To Obama on Mauritania

mauritania-frMauritania ranks low on the list of national priorities facing president-elect Obama. The world financial crisis, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Russia policy, and other priorities in the Middle East, the Balkans and elsewhere will assert themselves before the president hears anything about Nouakchott or Zouerate. Nevertheless, the time will come when he (or at least those under him) will have to consider the issue. A recent meeting in Washington, among members of the Mauritania scene in the US — former and current desk officers, USAID people, the ambassador, opposition members and the like — met and considered the Bush administration’s policy. The consensus was, from  talking to some of those in attendance, was that not much could or is going to change on the US side. Since Sidi Ould Sheikh Abdallahi has been released, amid protests (of suspicious instigation), and the French are now demanding that al-Waghef be released (and the Americans are curiously persisting in the demand that Abdallahi be restored to power), I will not go too far in depth in this post — I will reserve that for another time — and focus on a rough sketch of what I hope the President-elect and his team will keep in mind.

Firstly, it would be best not identify individuals with what really are institutional matters: Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi should not be a poster child for democracy in Mauritania. General Abdel Aziz is at once quite the dictator in the making and quite popular inside the country, and demonizing him will not reverse this. Instead, it is likely to make him more popular.  Rather than championing the deposed president, it would be wiser to [quietly] encourage domestic actors to push through constitutional and structural reforms that would isolate the military brass from political activity. For instance, campaign finance laws that limit the contributions military officers can give to individuals and parties, forcing military men to chose between politics and military life, and so on.

At the same time, the US has limited agency on the matter, and there is little to gain in establishing a vested interest in the country in the way some of the Europeans have. Following on this, the American policy should duly keep in mind that as it stands, with the EU or anybody else, the issue is not really about democracy. The French have a hand in the game and are using the EU’s weight to pursue its interests within the military and economic spheres (hence the drooling over Ely Vall and the loathing for Gen. Abdel Aziz). The French role will not change substantially even if it no longer holds the EU presidency. This is in part why the European policy has been so concerned the form of the country’s politics, as opposed to that actual content of its operations. Many of the problems with the EU approach have been not unlike those of the US with respect to erroneous efforts at “democracy promotion” — stressing elections and parliaments without regard to the institutional underpinnings that make these things viable. The interests of other EU countries, notably Spain, will become more apparent and open the door for more pragmatism, but not by much. The French are heavily invested in the country’s very personal politics and are unlikely to press for changes to a system that benefits them and their clients. It is best to try to quietly pursue structural reform with the interested Europeans, rather than loudly echoing calls for unlikely actions.

Secondly, recognize that there are real long term threats to stability in Mauritania that require long term solutions: the Islamist factor, AQIM, rampant poverty and underdevelopment in key infrastructure, etc. With the right working there are traditional societal elements that can manage these problems. For others more assistance is needed, especially as it pertains to border security and infrastructure. Place these issues in the wider context of both the Sahel and the Maghreb and the Arab world. The United States does not have to be directly involved in all of these issues, and it is involved in some of them to boot and these should continue. Poverty alleviation a major one. In another sense, the structural element already mentioned is an important component to the the long term well being of the country as well.

Something that was raised at the DC meeting last week was the context in which Americans look at Mauritania: Think of the country in an Afro-Arab context, with emphasis on the Arab component. Presently, African Affairs is responsible for dealing with Mauritania. While there is a good case to be made for this, the country fits into the Arab political fold in a way that it does not fit into the African one: Applause came from Cairo, Algiers, and Beirut following the 2007 elections, not Abidjan, Lagos, or Dar es-Salam. Further, Mauritanians, for the most part, don’t see their politics in the frame of Africa and operate according to mostly Arab political customs. This is not to say that Mauritania is not an African country or that it does not move within the African sphere — to use a popular model in North African thinking — but rather to simply say that Mauritania would likely be better served by Arabists or North Africanists than Africanists. (Such as they exist in the United States.) This will allow policy to be made with more focus and with the right contextual understanding. Of course, there has to be exchange with those working on the African side, but the locus of understanding needs to be in the North African sphere.

Along with general matters, the lower-level problems — especially slavery, the refugee problem, and the like — can be addressed as they have been, but with fewer illusions. The moves against slavery made under Abdallahi were important, but piecemeal and soft. While it is likely not possible for the United States to press the Mauritanians to change the way society deals with the “vestiges of slavery” (e.g. the way former slaves and their descendants are treated in marriage and employment situations), it can work to help the Mauritanians with legal frameworks by which abolition can be more firmly institutionalized. This is a tough issue on both sides: Recognition of the problem on the American side has been at best on and off and on the Mauritanian side the commitment towards change is tenuous. Abdel Aziz has raised the issue — along with a series of quality of life matters in electorally minded speeches over the last two months, in an attempt to appeal to the poor with whom he is quite popular — and there is no reason that should he become president, the United States should not pressure him to make good on his word with respect to slavery, or the other issues relating to the poor. Poking and prodding on the matter would likely help to move the situation along in the short and medium term, if it is consistent and does come off like badgering (especially given dynamics specific to this administration).

2 thoughts on “To Obama on Mauritania

  1. Great post Kal. Very courageous.

    But I do not agree with you when you suggest that the Obama administration should have an Arab and North African focus in dealing with the Mauritanian crisis and the junta. We want a Mauritania as a trait d’ union between Black Africa and White Africa. Mauritania is only one third Arab-Arab and the two-third Black-Black if you add the Haratin. So, the Haratin factor is very important and with time, I do not think that they will stay long with the White-White Mauritania if they do not have a say in the way the affairs are run. I also do not think that Messaoud Ould Boulkheir will agree with you on the focus you are proposing to the Obama administration. Today, it is Messaoud who can make or break Mauritanian politics, not the junta that is being condemned by the African Union (AU) and given until 5 February to pack or else. Moreover, there is no way for the UN Security Council not to condemn the junta again and make its own the decisions taken by the AU last night (freezing the issuance of visas to the junta and their supporters, freezing their accounts, etc..). You can imagine that from 6 February 2009, Aziz and his friends will not be able to go to Dqkqr, Algiers, Tunis or elsewhere to treat a tootache! The only place they can go to is Morocco thqt is not a member of the AU. The EU, the US and their allies have no other option but to follow suit with the AU decision on thqt matter. The coup in Guinea yesterday and the coup attempt in Guinea-Bissau give no option but to have the junta go and give back power to Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi until 2012. Doing othewise will be a bad precedent and next you will have failed states fall first into the hand of the military. In this connection, I see Niger, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Senegal, Algeria, Nigeria, among others, falling into the hands of the military.

    I fully agree with you on what you say about France: they don’t want to lose their pré-carré and will resort to anything to keep them relevant with the arrival of the Americans and the Russians in the region ( Putin is opening a military base in Libya and leading the creation of an OPEC Gas consortium and gas we have – that makes at least the US and Algeria very nervous as Putin and Gadhafi want to have some interest in the gas pipeline running from Nigeria through Niger to Algeria to supply Europe. That 4.300 km, $13 billion will not see completion without deal with these two as they can make the touaregs move against it as Ghadafi is financing now Ag Bahanga military venture in Mali and some say it is the Algerian behind it).

    Will come back later on this important topic.

    N.B: I think you should add Mali, Senegql, Niger and Chad into the focus of your excellent blog. Anything that is occuring in the Maghreb or in these countries have some direct implications on the whole Sahara-Sahel region. If we have Libya, Algeria et to some extend Morocco having a hand in the destabilization of some of these countries, you certainly understand that you need to keep a tab on these strange bedfellows until they decide to stop manipulating and killing innocents people as a collateral. Discussed briefly on this with Alle in Western Sahara Info and I promised to continue the debate on this particular topic.

    Cheers and à ce weekend. Happy festive season and New Year to all. Tidinit

  2. I’m not sure how pressing for reforms to limit the military’s role in politics is any more feasible than the US pressing for the return of Abdellahi. Most Adil/PNDD parliamentarians are quite beholden to the military establishment and worked actively to make life miserable for Abdellahi when he was in power. If the US were to do as you seem to suggest and stop pressing for the return of Abdellahi, then that would only create greater incentive for future putschists, who would believe that they could illegally overthrow democratically elected governments with impunity. The US’s persistence on this issue is actually a welcome change of pace. Plus, in terms of democracy promotion, I think you’re making a false choice between pushing for elections and parliaments vs. structural reforms. The US has pushed for both since 2005.

    But I do agree with the rest of the post, especially with the point about the US’ limited agency vis-a-vis the EU. In that article you linked to, Boulware seemed to emphasize how the US had cut off development aid, even though to the best of my knowledge the US is far from the largest donor to Mauritania. Other than that, there’s not much else the US can do–it has few real material interests in Mauritania that it can use to ply Aziz. In any case, Mauritania could compensate for the loss of aid from elsewhere (China?).

    Great blog, by the way! I came across it recently. Good to see an anglophone Maghreb watcher out there.

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