The Western Sahara Sand Trap

Sand Berm, Western Sahara
Photo: AFP
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The world has changed in many ways in the past 50 years. Global population has doubled, and well over half of the people alive in the world today were born after the United Nations requested, in 1965, that Spain de-colonise the territory of Western Sahara, which it had occupied since the late 19th century. But Spain would not relinquish the last colonial country in Africa so readily, and for the next 7 years the request for Spain to organise a referendum to establish the will of the people with regard to the future of Western Sahara was an annual fixture on the UN agenda.

To break out of this state of political limbo required more than a yearly repetition of the referendum request. The POLISARIO (Frente Para la Liberación de Saguia Al Hamra y Rio de Oro) was established in 1973 to force a change in tempo, by voicing the demands of the Saharawi and confronting the Spanish military. The initial impact seemed promising: the following year the first census was conducted and hopes began to rise that a lasting solution for independence was at hand. Those hopes evaporated as neighbouring Mauritania and Morocco replaced Spain as occupiers in 1976, and began a military pincer movement against the Saharwi. Increasingly, local inhabitants were driven into desert regions or to Algeria as refugees, victims of ambitious geopolitical competition between Morocco, which continues to uphold its territorial claims, and Mauritania, which eventually relinquished and withdrew.

Sand Berm, Western Sahara Photo: AFP

Sand Berm, Western Sahara
Photo: AFP

And that is where we find the Saharwi today. Trapped in the sand behind a gigantic berm 2,700 kilometers long, laced with unknown thousands of landmines, heavily guarded by an estimated 100,000 Moroccan troops, with UN peacekeeping force MINURSO deployed to ensure the 1991 ceasefire agreement is upheld. Despite voting in favour of it, the Kingdom of Morocco has still not acceded to the Mine Ban Treaty and, while both sides have agreed to cooperate with MINURSO to identify and remove mines and other unexploded ordnance, the berm is not included in the agreement. All major settlements, including the capital, are on the side occupied by Morocco, which encourages settlers and enters into trading agreements for Western Saharan resources such as phosphates, oil, fisheries, and even the sand. Goods produced in the occupied territory are regularly discovered being mislabelled “Made in Morocco”. All of these infractions are vigorously denounced by activists, with some notable successes in recent years.

Photo: canariasahora.es

Saharwi Refugees
Photo: canariasahora.es

On the other side of this monstrous wall the Saharwi wait to reclaim their rights, while their resources are plundered. They live on the goodwill of others, humanitarian assistance and charitable donations, while the wealth of their land lines the coffers of Morocco. It is estimated that between 90,000 and 165,000 people are living in the 5 camps they created over thirty years ago, when they fled the fighting. A reliable population census would facilitate the referendum these people were promised, which explains the wide gap between the lower estimate from Morocco and the upper estimate from the Saharwi. They didn’t expect to be living in these camps for so many years, decades even. Some of them have family on the other side of the barrier they have not seen for 30 years. MINURSO tries to arrange reunions, but the list is long and only a few people at a time can be granted this brief respite.

Gdeim Izik camp destroyed by military to crush 2010 protests

Gdeim Izik camp destroyed by military to crush 2010 protests

The record of human rights abuse against the Saharwi is appalling, including aerial bombardment, the use of white phosphorous, arbitrary detention, torture, persecution, and rape.  Although this situation has existed for many years, the UN envoy requested an extension of MINURSO’s mandate after the brutal repression of a mass demonstration and sit-in at Laayoune on 10 November 2010. Some keen-eyed observers have labeled this event as the true beginning of the uprisings that have engulfed the region since then, the so-called “Arab Spring”.  After a two-year delay, Saharwi activists were given sentences ranging between 20 years and life in a military trial, condemned by Amnesty International as “flawed from the outset.” The protests, and the military repression against them, continue. The UN mission is not documenting human rights abuses in Western Sahara, so activists have created their own crowdsource space to gather reports and evidence.

Most fascinating, that  in this desert wilderness against a backdrop of despair, democracy has bloomed. The POLISARIO has a functioning government supported by local committees, and a refreshingly progressive attitude towards equality and discrimination on gender, education, disability, and religion. Communities had no choice but to adapt to develop, improving in stages with each successive generation of these fiercely independent and strong-willed people. As often happens under extreme hardship and oppression, creative pursuits, especially music and community events, play a very important role in Saharwi culture. One of the best-known musical artists, Mariem Hassan, is welcomed around the world. This October, a repeat of the hugely successful FiSahara Film Festival is planned. The project is run by the Spanish Network of Organizations in Solidarity with the Western Sahara (CEAS), a non-profit NGO based in Spain with humanitarian projects in the Saharwi refugee camps. Organisers are currently processing registrations, and making arrangements to house visitors with refugee families from 8 to 13 October in the Tindouf camp. They are looking for volunteers to help with everything from maintaining the website to promoting the event.

Photo: festivalsahara.com

Photo: festivalsahara.com

How much longer can this situation endure? With the increasing availability of the internet facilitating information sharing, and the development of online social and support networks, the story of the Saharwi is beginning to spread despite these long years of ignorance, and Morocco’s determination to suppress information. Those monitoring the situation in Mali also have a wary eye on Western Sahara, and some analysts probe the possible dynamics of relationships between the POLISARIO rebels, the MNLA, and sundry Islamist groups currently occupying large areas of northern Mali, especially as the 3 aid workers kidnapped from the Tindouf camp in October 2011 were in the hands of such groups.  As Saharwi youth become increasingly frustrated with the status quo, some feel the time is right for a change, even breaking the truce, if the UN can’t get its act together and force a referendum in the very near future. This makes them a choice target for recruitment by the rebel gangs who support their antics by trafficking people, drugs, contraband, and weapons across the Sahel region.

The Day That Lost Rights for Women

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I find it interesting that March 8th is now “International Women’s Day” – not “International Women’s Rights Day”. This could be a real step forward, to the day when we don’t have “women’s” anything any more. The day when we see that we don’t need it, and that singling out one gender when we only have two is self-defeating and obvious. Imagine you had two children, a girl and a boy, would you only celebrate your daughter’s birthday?

The name may have lost its specific focus on rights now, but it does afford the opportunity to raise awareness about women who are great role models. Not all of them faced a struggle to earn their rights, yet they deserve that accolade, and many have interesting stories to share. I have no problem with them doing that all year round.

High (female) achievers aside, the fact remains that for millions of women, fighting for their rights is a daily battle. I love and respect these women every day.  Here are the posters I made to celebrate just a few of them, finding my inspiration in the original meaning of March 8th as their day to get recognition, and our day to give it.

 

And here are some closing thoughts as we bid farewell to that one day of the year dedicated to my gender

I think we can only have equality if there is also one day of every year devoted to equal rights for men – if men being denied their rights are a minority group, that only strengthens my conviction.

I wish we lived in a world where such events were not deemed necessary – I would especially not miss the ghastly rhetoric and those patronising videos featuring “songs by international artists”.

Today, as in previous years, I have read too many well-intentioned posts praising women for their physical or personal charms, as if this was a day set aside for chauvinists to thank women for submitting to being objectified by them throughout the year.

I believe, if mothers raise their children as equals,
and if teachers educate students as equals,
and never yield, relent or make excuses,
and stop cheering for every right “won” as if it was not a right at all, but a gift,
then eventually, gender equality would become a mundane reality.

Timbuktu Who’s Who

Mokhtar "Marlboro Man" Belmokhtar
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First Published: 12 July 2012. Updated: 8 February 2013

Jump to News Update Notes

MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad)

MNLA Leadership

The MNLA is a very recent organisation with a very old cause: the Tuareg have been fighting an insurgency against the central power in Mali since the late 1950s and openly fighting since 1963. This incarnation was created in September 2011 with the arrival of ex-soldiers from Libya after the fall of Gaddafi. They would like a separate state from Mali for the Tuareg people, who have lived in the region for centuries. They offer no explanation for their desire to settle down despite being a nomadic race, or for their decision to select part of only one country from the half a dozen where Tuareg originate.

Leaders

Bilal ag Cherif, is primary leader as General Secretary of the MNLA. He studied in Libya.

Mohamed ag Najim, emigrated to Libya after the big drought of 1973 He had a successful military career and ranked as Colonel and Guide to the Libyan army. Today he is the military leader and a driving force of MNLA.

Nina Wallet Intalou

Nina Wallet Intalou (Photo: El Pais / J. Naranjo)

Nina Wallet Intalou described as the « passionaria » of Malian Tuaregs. She is the only woman in the MNLA leadership. Intalou was elected mayor of Kidal in Northern Mali in 1997, but could never carry out her duties because the Islamists refused to recognise a woman as Mayor. She is close to Mohamed ag Najim and is opposed to Ansar Dine and Iyad ag Ghali because of his links to Al Qaeda (AQIM), insisting he can never be pardoned because of the harm he has done to their cause.

Mossa Ag Attaher

Mossa Ag Attaher

Other members include Magdi Ag Bohada, MNLA political bureau member in charge of North Africa relations; Abdallah Al-Taouss, Deputy Chief of Staff; and MNLA Communications Officer Mossa Ag Attaher , and the official representative for ex-pats, Human Rights and Humanitarianism, Ibrahim Ag Mohamed Assaleh.

Worth a mention is Colonel Habi Ag al Sallat [video], who is said to have fled Ansongo along with MNLA VP Mahamadou Djeri Maiga and a few others, after threats from MUJAO and was later reported to be in Niger’s capital, Niamey.  Via our friend Tommy Miles, some info on Moussa Ag Acharatoumane: the original MNA guy from October 2010, who was arrested in Timbuktu (along with Ag Fadil). He was evicted from MNLAmov.net around March 2012. Also, Hassan Ag Mehdi – generally known by his nickname “Jimmy-le-rebele”, who’s joined and left almost every group.

There are occasional press mentions of various MNLA spokesmen and other associates aligned with the movement, such as Acheick Ag Mohamed and Acherif Ag Intakwa on the Toumast Press website. The MNLA has denied claims that it owns heavy armaments from Libya  and is estimated to have 2-3,000 fighters – about the same as the Islamist groups combined.

Abdallah Al-Taouss, Deputy Chief of Staff, MNLA

Colonel Habi Ag al Sallat, Deputy Chief of Staff, MNLA

I originally used this image from a June 2012 youtube video, identifying the man on camera as Abdallah Al-Taouss. But then 27 November 2012, someone sent me a screengrab from an exclusive AlJazeera item which identifies the man, correctly, as Colonel Habi Ag al Sallat. I guess that is one way to boost the numbers.

Members Of The State of Azawad Transitional Council (TCSA)
(as of 15 January 2013)
President Mr. Bilal Ag Cherif
Vice-President Mr. Mahamadou Djeri Maiga
Defence and Military Relations Colonel Mohamed Ag Najim
Interior Security Mr. Sidi Mohamed Ag Saghid
Justice Mr. Ben Bella Assayid
Foreign Affairs Mr. Ibrahim Ag Mohamed Assaleh
Territorial Administration Mr. Alla Ag Elmehdi
Culture, Arts and Tourism Mr. Mahmoud Ag Aghaly
Communication Mr. Mossa Ag Attaher
Health Mr. Abdul karim Ag Matafa
Human Rights Mr. Moussa Ag Acharatoumane
Preaching and Islamic Orientation Mr. Mohamed Ag Moussa
Veterans and Martyrs’ Families Mr. Youssouf Ag Acheickh
Energy and Mines Mr. Ahmed Mohamed Ag Aguidy
Legal Affairs Mr. Mohamed Ag Habaye
Financial Mr. Altanata Ag Ebalagh
Women, Children and Family Mrs. Lalla Wallet Mohamed
Transport and Roads Mr. Ould Sidaghmar Ahwaïssine
Livestock and Farming Mr. Mohamed Ibrahim Ag Ghabdy
Environment Mr. Ag Baye Diknane
Youth and Sports Mr. Salah Mohamed Ahmed Abba
Telecommunications Colonel Assalat Ag Haby
Agriculture and Resources Fish Farms Mr. Seydou Abdoulaye Dicko
National Dress and Costumes Mr. Mohamed Ousmane Ag Mohamedoune
Domains and Public Benefits Colonel Hassan Ag Fagaga
Planning and Statistics Mr. Ambeïry Ag Rhissa
Water Mr. Mohamed Maiga Zeyni Aguissa
Trade Mr. Souleymane Akli Iknane Ag
Social Cohesion and National Reconciliation Mr. Mohamed Ag Intalla
Humanitarian Assistance and Refugees Ms. Nina Wallet Intalou
Economy Mr. Zeid Ag Kiri
Employment and Vocational Training Colonel Mohamed Ag Mohamed Assaleh Rhissa
CTEA Presidency Spokesperson Mr. Hamma Ag Sidahmad

Republican Movement for the Reconstruction of Azawad (MRRA)

Colonel El-Hadj Ag Gamou, who claimed to have deserted the Malian army to join the MNLA but retained his uniform, to “differentiate himself from the likes of ag Ghali”, announced the birth of this militant breakaway movement with 1,000 Songhai, Fula, Arab and Touareg members and 250 military vehicles on 13 May 2012. The goals were to combat Islamic armed groups in northern Mali and to demand political autonomy for Azawad, according to spokesperson Ishaq Ag Housseyni. Colonel Ag Gamou later sought refuge with his men in  Niger.

National Congress of Azawad

A separatist movement which claims to be aligned with the MNLA and led by Abu Bakr al-Ansari, a Touareg from the Kalnassar tribe. Abu Bakr al-Ansari is described in media reports as an analyst and journalist at Le Quotidien who specialises in the ongoing conflict in Mali. He tends to run interference, popping up in the media giving interviews that contradict statements from the MNLA.

Al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)

formerly the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC)

Abdelmalek Droukdel, leader of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), with his fighters in Mali

AQIM was created in September 2006 after the dissolution of the Salafist Group for preaching and Combat (GSPC) which itself evolved out of the Armed Islamic Group of Algeria, (GIA). They are thought to be very well armed and trained in the use of sophisticated weaponry.

Leaders

Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud (a.k.a. Abdelmalek Droukdel) born April 20, 1970. Wadoud earned a university degree in mathematics before joining the insurgency in 1996, and was a regional leader of the GSPC for several years before becoming the group’s commander in 2004.

Abou Zeid

Abdelhamid Abou Zeid

Jamal Akasha, aka Yahya Abu al-Hamam/ Yahia Djouadi/ Abu Ammar/Abu Al Hammam, an Algerian born 1978 in Reghaia, near Algiers, is current senior emir of AQIM, replacing the late Nabil Abu Alqama, another Algerian, senior leader and negotiator for hostage deals (real name Nabil Makhloufi). Leader of the Tarek Ibn Ziyad brigade Abdelhamid Abou Zeid reports to Yahya Abu al-Hamam.  Abou Zeid “The Russian”, real name Mohamed Ghedir, is an Algerian born 12 December 1965 in Touggourt who fought in the ranks of the GSPC, and the main emir in northern Mali.

al-Furqan katiba leader Mohamed Lamine Ould Hacen aka Abdel al Chinguetti

The al-Furqan batallion, a group of mostly Mauritanian and Malian fighters which operates in the region north of Timbuktu along the Mauritanian border, is led by a Mauritanian – Mohamed Lamine Ould Hacen aka Abdel al Chinguetti. Born in Nouakchott in 1981, Ould Hacen graduated in 2006 from ISERI, despite being jailed for over a year for his membership of a jihadist group. He resurfaced as an AQIM spokesman after being released from prison. This group is thought to be holding two of the French hostages abducted from Niger, Thierry Dol and Daniel Larribe.

Sahel Emirs Ould Hacen and ​​Abou Zeid have additional senior-level associates, such as Mauritanian Abu Anis Chinguetti, whose real name is Abderrahmane Tandaghi.

Abou Abdelkarim aka Le Targui (real name Hamada ag-Hama) leads the al-Ansar katiba based near Ain Khalil in the far north-east of Mali. Le Targui is responsible for the 2010 kidnapping and later killing of the elderly French aid worker Michel Germaneau, and for drug trafficking via Colombian cartels in Guinea-Bissau. This group is thought to be holding two of the French hostages abducted from Niger, Pierre Legrand and Marc Ferrer.

Oumar Hamaha, now Islamist group MUJAO  military chief

Oumar Amarha aka Omar Hamaha/Hamha or “Omar Redbeard”, a seasoned AQIM operative, previously involved in the 2008 kidnappings of Western envoys in Niger, and went on to become military commander of MUJAO  (or Ansar Dine, depending which stories you read)..

AQIM’s judicial commission head Abderrahmane Abou Ishak Essoufi (real name Necib Tayeb) is currently detained in Algeria.

Freelancers – Opportunists – Rent-a-Rebel, Inc.

Mokhtar "Marlboro Man" Belmokhtar

Mokhtar “Marlboro Man” Belmokhtar

News in December of his decision to split from AQIM – or being kicked out, depending on source – means a new section needed here just for Mokhtar Belmokhtar, aka Khaled Abou al-Abass, “Bellawar” or “Marlboro Man”, an Algerian born c1972  in picturesque Ghardaia, in the region of m’Zab. He is involved with trafficking of Nigerien migrants and drugs to Europe and, as a member of the GSPC, led the 2005 attack on an outpost in which Mauritanian soldiers suffered heavy losses. He is sometimes credited with pioneering the Sahel franchise of hostage-taking for profit. His on-off relationship with AQIM could be attributed a genuine conflict of interests, a lack of adherence to the Islamic faith or jihad on his part, or simply a ploy to keep people guessing.

December 2012 saw the announcement that Belmokhtar had created a new battalion “Signed in Blood” to complement his existing “Masked” battalion.  Enticing claims emerged in January 2013 that the new katiba includes sympathisers from Western nations, and a few news items have indeed hinted at the presence of Europeans and Russians, while the unit that raided In Amenas gas plant in Algeria included 2 Canadians.

Ansar Dine ‘Defenders of Faith’

Also transliterated Ançar DineAnçar Deen or Ansar al-Din

Ivorian Ahmed El Guedir (L), one of the Ansar Dine “Islamic police”, patrolling the streets of Gao, northern Mali, on July 16, 2012 — Photo by AFP / ISSOUF SANOGO

In the rebel-held areas, this group is the one being reported – and sometimes, misreported – as terrorising Malian people. They have destroyed Islamic sites in Timbuktu, and are rigorously enforcing Sharia law. The group’s members are mainly from Mali, Algeria and Nigeria, with reports of members from further afield arriving to join them, as well as a recruitment campaign said to be targeting local youth and children.

Ansar al-Din leader Iyad ag Ghaly

Iyad ag Ghaly aka Abu al-Fadl, a Malian of the Ifoghas tribe born in 1958 ,and  a “born-again Muslim” who went to Libya at the age of 20 to learn Arabic, and spent years in Ghaddafi’s army before returning to lead a failed rebellion in Mali. In 1991 he signed an agreement with the Malian army which sparked controversy within the MPLA and caused it to split. Ag Ghaly remained the leader of one of the four splinter groups, though he was rumoured to have ties with the Malian government and the Algerian military intelligence. In 2006, he was involved in the Tuareg uprising against the Malian Army. Despite this, in 2007 he was “rehabilitated” as an ambassador to Saudi Arabia, until unsavoury exploits got him kicked out.

In late 2011, ag Ghaly attempted to assume the leadership of the Tuareg Ifoghas tribal group Kel Adagh, but failed. Unable to take a leadership role with the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), ag Ghaly announced the formation of the Islamist Ansar Dine.

Senda Ould Bouamama of Ansar Dine

Sanda Ould Bouamama (see also below: Ansar al Sharia)

Few other names or details of Ansar Dine members are being published, but mediators Cheick ag Wissa (ag Ghali’y right-hand man) and Kidal-based Algabass ag Intalla (now leading the break-away MIA) were interviewed during their trip to Bur­kina Faso for negotiations at the end of June, and AFP produced the photo below. Ag Intallah is said to be friendly with Qatar’s royal family, helping arrange hunting trips in the Sahara for them. There is often mention in news reports of a spokesman: Timbuktu-based Sanda  (Senda / Sindh) Ould Bouamama, once jailed as a threat to security in Mauritania, who talks to media agencies such as Associated Press and Reuters by telephone. Ag Ghaly’s representative in Algeria is named was Mohamed Ag Aharib, reported here as having joined the MIA in the January 2013 split.

The man being credited with overseeing Ansar Dine’s controversial and often brutal adherence to strict Sharia principles in Timbuktu, Mohamed Ag Mossa, was only identified after being named in the new MNLA council line-up (see above) and was almost immediately reported kidnapped, and shortly after claimed to have been arrested by the MNLA. (see 1 and 4 Feb 2013 update below) .

Chief Ansar Dine negotiator Cheick ag Wissa, right, and (former member) Alghabass ag Intalla. Photo: AFP

Islamic Movement of Azawad (MIA)

A break-way group from Ansar Dine which announced on 25 January 2013 it had split from the religious extremist group, pledging to negotiate “a peaceful solution” and an inclusive political settlement to the crisis in Mali. The group indicated it might be willing to fight against its former comrades in arms, and claimed no links to the other two main groups, AQIM and MUJAO. According to the statement, the MIA is entirely made up of Malians, and headed by Alghabass Ag Intalla, an Ansar Dine leader with a lot of local influence in Kidal, who toyed with joining the MNLA at the start of their campaign. Ansar Din leader Iyad Ag Ghaly’s representative in Algeria, Mohamed Ag Aharib, is also reported to have joined the new group.

Movement for United Jihad in West Africa (Mujao)

MUJAO leader Hamada Ould Khaïrou

This group is frequently cited as having taken control of the entire north of Mali from the Tuareg separatists, but in fact the region is dotted with factions. MUJAO members originate from an African division of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb which includes Algerians, Mauritanians, Nigerians, Senegalese and Malians.

They are believed to have gathered 45m Euros from ransoms for kidnapped Westerners, and have returned only 3 of  the 7 Algerian diplomats taken hostage in Gao in April, later claiming to have killed vice-consul, Tahar Touati in September. Algeria refuted their claim for lack of evidence. A later video showed only three of the diplomatic hostages.

Hamada Ould Khairou is recognised as the creator and inspirational leader of the group. Mauritanian authorities claimed to have issued an international arrest warrant for him on 28 December 2011, but there is no record to match on the Interpol Red Notice Wanted List as yet.

Second in command is Mauritanian Abu Qumqum, born 1970 in Nouakchott.

Adnan Abu Walid Sahraoui

Other key members are Algerian Ahmed Al-Talmasi and Malian Sultan Ould Badi, who is defined by Malian authorities as a drug trafficker. A spokesman named Adnan Abu Walid Sahraoui responded in May 2012 to a question from AFP about the European aid workers taken hostage from Tindouf Saharawi camp in Algeria in October 2011, for whom ransom of 30 million Euro was demanded (and 15 million claimed to have been received after their 17 July 2012 release), and the remaining 4 of the 7 Algerian diplomats taken in Gao in April 2012, with a ransom demand of 15 million. Someone identified in the media as Abdoul Hicham was quoted when MUJAO claimed the abduction of Gilberto Rodriguez Leal in November 2012.

In December 2012, MUJAO formed a new batallion “Ansar al-Sunnah” composed mainly of local youth. Meanwhile the “Salah Eddin” group was founded by Sultan Ould Badi. This clique is the ethnic complement to Ansar al-Sunnah, with mainly Arab youth from Tilemsi tribal villages further north of the Gao stronghold. Members of these new groups could very well be the youth that we’ve heard about being recruited and trained over the past several months, and that raises the spectre of child soldiers in active combat.

Ansar al-Sharia

Formed December 2012 by radical followers of Islam in Gao, thought to be controlled by MUJAO’s military chief, Oumar Hamaha. Most leaders are said to belong to the Timbuktu region’s Berabiche tribe, with ties to Ansar Dine’s official spokesman Sanda Ould Bouamama. Ansar al-Sharia is believed to have spread to several countries in the wider region – Tunisia, Morocco, Libya – since it’s original founding in Yemen by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in April 2011. Its creed has been publicised to radical groups by a Mauritanian Salafi preacher, Abu Mondhar al-Chinguetti.

APF (Azawad Popular Front)

Colonel Hassane Ag Fagaga- APF, former MNLA

Colonel Hassane Ag Mehdi – APF, former MNLA

The brainchild of a former army officer and later MNLA security official in Gao, Colonel Hassane Ag Mehdi aka Jimmy le Rebel, the new APF was launched [fr] in early September 2012 from Burkina Faso. This is where several MNLA leaders sought refuge after being driven out of Mali by their former jihadist rebel partners and those MNLA members who left to swell the ranks of the Islamist factions that seized control of the north. The announcement first appeared on Facebook, and from there was picked up by the media. Ag Mehdi claims to have broad grass roots support in the region. He describes the APF as a non-separatist political and military organisation which respects human rights and is open to dialogue with all existing factions through mediation with the UN, ECOWAS and the African Union. The announcement was timed to coincide with a meeting between established groups that took place over two days in the North East of Mali, hosted by local tribal leaders.

FNLA (National Front for the liberation of Azawad)

Azawad Arabs in Mauritania for a conference 3 June 2012

Azawad Arabs in Mauritania for a conference 3 June 2012

Created on 8 April 2012 during the crisis in the north. Comprising Moors and Arabs, they claimed to be pacifist when they formed, and differentiated themselves from the MNLA because they wanted to retain Mali’s territorial integrity. The claim of non-violence was discredited by the presence of armed FNLA fighters in Timbuktu later that month. At the June 2012 Azawadi Arab Conference in N’Beiket Lahouach, Mauritania, their leader surprised delegates by announcing the FNLA’s intention to take up arms again and fight for an independent Azawad, at which point they left. We hear little from them, but  they are assumed to be enmeshed in the complex infrastructure of the illegal trafficking that represents Mali’s massive grey economy.

Leaders

  • Mohamed Lamine Ould Sidatt, an elected leader from the Timbuktu region, is General Secretary.
  • Housseine Khoulam, a lieutenant-colonel of the Malian army who defected, is military chief.

Arab Movement for the Liberation of Azawad

This group represents Arabs in northern Mali and is non-combatant, secular and separatist. Spokespersons include Mohamed Mouloud Ramadhan, Mohamed Lemine Ould Ahmed.

Updates:

NB: The lack of clarity and consistency in reporting from this region makes it difficult to verify news or track the allegiances of the various players and groups with any degree of accuracy.

8 February 2013: A suicide bomber, described as a Tuareg, died after detonating an explosive body belt while approaching a Malian military post in Gao on a motorcycle. One Malian soldier was lightly injured in the explosion. MUJAO is said to have claimed responsibility.

7 February 2013: MUJAO spokesman Abu Walid Sahroui reportedly sent a message to AFP claiming responsibility for 2 landmine explosion incidents (31 Jan and 6 Feb) that killed 6 people in Malian military vehicles on the road between Douentza and Gao, MUJAO’s former stronghold.

5 February 2013: The French Defense Minister claimed that there had been clashes between troops and “residual jihadists” in the vicinity of Gao the day before. Two teenagers armed with a pistol and two grenades were reportedly arrested in Gao market by Malian soldiers on the same day.

4 February 2013: In a phone call with RFI, MNLA External Affairs officer Ibrahim Ag Mohamed Assaleh, claims responsibility for arresting MUJAO member Oumeini Ould Baba Ahmed and Mohamed Moussa Ag Mohamed, identifying him as Ansar Dine, and not acknowledging his role on the MNLA National Transitional Council. Assaleh indicated that MNLA would relay information extracted from the captives to France, which is keen to speak to Mohamed Moussa Ag Mohamed, who we can assume is wanted by the ICC in relation to war crimes committed by Ansar Dine – he is being touted as the “number 3″ in that group, with oversight of the strict Sharia that resulted in flogging, amputation, and lapidation punishments. Both were allegedly captured during clashes. This does not tie in well with Assaleh’s claim in the same interview that the MNLA have been non-combatant since April 2012.

There are several alternative possibilities in this situation: there may be two religious experts in Mali both called (Mohamed) Ag Moussa Mohamed; MNLA’s official website might have been hacked or infiltrated and a false list of members posted, including Moussa Ag Mohamed as officer for Preaching and Islamic Orientation;  MNLA might not have been responsible for one or both “arrests”; etc.

Also noteworthy: Ansar Dine claims to have arrested two people who were spying for “foreign interests” last week, and the source said that the search continues for a third suspect.

3 February 2013: Aerial bombardment of Kidal and Tessalit areas by French forces reported overnight. This follows reports of kidnappings and near-misses with French special forces near the Algeria border. It is possible that at least some of the foreign hostages are being held in this remote area, as the mountainous Ifoghas region is a known location for hideouts.

Unconfirmed report of executions of Arab citizens in Timbuktu by Malian army, including conflicting reports about the fate of Mohamed Lemine Ould Hamadi.

Voice of Russia published a “dialogue” with National Congress of Azawad President Abu Bakr al-Ansari, in which he avoided answering both questions, further cementing my opinion that he is a timewasting bit-player.

1 February 2013: Mety ag-Mohamed Rissa, former MPA spokesman in Bamako, member of the Commission for monitoring the National Pact,  gave a candid and interesting interview [fr] about his long time comrade and friend, Ansar Dine leader Iyad ag-Ghaly, to Rue89.

Newly-appointed MNLA head of Preaching and Islamic Orientation, Mohamed Moussa Ag Mohamed, reported kidnapped by armed men in In Khalil village near Mali’s border with Algeria.

31 January 2013: Transcript of a phone interview Andy Morgan was invited to hold with MIA leader Alghabass ag Intgalla, who clearly did not get the 30 Jan MNLA memo.

30 January 2013:  MNLA issued a statement (in French – they have not posted any news in Arabic since December) clarifying that only their men and French troops are in Kidal, and denying any association with MIA.

29 January 2013: More than 10 Salafi Muslims have been arrested in Mauritania over the past few days, on charges of seeking to join or support terrorist groups operating in Mali. One Mauritanian has been arrested in Senegal on similar charges. Several arrests in Mali reported previously.

Djimbé Senegal

26 January 2013: Unconfirmed reports via L’Observateur that around 50 armed militants were seen in the vicinity of Djimbé, Senegal near the border with Mali.

25 January 2013: Reports of large displacements of locals north towards Algeria in fear of Ganda Koy militia intimidating villagers in several locations, including Agachar & Zarho, Mali along the Niger river north west of Timbuktu. In Leré, a group of fighters with weapons and about 20 vehicles led by a former Malian army colonel reportedly announced they were quitting Ansar Dine to join MNLA.

24 January 2013: Unconfirmed report [ar] that someone in a vehicle carrying AQIM emir Abdelhamid Abou Zeid was injured by an airstrike by French military 50km north of Leré, Mali.

23 January 2013: Ahmadou Ag Abdalla, described as a leader of Ansar Dine who was active in the Goundam area of Mali was reportedly arrested in Bassiknou, Mauritania

21 January 2013: 7 students from the Islamic University in al-Ayoun, Mauritania were detained. 6 were later released and the remaining detainee, a former classmate newly-arrived from Mali, was sent to Nouakchott for interrogation on suspicion of promoting militant jihadism.

A fighter from Ansar Dine, Akili Ag Mami, surrendered to gendarmes in Fassala, Mauritania after being bombarded by French military jets.

A large contingent of fighters fleeing Mali, thought to include Hamada Ould Khairu, the leader of MUJAO, rumoured to have arrived at Tindouf refugee camp Algeria, in 10 4×4’s.

A new terrorist group, JAMA’ATU ANSARUL MUSLIMINA FI BILADIS-SUDAN (a.k.a JAMBS), thought  to be a breakaway faction of Boko Haram, reported as claiming responsibility for attack on Nigerian troops in Kogi State in order to warn Nigeria against joining Western powers in their “aim to demolish the Islamic empire of Mali.”

Ibrahim Ag Mohamed Assaleh20 January 2013: 2 MNLA colonels and their Human Rights liaison, Ibrahim Ag Mohamed Assaleh arrived unexpectedly in Niamey, Niger, from Burkina Faso where they were subjected to a barrage of questions from the media about their reaction to the arrival of French forces in Mali.

Abu al-Baraa Al-Jazairi

Abu al-Baraa Al-Jazairi

19 January 2013: After trekking north-east into Libya, and joining forces with armed militants from Egypt and Libya, the “Signed in Blood” battalion of Mokhtar Belmokhtar group took part in a raid on a BP-Statoil processing plant at In Amenas, Algeria taking many hostages, including foreign workers from Norway, France, USA, Great Britain, Romania, Colombia, Thailand, Philippines, Ireland, Japan and Germany. There were significant casualties, including 23 hostages  before the Algerian military regained control three days later. The armed attackers included fighters from Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Mali, Mauritania and Niger. One of the escaped hostages remarked on the “perfect” English accents of some of his captors. Four leaders were said to be among the 32 militants who died in this operation, identified by Algerian news site el-Watan as Abu Al-Baraa Al-Jazairi (Algerian leader of the hostage-taking operation and former member of the GSPC) Abul Rahman al-Nigeri (Nigerien), Lamine Moucheneb alias Taher (Algerian), and Abdallahi Ould Hmeida (Mauritanian youth of 18 who joined AQIM in 2009).

18 January 2013: French fighter jets pursued armed rebels from Mali across the border into Mauritania where they destroyed all 5 vehicles in the convoy near Fassala. 5 rebels are said to have survived but left the scene in search of medical assistance for the injured.

16 January 2013: New video from Mokhtar Belmokhtar reported but  not released removed shortly after release (but still visible here), in which it is said he is clearly identifying with AQIM for the first time.

15 January 2012: New video of Ansar Dine in Konna, scene of the initial fighting with Malian army.

New statement and leadership changes to MNLA Council

12 January 2013: Following the United Nations Security Council December 2012 resolution stating that elections must take place before a possible military intervention in September 2013, and the 1 January 2013 response from Malian political and military leaders that they were not prepared to wait that long, fighting between Malian military and rebel forces in broke out central Mali a few days later. The situation rapidly escalated and France sent troops with air support to Mali on 11 January. There is no reliable information about the level of casualties for any of the parties. The conflict has already created thousands of Malian refugees and internally displaced, and continues to gather external support.

25 December 2012: New video released of 4 French hostages, all reported unharmed.

11 December 2012: Lead guitarist and vocalist Intidaw aka Abdallah Ag Lamida of the Tinariwen band of Tuareg-Berber musicians was briefly detained by Ansar Dine while on a visit to his home village in Mali. Ag Lamida stepped into the lead role after Ibrahim Ag Alhabib left to join the Azawad rebellion.

9 December 2012: Radical followers of Islam in Gao announced they had created their own Ansar al-Sharia group.

6 December 2012: MNLA Deputy Secretary General Mohamed Lamine Ould Ahmed resigns over prospect of bargaining away rights by announcing willingness to deal with interim government in Bamako.

5 December 2012: AQIM/Freelance terrorist Mokhtar Belmokhtar alias Khaled Abu Abbas announced the formation of a new battalion “Signed in Blood”.

4 December 2012: “Black Tuesday” MNLA met with Mali government in Burkina Faso and agreed to cease hostilities.

Hostage Alberto Rodriguez-Léal

Hostage Alberto Rodriguez-Léal

20 November 2012: the abduction of a Portuguese-born man with French nationality who lives in Chirac, Lozère region of the Languedoc in France, took place in Mali. 61 year-old Alberto Rodriguez-Léal was driving himself through the South of Mali near the borders with Mauritania and Senegal when he was abducted near Diéma. This kidnapping brought the total number of hostages in the region at the time to 13, of which 7 were French. A video of Mr Rodriquez-Léal and images taken from it were later circulated. MUJAO spokesman Abu Walid Sahraoui claimed responsibility for the kidnapping and demanded the removal of French forces in Mali stationed near the Mauritania border. No updates or information have been published since the video was released at the end of November 2012.

16 November 2012: Ansar Dine reportedly ready to sever ties with MUJAO

Fulani fighters

Fulani fighters

13 November 2012: Ethnic Fulani members of MUJAO in Gao were reported to have left the group. Among these are probably some members of the Ganda Izo (Sons of the Land), a Fulani ethnic militia that was formed in 2008 – not to be confused with the longer-established Songhai ethnic group Ganda Koy (Masters of the Land). Ganda Izo was said to have agreed to a partnership deal for control of Douentza, but were later deemed by MUJAO to be “acting independently” and the deal was called off in September 2012.

22 October 2012: MNLA sources reported 9 Tuareg travellers were taken captive by the Malian army near Diabaly, scene of the September massacre of 16 Islamic preachers, most of them from Mauritania. 4 of the Tuareg were reported executed and the remaining 5 were unaccounted for. The next day, a report [ar] was posted of a Mauritanian trader arrested by the Malian army on suspicion of links to AQIM.
14 October 2012: a liaison between Al-Qaeda and AQIM,  45 year-old veteran militant Boualem Bekai aka Khaled El Migconfirmed killed in an ambush by Algerian forces at Azrou, 50km east of Tizi Ouzou in Algeria.

4 October 2012: Sahara Medias reported [ar]  Yahya Abu al-Hamam was appointed the new emir of AQIM. He replaced the former emir Nabil Abu Alqama, reported killed [ar] in a road accident near Douentza, Mali, on 9 September 2012*. The October news report says Abdelhamid Abou Zeid will report to al-Hamam.  Additional reports say Abou Zeid is now the main Sahel emir in northern Mali.

24 August 2012: Omar Hamaha (MUJAO chief) in a phone interview on Senegal radio denies reports of his death, explaining that he was away briefly visiting family and had not been anywhere near Niger.

17 August 2012: False report of MUJAO leader Omar Hamaha being killed in a skirmish near the border with Niger.

14 August 2012: Abou Ishak, head of the Legal Committee of AQIM, arrested  in Algeria.

Early August 2012: MUJAO leader Omar Hamaha appeared in a video uploaded April 2012, declaring willingness to expand “jihad” far beyond northern Mali under the right circumstances.

2 July 2012: Ansar Dine announced that it had planted land mines around the city of Gao. The already sporadic transport to and from Gao continued as before.

30 June 2012: Ansar Dine staged the destruction of some Sufi shrines in Timbuktu which had been freshly anointed as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO. The destruction of the tombs got more media coverage than most other events in Mali, and the International Criminal Court declared it a war crime.

29 June 2012: After intense fighting and many casualties, Ansar Dine declared control of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu after expelling MNLA. In return, MNLA claimed they still controlled the largely desert area representing the rest of of northern Mali.

28 June 2012: False report of Mokhtar Belmokhtar being killed.

22 June 2012: 100 Malian religious leaders announced their rejection of the Touareg Islamist group’s strategy at a June 18th-20th conference attended by Ansar Dine leader Iyad Ag Ghaly.

15 June 2012: Ansar Dine and MNLA representatives began peace talks with ECOWAS in Burkina Faso.

12 June 2012: More MNLA and Ansar Dine fighting near Timbuktu.

11 June 2012: African Union asked for UN approval to intervene in northern Mali.

8 June 2012:  Skirmishes in Kidal between MNLA and Ansar Dine over imposition of Islamic law.

26 May 2012: MNLA and Ansar Dine agreed to an alliance which quickly disintegrated from lack of popular support.

20 May 2012: Military coup rebels officially returned power to the civilian government without surrendering themselves or their weapons.

Notes:

*Najib Ben Cherif posted – apparently in error – on Twitter that Abdelhamid Abou Zeid also died in the same crash:

The alleged car crash (all too common in Mali) coincided with another incident, north of Bamako.

Video: Weapons recovered after In Amenas, Algeria attack thought to be supplied by Libya rebels in Zintan

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TV footage of the weapons authorities said were seized after the terrorist attack on the In Amenas natural gas facility in eastern Algeria, which came to a bloody end after a series of operations by the Algerian military. Assault and sniper rifles, grenades, mortars, ammunition and explosives were among the recovered weapons brought to the remote In Amenas site by up to 40 armed militants. They appear to have entered Algeria from Libya in a convoy of vehicles which border guards reportedly mistook for a group of officials on state business.

The militants had collected advance intelligence on the sprawling natural-gas complex, including its layout and foreign workforce. The attack had been planned at least two months ago, if not longer, and was launched shortly after news broke that Algeria had given French military aircraft permission to overfly its airspace. This compilation video also includes a recording of a phone call from one of the terrorists belonging to the “Signed in Blood” battalion of AQIM. The call was made to a Mauritanian news agency, ANI, in which he threatened to destroy the In Amenas plant if attacked, and said that the fate of the hostages was in the hands of the Algerian military. The terrorists demanded the release from prison of high-profile Al Qaeda militants and an end to the military Operation Serval conducted by France in neighbouring Mali.

 

#Mauritania News in Brief 7 August 2012

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The last news summary for Mauritania told of a tragic plane crash [fr] which claimed the lives of seven people, including members of the Air Force and customs officials, and the twist of fate which spared the life of one other. As I write, people are still posting tributes to the victims on a FaceBook event page [ar].

Protests followed death of  mining worker Mohamed Ould Machdhoufi

The people’s grief was amplified by another senseless death just days later, when the national guard staged a dawn raid on a peaceful sit-in by MCM copper mining workers, killing Mohamed Ould Machdhoufi and wounding several others. The authorities – already under fierce public scrutiny over the hiring of military personnel to serve commercial interests, the cause and circumstances of the crash, and the appointment of the Air Force squadron commander to the investigation committee – infuriated people by declaring the cause of death to be “unknown”.

Mining workers’ union rep Ethmane Ould Kreivit

MCM’s operating company, First Quantum Minerals of Canada, then aggravated the situation by issuing a press release that made no mention of the death or injuries, and claiming the strike was illegal. Several workers, including union leader Ethmane Ould Kreivit, were attacked in a subsequent protest, and jailed for several days. On his release, the union leader was prevented from entering the workplace. When agreement to return to work was finally reached, MCM deducted more days’ pay than had been lost. This particular powder-keg is likely to reignite in the near future.

Tasiast gold mine is also run by a Canadian firm, Kinross Gold, which has witnessed a series of strike actions, and is currently trying a little harder than MCM,although that is a low bar. On Sunday 5th August, the company announced it would increase the supply of water for some households near the plant. The statement said this is standard practice designed to provide additional help to deal with the ongoing drought. However, if that is the case, I do wonder why they waited until so far into the rainy season to implement this measure.
This short video [ar] highlights the issues caused by the drought and water shortages

No clean drinking water for months, then .. floodwater!

On July 19th, there was another mass march demanding the departure of Aziz, and torrential rains wreaked havoc on rural communities, taking the life of an 18 year-old in Magta Lahjar who drowned while trying to escape the floods. People have been protesting all across Mauritania for many months because of water shortages, increased prices for potable water, lack of repairs to wells, unfair distribution of subsidised food and cattle feed, land disputes, corruption, labour disputes, and electrical power disruption in many parts of the country. The biggest recent power failure occurred at the beginning of August, affecting large areas of Nouakchott for extended periods, with hospitals, offices, stores and homes affected. On Sunday 5th August, an off-duty power company manager responded to a call for help but was electrocuted while trying to repair a relay. He died instantly. This husband and father of four daughters was known as a “good Samaritan” in the local community.

Also on July 19th came news that Mauritania had released some terrorist prisoners [ar] as part of the exchange deal for three European hostages kidnapped from their housing near the Tindouf refugee camp in Algeria in October 2011.
Mauritania has lost some ranking in the media coverage of the unrest in Mali, and was not on the list of countries visited by French FM Laurent Fabius, nor one of Hillary Clinton’s stops on her tour of Africa.  Considering the travel advisories being issued this should not come as any surprise. The regime remains bullish, continuing to act and speak about the situation with complete disregard for the sovereignty of its troubled neighbour. Sunday night Aziz reaffirmed to his audience [fr] the country would not intervene militarily. Then on Monday, Algeria reportedly [ar] reversed its former, more conservative, position and announced willingness to deploy troops in cross-border raids against terrorist operations in northern Mali, in conjunction with units from Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger. This is presumably the action the US, via AFRICOM command, with backing from the EU – and France in particular – has been pressing for in their regular calls for “increased regional cooperation”. A dizzy political game is afoot, and has been from the start.
20th July saw the start of Ramadan, a holy month of fasting for Muslims. Many food prices increased overnight, especially meat, and another increase in fuel prices added to the pressure of economic inflation. Despite the higher fuel costs and several fatal road accidents, the very popular but highly dangerous night-time antics of “Wacky Races” [fr] returned to Mauritania, along with evening matches of 5-a-side soccer.
There are some inspiring and very successful humanitarian initiatives for Ramadan, a traditional time of giving charity, and many events to help the hungry, sick and needy with strong donor support, especially from Mauritanian ex-pats in Angola, for a joint campaign launched by Bellewar Media TV, First Step for Development and Mauritanie Demain.
In a unique event that one might also class as an act of charity, former “Islamicist” leader Boumiah Ould Ebyah returned to Mauritania after many years in Kuwait, and immediately declared his support for Aziz. Within 6 days he had been appointed to a post in the president’s office!
The anti-pornography protesters (actually I am trying to train myself to call them “pro-morality” campaigners) resumed their protests in Nouakchott at the end of July. To my great surprise the police attacked them with tear gas and batons! Out again they went, and again the police attacked. At the start of August the group applied for a protest permit and it was rejected. The image on the right is of their application letter. Is it just me who finds the logo reminiscent of the Playboy Bunny, reversed?

Logos aside,  I am still completely confounded by this group being violently repressed. Does it mean the authorities are pro-pornography? How do we reconcile this with president Aziz’ “Defender of Islam” speech to the gathering which massed (with a speed I found highly doubtful) outside the palace, after abolitionist Birame Ould Obeid burned a few books containing the Islamic scholar Maliki’s works pertaining to slavery? Birame – in failing health, and 6 of his companions, are still in prison despite the charge of apostasy being thrown out by the judge. New charges of “acting against national security”were cited, although there has been no proper hearing. Their arbitrary detention has lasted 99 days so far and protests have continued throughout. There were additional protests after a radio programme discussing slavery, which resulted in the presenter being dismissed.

Protest demanding release of jailed abolitionists

Students continued to face problems in the past month: detention of medical students who protested their expulsion; increased fees for some foreign students; denial of passports and travel papers for students not receiving grants; expiration of travel documents leaving students stranded in Morocco; and a reduction in the number of sponsored places in Mauritania. Plus, the next batch of higher education students will be small – the pass rate for the Baccalaureate exams was only 9%.

Another protest group which reappeared in the past week or so is the unemployed graduates, who gained a lot of attention after storming the grounds of the presidential palace in May, and then beginning a hunger strike. Fishermen, sailors and dock workers in Nouadhibou all held protests in the past 10 days. For my next update, I may save a few hundred words and post only names of groups that do not protest!

Messaoud Ould Boulkheir

Under “disappearances” we can list the “initiative” of Messaoud Ould Boulkheir, who had been waving a reconciliation plan at the opposition, just to fill in some time until the government announced plans to hold an election, or some elections, in 2 or 3 or 4 month’s time, depending on whose statement is quoted. Once the election announcement was ready – just after agreeing a new fishing deal with the EU – Aziz rejected Messaoud Ould Boulkheir’s initiative: a clumsy political manoeuvre designed to appear like a crushing blow to both Ould Boulkheir and the opposition coalition. Meanwhile, the new EU fishing agreement is being widely condemned by many industry groups. The president of Europêche, Javier Garat, said last week that the “unaffordable” deal will cause the loss of 10,000 jobs and 60 million Euro. Meanwhile, the president of the Shipowners’ Association of Marín, Andrés Guiance, warned that the EU agreement with Mauritania will make Marín “a dead port.”

Senussi just another pathetic coward and fraud

Senussi

Former Libyan chief of intelligence Senussi is still “held” in Mauritania and Aziz says he will not be released until he stands trial for illegal entry. Until that fabled day, he is valuable ante for Mauritania in a game with France, who say they want him to serve a life sentence issued in absentia, and Libya, who could try him as part of the former regime. I imagine him enjoying the sort of 5-star hospitality Mubarak had during his sejourn. Certainly I doubt that he is under torture. Sadly, the same is not true for 5 youths arrested in a small southern town near Selibaby, who were subjected to Guantanamo-style “jaguar” torture methods while detained on suspicion of a minor burglary of a local store on July 23. Three of the youths were jailed, and the other two released without charge. One of those released is now suffering memory loss and needs hospital treatment.

Armed guards provide crowd control for Aziz speech

On Sunday 5 August, president Aziz hosted a “Meet the People” event in Atar. Thousands waiting in the heat of the night for his midnight appearance, watched over by armed plain-clothed security and assembled media representatives. The coordination of oppostion parties was conspicuous in its absence. Not surprising since they all signed a pledge on Friday 4th August to continue to demand Aziz step down, and refusing to entertain any dialogue, or elections, as long as he remains in power. Aziz responded on Monday 6th August, saying he would not leave except though the ballot box. Not so much absent as invisible, the audience was dominated by Arab Moors. Black Moors, Haratines, and those of black African heritage were present – in servile roles cleaning, preparing, serving food and of course staffing security.

Police [anti] graffiti efforts

Opposition campaigners were in action the night before, and police were tasked with removing the graffiti which had been liberally applied to walls, signs, and even state vehicles. The photos of police in action (left) make them look a little bit like perpetrators!
None of these interesting anecdotes merited comment on Ould Abdel Aziz’ new Twitter account (using Hootsuite) or Facebook page (no link – but trust me, you’re not missing much), which were created after a meagre effort via iPad by one of his cronies, Sidi Mohamed Maham. Sidi’s task was to engage with “the young people”, confiding how he had “just been speaking with the president”, who told him “his door is open to anyone who wants to talk”. The boring foray into Twitter immediately spawned a more entertaining mirror using the new hashtag coined for his Atar speech. FaceBook is still the most popular platform by far, but Twitter is seeing increased activity thanks to a useful Arabic guide produced by the Mauritanie Demain FaceBook page admins. There was a sustained flurry of angry tweets shooting down each lie as soon as it was uttered. Aziz provided plenty of ammunition: there is no slavery, just poverty, and that is being eradicated, there’s no drought, there are no political prisoners, there is no repression, he was right to cross into Malian territory in pursuit of suspected terrorists, there is a balance of payments surplus, everything is wonderful, and so on. While taking questions by phone, a caller who made a criticism was cut off mid-sentence and Aziz declared the caller had “decided to end the call himself”. When the TV broadcast was disrupted, instead of just blaming a technical error or electrical power issue, Aziz claimed the opposition were responsible, and had bought sophisticated electronic equipment for the purpose.
Aziz also spoke proudly of the importance of Mauritanian media and the “freedomof the press”. Only seven media outlets were invited to attend, and even they had a hard time. The photographer from alakhbar.info was detained by presidential guards [ar], who erased all his images, presumably because he had filmed some protesters. At least Al Jazeera managed to get in a question: their reporter asked if Aziz would be the first Arab leader to step down peacefully. I understand his response was in the negative.
As happened last year, activists were highly motivated against this Aziz speech, with at least two FaceBook events, teams coordinating the sharing of information between different social networks, and many amusing – and angry – posts and images that are so characteristic of Mauritanian youth. There was a protest outside the TV station HQ in Nouakchott and a brave protester who called for Aziz to quit after the speech [ar] in Atar (and was immediately arrested). Sunday night was also the anniversary of the historic “Battle of Badr”, and this coincidence generated much commentary about the president’s son, Badr, and the incident where he shot a young girl while out joyriding late one night but got off with a token fine. By all accounts she is still paralysed.
There was another serious note to some of the objections being voiced: Aziz had chosen the home town of the slain mining worker Mohamed Ould Machdhoufi for his political carnival.

Poster art from an anti-Aziz event on FaceBook