Where foxes ride camels

The proposal offered up by Messaoud Ould Boulkheir last week was significant. It signals a departure from the anti-coup opposition’s original position (the unconditional return of fmr. President Abdallahi), by calling for Abdallahi to return to office solely to oversee the return to constitutional order, with impunity for members of the HCE. The proposal was refused, with the junta seeking impunity with even broader authority over the post coup clean up.

Boulkheir is playing on at least two levels of operation here. The first is Boulkheir’s struggle to maintain his relevance as a political kingmaker and power broker. Following from this is his desire to position himself as the premier Hartani politician. He has realized that he cannot become the country’s president, but recognizes that he can be the country’s most apposite political actor and that drives his behavior.

The “Opposition”

This departure fits in line with Boulkheir’s previous behavior during the 2007 elections. Contrary to the opposition’s previously agreed arrangement in which whichever opposition candidate made it to the second round (i.e. Ould Daddah) would receive the backing of the all the other candidates. It was Boulkheir who put Abdallahi over the top in 2007. Boulkheir’s compensation for this revision was his seat at the head of Parliament, and, it is said by many, something on the order of 280 million MROs (± 1 million USD), perhaps gone through Moustapha Chafi (Qaddafi’s Africa liaison). His motivation emanated from his estimation that the potential for agency was greater with the military than with Ould Daddah, towards whom he is known to hold aversion. His current stance against the coup has to be understood in this context. He gains legitimacy by supporting the return of constitutional order, and by offering a more flexible position on the military’s status following the return to “constitutional order” he covers ground with the military bosses. The rest of the FNDD’s actors have similarly cynical motivations. 

The UFP and Tawassoul have common motives for opposing the coup. Mohamed Mustafa Ould Badreddine (mentioned here), the UFP’s vice president, explained the opposition’s poor showing in the 2007 elections rather clearly in May of that year. He offers two reasons, both of which he regards as having been beyond the opposition’s control. The first is that while the electoral process was democratic, the campaign was severely manipulated by the military who rallied “independents” out of dust in Abdallahi’s favor. “They fabricated them [the independents, who later became Adil] out of nothing.” This took votes away from opposition parties to the where they could not fairly compete. 

Secondly, he says that the opposition ran out of money, having spent most of its resources on local and municipal elections (which would be interesting to study on their own). This meant that opposition parties had to borrow money to finance their campaigns. The opposition’s organizational capacities were further hampered by the rise of the Independents, which he says caused “secessions within our party,” referring to the UFP specifically, but noting that these developments also affected Tawassoul along with the rest of the country’s parties. He concludes that the Independents would not have totally frustrated Ould Daddah’s run, had Boulkheir not switched sides in the second round. (This is something both Abdallahi and Abdel Aziz have plainly admitted.) When asked if the elections were transparent, he replies that:

In form it could be said that these were the best that were conducted in the country [. . .] but from a political perspective, it is quite obvious that this one had the same short coming that the other elections had [. . .] That is that power is used to interfere on behalf of one candidate over an other [. . .] In that fashion the military council has intervened [. . .] on behalf of Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi, and intervened until the end to ensure his success. From this perspective these elects were completely tainted, which makes it possible to dispute its authenticity.

This attitude persisted for a time. Tawassoul (the Muslim Brotherhood), whose platform had been based on opposition to Mauritania’s recognition of Israel, joined the second Abdallahi government (the first Waghef government), which included individuals who had been instrumental in establishing the Mauritanian-Israeli relationship. Their participation in this arrangement was prefaced with the understanding that there would be no change in Mauritania’s diplomatic ties with Israel. Tawassoul’s base became disillusioned with the party’s flouting of one of the party’s major principles. The party’s leadership lost much of the legitimacy it had gained by having avoided bandwagoning with Abdallahi in the presidential elections was squandered in part by this move.

The same occurred on the UFP’s side, when it joined the Abdallahi government, complete with the vestiges of Tayya and against its previous protestations and grumblings. Both sets had protested corruption as vigorously and sullied their reputation by joining up with a government packed with corrupt figures of the Tayya era. Assembling with one another to press the issue of democratic legitimacy (especially by calling for sanctions, which Tawassoul has not signed on to) gives these actors — a mishmash of Islamists, communists, Ould Tayya people, and otherrs — a chance to retake the high-ground, with their previous transgressions forgotten or forgiven. Such is the case with Ould Boulkheir as well, whose ambitions are rather larger.


In Nouakchott, the embassies now so concerned with democracy, who had gleefully backed the Ould Tayya regime, were well aware of the military’s manipulations in 2007. The Americans regard their Mauritania attitude as being in line with a cornerstone of their Africa policy — no coups (which the French also embrace strongly). Their commitment to the Abdallahi further emanates from short term priorities not especially germane to the Mauritanian predicament. In the United States, the “freedom agenda” dictates that Mauritania be used as a means of quietly salvaging bits of the Bush legacy on democracy promotion. In France, it serves as a means of showing that President Sarkozy is a democracy advocate in Africa, bucking historic trends, though there is little evidence that such protestations are really sincere (witness France’s dealings with Vall, and with whom it is friendly).

Spain, the dissenting European state when it comes to sanctions, has adopted a position which is informed by Spain’s need to have access to Mauritanian fisheries, and that sanctions could significantly damage their fishing fleet in the Canaries and the Atlantic. In addition, the Spanish fear that, should sanctions be sufficiently damaging, their shores would receive large deposits of refugees and illegal immigrants via Mauritania. Sources who have had access to those in the junta’s orbit say that General Abdel Aziz and his cohorts are aware of this possibility and are not wholly averse to using these potential boat people as a means of pressuring the Europeans out of sanctions. The EU’s common immigration policy is put under stress from this, because Spain bears the brunt of illegal immigration flows from Africa, and has opted for its own policy (e.g. the 2005 amnesty, and their somewhat distinct North Africa policy), much to the irritation of France. As sanctions gear up, it appears that the Spanish will be the main extra-continental loser from the coup.


7 thoughts on “Where foxes ride camels

  1. great article. although I imagine boulkheir to be a little more idealistic. he is known for his fight against slavery after all. but I wanna take up the part where you try to reconstruct alliances during the elections and the building of abdallahi’s second government. This has been spinning around my head the last couple of days:

    As you pointed it out, the elections are pretty straight forward to interpret. You’re not going to have fair elections or lets say equal opportunities with a junta in power during the elections. Abdallahi was not any more charismatic back then than he is now and his influence was very limited (what’s his tribe btw??). Plus you need a lot of money to win elections in Mauritania. It’s a huge country and let’s face it the rural population is not going to vote for idealistic reasons (if anyone is). Instead of one person one vote it is one bag of rice one vote (plus some ouguiyas).

    So while that is pretty easy to interpret (although the donors like to cover their eyes), I don’t understand sidi’s move to build a new government. Off course he was trying to strengthen his position. But why Waghef? He was loyal to him, but why? Any family ties? And why SO MANY Taya people in his government? And why the ufp and tawassoul? That’s what I don’t get…

    And one comment on spain. Although instability would cause them more immigration problems, it would probably further delay the construction of the nouadibou port which they try so hard to impede.

  2. @ Hannes, why do you think the Spanish are trying to impede the building of Nouadibou port? It is actually in their interest… And in any case, they can’t really do much about it. The major players (and funders) are not the Spanish in this business, though Dragados is considered a regional level player.

  3. @Alphast

    1. Tell me more about Dragados, if you can, please. Never even heard about that.
    2. The way I understood it is that although Spain is very, very, very much interested in fishing on on the Mauritanian costs, it does not want NDB to become a major fishing port (you I mean the big fishing fleets and stuff). About 40.000 jobs in Spain depend on fishing and more importantly processing mauritanian fish. So if the port in NDB would be made deeper, more accessible and so on, that wouldn’t be good for Spanish workers, would it? But perhaps I’m getting something wrong, and I will definitely check with someone that knows more about that.

  4. OK, I thought you were talking about the container port, not the fishing one. My misstake.

    For fishing, I guess that you are right. Western companies and particularly Spanish are overfishing along the Mauritanian coast (with the complicity of corrupt Mauritanian officials who give them the fishing rights). The interest of the Mauritanians would be to keep all fishing rights for themselves and ban all Western ships away. Even then, overfishing is a major problem in the area and I am not sure a better port is the answer. Though anything which would improve the management of the halieutic resource is good, I suppose.

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