Mauritanian president turns down suggestions of third term

Ould Abdel Aziz has announced he would step down at the end of his second term in accordance with a growing shift towards democracy in Africa.
Saturday 26/01/2019
Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz waves to the crowd as he arrives to launch the "Festival des villes anciennes" (Ancient cities Festival) in Oualata, southeastern Mauritania. (Reuters)
Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz waves to the crowd as he arrives to launch the "Festival des villes anciennes" (Ancient cities Festival) in Oualata, southeastern Mauritania. (Reuters)

TUNIS - Supporters of Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz lined the walls of Nouakchott with signs stating: “The people want a third mandate. Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz is the people’s choice.”

Other placards were hooked on utility poles reading: “Yes to a third mandate for Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz to continue the path.”

The president’s cousin Mohamed Yahia Ould al-Khorchi, who heads the parliamentarian wing of the ruling Union for the Republic party with an overwhelming majority in the legislative body, rallied two-thirds of the parliamentarians to sign a motion calling for a referendum to revise the constitution and allow the president a new mandate.

Opposition parties and allies of the president in the parliament called the move a “constitutional coup” staged at a time when Ould Abdel Aziz was visiting the United Arab Emirates and attending an Arab summit in Lebanon.

Opponents inside parliament and on the streets of the capital vowed “they will have to step over our corpses to succeed in their coup against the constitution.”

“This attempt to change the constitution in a political climate that is not conducive to a national entente will destroy all the democratic progress of the country and undermine its stability and future,” said former Prime Minister Sidi Mohamed Ould Boubacar.

Biram Ould Dah Ould Abeid, an opposition parliament member and anti-slavery advocate said: “The parliamentarians who seek to amend the constitution are a shame for the parliament and for the Mauritanian people.”

Ould Abdel Aziz has announced he will step down at the end of his second term in August 2019 in accordance with a growing shift towards democracy in Africa, where even long-standing leaders are struggling to keep power.

The attempt by some of his supporters to extend his stay in power in his absence surprised many of his backers because it came a few days after Ould Abdel Aziz gave further indications of his intention to leave office.

Ould Abdel Aziz addressed a march against hatred and discrimination January 9 in Nouakchott, delivering a speech that has been described as his “final political testament” before stepping down after ten years in power.

Ould Abdel Aziz stopped the bid when he issued a statement January 15 urging supporters “to end all the initiatives about revising the constitution to add another mandate.”

“I’m certain that the movement launched by the parliament members was out of good intention and reflects the sincere aim of keeping the country on the path of continuing its steady progress and growth amid security and stability,” he added.

Local analysts were divided about the meaning of the short-lived attempt to grant a third mandate for the president, with some dismissing statements by Ould Abdel Aziz’s backers that he was not aware of the move.

“The president’s statement carried a strong message. He put an end to the controversy about the third mandate by replying for the first time to his supporters,” said political writer Al Cheikh Mohamed Horma. “In the past, his answers were aimed at opponents but this time he answered to his majority, his supporters, to end any doubt.”

“President Ould Abdel Aziz had in the past defended the opinions of his backers as part of their rights to free opinion but his statement January 15 called on them to stop,” he added.

The president won rare praise from the opposition National Entente, which said it “appreciated his nationalist and democratic stand that gives priority to the nation’s best interests.”

“This position opens the door for him to make history,” it added.

Political writer Sid Ahmed Ould Bab said Ould Abdel Aziz’s statement was aimed at strengthening Mauritanians’ faith in the electoral process to select his replacement.

Analysts said Ould Abdel Aziz made a series of changes, including naming his close friends as parliament speaker and defence minister, to ensure that the “transition remains an operation under control” and “entrenches his influence after stepping down.”

Army Chief of Staff General Mohamed Ould el Ghazouani was appointed Mauritanian defence minister in December, replacing veteran politician Jallow Mamadou Bhatia.

Ghazouani 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 but then became president.