Mauritania’s former president chairs panel signalling powerplay for political comeback

Eight opposition groups called on Mauritanians to demonstrate against Ould Abdel Aziz’s political comeback December 7, citing concerns about a potential power struggle between him and Ould el  Ghazouani.
Sunday 01/12/2019
Mauritania’s former president Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz at Nouakchott airport. (Reuters)
Comeback kid. Mauritania’s former president Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz at Nouakchott airport. (Reuters)

TUNIS - Former Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz made a surprising political comeback to claim the leadership of the country’s ruling party, provoking stormy reactions from backers of his successor, Mohamed Ould el Ghazouani, and opposition parties a few months after a rare power transition in the West African nation.

Ould Abdel Aziz emphasised his return to the political fray November 15 by chairing a five-hour meeting of the managing committee of the ruling Union for the Republic Party to “discuss the party’s situation and its prospects.”

The party issued an ostentatious statement to mark the political territory of the former president and to distance itself from Ould el Ghazouani in a break from a tradition according to which the ruling party embraced the new president and ignored his predecessor.

“Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz urged the committee members to go ahead in the efforts to achieve the party’s aim to forge a societal project that meets the expectations of Mauritanian society,” the party said in a statement after the meeting.

Mauritanian analysts said the carefully worded statement underscored Ould Abdel Aziz’s ambitions to claim a leading role alongside the president with the eight-paragraph statement repeating six times that Ould Abdel Aziz is the “party’s founder” while making reference to Ould el Ghazouani only in the seventh paragraph where he is called “his Excellency the president” — not the usual “his Excellency the president of the Republic.”

The statement also said “the party has no links to persons and the government” — in stark contrast to the party’s role and ties with the government as a ruling party during Ould Abdel Aziz’s tenure.

Ould Abdel Aziz’s move jolted Ould el Ghazouani’s backers in the party after the president had met top figures in the party at the presidency to mull over ways to damp the incipient political power struggle.

A gathering of the 27-member managing committee of the party November 26 showed that 18 members were siding with Ould el Ghazouani as “the exclusive reference to the party” while nine remained loyal to Ould Abdel Aziz.

Ould el Ghazouani’s backers in the committee said in a statement that “the Union for the Republic Party’s political reference stems absolutely and exclusively from his Excellency the President of the Republic Mohamed Ould Cheikh el Ghazouani and his political programme, which had gained the confidence of the Mauritanian people in general and the party’s members.

“We urge the party’s members and leaders to avoid disagreement and unify the ranks to make Mauritania strong, free and prosperous.”

Supporters of Ould el Ghazouani in the party argued that lashing up the group, with the biggest numbers of deputies in the parliament, to the president will strengthen political stability.

They were challenged by their colleagues in the party siding with Ould Abdel Aziz, who insists Ould el Ghazouani was not a member of the party and the move to tie the party to him was “illegal and unconstitutional.”

“Be sure, brother Aziz, that we will confront you if you become the symbol of the rebellion against the political and constitutional legitimate order,” said Mohamed Ould Mham, the party’s chief under Aziz’s presidency.

“I beg you in the name of the strong bonds between us to stop this,” he tweeted to his former mentor.

Local media reported that Ould el Ghazouani told top government officials and party leaders at a meeting in the presidency November 25 that “his relation with Ould Abdel Aziz is exceptional, combining brotherhood, comradeship and friendship.”

“It is wrong to believe that those who abuse my friend and predecessor will gain proximity with me. We all worked together inside the regime to further the country’s interests,” Ould el Ghazouani was quoted as saying.

Local media also quoted Ould el Ghazouani as “insisting that the party is fundamental to be the political arm of his power.”

Speaking at his home in the capital, Nouakchott, Ould Abdel Aziz told his supporters: “Ould el Ghazouani intervened in the party’s decision and activities. He has no right to do so.

“What Ould el Ghazouani had undertaken is not constitutional. The constitution bars the president from being member or leader of a party.

“I will oppose that with all means. Those who are with me on that must say it,” he added.

Ould el Ghazouani was elected president as the ruling party’s candidate with 52% of the votes in June 22 elections, ushering a rare peaceful power change in a country often plagued by turbulence and military coups.

Ould Abdel Aziz has been widely praised for stepping down at the end of two mandates to respect the constitution that limits the president to two terms of five years each.

Ould Abdel Aziz is credited with bringing about political stability, security and relative economic and social development in the desert nation in West Africa at the front line of a global fight against jihadists in the Sahel African area.

But his abrupt return to the political scene prompted fears about political stability as no president in Mauritania ever tolerated his predecessor’s control of the ruling party.

Eight opposition groups called on Mauritanians to demonstrate against Ould Abdel Aziz’s political comeback December 7, citing concerns about a potential power struggle between him and Ould el Ghazounani.

“Does Ould Abdel Aziz restrict himself to eat grapes of politics after the wine of power? That’s the question Mauritanians keep asking since Ould Abdel Aziz stepped down,” said political writer Cheikh Mohamed Horma.

“Hints of an answer to that question began to surface after Ould Abdel Aziz returned from abroad and immediately held the party’s leadership meeting,” he added.

“He signalled that he does not want the status of a former president. He seeks the leadership of the party to bolster his claim of sharing power with the president.”

“Such power-sharing never happened in Mauritania. The seat of power cannot be divided by two,” Horma said.