Mauritania's new president sets down his mark in volatile country

Fresh elections are a long way off.  Parliamentary polls set for 2023 and the next presidential race for 2024.
Thursday 02/01/2020
President Mohamed Ould Cheikh El Ghazouani of Mauritania addresses the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly, Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2019. (AP)
President Mohamed Ould Cheikh El Ghazouani of Mauritania addresses the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly, Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2019. (AP)

NOUAKCHOTT - Fewer than six months after he was elected, Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Ghazouani has consolidated power, leaving on the sidelines his predecessor and one-time mentor, Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, a soldier who ran the country for 10 years.

Early in 2019, suspicions ran high that Ould Abdel Aziz, who gained power in a bloodless coup in 2008, wanted to breach the constitution and run for a third term. Instead, the former general backed his loyal aide and defence minister, Ould Ghazouani.

When Ould Ghazouani took office in August, he swiftly consolidated power, dashing Ould Abdel Aziz's hopes of rallying his support base and manipulating parliament.

Many people saw Ould Ghazouani, a one-time chief of general staff, as the mastermind behind a security strategy that kept jihadist movements out of Mauritania even as they ravaged parts of neighbouring Mali.

His victory at the polls in June became little more than a formality once he had enough support nationwide from the Union for the Republic (UPR), a party founded by Ould Abdel Aziz in 2009, who won his first 5-year term that year.

The change of regime was the first transfer of power between two elected heads of state in the vast Sahara country on Africa's Atlantic coast, which was shaken by multiple coups from 1978-2008.

Before the vote, Ould Abdel Aziz signalled he would not quit politics and intended to retain control of the UPR but his protege made it clear he had no intention of handing back the reins.

"President Ould Ghazouani is a calm, discreet, cultivated man steeped in Mauritanian values," said writer Idoumou Abbass. "Moreover, Mauritanians have just discovered that the president's calm demeanour hides a man of power, decisive and a great strategist."

Ould Ghazouani's cool assertion of authority came as a bitter shock to his predecessor, who long muzzled the opposition and ruled for a decade. The new leader dismissed the heads of the presidential guard appointed by Ould Abdel Aziz and, at the end of December, won the backing of the UPR during its party congress, which notably was not attended by its founder.

Some 2,250 party delegates elected a new National Council without opposition.

To lead the council and the party, the National Council appointed Ould Ghazouani's chosen candidate, Sidi Mohamed Ould Taleb Amar, who had departed from domestic politics for more than 10 years to serve as Mauritania's ambassador to China, Russia and the United Nations.

"This is a time of consensus around our President Ould Ghazouani, who has convinced everybody, including the opposition. Nobody speaks any more of the other (Ould Abdel Aziz), except on social media. He should go into retirement," UPR member Ahmed Ould Salem said during the congress, despite long-standing support for the former president.

Ould Abdel Aziz ruled Mauritania with an iron rod, jailing senators who opposed his abolition of the "useless, expensive" upper house after a controversial 2017 referendum in which a majority of 85% was officially held to agree with him. In contrast, Ould Ghazouani has given repeated signs of being open to contrary views at the same time as he broadens his political support base.

"He presented himself as a man of dialogue and consensus when speaking as a candidate and he has governed the country for five months in a way that confirms this," Abbass said.

On December 28, the UPR admitted four new parties into its coalition, including Adil, an opposition movement whose two members of parliament will strengthen the large majority the UPR enjoys in the chamber.

The new head of state has also won over Sidi Mohamed Ould Boubacar, a former prime minister who was third in last year's presidential election. After a meeting with Ould Ghazouani, Ould Boubacar hailed his "great capacity to listen and his full readiness to meet all political forces."

Clearly feeling his own party slip from his grasp, Ould Abdel Aziz appeared at a news conference during which he denounced "undermining, unconstitutional action, in total illegality, on the part of people who are not even members of the party, by the order of the authorities."

He raised the possibility of founding a new party but the official media did not attend the briefing.

Fresh elections are a long way off, however, with parliamentary, regional and district polls in 2023 and the next presidential race not until 2024.