Mauritania’s ruling party picks army chief as heir to president

In November, Ould El Ghazouani, then army chief of staff, was appointed defence minister, replacing veteran politician Jallow Mamadou Bhatia and breaking a 23-year streak of a civilian holding the position.
Monday 04/02/2019
Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz arrives to launch the "Festival des villes anciennes" (Ancient cities Festival) in Oualata, southeastern Mauritania. (AFP)
Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz arrives to launch the "Festival des villes anciennes" (Ancient cities Festival) in Oualata, southeastern Mauritania. (AFP)

TUNIS - Mauritania’s ruling Union for the Republic party has selected Defence Minister Mohamed Ould el Ghazouani, the country’s top military general, to be its candidate for the 2019 presidential elections.

Ould el Ghazouani “represents the continuity of the current regime,” Union for the Republic Chairman Sidi Mohamed Ould Mham told party members in parliament January 31.

In November, Ould el Ghazouani, then army chief of staff, was appointed defence minister, 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. Current 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 Ould el Ghazouani had been picked almost unanimously by analysts as the most likely successor to Ould Abdel Aziz.

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.

“Our unity and support for this choice will ensure his success and sustain the continuity of the regime.”

Ould Abdel Aziz said he will step down at the end of his second term this year following the elections this summer. The transition reflects a growing shift towards democracy in Africa, with many long-standing leaders are struggling to stay in power.

By stepping down as president, Ould Abdel Aziz would further cement Mauritania into its West African environment and join African leaders working to instil democratic principles in their countries.

In neighbouring Senegal, President Macky Sall called a referendum in 2016 to trim presidential terms from seven to five years, effective after the next election in 2019.

Mauritanian analysts said Ould Abdel Aziz has been grooming Ould el Ghazouani and former Army Colonel Cheikh Ould Baya.

Ould Baya, a prominent Arab Berber, was appointed parliament speaker in October, breaking a long-standing tradition of a member of the Haratin community serving as speaker.

Haratins, Mauritania’s largest minority group, are a distinct ethnic group that descended mostly from black African slaves. They are discriminated against in the country, where many view them as an underclass.

Ould Adel Aziz’s supporters say Ould el Ghazouani’s military background factored in his selection as successor to the president. Mauritanian analysts argue, however, that Ould Baya could have mirrored Ould Abdel Aziz’s decision-making policy more closely than Ould el Ghazouani.

“Everybody knows that security is vital for development and that better-placed to lead are those with security background and skills,” said former parliament member and Ould Abdel Aziz supporter Mohamed Asseyed Klay. “The truth is that the military background is a badge of honour for (anyone) tasked with the country’s leadership.”

“Without the security and military background of Ould Abdel Aziz, Mauritania wouldn’t have been able to make big strides in development during the past decade and become the most stable and secure country in the region,” he added.

Opposition activist Mohamed Ould Baccar said he views Ould Abdel Aziz’s tenure in a different light and that military rule isn’t necessary to Mauritania’s success.

“Mauritania needs a break with Ould Abdel Aziz’s path and regime and it needs a change to the process, with clear policies and goals to remedy to the damages and waste Ould Abdel Aziz is leaving behind,” Ould Baccar said. “Does Mauritania really need a military rule disguised as a civilian just to be a functional formal democracy?”