RE: The ‘Accidental’ Shooting of the Mauritanian President

Summary. Some confusion exists around the shooting of the Mauritanian president, Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz. The post speculates about the possibility of a coup or assassination attempt on the basis of a number of rumors about potential motivations and scenarios behind the incident based on the current political environment and does not claim to offer a conclusive judgment. However, it is unlikely that the current situation does not present ambitious men with opportunities to take action and take what they want. Or not.

Whether the official story — that soldiers at a check point ‘accidentally’ fired on the president’s motorcade injuring him slightly — is accurate or not is at this point wholly ambiguous. This situation means that rumors are rampant, mingling with and altering facts. Relatively few Mauritanian or international observers buy that version of events.  As things stand now, with Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz in France, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mohamed Ghazouani is the man in charge and among opposition types and some closer to the government there is a feeling that Ould Abdel Aziz is a dangerous position, and that remaining abroad too long could invite coup plots, political unrest or attacks from AQIM. Key variables at this point include the political ambitions of Gen. Ghazouani and the loyalty of the armed forces and intelligence service to the president – especially the commando units and BASEP (the republican guards), which Ould Abdel Aziz founded and led until ‘leaving’ army in 2009.

Mauritanian contacts report that the president was wounded more seriously than reported in the press — having been shot as many as five times or more — and speculate on a wide variety of potential scenarios involving: (1) an attempted coup d’état; (2) an attempted assassination by (2.a.) an officers’ cabal or (2.b.) Islamist militants or (2.c.) some other element; and (3) an accidental shooting, more or less following the official version of events.

There appears to be little in the way of solid reporting on the incident itself, though press reports and contacts indicate that there is widespread dissatisfaction with the official explanation – many question whether soldiers would have failed to recognize the president’s convoy at a check point he crosses on a regular bases[1], other arguing that conduct at such checkpoints typically indicates a higher level of professionalism among Mauritanian soldiers than would allow for this kind of accident. While this blogger has said in tweets and in conversations with readers that he sees the chances as about even that Ould Abdel Aziz will finish his term (seeing the likelihood of a coup as being between 50/50 and 60/40), the available information leaves the jury open as to whether this was part of a coup attempt, an assassination attempt (part of a coup plot or by Islamist militants) and it is important not to jump to conclusions too rapidly.

In the case of a coup attempt, one would expect to hear of (at the minimum):

(1)   Unusual troop movements or maneuvers in the capital especially, before, during or immediately after the shooting, including some effort to take control of critical infrastructure such as radio, television, etc.;

  1. Unless, of course, the plot was merely to remove the president and trigger a succession which would allow the plotters to influence the direction of the political scene from behind the curtains or to take power under the guise of ‘saving the nation’ from chaos, collapse, subversion and similar troubles.[2]

(2)   The arrest of high ranking officers rather than lower ranking ones after the attempt failed (unless the scheme was hatched a la Guinea or Mali) and sweep activities in Nouakchott and at army bases – of which this blogger has not heard (but these cannot be ruled out) – if a plot did take place Ould Abdel Aziz’s statement from the hospital in Nouakchott would have likely made a more direct reference to the event itself (an assumption based on his personality and leadership qualities).

Following the attack the President reportedly ordered the security forces (led by BASEP[3]) to secure the military hospital in Nouakchott, calling on Gen. Ghazouani to convened the country’s generals at the hospital. Once there these men had their cell phones confiscated and were made to wait outside the operating room while doctors operated on Ould Abdel Aziz’s wounds. Thus far there are not indications that senior officers attempted to eliminate the president and it appears unlikely that Ghazouani seeks to take the president’s place based on descriptions of personality and his reputation, some of which have been discussed on Twitter by others and on this blog in the past.[4] While rumors that the Moroccan security services alerted Ould Abdel Aziz to an imminent coup plot on the eve of the Francophonie summit in Kinsasha, which has been seen to explain his absence at the conference, this remains unconfirmed. Still, maneuvers over the past few months that suggest coup proofing[5] indicate that Ould Abdel Aziz is likely concerned about his position within the military and in the country generally.[6] Conversations with Mauritanian contacts and others dealing with the country suggest that over the last year concerns over the stability of the country and the President’s leadership style have grown within the military.[7] The coup option cannot be wholly ruled out.

Over the last year, Mauritania’s political opposition, especially its youth element, has agitated against the government in protests calling for political change and improvements in the quality of life. These have occasionally become violent, with police beating and detaining demonstrators. Opposition sources tend to stress the narrative of a botched coup, as do sources that are critical of the regime in general. However, the uncertainty regarding the President’s status, the extra-constitutional status of the parliament, popular dissatisfaction and the perception that a coup may have been under way last week means that perceptions of opportunities for a seizure of power are also likely to be powerful in the next month or months ahead.

The assassination narrative would seem to have two basic possibilities: (1) someone in the military attempted to eliminate Ould Abdel Aziz or (2) some other opponent, likely Islamist militants, sought to kill him. The first possibility would be significant given that despite its numerous coups, Mauritania has yet to see major political assassinations. It would also require that relations between Ould Abdel Aziz and some element in the military were significantly worse off than previous impressions and estimates suggested – and it must be noted that since his controversial election in 2009 Ould Abdel Aziz has, through his leadership style and personality alienated significant parts of the population and political class.[8] It would also, presumably, require some kind of larger plot to exist (along the lines mentioned above).

If one discounts the coup narrative entirely, he must consider an alternative. The second case, which would involve some Islamist (terrorist) element, appears somewhat more likely if one discounts both the official story and the coup concept.[9] In the first place AQIM has already targeted Ould Abdel Aziz, both in public statements and in assassination plots in 2010 and 2011; Ould Abdel Aziz is thus already a target for his conspicuous role leading the only significant military campaigns against AQIM in its havens in northern Mali. A local cell would likely have made this attempt though given that the official story has soldiers firing the shots (two have been arrested), if the narrative about an Islamist assassination attempt is credible then these arrests might indicate that the government has detained men as part of a cover up or that AQIM or some other Islamist tendency has succeeded in infiltrating the Mauritanian military (an enormously significant development) or at least impersonating its members in a extremely sensitive locations. Another possibility is that the actual events diverge so significantly from those reported that the incident actually involved some kind of armed assault from AQIM or some such.

In any event, if the coup scenario is closer in line with the real situation, Mauritanian politics may grow still more grim or move in new directions. As always, Mauritania demands more attention.


[1] It should be noted that some versions of events have the president’s car speeding ahead of the rest of his convoy, making it appear as if he was being chased, which may have created confusion.

[2] There is a version of the incident that has a black vehicle with one or more shooters rolling up to the convoy and opening fire; in any event it does not appear that the attack matches AQIM’s MO based on the balance of stories being circulated. One would expect the government to admit to an AQIM plot, unless there is concern this would create demand from inside or outside Mauritania for the government to take a more favorable role posture toward French-led efforts to intervene in Mali (which most agree would have a potentially negative impact on Mauritania and Ould Abdel Aziz).

It has also been reported that Ould Abdel Aziz was with a cousin in the vehicle whose status has not been clarified beyond rumors that he was not actually in the car.

Finally, it should be noted that the 2005 coup engineered by Ould Abdel Aziz relied on former president Maaouyia Ould Tayya leaving the country (he was at King Abdallah’s funeral in Saudia Arabia at the time) to open the opportunity for the seizure of power. The plot may have not been to kill the president but instead to wound him beyond the point where he could receive adequate care in Mauritania to allow for a similar maneuver to take place. This seems unlikely, though.

[3] There are some reports that have BASEP moving other individuals from the scene of the attack but this blogger has not been able to corroborate them.

[4] Ghazouani is known as a competent and likeable professional soldier with healthy networks of patronage and comes from the Ideyboussat tribe. He is known for relatively few public expressions of political ambition; he hosted a diner for Yusuf al-Qaradawi in May 2010, likely to show piety and morality in order to help boost the government’s image with the public. He will be one to watch as will popular officers whom Ould Abdel Aziz fears or regards as potential competitors — both because they may end up as leaders of officers trends or because they may be subject to punitive coup proofing moves.

[5] This includes the replacement of the head of military intelligence and the commander of the elite para-commando brigade, and the assignment of a number of colonels overseas as defense attaches in September, and the assignment of family members of top officers to positions in embassies overseas in the summer.

[6] The last year saw demonstrations over the conduct of the Mauritanian census, the postponement of parliamentary elections for what has now been over a year (and the expiration of the parliament’s mandate), a increasingly severe malnutrition and hunger situation, water access, and a range of single issue and labor-related strikes and protests that put the government in a rough position. (The socio-economic situation has also been aggravated by the crisis in Mali, which drove something like 100,000 refugees over the border in Mauritania.) On top of this, Ould Abdel Aziz’s tendency to privilege members of his own (relatively small) tribe, the Ould Bou S’ba’a over others and to rely on narrow networks and his unilateral decision making processes in which virtually no one in consulted or confided in (his closest confidants remain obscure or non-existent) have alienated many in political circles and contributed to the over all climate. Opposition actors remain severely marginalized (due in part to Ould Abdel Aziz’s deliberate posturing and the leadership deficiencies of particular actors). The government continues to refuse to negotiate with its opponents and has played factions off one another, which has both weakened specific opposition movements while at the same time weakening the groups he has sought to and succeeding in coopting. Splits in the president’s own party have grown over the last year as well resulting from discontent over patronage and corruption among important constituencies.

[7] It is important to look at this in context and with perspective: Ould Abdel Aziz has had the loyalty and support of most senior officers during his time in power and it is easy to risk making too much of relative developments when writing in short hand. Nonetheless, these developments are significant in the context of the country’s ongoing economic and political crises.

[8] While Ould Abdel Aziz has managed to survive at the center of Mauritanian politics since 2005 and has been quite adept at playing the opposition and international actors (many of whom remain enamored with him based mainly on his record with regards to AQIM and counterterrorism) off of one another it is worth considering whether this is evidence of a strategic genius on the order of the Arab dictators (including Ould Tayya) or a man who has made many smart tactical moves without a great strategic mind or a man with a strong strategic mind. One can draw either conclusion from Ould Abdel Aziz’s record; that conclusion is likely to color perceptions of recent events. Ould Abdel Aziz’s opponents have habitually underestimated his political acumen and intelligence.

[9] Unless one supposes an Islamist-oriented scheme would come from within the military and seek to engage some coup scenario by killing the president; this strikes this blogger as unlikely though previous ideologically-driven coup plots have been averted in Mauritania’s history largely involving Nasserists, Ba’thists and proto-/semi-Islamists.