Mauritania appointments reflect jockeying for succession
TUNIS - Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz named the country’s military chief as defence minister, breaking a 23-year tradition of the position being occupied by a civilian.
In a move that might reflect Ould Abdel Aziz’s desire to influence his succession, Army Chief of Staff General Mohamed Ould el Ghazouani was appointed to head the Ministry of Defence, replacing veteran politician Jallow Mamadou Bhatia.
The shift comes as Mauritania’s government forms a new cabinet headed by Prime Minister Mohamed Salem Ould al Bachir, who recently took over from Yahya Ould Hademine.
Ould el Ghazouani, known for strengthening ties with the French military, was tapped for the job less than three months before he was to retire as Mauritania’s highest ranking army officer.
He was among those dismissed in 2008 by former President Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi, who was subsequently ousted in a military coup. Ould Abdel Aziz, then head of the presidential guard, was also fired at that time before ascending to the presidency. The two former generals have since maintained close ties and Ould el Ghazouani is thought to be a likely successor to the president.
Another potential successor is Army Colonel Cheikh Ould Baya, who was appointed parliament speaker on October 14. Ould Baya, a prominent Arab Berber, cements the president’s influence in parliament, which is dominated by his supporters.
Previously mayor of Zouerat, an important mining town in northern Mauritania, and head of the country’s mayors’ association, Ould Baya played a key role in the ruling Union for the Republic party’s Reinvigoration Committee, which bolstered the party’s chances in recent parliamentary elections.
Like Ould el Ghazouani’s ministerial appointment, Ould Baya’s move to be speaker broke a longstanding power-sharing agreement. Traditionally, the position of parliament speaker is designated for a member of the Haratin community.
Haratins, Mauritania’s largest minority, are a distinct ethnic group that descended largely from black African slaves. They are discriminated against in the country, where many view them as an underclass.
The two ministerial appointments could have implications for next year’s presidential race, which Ould Abdel Aziz has ruled himself out of. Some said that bringing Ould el Ghazouani in as defence minister, a civil position, makes him a more likely candidate. Others said the appointment could shut him out of the process.
Mauritania’s main opposition group has warned that the country’s “stability will suffer if the next president again comes directly from the army ranks.”
Ould Abdel Aziz vowed to secure “the continuity of the regime” after leaving office, suggesting he may play a role in choosing his successor. Analysts said the president would either lend his support to a confidant — such as Ould Baya — or a close military comrade like Ould el Ghazouani. Some say he is angling to have parliament vote him in for another term.
Political analyst Lamine Ould al Fadhel said: “Ould Baya is a more secure choice for the president” because he would allow Ould Abdel Aziz to retain his “influence and authority” in the government.
“The problem with Ould Baya is that he is difficult to be marketed as the next president for many reasons, including the complicated balance between ethnic and regional interests,” Ould al Fadhel said.
Ould el Ghazouani has a stronger support base of his own and could pose a challenge to the president.
“Marketing Ould el Ghazouani will not be difficult. He will be supported and accepted by the military, Mauritania’s foreign partners, political parties close to the government and even segments of the opposition’s popular bases,” said Ould al Fadhel.
“The main worry for the president is that Ould el Ghazouani will cut the president’s influence in the regime if he ascends to the presidency after Ould Abdel Aziz’s departure.”
As a result, some analysts say Ould el Ghazouani’s promotion is meant to push him out of the presidential race.
“It is the beginning of the end for Ould el Ghazouani,” said political writer Ahmed Ould Yacoub Ould Sidi, noting that Ould el Ghazouani has less power as defence minister than he had leading the military.
“Other comrades and brothers in arms of the president were forced out through the back doors of a secretary-general of a ministry while the position and influence of Ould el Ghazouani dictated that he will go out through the gate of the Defence Ministry,” he added.