This blogger published a brief piece for World Politics Review on vulnerabilities and risks in light of the re-election of Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz in Mauritania, and continued western support for his government. Aziz is seen as a reliable counterterrorism partner in much of the west and Algiers. There are many things at work that make him an effective regional ally and leader and others that expose Mauritania, his leadership, and the region at some risk. All eggs are best distributed in multiple baskets. It was shortened at publication for word count purposes; the full original will be posted on this blog shortly. Comments and feedback by email are welcome. Readers who need to hop the pay wall may contact this blogger for the piece at: nourithemoor @ gmail.com
The text of the piece pre-word counting is below. The piece could have stood to examine Ghazouani’s positioning in greater detail, though Aziz’s relationship with his generals and related tribal politics and perceptions of the relevance of civilians is probably better treated in a separate article or post (especially in light of recent changes to the cabinet; some of which may be interpreted as moves contra Ghazouani).
Western governments mostly welcomed the re-election of Mauritania’s strong-man president Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz last week. Mauritania’s growing importance in regional counterterrorism and security efforts against terrorist groups like al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has allowed the president to strengthen his grip on power and legitimate his mandate despite low turnout and an opposition boycott. Outside support for Ould Abdelaziz adopts the complications and risks of his rule. The west should not confuse Ould Abdelaziz’s personage with the Mauritanian regime as such. His power has limits and is largely depending on the military institution. Strengthening the military without keeping watch on delicate internal political and social balances inside Mauritania risks destabilizing the country. And though Ould Abdelaziz has proven to be a shrewd political operator, failure to move toward a more inclusive order places his rule and his country at risk over the medium term.
Mauritania’s role in countering terrorism originated with efforts by its military dictator Maouiya Sid’Ahmed Ould Tayya after attacks against Mauritanian garrisons in the early 2000s. He formed close ties to the United States by establishing relations with Israel from 1999 to 2008, Mauritania was one of three Arab states with full relations with Israel) in order to obtain vital political and military support after a period of relatively cold relations following the first Gulf War. Mauritania participated in US-backed counterterrorism exercises and cooperated in the response to 9/11, drawing the attention of region terrorist groups seeking to expand their activities in the Sahel. Mauritanians were first recruited into AQIM’s Algerian predecessor, the Islamic Group for Preaching and Combat in the early 2000s. Algerian operatives recruited local men hoping to train and travel to Iraq to fight the American occupation. In reality, most only made it as far as the GSPC’s training camps in Algeria and northern Mali. From these desert encampments they were dispatched back to their home country to recruit and attack the western-backed military regime, who was overthrown in a 2005 coup orchestrated by Ould Abdelaziz. Mauritania’s military regime, relations with Israel, support for US military activities in the region – made it a ready target for the GSPC, later AQIM. Mauritania hosted the American-backed FLINTLOCK exercise in 2005 the GSPC launched one of its earliest attacks on the Mauritanian military that year. Though early efforts to counter AQIM by force contributed to the coup that removed Ould Taya, Mauritania’s elite and population came to regard AQIM a serious threat to the country’s economic and social well being. Continued AQIM recruitment and targeting of the Mauritanian military during the 2005-2007 democratic transition (aborted by Ould Abdelaziz in 2008) put countering AQIM as a key element of its security and foreign policy.
The struggle against AQIM is key to understanding Mauritania’s posture in the region. From 2005 to 2009 AQIM waged a campaign of attacks against the Mauritanian state and its foreign backs. AQIM operatives recruited local youths, trained them in Mali and returned them to Mauritania where they attacked western embassies, killed Mauritanian soldiers, kidnapped or murdered tourists and aid workers, robbed banks, and attempted to kill the president himself. The Mauritanians responded with by striking the group inside Mauritania and in its safe havens in Mali and attempting to ‘de-radicalize’ AQIM recruits and suspects detained in security sweeps. It also reorganized its most elite military units as mobile counterterrorism forces. Though important parts of these units remained based in Nouakchott – meant to protect the centers of power – specialized counterterrorism elements carried on a largely ignored campaign on Mauritania’s obscure and porous frontiers with Mali. The inability and unwillingness of the Malian military and political elites to move against AQIM safe havens in this period allowed the group to target Mauritania with relative impunity. Ould Abdelaziz, suspicious of Mali’s leadership for its opposition to his 2008 coup and its complicity in allowing militants to operate with relative impunity, waged a quiet campaign crossing into Mali where Mauritanian special forces prepared the ground for areal bombardments and strategic raids against AQIM in its desert hideouts in 2010. Mauritania’s role in Mali was controversial domestically, but relatively effective despite casualties and ambushes. Though most Mauritanian elites backed the campaign and fight against AQIM, many were and remain concerned about its potential to draw their country into political and military crises it cannot financially, socially, or military bare – a legacy of the country’s doomed struggle to take a portion of the Western Sahara in the 1970s, leading to its defeat at the hands of the Polisario Front and a decade of military coups, military juntas, and the Ould Taya dictatorship. Many fear an overreliance on military confrontation against AQIM will lead to the same; or already has.
Though Mauritania was cautious to not overtly participate in the French intervention in Mali in 2012, its intelligence and military support was critical. Mauritania did not contribute troops to the peacekeeping effort, but reportedly provided support to French efforts to sure up Tuareg and other elements opposed to AQIM, Ansar Eddine, and other jihadists occupying the north. Numerous cadres and officials of the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA) and its splinters and backers are resident in Nouakchott; among the swarms of Tuareg, Arab and other Malian refugees in the sprawling camps along the border are key leaders of tribes and clans whom the Mauritanians have allowed or encouraged to conduct political mechanizations against Islamist extremists in their home country. Mauritanian tribal leaders, at the urging of their kinsmen and Ould Abdelaziz, have close ties to Arab and other ethnic groups and notables in Mali and have been key in efforts to undermine the jihadist insurgency there. Ould Abdelaziz, able to capitalize on Mauritania’s role as a mediator and facilitator in Mali traveled to Kidal to meat out an agreement between rival factions and Bamako. Ould Abdelaziz sees the west and Algeria as key sources of political and financial support; Morocco has long sought to influence Mauritania in its rivalry with Algeria in the western Sahara. Ould Abdelaziz resents Morocco’s efforts to influence him – he sees himself as an equal in the region — and worries Rabat has sought to undermine his position with Washington. His efforts in the region are often meant to assert his freedom of action vis-à-vis the Moroccans. Whereas Morocco’s King Mohamed VI traveled the region with a massive entourage earlier this year, presenting itself as an alternative mediator and broker, most elites knew or learned that economic and political support from Rabat is unreliable and the King’s promises mostly undeliverable and politicized by its endless competition with Algeria. Ould Abdelaziz’s more modest approach to regional cooperation – despite his often-polarizing personality (his holds sour personal grudges against several heads of state) – is more promising on core security issues and holds fewer commitments and presents few complications.
These efforts have endeared Ould Abdelaziz to France, the United States, and other regional powers like Algeria who have welcomed his re-election. He is seen as a key operator in a region of dysfunctional and low capacity states. Regionally, Ould Abdelaziz has the benefit of ruling a small country with an effective military whose efforts at mediation or military cooperation do not arouse suspicion in Algiers or substantially threaten its other neighbors.
Western support, however, does not substantially increase his staying power on its own. Ould Abdelaziz’ support in his own party is largely based on transactional loyalty. Few supporters speak of him in gushing, loving terms. He fills a certain Mauritanian stereotype of leadership adequately enough. But his style of management, which concentrates decision-making in his office, alienates many in the business and political sphere. Ould Abdelaziz reportedly holds onto all dossiers – fisheries, banking, mining, military affairs, personnel management and the rest. This is particular, aside from one military ruler in the early eighties who was overthrown rather quickly. Complaints from his supporters and others accuse him of not spreading patronage widely enough, of acting as if he were a corporation onto himself.
His mandate from the military is also potentially precarious. Aziz’s grip on the military is something of an oddity in the history of Mauritanian regimes. His predecessor, Ould Taya, surrounded himself with officers whose loyalties to him had tribal and regional underpinnings. Generally speaking (though not entirely), these men either hailed from his native Adrar region or belonged to tribes from the north. Ould Taya also invested more time and effort in building a civilian pillar for his regime on the basis of relatively equal representation of tribes and regions. Ould Abdelaziz in contrast still lacks a real civilian pillar for his rule which makes him more dependent on the Army itself. His military is dominated by officers hailing from eastern Mauritania. First among them is Chief of Staff General Mohamed Ould Ghazouani, who is in reality the real guarantor of Aziz’s rule. His regional and tribal ties back him up: an easterner among many senior eastern officers. For example 5 of the 7 newly created rapid reaction units, trained and funded by the US, are men from the east. Given the strategic importance of the eastern frontier regions both in population and military terms, this has operational benefits but is risky for the president. Ould Abdelaziz himself comes from the small Oulad Bou S’baa tribe – which has maybe 1500-2000 members, few of them in the military. He cannot rely on kinship if he were challenged in the military – a serious problem when many see his rule as having disproportionately benefit his own tribe at the expense of others, including in the east.
Other, bigger social forces are also at play. Mauritania’s Arabic-speaking descendants of black slaves — Haratine – make up the bulk of the Army’s line soldiers and NCOs but the officer corps remains overwhelmingly comprised of so-called white Moors, the dominant ethnic group in Mauritania. Haratine outnumber Moors and face social discrimination and host of other injustices, owing to widespread slavery. Though there are no official statistics, Arabic-speaking Haratine and Moors are most of the population, while Mauritania’s often discriminated against Fulani, Pulaar, and other sub-Saharan minority makes up the rest. Haratine are increasingly demanding a fairer deal in Mauritanian society, including broader inclusion in position of authority and power, including the military. One of Ould Abdelaziz’s main opponents in the recent election was anti-slavery activist Biram Dah Abeid who came in second place. The government has a both a mandate and responsibility to cooperate with Haratine advocates, address Haratine grievances and crackdown on still persistent cases of slavery. Failing to do so puts Mauritania’s country at risk, leaving Mauritanian citizens in a condition of stagnation, while feeding contradictions that have helped radicalism spread in the region over the last decade.