Some general thoughts on recent happenings in the Maghreb: the visits to Algiers and Nouakchott by Mauritanian, Algerian and European officials and Mauritania and signs of itching in the Morocco-Mauritania relationship.
Mauritania’s President, Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, concluded state visit to Algeria on 10-13 December (watch the reception on Algerian state TV here). The trip was a follow up on the foreign minister’s trip in November where security and economic agreements were signed and a visit to Nouakchott by Abdelkader Messahel, the Algerian minister delegate for Maghreb and African Affairs. The upshot of the meeting is that it is the first official visit by Ould Abdel Aziz to Algeria in some time and is meant to showcase the two countries’ cooperation on terrorism and transnational crime and other such troubles in the Sahel. In July the Algerians were said to have withheld cooperation from the Mauritanians in their engagements with AQIM in Mali and this put a damper on relations; the November and December visits indicate a rapprochement between the two countries driven mainly by security priorities. The joint communiques at the conclusion of the visit speak of a ‘new impetus’ in cooperation and of the ‘consolidation’ of the existing regional security frameworks (CEMOC and UFL). Reference was also made to the Arab Maghreb Union (UMA) and coordination on African Union projects. Bouteflika and Ould Abdel Aziz both stated they were willing to work with Libya’s new authorities and called for the establishment of a democratic government there. (An interesting piece of gossip: Taqadoumy reports that Ould Abdel Aziz met with a member of the Qadhafi family, now in Algiers, offering condolences for the death of Mu’amar, citing a source in the president’s entourage.) Materially, the Algerian announced that they had begun work with a Chinese company on building a road to link Algeria with Mauritania, the idea being that it would help reduce smuggling and trafficking in the border region and make the area more accessible to the militaries and security forces. This falls into Mauritania’s regional calculus in ways that are not well liked by all (see below). It is probable that the result of the meeting will not be more conspicuous Algerian activity beyond its borders. The Mauritanians will probably continue their activities against AQIM in northern Mali as before, perhaps with a bit more coordination and information sharing with the Algerians and while expectations should not be excessively high, though the regional climate does seem to be pushing for something more from the Algerians.
The meetings regional meetings in Algiers, Nouakchott, Brussels and Washington over the last four months (in almost every month since the end of August) point to a increasing sense of urgency brought not just by the uptick in kidnappings of westerners, but probably more so by fears of the fallout of the Libya conflict and other problems in the region (including drought and so on). The 5+5 meeting at Nouakchott focused on ransom payments. William Hague, the UK Foreign Secretary, visited Nouakchott in November, talking on AQIM, Boko Haram, Libya and military aid (including financing a military base on the Algeria-Mali border); the UK Foreign Ministry nowadays features a whole page on the Sahel, which mainly discusses news related to AQIM and its various attacks and exploits in the region. Western countries have issued travel warnings to the northern reaches of Mauritania, Mali and Niger. The European Union is sending police trainers to the region to deal with AQIM. The 12 Europeans held by AQIM and the recently only increases western interest, as does recent Algerian and other information about AQIM’s liaisons with Nigeria’s Boko Haram. The condition of Tuareg returnees in Mali, the terrorism issue and the flow of weapons out of Libya make things look riskier and riskier. It means more money and aid will flow to regional militaries and governments and that official anxiety over the security situation is increasing rather than abetting.
So, in any case, there is a new sense of togetherness on the Nouachott-Algiers line that, predictably, comes at the expense of Mauritania’s relations with Morocco, or so the authorities there have looked to point out and Mauritanians have observed rather clearly. The Moroccans were early and excited backers of Ould Abdel Aziz’s coup in 2008 and they have seen him as an ally and a means of balancing off Algiers regionally. In the last few months it has been reported variously in Mauritanian papers that Morocco was irritated with Mauritania over their competition for the rotating seat at the UN Security Council, that Rabat (with the backing of western countries) was looking to pressure Nouakchott over its relations with Iran, that the Moroccans were up on the intentions of FM Hamadi Ould Hamadi’s visit to Algiers and were sent up into the roof because Ould Abdel Aziz was set to accept an invitation to Algiers while he had put off invitations to Rabat three times. The Moroccans refused to enrol Mauritanian students in their universities in October, on administrative grounds, though some Mauritanians interpreted this as retaliation for the items above. In any case, the road project to link Mauritania with Algeria is probably part of an effort to offset whatever dependence might come out of the Moroccan backed project for a high way linking Rabat to Dakar via Mauritania — a balancing move. Taqadoumy speculates that the movement toward Algiers also reflects an internal calculation related to the balance of sentiments in the Armed Forces, where the numbers of graduates from Moroccan and Algerian academies has shifted since the fall of Maouiyya Ould Tayyah in 2005 and Ould Abdel Aziz is compensating in response to the lobbying of his officers and to the security situation in the border region. The Moroccans have long looked jealous of their inability to break into the regional counter-terrorism arrangements dominated by Algeria and often look at advances that appear to favour Algeria as their own position sliding back (and the same is usually true on the Algerian side). The talk about the UMA probably bugged some Moroccans, since ceremonial references to Maghreb unity in Rabat or Algiers are sometimes used as jabs in their regional rivalry since the inability of the two largest players in the Maghreb to get along well is probably still the biggest impediment to the UMA’s advancement.