refused to meet with him, though, limiting cooperation between the two countries to their ministers of petrol and energy. Were he able to have secured a meeting and massive funds from the Saudis, his foreign policy til now might be called successful on the Arab front. As he was not, it must be said that his policy of tying his regime to the patronage of three or four countries in particular — Libya, Iran, Venezuela and to a lesser degree Qatar — has alienated him from the “mainstream” Arab fold, the rich and pro-Western Arab core now identifying Ould Abdel Aziz as a part of the “Iran-axis,” in the same bunch as Syria. The first foreign dignitary to visit Mauritania after the questionable July elections was Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, not his first visit to the country since the 2008 coup. Ould Abdel Aziz drove his Palestine policy to mirror that of the most radical states during the Gaza crisis last year, to the irritation of the Saudis, Egyptians and others. He will have to work hard to convince the conservative Arab states that he is not the hungry puppet of Qadhafi or Ahmadinejad or some other combination of hostile actors. Perhaps the chatter that Mauritania, with some other Arab states, plans to restore some of its ties with Israel will influence the sentiments of the moderate Arabs and the West.

But in the broader sense, his policy has not been a complete failure. The Western powers did not raise significant protest to his election, despite the many irregularities and outrages that allowed Ould Abdel Aziz’s victory. He refused to contemplate the formation of unity government. He proceeded to enact some of the crudest forms of cronyism to the detriment of the country’s economy and quality of life. He dropped the ball on the terrorist problem, showing all the signs of laziness and incompetence in leadership of a man unfit to handle that task, though one might excuse this given his short time in office. As of late he has shown callousness and ineptitude in handling the misery inflicted on the country by the seasonal rains. The era of Ould Abdel Aziz has led Mauritania to the greatest degree of economic decline in the Arab world, over the last year.

It would seem that Ould Abdel Aziz has been rewarded, rather than reprimanded by international, especially Western, actors for his government’s incompetence and exclusiveness. NATO announced last week that it would resume cooperation with Mauritania, through the Mediterranean Dialogue fora, citing “the political process opened in the country by the presidential elections”. Few outside the government would speak of an open political process, and the sharpest would reference the massive corruption, so rampant that even organizations assisting in combating AIDS in the country have seen it necessary to suspend their activities on account of embezzlement, that citizens are on edge because of “anti-fraud” squads that roam about the capital, entering homes, tampering with the electricity counters, only to return days later to fine the same residents for “tampering” with their controls, whilst extracting massive bribes. The opposition remains of the opinion that the General’s government is an illegitimate one, having neither been invited into it or having sought membership in it. Allegations of torture, nothing new in Mauritania or anywhere else near it, recently surfaced in a big way. Here is rule with impunity. Rich men who supported the General’s ascent have been rewarded with access to the country’s economy, those who did not are being pushed out for their politics, not their competence. As was stated as the power outages began: the government forced the state energy company to provide excessive amounts of electricity to a cement factory owned by Mohamed Bouamatou, who bankrolled Ould Abdel Aziz’s election campaign — after being told on multiple occasions what the results were likely to be. It is no wonder Mr. Ould Abdel Aziz, whom Mauritanians nowadays call Aziz al-Dhalma (Aziz of Darkness عزيز الظلمة), finds fit to question the “theory of the market economy” of late. And surely it is understandable that he would mark a dreary Eid el-Fitr by remarking on a “moral crisis” in his country. But in what sense can one speak of “progress,” in this new Mauritania?

“Political progress,” is a confusing idiom, given the reality of Ould Abdel Aziz’s Mauritania. Perhaps this refers to the cessation of protests against the election results, though Western governments rather happily ignored the complaints of members of the electoral commission. Does it reference, perhaps, the appointment of Naha Mint Hamdi Ould Mouknass as Foreign Minister? No serious observer would take this a sign of “political progress” in a country where parties and initiatives are rarely taken on ideological initiative, but more on considerations of clan and economic interests. Perhaps it refers to his efforts against al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Ould Abdel Aziz has not proven to be especially zealous or cunning in combating this menace, as light or heavy it may be. It would be, given his record, quite foolhardy to rely on Ould Abdel Aziz to fight this group; his expertise lies in beach surveillance and election fraud more than counter terrorism. After August’s suicide bombing, it seems that Western countries have increasingly grown frightful of terrorism in the country, pulling out the Peace Corps and bringing home their expatriates. As has been pointed out on this blog before, Ould Abdel Aziz has limited commitment to fighting AQIM seriously, beyond the prospect of whatever monetary benefits he can reap from the patronage of wealthy states. Recently, the Mauritanian army captured a set of men connected to AQIM on the northern border. For this they deserve congratulations, but the troubles still persist and roam. (Taqadoumy‘s recent reports on shuffles in the Mauritanian military are worth checking out.)

Western states seem to be weary of trusting local leaders in the Sahel/lower Maghreb to fight the group on the ground, seemingly pushing for a more hands on approach with a greater degree of Western control. In the case of the bigger, stronger states like Algeria or Libya, this is misguided. In the case of a weak, pot-belly poor state like Mauritania, this is precisely the proper instinct, for the current leadership lacks the capacity, in character and in material, to do so on its own. In such a circumstance, the Mauritanian people and their traditional values (though satellite networks and communication with the Arabo-Muslim metropole are changing this in important ways) are a better resource against the spread of AQIM and its ideology than the widely disliked and broadly incompetent government currently in Nouakchott. But that is, clearly, not enough. Thus, there is perhaps a belief among some Western leaderships that Ould Abdel Aziz is too foolish (andunlucky“) to be left on his own, that if let to his own devices he will continue to court radical actors, neglect his country’s infrastructure and his people, and that the country will fall into disrepair. He may be, as it were, too incompetent to ignore. While the reality might not be so dramatic, it is surely the case that he appears to be without any intention of providing what anybody besides himself would consider “good governance”. Even if he did, and he were simply unaware of how to go about providing it, it is said by many Mauritanians who have been in his vicinity that he bucks no dissent or creativity in his presence. Those who question his reasoning or decisions are thoroughly admonished and sent to the corner. A despot in private as in public.

Left out of Western talk on Mauritania seems to be that it is rapidly becoming a shell of what it was even half a decade ago. Symbolic of this is the failure of the national radio broadcaster. Established in 1958, it acted as a point of national pride for Mauritanians, broadcasting in Hassaniyah and bringing a shared national consciousness to far flung areas of the country otherwise under the sway of Moroccan and Malian Hassaniyah broadcasts. Mauritanians all over the country knew and swore by its broadcasts. This institution functioned through the disastrous Sahara War, the coup seasons of the early 1980’s and middle 2000’s. Due to the power outages, it now fails to reach precisely the rural audiences it was meant to serve, leaving them once again, as they were in the 1950’s, listening to Malian and Moroccan stations — or fuzz.

While Mauritania’s problems, especially AQIM and its development struggle, require military and economic assistance, anyone offering this, especially Western states, should make sure that not a dime is unaccounted for. Assistance with standards — accountability — rigorous and clear ought to be the rule of thumb. Business as usual in Mauritania carries the potential of consequences too grave for outright expression. Ironic it is that a Mauritanian, Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, handles the chaos for the United Nations. Should things carry on as they have since 2005, Mauritania may need its own Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah.

Most interesting is that members of the opposition, both second and third place presidential candidates, Ahmed Ould Daddah and Messaoud Boulkheir have made their way to visit the devastated southern regions, making the public showings and indigenous relief efforts one would assume an incumbent government were responsible for.

More important, perhaps, is that Mauritanians are generally less impressed by a female Foreign Minister than Westerners and Middle Eastern Arabs. Mauritanian women, in general, exercise considerable influence on the instruments of power, both in the home and the village, as well as members of parliament and many, in the opposition and the street look at Westerners’ fascination with her appointment as a dunce’s distraction.

Update: The men captured on the border with Mali were not connect to AQIM, according to the Malian government, except that they “practice the Muslim religion and have Arabo-Berber appearances,” according to Taqadoumy.

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8 thoughts on “Mauritania: “Business as usual,” the business of failure

  1. It sounds like Abdelaziz wants support from everyone – conservative Arab regimes, NATO and the west, Libya, Iran, Venezuela etc. But given the trade-offs you describe, such as getting the cold shoulder from Saudi Arabia because they dislike Abdelaziz’s associations with the “Iran axis,” why do you think he has chosen that path, instead of pursuing approaches that might please the Saudis and others better? Is it simply that Abdelaziz can get more aid and political support from Chavez and Ahmadinejad?

  2. @Alex,
    I’ve written on this subject before, but it’s mostly because during the period after the coup, the Junta was shunned by the important Western countries, Algeria, and their allies in Africa and the Arab world. As a result they looked to the countries that might benefit from what (little bit) Mauritania had to offer. These were Morocco (initially), Libya, and after the Gaza bombardment began, Qatar and Iran. Thus we saw the Mauritanians at the Qatari Arab Summit and them not long after cutting their Israel ties, in exchange for aid from Iran, Libya and Qatar. They wanted to use Mauritania as a way of embarrassing Egypt and Jordan (and the “moderates” all together), as if to say: “even Mauritania is tough enough to cut its Israel ties at a time like now,” and thus expose the “moderate” Arabs dependence and subservience to the West. Aziz did it for domestic purposes, which I have written about before (if you search the archives you should be two or three posts dealing with the subject). Ultimately, they overplayed their hand but Aziz got what he wanted on all fronts. He was also trying to pressure Western states to take a softer line by saying that he would go so far as to cut the Israel ties and join up with the radical bloc if they didn’t bend on sanctions or the suspension of aid (a kind of “Mad Man” policy). As per Venezuela it is entirely about money for Aziz, the Venezuelans looking for any possible way to increase their prestige, credibility and ego in terms of their neo-third worldist project. Ideally, Aziz would like to get as much money from anybody he possibly can, as the state is doing something like running on empty. The Mauritanians (as in Aziz) “owe” the Iranians, Libyans, etc. something after their support over the last year as well. So we’re looking at a good deal of reciprocity, I think.

    • Thanks for the response, Kal, and I’ll look for those older posts. Regarding Venezuela, how far do you think the partnership will go? I know there are plans to build a refinery, but do you think Mauritania will prove a major political ally for Chavez on the continent? It still sounds to me like Abdelaziz is attempting to juggle a lot of pins – I guess I am wondering whether all these friendships and pressures will become too difficult to balance at some point.

  3. Thanks kal for this article,
    analysing Aziz`s policies just make things more complicated, and most of all lead us to the political nonsens.
    what I mean, is that Aziz do not poses any knowledge of either foreign policy or domestic affairs! consequently all acts on all sides are simply random at the time that seriuosness, and ability of strategic planing should be paramount.
    when we talk about mauritania`s current state!! and alies or supporters….we will just find a graveyard and remains of a big misstake that any foriengn country should be responsible for!!
    Aziz is simply trying to get some money from where ever source possible or accessible to him no matter what is the political price for that.
    is he thinking today that his mix of conservative or moderate countries would affect his future bound to this different parts?? ofcorese not!!
    look how things are managed in Mauritania today!! is there any logic for how the political arena is being formed? from what I see, we are far from the creation of a national consensus, especialy one that would be initiated or suggested by Aziz.
    This guy will continue abusing all sources and resources, and mixing up everything without any thoughtfull acting manners, till he hits the dead end.
    alot is on stake….let us see how Aziz will wether the storm on the national level, and how he will bring foreing support to get out of the national crises he created..
    no country is fool enough to invest in a political desert, where population is flooded by water and submerged by its own state.
    Please see Daddis..the “Guinean Aziz” today 80 people dead……no one wants him…Aziz will soon face the same outcome….

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