Messaoud Boulkheir: the real Obama story?

If the campaign for the 18 July elections in Mauritania were an American movie, Messoud Boulkheir would be portrayed by Morgan Freeman. But the movie would be somewhat of a departure for Freeman: its ending would evoke cynicism more than hope.

Messoud Boulkheir started his campaign this week with three gaffes that are likely to hurt his standing. In the first place he started by settling scores with Morocco, an early support of the 6 August coup of which Boulkheir has been a staunch opponent for nearly a year. Speaking to supporters, he said the Saharoui people deserve “self-determination,” a position popular in Mauritania where many feel tribal and cultural solidarity with those under Moroccan occupation. This sign post will likely drive the Moroccans closer to General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, ever paranoid about the legality and international credibility of their claim to the disputed Western Sahara.

In the second place he broke out into tears in public while addressing supporters in Atar. A teary eyed man is scarcely considered a man at all in Moorish culture; as a Haratine the same rule applies to Boulkheir. The former can be construed as it was meant to be: a jab at Ould Abdel Aziz, who matriculated in a Moroccan military academy and whom the Moroccans are thought to favor, as well as pay back for Boulkheir’s visit to Morocco last year when he and other representatives were slighted. The latter is more a more straightforward gaucherie: when it is forgotten it will be for the better.

There was a third. Boulkheir was confronted by reporters at the ceremonies around the opposition pact, signed between only two of the three big opposition parties (Jamil Mansour, the Tawassoul candidate held out, waiting for something bigger, perhaps). When the reporter reminded Boulkheir that he had signed a similar pact during the last presidential elections, which he broke, Boulkheir shot back harshly: “I consider that a provocation, and if you come any further with that I’ll beat you.”

There is nothing in any of these instances that cut him out of the race. Boulkheir’s personal story is as remarkable, if not more so, than Barack Obama’s. Here is a man, a descendant of slaves in a country where slavery was criminalized within the last decade, who has risen not only to be a leader in the anti-slavery movement in his country, but the head of his own party, the parliament and now a serious contender for president. The boundaries that Boulkheir has overcome in Mauritania are and have been incredible. He is said to behave like a standard Moorish lord, playing the same game as the bidane chiefs that make up the Mauritanian Arab ruling class. Some Mauritanians like to say that were their tribe of Haratine — Arabophone Mauritanians descended from black slaves — Boulkheir would be their chief. Because there is no economic or political center of gravity among the Haratine, who are dispersed throughout the country and who “belong” to the various “white” Moorish tribes (part of the legacy of slavery in Mauritania). This has meant that Boulkheir has come to be a Mauritanian leader like few others; a truly bottom up story in a social and ethnic circumstance that actively conspires against such phenomena.

His speeches have called on citizens to defend Mauritanian democracy, continuing his line of attack against Abdel Aziz as a usurper — who would like the campaign to be one of those in favor of “reform” and “corruptors” (بين مصلحين ومفسدين) — and imploring Mauritanians to change through his campaign which he describes as “historic and transformative“. He has declared himself the candidate of all Mauritanians, noble Moors and Haratine alike. His campaign and his position hold a symbolism pretenders can only hope for.

A Mauritanian recounted the reasons he has come to support Boulkheir thusly: before a few years ago, this Mauritanian, a white Moor, thought of Boulkheir as an activist sort, looking out for the Haratine alone. But steadily, he saw that Boulkheir had expanded his range of issues to the bread and butter as well as issues generally related to social justice. He was impressed to learn that when Boulkheir, as head of parliament visited Paris, he was confronted by French parliamentarians and ministers on the status of Afro-Mauritanians, and after discussing the trouble he reminded his French hosts: I am aware that you in France have several million blacks, and I do not see one of them here, why is this? Upon reading this news this Mauritanian was “convinced that he is nothing but a patriot”. There are some Mauritanians in explaining how they have come round to support Boulkheir, resemble some Obama supporters: “I am proud now to say I can vote for a Hartani,” is not terribly unlike what many white American voters said in the weeks and months before the American last November. Of course the comparisons are limited; President Obama is not the descendant of slaves, and he does not live in a society where the active practice of slavery in within living memory for most people. And Messoud Boulkheir does not have a David Axelrod; and he doesn’t need one.

In the 2007 elections, Boulkheir was the kingmaker. At the last minute, having signed a pact with Ould Daddah — not unlike the one signed earlier this week — he changed sides to support Sidi Ould Sheikh Abdellahi. This put him in line to split the opposition for Abdellahi and securing him the top spot in parliament. His logic proceeded from a primary assumption that his chances of picking up a better position in any other arrangement were slim; there is a known aversion between Boulkheir and Ould Daddah to start, and he likely feared that Ould Daddah would not so generous as the military would be with Abdellahi as their puppet. As tensions between Abdellahi and his military backers rose, culminating in the 6 August coup, Boulkheir was well placed to stand as an opponent of the junta from what was left as one, of if not the, most legitimate political perches in the country. As Speaker of Parliament during the coup, Boulkheir became the leader of opposition, earning both moral authority and holding legal legitimacy. In this way it may be said that Messoud Boulkheir has been one of the primary beneficiaries of the coup.

Boulkheir has gained increasing support within the Mauritanian elite. In this sense there is little beyond politics driving those bankrolling his campaign. One will find in Boulkheir’s pockets — as he will in Ahmed Ould Daddah’s, Ely Vall’s and even more so in Ould Abdel Aziz’s pockets — the money of some of Mauritania’s most corrupt figures. But as much is to be expected. His support during the campaign is unlikely to continue onwards after the election, as his support structure is not long term: many of his supporters are new, and many of the most influencial of them are in it for their own gain and not principle. There are divisions among his supporters, which is made of a coalition of opposition parties and personalities, at the highest levels, some of their ranks supporting Ould Daddah or other candidates. In the second round, it will be two of three: Ould Abdel Aziz, Ould Daddah or Boulkheir.

Messoud Boulkheir is not a poor man’s Barack Obama; indeed, the converse is true. The difference in Mauritania is that one can safely say that Boulkheir will not win the 18 July election. There will not be a neat and happy resolution to this saga, with the grand underdog marching triumphantly towards a just destiny. The political playing field in Mauritania is not level. While social and political mobility is certainly possible (and Boulkheir is not the first fellow with a profile like this), it is limited tremendously by disparities in wealth, tribal politics and the power of the military. Despite what may appear to be a set back for General Ould Abdel Aziz and his cadres — notably the growing fissure as a result of Ely Vall‘s candidacy — it remains too true in Mauritania that who controls the garrisons controls the capital.

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