Mauritania’s opposition seeks candidate outside its divided ranks

Major divisions have risen between Sawab, the Muslim Brotherhood’s affiliate in Mauritania, and secularists.
Sunday 17/02/2019
A 2016 file picture shows members of the Mauritanian opposition taking part in a protest march in Nouakchott. (AFP)
‘Reform agenda’. A 2016 file picture shows members of the Mauritanian opposition taking part in a protest march in Nouakchott. (AFP)

TUNIS - Mauritania’s leading opposition parties plan to back an independent candidate in the upcoming presidential elections after failing to select a nominee from within their own ranks.

Leaders of the main opposition groups, including more than 30 centrist, secularist and Islamist parties, agreed in January to back a unified candidate, establishing a committee to decide on the nominee.

However, the group was unable to agree on a consensus candidate and issued a statement that the “committee is tasked to focus on a candidate from outside the opposition who would be backed by the opposition parties.”

Major divisions have risen between Sawab, the Muslim Brotherhood’s affiliate in Mauritania, and secularists. Sawab lobbied for Biram Dah Abeid, a prominent anti-slavery advocate, to its traditional support base.

Sawab’s leaders argued that Abeid would receive the most public support, increasing their odds against the government’s candidate, Defence Minister Mohamed Ould el Ghazouani.

Abeid, who leads the Initiative for the Resurgence of Abolitionism Movement in Mauritania, has been imprisoned three times, most recently in August ahead of national elections. Still, he was voted into parliament in September, after which he was freed from prison.

Abeid draws significant support from Mauritania’s large Haratin community, whose members are mostly descended from black former slaves. They are widely discriminated against, with many in Mauritania viewing them as an underclass.

Secularists insisted on nominating Mohamed Ould Mouloud, head of the Union of Progressive Forces.

Unable to overcome division, the opposition committee set out to recruit an independent candidate. Local media said the committee shortlisted former Prime Minister Sidi Mohamed Ould Boubacar and former Senator El Cheikh Ould Sidi Ould Hanna for the position.

Political writers and intellectuals partial to the opposition argued it should negotiate with the government to put forward a reform agenda in exchange for electoral support.

“The opposition has to decide what it wants from its participation in the elections. Does it seek to voice its positions or create change?” asked political writer Sidi Mohamed Younes. “If the aim of the opposition is to win power through elections, the way to the power is barricaded by tanks and ammunition boxes.”

Younes and others supporting the opposition urged it to select an independent candidate acceptable to the “regime’s constituencies” or back Ould el Ghazouani.

“If it wants to follow the ‘plebiscite way,’ the opposition should open a dialogue with the government’s candidate in return for conditions including that the elections campaign be open and fair, the lineup of the next government be inclusive and better foundations for next local, parliament and presidential elections to open the way for a genuine power change in the future,” Younes said.

“Those in power now fear the risks of a takeover by the opposition that suffered marginalisation, loss of rights and other hardships for 28 years,” he added.

Ould el Ghazouani “represents the continuity of the current regime,” Sidi Mohamed Ould Mham, chairman of Mauritania’s ruling Union for the Republic Party, said to party members in January.

Ould el Ghazouani, army chief of staff, was appointed defence minister in November, replacing veteran politician Jallow Mamadou Bhatia and ending a 23-year tradition of a civilian holding the position.

Ould el Ghazouani was among those dismissed in 2008 by former President Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi. Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, then head of the presidential guard, was also fired at that time but became president in a military coup later that year.

The two former generals have maintained close ties and analysts had almost unanimously predicted that Ould el Ghazouani would be Ould Abdel Aziz’s successor.

Ould el Ghazouani “has a profound knowledge of the issues as he was familiar with the security and political situations during the [entirety of the previous administration],” Mham said. “He is one of the main pillars of the regime.”

Ould Abdel Aziz said he would step down this year at the end of his second term following elections this summer. By peacefully handing over the presidency, Ould Abdel Aziz would move Mauritania closer in line with the rest of West Africa and join African leaders working to instil democratic principles at home.