African summit in Mauritania highlights Maghreb divisions
TUNIS - Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, nearing the end of his term, played host to the 31st African Union (AU) summit, bringing renewed attention to his country on the African stage.
Thirty African leaders attended the 2-day meeting, which focused on free trade, fighting Islamist extremism and clamping down on corruption.
However, leaders of neighbouring Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya, which with Mauritania form the Arab Maghreb Union, stayed away from the gathering, reflecting lingering divisions and Algeria’s distrust over France’s role in a regional counterterror force.
That force, the G5 Sahel, is a military alliance backed by France and involving Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad and Burkina Faso to combat jihadism and lawlessness in the region.
The summit, July 1-2, went smoothly despite violence across the border in Mali. A car bomb attack June 29 on the command post of the G5 Sahel force in the central Malian town of Sevare killed two soldiers and one civilian. The attack claimed by al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Mali.
The next day, at least four Malian soldiers were killed when their vehicle hit a landmine in the Koro area in central Mali. On July 1, four civilians were killed by a car bomb targeting French forces.
French President Emmanuel Macron, who became the first French leader to visit Mauritania in 22 years when he attended the summit, hailed Ould Abdel Aziz as an important partner in the fight against terror. He spoke with the five participating countries’ leaders on the sidelines of the summit about moving forward with the G5 force, a task that has proven difficult because of a lack of training, equipment and funding.
European powers and some Arab countries have pledged $480 million to the force but most has yet to materialise.
Macron also met with the 15-member African Union’s Peace and Security Council to discuss financing peacekeeping operations and counterterrorism efforts.
Mauritania plays an important role in the G5 Sahel, with the grouping’s General Secretariat in Nouakchott, but other Maghreb countries distanced themselves from the body due to concerns about interference from other global powers. Maghreb security analysts have questioned the expanding military footprints of France and other world powers, such as China and Russia, in Africa.
They also said concerns such as lack of access to education and employment opportunities, exacerbated by rapid population growth, have gone largely unaddressed.
Ould Abdel Aziz said at the opening of the summit that Africa needed a comprehensive approach to combating extremism that addresses social and economic factors that push young people towards radicalisation.
Rwandan President Paul Kagame, the outgoing AU president, lent support to Ethiopia, Nigeria and Mali’s fight against extremist violence. “We regret the loss of innocent lives,” Kagame said.
African leaders discussed expanding trade on the continent, particularly through the African Continental Free Trade Area, and fighting corruption, specifically by ensuring that stolen money, often kept in havens abroad, is returned.
The African Union said an estimated 70% of the income generated from Africa’s resources is squandered or diverted.
In a final communique, the African Union urged the international community to lend more support to a UN plan to restore peace and stability to Libya, which has been embroiled in conflict since former leader Muammar Qaddafi was toppled in 2011.
For Mauritania, the summit was a chance to showcase its development after a 2016 Arab summit it hosted was marred by poor conditions and a lack of organisation.
This year, the African summit was at a state-of-the-art Al Mourabitoune International Conference Centre, with leaders staying in luxury villas.
Rainfall was recorded throughout much of Mauritania as the summit ended, easing a severe drought.
Mauritania was angered by the snub from Morocco, whose King Mohammed VI neglected to name the country and its president as the host of the gathering in a letter read by Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita.
Rabat’s slight appeared to have been a reaction to Ould Abdel Aziz’s comments to the media that the Sahrawi people were living in a terrible situation in Western Sahara.
Moroccan website ma.360 wrote that “the Mauritanian president showed that he is not free in his ideas and the least in his action,” implying that Algeria was exerting influence over Mauritania.
Algeria backs the Polisario Front, which seeks an independent state in Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony Rabat controls and considers a part of its territory.