A High Stakes Struggle: the Crescent, the Horse and the Tank

Ahmed Ould Daddah, head of the RFD and historic leader of Mauritania’s opposition, has run in practically every Mauritanian presidential election since 1991. His brother, Mokhtar Ould Daddah, was Mauritania’s single party president, was deposed in a military coup in the midst of the bungled war in the Western Sahara in 1979, having taken office at independence in 1960. Ahmed Ould Daddah had dedicated himself to opposing military coups and military governments before the 6 August coup last year. He was at the forefront of organized opposition to the dictatorship of Maaouiya Ould Taya, and stood against in elections many believe he would have (or did) won had he not been hampered by gratuitous  fraud. Ould Taya’s wealthy Smasside tribe used its fortunes to subvert and frustrate Ould Daddah’s presidential ambitions: it is popularly believed that Ould Daddah won the 1992 elections, but that the regime falsified the results beyond the voters’ recognition. In 2007, Ould Daddah came in second place to Sidi Ould Sheikh Abdellahi, winning the capital, Nouakchott, and most of the bigger towns but losing in the bulk of the scarcely populated regions in the eastern interior. His soft-spoken manner and thoughtful demeanor put him in contrast with some of his opponents’ more aggressive and boisterous personalities.

Ould Daddah supporters say that this time Ould Daddah will be able to overcome the tribal obstacles that hindered victory in 2007, largely due to the unpopularity of his chief opponent, General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz. This time round, he enjoys the patronage of the same wealthy tribe that put all its efforts towards his downfall for some fifteen years — the Smasside. The leaders of multiple tribes have registered their fear of Ould Abdel Aziz’s potential for despotism, as well. Smasside leaders called Ould Daddah to a meeting weeks ago, telling him, in words paraphrased by close advisers: “All the resources, all the money that we used to resist and undermine you for all these years, is yours against Aziz.”

The result has been a massive network of campaigners crisscrossing the country, drumming up support and hunting for voters and, perhaps most significantly, the creation of an entirely separate media relations office within the campaign aimed at managing television, Internet, print and radio advertising and outreach.¹ Advisers and supporters complain that in 2007, Ould Daddah’s 2007 efforts were poorly organized in terms of media in a massive country. To remedy this, the campaign has resolved to make an attempt at reaching Mauritanians in the home and on the road; on the Internet and the street. The ad featured above is of a new kind in Mauritania: it uses the appeal of the popular singer and Senator Maalouma (who was beaten bruisey during anti-junta demonstrations this past spring). Her song² appeals to Mauritanians from all of the country’s regions and invokes Ould Daddah’s historical opposition to military rule and coups with newsreel-like footage interspersed with images of children, large rallies, and oxen whose horns resemble the campaign’s crescent insignia.³ Such efforts have few precedents in Mauritania. Its design is meant to remind Mauritanians of Ould Daddah’s historic credentials, as there are some who question his real commitment to democracy in light of his initial, accommodating, attitude towards the 6 August coup, which he did not take a stance against until the winter. Certainly, there are many Boulkheir supporters who have taken their candidate’s side as a result of his consistency and leadership afterward.

While affection may be scarce between Ould Daddah and those bankrolling his, by most accounts, effective campaign, it is certain that Ould Abdel Aziz has united many in consensus that his continued presence as Nouakchott’s headman ought not go on.

If one asks some in Ould Daddah’s camp if they (or their candidate) believe that Boulkheir will keep his promise to back the opposition this time he will hear several variations: “We will believe it when we see it,” or “He has no reason to abandon the opposition this time” are the most prominent views. Indeed, the opposition pact (which holds that if either Ould Daddah or Boulkheir reach the second round runoff he will back whichever of the two does get there), is less likely to be foiled given the unpopularity of General Ould Abdel Aziz and a strong sense of anxiety and insecurity on the part of much of the political class. Because the campaign period has been so short, it raised the stakes for the country’s big men who been put into a position where they must decide between a candidate who might lash out at them if they fail to support him and he wins anyhow, and two seasoned politicians whose campaigns might make it difficult for the opposition to muster a strong enough showing in the first round.

One sees this in the way businessmen, senators and notables hop back and forth from backing Ould Abdel Aziz and Boulkheir or Ould Daddah. While Ould Abdel Aziz is well heeled — his main supporter, Mohamed Ould Bouamatou, is perhaps the country’s wealthiest man — he remains insecure by almost every assessment. Take for instance the story about his reported break with Bouamatou. It was reported that the two had a falling out over the financier’s support for multiple candidates (including Ould Daddah and Boulkheir). Ould Abdel Aziz was using this man’s Atlantic Hotel in Nouakchott as his campaign head quarters until he confronted Ould Bouamatou about his infidelity. He told the General that as a businessman, he had interests to look out for beyond the campaign and that he had to be on good terms with everyone, but his primary loyalty was with Ould Abdel Aziz. The General would have none of it, accosted the merchant in a wonderful fit of rage and picked up his things and relocated his head quarters. Days later, this financier let it be known through laudatory remarks that would fit well into Moorish tradition if only it were written in well metered and rhymed Hassaniyah. Meanwhile, it is known that he has still yet to find better business practices.

As is the case with any campaign, most Ould Daddah supporters say their man will go to the second round with a straight forward confidence that betrays Ould Daddah’s personal temperament; most of Boulkheir’s supports do the same of their candidate with similar zeal. Some worry that one or the other man not supporting his ally in the second round is not the problem: will a divided opposition vote allow Ould Abdel Aziz to take fifty percent? In private many Ould Daddah supporters are confident that this will not be the case. On 15 July, as he returned to Nouakchott from a rally Ould Daddah and his senior staff were stuck in nearly five hours of traffic, thronged by supporters blocking the road. His canvassers have eagerly reported their sense of success against the minions of Ould Abdel Aziz. On the other side of the opposition, Ould Boulkheir supporters report a similar sense of accomplishment, noting their campaign’s ability to steal prominent supporters from Ould Abdel Aziz and the widening appeal of their candidate. On both ends, there are few reports of anything but progress on the ground.

This is not without the fear of tampering, though. Both Boulkheir and Ould Daddah have publicly spoken to their fear that the election will face fraud. It is Boulkheir’s opinion that “no one but Ould Abdel Aziz thinks Ould Abdel Aziz can win,” and that “only by means of massive fraud” can the General have victory, rejecting fraud in bold terms. Ould Daddah, for his part, has said he will not accept fraud in this election; that the “era of coups” (عهد الانقلابات) is over; accusing Ould Abdel Aziz of fraud, and so on. The campaign has turned its attention to the possibility of contesting the results should the results be “too close to call”. He has called on Boulkheir to reject any sign of fraud as well. Aziz has pledged victory in the first round. He would not answer a question concerning whether he would rule out a coup in the event that he did not win. Hartening, as his supporters let off celebratory gunfire in the southern city of Kifa. What makes a first round victory so appealing? Easily put, he will not be able to defeat the combined forces of Ould Daddah, Boulkheir and very likely Sarr (the most popular candidate among black Africans in the south).

Take an example from the critical region of Hodh al-Sharqi (or Charghi). In 2007, this region went fifty percent for Abdellahi, who was then backed by the military. But there is a likelihood that the region will be close this time around. In Nema, a district in which Ould Daddah has never been able to win and where he won only 29% of the vote in 2007, it is hard to tell whether Ould Abdel Aziz or the opposition will carry it. Nema’s two senators disagree on who to support: one is backing Ould Daddah, the other has gone for another, minor candidate. The district is divided between the Kunta (the Oulad Bousseif Clan), Ijimane and Oulad M’Barek tribes (along with smaller ones, as well). Among these divisions there are further partitions within each. In the case of the Kunta, whose relatives have been well placed in Ould Daddah’s campaign infrastructure, there are two divisions, the larger Oulad Bousseif and the smaller Ehl Cheikh. These two branches have gone to their own candidates: the larger of the two has chosen Ould Daddah. The Ijimane are also split, with the larger of their clans going for Ould Daddah. Boulkheir is also a factor. Dah Ould Abdel al-Jalil, a former governor of the region of eight years is actively and happily stumping for Boulkheir. It is likely that, in the event of a run off between Ould Abdel Aziz and either Ould Daddah or Boulkheir, places like Nema would go easily for the latter two men.

Today, three rallies took place in Nouakchott. Ould Daddah‘s drew by some estimates 80,000 people, of a capital with 296,000 registered voters, but probably somewhat less. Boulkheir‘s drew between 16,000 and 20,000 persons. General Ould Abdel Aziz attracted 2,000 of his most faithful followers. The leader of the massive and influencial Tidjakanit tribe from Asada made his appearance at Ould Daddah’s rally, in full turban, dra’a and sunglasses. Masses of Haratine and others showed up. This point demands no elaboration, except perhaps that Ould Abdel Aziz’s campaign deliberately booked the Olympic Stadium so that his opponents would face logistical hardships and that strenuous efforts were made on their part to book as many rental cars and other transit means as possible in hopes of making it more difficult for the opposition to gather. The growing expectation of fraud is not confined to the country’s borders: Mauritanians in the US, Canada, France, Morocco and elsewhere have complained of tampering with voter lists and that many have been prevented from registering or discouraged from voting by those in charge. The stakes are high and the prospects for disappointment and dissolution as high as those for the agendas of the opposition. Anticipate commotion in the event that either Ould Daddah or Boulkheir do not make it to the second round; expect even more if one of them does not win there.

¹ [ All the major candidates have used Internet advertising, mostly on news websites. Boulkheir’s shows the candidates in the traditional dra’a, a hand raised, imploring the vote. Ould Daddah’s display a conservative smile in business suit or on occasion the dra’a. Ould Abdel Aziz’s show an Israeli flag with “This flew over our capital in disgrace,” written in emotive colors. Some are keener than others. ]

² [ The song takes a form similar to Maalouma’s other, patriotic or socially conscious songs; for instance another song praised Mauritanian women according to region, much as the campaign song appeals to the various regions. There are others, too. ]

³ [ A joke, which many swear is based on a true story and has circulated by email and by word of mouth, has a voter at a rally asking another what Ould Dadah’s emblem is. The second fellow replies: “The crescent.” He asks again, the insignia of Boulkheir. The second replies: “The horse.” He continues asking the better informed voter the symbolic representations used by each candidate down through Gen. Ould Abdel Aziz, to which the second man replies: “The tank.” ]


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