Mauritania’s government walks back leader’s pledge to step down

Ould Cheikh and other officials had expressed concerns that Ould Abdel Aziz’s departure could lead to a power vacuum.
Sunday 29/07/2018
Mauritania’s President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz at Nouakchott airport, on July 2. (AP)
For how long? Mauritania’s President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz at Nouakchott airport, on July 2. (AP)

TUNIS - The Mauritanian government told opposition leaders they would be chasing a mirage if they took for granted President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz’s pledge to step down from power next year.

In early July, Ould Abdel Aziz repeated a pledge he had made in February that he would step down when his second mandate ends before the end of 2019.

However, government spokesman Mohamed Lemine Ould Cheikh on July 19 said: “This regime will remain unchanged. Those (in the opposition) who are talking about the president quitting in the next 11 months or so are indulging in reverie.

“Those who are talking about the president leaving are driven by an illusion and are indulging in daydreams.”

Opposition groups assailed the government and urged judges to indict its spokesman for “violation of the constitution.” Others called on Ould Abdel Aziz to dismiss comments that caused confusion for fear they might lead to a military coup.

Rights activists and democracy advocates hailed Ould Abdel Aziz’s announcement that he would abide by the Mauritanian constitution’s two-term limit. He reiterated the pledge early in July during the African Union summit.

Pro-democracy activists said Ould Abdel Aziz’s handing power to an elected successor would support the shift towards democracy in Africa and make longstanding leaders who are striving to extend their stay in power an “increasingly embarrassed minority.”

“The president saved the country from the path of ruin where other countries are mired,” added Ould Cheikh, referring to countries hit by the “Arab spring” uprisings. “The future of Mauritania is entrusted with him and the Mauritanians are sticking to him and his leadership and he will not dash the hopes of the Mauritanians.”

Ould Cheikh and other officials had expressed concerns that Ould Abdel Aziz’s departure could lead to a power vacuum and harm the country’s stability and development.

Ould Abdel Aziz has said he would stay involved in politics and play an active role in his ruling Union for the Republic Party (UPR).

However, the strongly worded statement from Ould Cheikh as preparations began for campaigning for parliamentary, municipal and regional elections September 1 jolted the opposition.

A dozen political groups are fielding candidates to challenge UPR’s grip on power before the presidential elections next year.

Ould Abdel Aziz, who claimed 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.

Analysts said Ould Abdel Aziz’s achievements include strengthening Mauritanian stability, which was threatened by a divided opposition, factionalism in its military, racial and ethnic tensions and the country’s difficult regional environment.

They credited Ould Abdel Aziz with saving Mauritania from a fate like that of neighbouring Mali because he fought radical Islamists and criminal influences earlier.

Under his leadership, Mauritania, which had been considered the “weak link” in the Sahel, has taken a leading role in the fight against jihadists and terrorist groups. A Mauritanian general leads the regional military force called the G5.

Ould Abdel Aziz fought the spread of radical Islamism with a tough counterterrorism strategy and de-radicalisation efforts, including encouraging Islamist scholars to engage in debates about violence and opposition to governments in Islamic law.

No other country in the Sahel produces as many high-ranking jihadists and jihadist ideologues as Mauritania.

Ould Abdel Aziz did not comment on the government spokesman’s comments but he made political gestures to ease concerns about the future of the country without him at the helm by the end of 2019.

He appointed former Foreign Minister Mohamed Fal Ould Bilal to head the commission in charge of organising the elections. Ould Bilal, known for his sympathy to the opposition, replaced Didi Ould Bounama, after 17 opposition groups called for more neutral commission leadership.

Ould Abdel Aziz also ordered a census and registration of voters after opposition complaints about the lack of transparency regarding the size of the electorate, which totalled 1.4 million people in 2014.

The opposition has urged the president to reject statements claiming Ould Abdel Aziz would not abide by the constitution ending his stay in power next year.

Opposition centre-left Democratic Convergence Party (also known as “Democratic Regroupment Party”) warned that such “confusion would encourage army officers to plot a coup.”

The military remains the dominant body in Mauritania. Most of its top officers hail from Arab Moors and the majority of soldiers are from Haratin former slave families and other black Mauritanians.

Long-festering grievances of the Haratin and Afro-Mauritanians about racism and social and economic marginalisation are fuelling tensions and radicalisation in the two communities.