Mauritania names veteran diplomat as foreign minister ahead of African Union summit

Ould Cheikh Ahmed’s appointment comes as Mauritania completes new, state-of-the-art accommodations for the 2018 African Union summit.
Sunday 17/06/2018
Seasoned diplomat. Newly appointed Mauritanian Foreign Minister Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed.(Reuters)
Seasoned diplomat. Newly appointed Mauritanian Foreign Minister Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed.(Reuters)

TUNIS - Mauritania appointed veteran diplomat Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed as foreign minister ahead of the 2018 African Union summit, which this summer will be in Mauritania for the first time.

Ahmed, 57, has extensive experience navigating international conflicts and crises, having served as the UN envoy to Yemen and former envoy for the UN Mission for Emergency Ebola Response.

Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz’s office released a statement June 11 saying that Ould Cheikh Ahmed had replaced Isselkou Ould Ahmed Izidbih. The change came before the African Union summit in Nouakchott, the first such African gathering in Mauritania.

Hosting leaders of the 55-member African Union will be a boost for Mauritania, whose relations with neighbouring countries have suffered.

Until early this year, Mauritania had been without an ambassador in Rabat because of differences regarding the Western Sahara conflict. It went through a diplomatic row with Algeria in 2015 when Algiers expelled a Mauritanian diplomat in retaliation for a similar move by Mauritania.

Ould Cheikh Ahmed’s appointment as foreign minister comes as Mauritania completes state-of-the-art accommodations for the summit. It is finalising construction of a conference complex near its main airport and built a new hotel and 120 villas for guests.

There were complaints two years ago when Mauritania hosted an Arab summit, which was conducted in a large tent due to a lack of adequate hotels and poor planning.

Opposition activists asked the government to postpone the country’s hosting of this year African Union summit and allocate funds that would be spent on the meeting to victims of a severe drought.

UN Under-Secretary-General Mark Lowcock has warned that 6 million people were struggling to get food in the Sahel region and that severe malnutrition threatened the lives of 1.6 million children. He said such crisis levels had not been seen since 2012 and that “the most critical months are still ahead.”

Poor conditions in Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Senegal “reveals an urgent need for more donor support,” he said.

The crisis, triggered by scarce rainfall in 2017, “resulted in water, crop and pasture shortages and livestock losses” and most severely affected Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali and Mauritania, he said.

The Mauritanian government defended its spending on the summit, saying it would give the country greater influence in Africa.

The summit, which will include French President Emmanuel Macron and other leaders outside the African Union, will aim to present Mauritania as a safe and stable country in a tormented neighbourhood.

The gathering will serve as an opportunity to implement the African Continental Free Trade Area, designed to create a single market for goods and services in Africa. By 2030, the market is estimated to include 1.7 billion people with cumulative consumer and business spending totalling $6.7 trillion.

Some forecasts predict the pan-African market would create a 52% increase in intra-African trade by 2022, with an improvement in quality of goods and increased economic diversification.

Mauritania, which straddles the Maghreb and Sahel regions, is expected to benefit greatly from that trade and economic integration.

The summit and the promotion of Mauritania’s new foreign minister position the country to play the role of mediator in the region, analysts said.

Ould Cheikh Ahmed has more than 30 years’ experience in development and humanitarian assistance with the United Nations in Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe.