“AU troops bombard Mauritanian capital with bissab-tipped scud missiles”

Mauritania updates:

Sanctions are never fun.

Sanctions are never fun.


Domestically:  The 6 October deadline for ” the return to  constitutional order through the unconditional restoration of Mr. Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi, President of the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, in his functions” passes with an indignant shrug.

The political discussion is increasingly gravitating towards a scenario in which Abdallahi would be returned to office so that he can redact his decree sacking the military and resign soon thereafter. Taking his place as interim president for 45 days, constitutionally, would be Ba-M’bare, the head of the Senate, who would call for new elections. All of this would go on with HCE still in operation and no prosecution would take place either for them or for Abdallahi and his wife. The HCE members would even be allowed to keep their positions in the armed forces.

Even after the junta banned protests, the FNDD went ahead with one anyhow, netting about 50 people. (Abdallahi’s son, about 34, was arrested at the protest for driving a government vehicle on which he had changed the license plate.) It should be noted that the pro-restoration protests following the 2005 coup against Tayya numbered in the hundred — which should say something about Sidi Ould Sheikh Abdallahi.

In Nouakchott, it is being said that many Mauritanians are reacting to talk of sanctions by hoarding dollars and euros and preparing to move their cash overseas, if they’ve not started to already. In a cash economy where most things are paid for up front and in cash, this is not a good thing.


The Americans and Europeans have passed authority for the coup on to the AU. Algeria has taken the lead in pushing for a forceful, if unproductive, response. The Algerians are, as I have said before, using the Mauritania situation as ammunition against Morocco. At the same time, they may be using it as a diversion from their efforts in Sudan (they are working to get Bashir off the hook with the ICC/ICJ), which says something about the broader AU process. Bankrolled by Qaddafi and a country club for ineffectual bureaucrats and dictators, the AU comes with little authority to Mauritania. It is being used as a tool in Algeria’s rivalry with Morocco, and at least in part to obstruct the Sudanese process. The 6 October deadline is likely to go un-enforced. Mauritanians seem quite peeved by the African effort to reverse the coup, for reasons that will be mentioned later. In general, the attitude goes something like this: If the AU is so eager to put Sidi back in power, then take him and make him president of Somalia or any other country they like. Reinstatement is not a popular idea. As a Mauritanian put it, abdication of activity on African affairs to the AU is proof of laziness and hypocrisy on the part of the West (“Where was this concern for democracy when Tayya was beating and jailing us?” as one put it). Mauritanians wonder if their country’s political jumble is more important than Darfur or Somalia or Zimbabwe. In any event, the Moroccans seem to have recognized that they were out maneuvered by Algeria, and have quite diplomatically said that they are looking to find a way to meet the bare minimum of continental and world demands for Abdallahi’s return while still preserving the meat of the coup (i.e., they would like to see “appropriate conditions” before a return to constitutional order, after meeting with the FNDD).

The US has kept to the African line, and has embraced the idea of sanctions. The Americans have reduced “democracy in Mauritania” into a synonym with “Sidi ould Shekih Abdallahi” and their policy has succeeded in privileging this misconstruction over the facts of Mauritania’s politics and culture. The Americans ignore the means and extent to which Abdallahi’s political career was fabricated by the military. Abdel Aziz, Vall, Ghazouani and all the rest practically made this man president in after 2005. Before becoming president he had been a man begging leaders in the Brakna region because he had no natural political constituency, no political party, no charisma and no political vision to speak of. His party (Adil, for those who may have forgot, since it disintegrated rather quickly) was made up of former Tayya lackeys — kleptocrats, thieves, etc. — who had become “independent” MPs, and his ascendence and election engineered by the very military men that deposed him (he said as much on Aljazeera even before the coup). His party abandoned him when things got rough. And when he was left to decide whether  to call for new elections or to sack the military chiefs, he opted for the later.

This selective memory is part of a broader problem in which policy makers lack serious knowledge of Mauritanian politics and its context. As late as 2004, the West Africa desk chief for Mauritania was refusing to admit that slavery existed in the country and continued to do so up until the practice was criminalized in 2007 (this during meetings with anti-slavery activists no less!). The State Department seems to miss the backdrop of Mauritanian politics in a “who’s who” kind of way (from talking to people in the DoS and in Mauritania). Though the US has yet to provide anything resembling leadership on the Mauritanian file, its stance remains consistently rigid and misinformed nevertheless.

The EU, too, has shied away from leadership and has managed to irritate Mauritanians with its heavy handed and stiff approach. Talk of targeted sanctions is popular among all the primary external actors, and the major opposition parties (except for Spain, who opposes sanctions because it wants access to Mauritanian fisheries). This talk is dangerous. Mauritania has two primary institutions: the first being the military and the second being the state-owned iron ore company. Targeted sanctions on the wealthy praetorian class, or on the caste of oligarchs that bought up most of the privatized industries under Tayya (e.g., Abolallahi Ould Noueigigh, Abdallahi Ould Abdallahi, Sidina Ould Berrou, etc.) would paralyze the economy. Severe enough sanctions and stubbornness (on the military’s part) could destroy the country’s economic infrastructure, which would destroy the political structure. There are few places that Mauritania could fall back on in the event of sanctions. The tribal business networks (the Ideiboussat and Tajakanit ones in particular, who are very active in import-export transactions) would end up relocating and moving their money abroad, ceasing to bring goods into the country. These networks are the second tier of the economy and hold much of the country’s wealth. Targeting the super rich would have a terrible effect on the local economy. Phrases such as “they’re trying to starve us” or “we’re going to sink” frequently come up when talking to fearful Mauritanians. Ahmed Sidi Camels is quite happy to say “tiyer” at the mention of European sanctions, which he sees are being intended to starve, crumple and kill him. The Europeans are not prepared to deal with the consequences of sanctions, the flow of people, the power vacuum, the collapse of Mauritania and the prospect of two gaping holes on opposite sides of the geopolitical map of Africa.

Since no thinking person would desire a Saharan Somalia, one must hope that the Europeans are bluffing, at least in part. If they are not, the sanctions centered policy bodes to do more harm than good for all those concerned. The French compromise would somehow place Vall in the presidential palace, but feasibility of that is difficult (a typical line in Nouakchott is that he lied to every one of those million poets before he left office). This is the best idea France has come up with. Increasing one hears Mauritanians say that they created this pickle and that they can get themselves out of it, and that external efforts to solve the crisis may prolong it. That is highly debatable, especially if the half-way Moroccan plan mentioned above goes through and soon. But the alternatives to clear and workable internal compromise are bound to make the situation unworkable and most undesirable.


7 thoughts on ““AU troops bombard Mauritanian capital with bissab-tipped scud missiles”

  1. What makes you think that the sanctions will be so broad, targetting the business oligarchy etc, rather than just the travel bans and asset freezes on prominent HCE figures that the media is touting?

  2. The reason people insist on bringing Sidioca back is not that he is anyone’s favorite (except perhaps within the rump PNDD/Adil). The reason is that he was lawfully elected to serve. If Mauritania is ever going to become a functioning country, they need to get through at least one presidential mandate without a coup. Whatever other shady arrangements are made to create an internally acceptable compromise, there is a clear and serious political imperative for preserving constitutional order, on the face of things if not more.

    Had Abdellahi been a total disaster, broken the country into pieces, stolen the state currency reserve or started executing the opposition, then perhaps that would be another thing. But the fact of the matter is that he has not done those things. He has, nasty blemishes and all, been the best president Mauritania has ever had — which doesn’t say much, but it does say that his performance is not a good reason to allow a military coup. If anything he surpassed my rather low expectations of his performance in early 2007, with good policies on refugees, reconciliation, slavery, etc, and continued realism in economic and foreign affairs. I don’t think eg. ould Daddah would have been noticeably better, if better at all.

    In short, he’s the kind of half-assed president you don’t elect twice, but he’s not the kind of president you elect and then let a gang of military mafiosi depose. As long as there is a chance of totally overturning the coup, with the symbolic victory that entails, that should be policy towards Mauritania by any state interested in liberalization and growth in West Africa; when that seems impossible, then pragmatic compromise solutions are the only way out. But Sidioca’s own track record doesn’t even figure into the equation, and certainly not on the side of the junta. Having proponents of the HCE say that Sidioca was corrupt, authoritarian and impopular as an argument for letting Gen. Abdelaziz pick the next president is comedy.

    Anyway, personally, I think the targeted sanctions idea is great. Much of the Mauritanian elite can be bought for cash. There’s no need to clamp down on entire companies; visa rules and personal bank accounts should do the trick. Deciding that there will be no more shopping trips to Paris for Mauritanian parliamentarians’ wives if their husbands help prop up the junta will be a highly efficient way of pressuring this opportunistic segment of the coup’s supporters, without harming the population.

  3. Hello,
    This has to be brief, because I have to get to class, but I agree with your last paragraph, alle. I think tight, targeted sanctions make the most sense. I disagree with the idea that “he’s the kind of half-assed president you don’t elect twice, but he’s not the kind of president you elect and then let a gang of military mafiosi depose”. He’s the kind of president a gang military mofiosi put in power and then depose when he irritates them sufficiently. As for Sidi’s performance, I think it speaks for itself. He was not a good leader and he allowed himself to be overthrown. This isn’t to say that Abdel Aziz is any better (at all) or that Ould Daddah would have done especially better. But on the whole, he may have made some good decisions (and I agree with you on his foreign policy), but domestically and economically he cut the floor out from under himself and I think the fact that he was overthrown speaks to the strength of the process. He moved too gradually where he should have moved more forcefully but had no sufficient support base on which he could have based meaningful action. He was put in because he was weak and was taken out for the same reason. I’ve not been quoting any junta types or supporters; these are opposition people, journalists and business people.


    As for broad sanctions, I don’t think they’ll happen. They’re being discussed, though, and so are more aid cuts. That’s the fear that I’m addressing in the post (because that’s what people are talking about), and if it isn’t already clear I think they’re a God awful idea. Targeted sanctions are a good idea, though.

    I will post more after classes.

  4. hi.
    I agree with kal on the point that what we saw the last year and a half had been une démocratie de façade. I believe that albeit the sound process the last elections can by no means be called fair. Nevertheless I agree with alle that sidi still was the elected president and therefore it shouldn’t be accepted to lay him off just like that. But I’m still uncertain about the quality of Sidi as a president…

    First I don’t know whether the whole corruption thing is credible. No doubt, Sidi has surely hooked up his family members with some nice 4x4s, but to base the entire critique on that sounds a little unreal to me. I mean we are talking about Mauritania after all…

    Second, have there been any real accomplishments? From what I have heard he tackled the slavery issue as well as the remigration problem. perhaps in a rather symbolic matter but still. He also made some good moves domestically, e.g. when he said to abstain from one fourth of his salary due to the slow oil production. And I think the government subsidized gas when the prices rose. Plus I haven’t heard from any individual and press rights violations during that time. So what are the reasons for calling him a bad president.

    I mean obviously he wasn’t a good leader and surely he couldn’t deal with the complex power constellations that awaited him in the presidency. Yet apparently he wasn’t as weak as the generals (making them generals was actually one of the most stupid things he did) excepted him to be. And doens’t the coup look pretty dilettantish as well??

  5. I forgot. Imo sidi as well as the generals are missing out on two very central aspect: tackling the alimentary crisis and the water distribution. The bread you get for 100 ougiya is getting smaller and smaller and some ghettos of Nouakchott still have no reliable water supply. No one seems to address that problem and I think that this may be potentially leading to civil unrest and violence. and I don’t want to see mauritanian police men who can’t even deal with 50 demonstrators trying to cope with that kind of confrontation…

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