Mauritanian president to step down after second term expires
TUNIS - Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz has announced he would step down at the end of his second term next year, ending speculation over whether he would move to scrap presidential term limits and extend his tenure.
Ould Abdel Aziz’s announcement reflects a growing shift towards democracy on the African continent, where even longstanding leaders are struggling to stay in power.
In an interview with Jeune Afrique magazine, Ould Abdel Aziz said he would abide by the Mauritanian constitution’s two-term limit and would not seek to change it. Addressing supporters, at least some of whom have expressed concern his absence could lead to a power vacuum, Ould Abdel Aziz said he would stay involved in politics and play a role in his Union for the Republic Party (UPR).
Some government ministers, including Justice Minister Brahim Ould Daddah had urged Ould Abdel Aziz, 61, to run for office again in 2019. “The nation and the people come before the constitution and in the current situation it is the people who demand that the president seeks a new mandate,” said Ould Daddah.
Government spokesman Mohamed Lemine Ould Cheikh said: “A majority of Mauritanians believe the president deserves a third, a fourth and even a fifth mandate.”
Ould Abdel Aziz’s supporters credit him with clamping down on corruption and growing the country’s economy, including increasing electricity output five-fold, bringing clean drinking water to remote regions and building thousands of kilometres of roads.
However, the International Monetary Fund said the development projects had increased public debt to more than 70% of gross domestic product this year.
Ould Abdel Aziz, who rose to power in 2008 after leading a coup that deposed elected Mauritanian President Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi, vowed to free Mauritania from the “mufsidines” (the corrupt).
He is accused by the opposition, however, of engaging in corrupt practices himself.
“President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz is the only Mauritanian head of state who is interested in building up a fortune and accumulating money,” said Mahfoud Ould Bettah, the head of the opposition Democratic Convergence Party.
Ould Abdel Aziz’s government has been criticised for failing to address the issue of slavery, which was not made illegal in Mauritania until 2007 and is still prevalent. The “Global Slavery Index” states that more than 1% of Mauritania’s population lived as a slave in 2015, one of the highest rates in the world. Two Mauritanian slave owners were sentenced in March to 10 and 20 years in prison, the harshest verdict ever handed down by a court there in such a case.
However, activists say the government has a long way to go to empower the country’s black population, which is largely excluded from top government jobs.
“Step by step, blacks are excluded from the administration,” said Mauritanian Professor Abdel Wedoud Ould Cheikh. “I believe that within five to six years, there will be none of them in the administration.”
By stepping down as president, Ould Abdel Aziz would join several African leaders working to enshrine democratic principles. In neighbouring Senegal, President Macky Sall called a referendum in 2016 to trim presidential terms from seven to five years, starting from the next election in 2019.
Ould Abdel Aziz assured supporters that his departure would not derail the stability of the country, which has seen numerous coup attempts since gaining independence from France in 1960.
“There will be no power vacuum,” said Ould Abdel Aziz at a meeting of top UPR officials in March. “We will continue together along the same path we started… We will not accept the reversal of the development process. We will continue such a process to make Mauritania a strong, independent and free state.”
Ould Abdel Aziz launched a nationwide membership campaign to strengthen the ruling UPR party, which dominates the parliament and local government.
Analysts said he was likely to be replaced by a leader of his choosing from the UPR, whose members include top government, military and security officials. Army Chief of Staff General Mohamed Ould al Ghazouani and former Army Colonel al Cheikh Oulbey, both of whom are closely linked to the president, are seen as the most likely successors.
Asked whom he intends to support for president next year, Ould Abdel Aziz said: “Everyone among the 3.5 million people in Mauritania has the right to be a candidate. I will support one of them.”