#Mauritania: Sex, Lies and Videotape

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Let’s break with tradition and do the sex part first. Yes, it has been suggested that there is a sex angle to the accidental shooting story of president Aziz in Mauritania! This is a quandary, as everyone is adamant that they do want the truth, but at the same time, no one wants it to be some sordid and sleazy tale of the president having an illicit relationship that went horribly wrong, and got him shot or injured or whatever. And yet, in the absence of any reasonable, logical and reliable alternative explanation, more people are gravitating towards this very unofficial yet somehow more credible version of events. I have to say right here: I have no way of knowing if the president was even attacked, let alone shot. All I know for certain is that something happened to him, and I have nothing to rely on apart from outright lies and half-truths peddled by the corrupt regime, or the meandering fantasies of observers (myself included!) whether inside or outside Mauritania.

In trying to keep an open mind I have to allow for two possibilities: that what happened to Aziz might have been staged, or might have been an accident. For me, only his prompt return will confirm the latter. Despite my efforts, I find myself increasingly convinced France and Mauritania are playing a dirty game, one designed to promote the prospect of a military misadventure in Mali. I could not for one moment believe that they are the only countries involved in such a farce.

Aziz’ post-surgery TV appearance last week reveals a gauze dressing on the left side of his lower neck

We have the president of Mauritania holed up in the Percy military hospital in Paris for additional care of an unspecified nature, despite being told his injuries in the October 13th incident were minor, and that the surgery performed in Nouakchott military hospital was a success. Close inspection of the footage of president Aziz’ post-surgery TV appearance last week reveals a gauze dressing on the left side of his lower neck, despite having the sheets pulled up to conceal it. Whatever happened in that area, it is unlikely to be related to the bullet which reportedly damaged in his colon and required a delicate 4-hour surgery.

Visible scarring on Aziz’ neck

Four days after the incident, when the French Minister of Defence, Jean-Yves Le Drian, paid a “social call” on Aziz, there was a small patch of scarred skin visible on Aziz’ neck, just visible above his over-sized pyjamas. It is difficult to tell what; it could just as easily be  a bullet wound or a burn. This is the time to note that the Percy hospital specialises in the treatment of burn injuries. The photos of Aziz and Le Drian were posted on the official ami.mr news site [ar] in Mauritania later on Wednesday, but not on the French Ministry of Defence website. The visit was largely ignored by the French and international media, despite Le Drian having just been widely quoted the day before  promising military action in Mali in “weeks, not months“. There was no press release, and the visit was not mentioned in the minister’s official engagements diary. A request for comment from the Ministry’s press office had not received a response at the time of writing this post.

Then there is the mystery of Ba Mamadou dit Mbaré, the only constitutionally legal replacement in case of the Mauritanian president’s incapacity, as President of the Senate. It was only discovered after Aziz left for Paris that Mr dit Mbaré was already on sick leave there himself. No mention had been made of this in any official media, and he was being reported on as normal, attending to his duties, until a few weeks ago. There has been no statement even now the news is out, and no comment on the nature or likely duration of his medical condition. This is being played as a non-issue, with officials asserting that Aziz is well enough to perform his duties while undergoing treatment. And so, for a week now, the country has been governed by an absent president, sundry unelected government representatives, and his Chief of Defence. The regular Thursday cabinet meeting was cancelled – this is important: because Aziz is the only validly elected official in the entire government, he has to sign off on everything, and every cabinet meeting has to be an “emergency meeting” convened by the president.

Now we are told that the French embassy is denying the President of the National Assembly, Messaoud Ould Boulkheir, a travel visa to Paris. But this is not quite accurate. What is really happening is Ould Boulkheir allegedly objecting to being asked to attend the consular office to give his fingerprints in order to create his visa. Ould Boulkheir holds one of three posts named in the constitution as having the power to declare Aziz unfit to serve, and through this manufactured stalemate, he is effectively prevented from going to Paris to assess the president’s true condition and raising the alarm if required. The other two are the Prime Minister (Laghdaf, a lapdog) and the head of the Supreme Court (the incumbent was recently replaced before the end of his official tenure by Aziz).

While this play unfolds, the external PR and media offensive is being ramped up: trying to tie the “shooting” to terrorists; claiming Mauritania is “seriously concerned” about the terrorist threat; re-hashing of any old news story mentioning AQIM and Mauritania. Over to the East, it would seem we are witnessing a replay of events, uncannily similar to those which preceded the NATO force’s arrival in Libya last year, in which someone busted jihadist contractors out of prison presumably to boost the rebel forces in northern Mali and for all we know, financed by a bank robbery in Yemen. This contrasts with almost total silence about conciliatory gestures being made through negotiations between various groups, and last weekend’s regional Tuareg conference in Lere, Nigeria. We should be on the lookout for increased reports of hostile actions: violence, beatings, rapes, robberies, etc, followed by more in-fighting and divisions. We should also pay attention to a developing story [fr] from Mali, of northerners who originally fled returning home despite the imposition of Sharia by the Islamists, and finding free though erratic power and water supplies, reduced food prices, and paid work. Poverty and misery in the south is said to be providing the impetus for the reversal. Word of this will spread to the refugee camps and, as winter sets in, repatriation could become an increasing trend. No wonder one of the NLP-type catchphrases in the media for the Sahel is “a race against time”. [See here, here, here and here]

The mistaken marksman of Mauritania, Elhaj Ould Hamoudi

Internally, the website Sahel Media was mysteriously unavailable to users in Mauritania of the Mauritel phone service (51% owned by CMC Morocco Telecom) for almost an entire day. Access was lost almost immediately after Sahel Media published a story [ar] about French Islamists* breaching the Western Sahara barrier built by Morocco, near the border with Mauritania, through which is being smuggled cocaine from Colombia. Sites carrying articles quoting AQIM supposedly threatening France remained freely accessible.

Sunday night, Mauritanian national TV produced the poor sap who has been named and shamed as “the shooter” – a rookie lieutenant from Kiffa whom we are told “is normally based in the north”. He was shown on TV [vid, ar] at prime time, to reinforce the official story about mistakenly firing on Aziz as  the president sped past him, in an unmarked car, at top speed. Even after a whole week to prepare and rehearse, there were inaccuracies in the retelling between this on-air confession, and the original official statement [NYT En], and even the words of the president himself [CSM En].

Meanwhile, Al Jazeera managed to do a 2-part interview [vid, ar] with Mahfouz Ould al-Walid, aka Abu Hafs al-Mauritani, the former Al-Qaeda number 3. The interview took place inside Mauritania, where one might expect he would be under strict orders not to talk to the media about his former role with Al Qaeda, as a condition of his recent release from custody. This would appear not to be the case, but even if there are objections, Aziz has his “I was in Paris” alibi. I am actually hoping that both the US government and the jihadists in Mali take notice of Abu Hafs, because he talks a lot of sense.

As for the Mauritanian political opposition, they collapsed like a gurney before the bullet hit the kidney-dish, and declared they would suspend all planned protests out of respect for their opponent’s debilitated state. At this point, please note that every previously elected member of government – ruling party as well as opposition – has collected a year’s salary gratis out of the state coffers, while the poverty-stricken population waits to hear yet another excuse for why there is still no date for either of the postponed elections. The opposition did not stand idle however: they called for an investigation and convened a standing committee to try and determine the true events of  October 13, and have called a press conference for Monday 22 October. One of them, Mohammed Ould Moloud, kept busy with a series of meeting with officials from various EU countries.

February 25 Movement – nothing left in Mauritania but questions

The only breath of fresh air in this whole stinking scenario once again comes from the activist movement of 25 February [ar], who formed a human chain along the main street of Nouakchott last Thursday, each one of them silently holding up a poster which totally captures the mood of the country at this time: a large, solitary “?”.

Some of the members of “m25fev”, as they are known, will be interviewed on Chinguetti TV tonight or tomorrow, if all goes to plan.  The best part of the silent protest was that the police didn’t attack or arrest the demonstrators. The next day the police rediscovered their calling, and attacked and arrested the peaceful pro-morality protesters. People have to remind themselves every time this happens (and it happens too often) that Mauritania is an Islamic Republic.

*For more on France as a breeding ground for Islamists, see Marc Sageman’s 2004 article “Understanding Terror Networks”. Or Google.

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AQIM Releases Recent Video of 4 French Hostages taken from Niger in 2010

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Sahara Medias website [ar] in Mauritania has released this video of four of the six French hostages being held by AQIM in or around Mali. These four were abducted from the Arlit uranium mine in Niger in September 2010, along with three  others who were since released. Once again, they plead for protection from the French authorities. The video was released after relatives of the four confirmed their identities.
It’s possible that the kidnappers felt this additional message was necessary after the previous one referred to the former president, Sarkozy. The good news is that the existence of the video gives renewed hope that the hostages might still be alive, or at least were alive in the past couple of weeks. Each man appeared to be in a different location. One hostage, Pierre Legrand, mentioned “700 days” which would indicate the date of the video as on or near 16 August 2012. Pierre even managed to include a statement to please conspiracy theorists: saying he had been in Niger for a “specific purpose, not as a tourist” – which I guarantee will be interpreted to support existing theories that he is some kind of agent. Daniel Larribe states in his section that “it’s Wednesday, August 29, 2012, and we have been here nearly two years”. Thierry Dole did not look well and said he had been unable to get his medication for 63 days. The hostages mentioned other numbers – Larribe, for example, having missed a relative’s 94th birthday and a 40th wedding anniversary, while Thierry Dole said 714 days in captivity- all of which will generate a whiff of intrigue, in case the numbers could have some special relevance.

The video appeared in Mauritania at an opportune moment, just as the French Foreign Ministry’s Special Envoy for the Sahel, Jean Felix-Paganon, arrived in Nouakchott. I hope he and the French authorities take the hostages’ messages to heart, especially the part where they beg them not to mount an attack and to continue negotiations. Perhaps they have heard about the deaths of other hostages during “rescue” attempts. If so, they have good reason to be equally afraid of a bungled rescue as of being killed by their captors.

AFP notes that the four were among seven people kidnapped from the uranium mining town of Arlit in northern Niger in September 2010 by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) while working for Satom, a subsidiary of the French nuclear group Areva.

Three of them — a Togolese and a Madagascan and Larribe’s wife Francoise — were released the following February.

Legrand’s grandfather Rene Robert told AFP after seeing the video that he and other relatives of the hostages had identified them.

“The hostages are tired, and even exhausted, but they are alive,” he said.

Sources say that AQIM has demanded 90 million euros in ransom for the four, who in recordings released in April last year urged then French president Nicolas Sarkozy to withdraw French troops from Afghanistan in line with an AQMI demand.

Under Sarkozy’s successor Francois Hollande, Paris has speeded up the withdrawal with 2,000 combat troops to be pulled out by the end of the year.

Two Frenchmen were also kidnapped last November by AQIM in Mali’s northern town of Hombori, where they were working as geologists for a Malian company.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said the hostages were not being held together.

Will #Mali’s new government herald arms or armies?

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In less time than it takes for an apartment pineapple to ripen, a new government of national unity has been formed in Mali in the latest effort to restore stability after the military coup in March. It follows 5 long months of political tug-of-war between the ready-meal interim government and the frozen-dinner coup leadership headed by Captain Sanogo. The Captain was persuaded to release his grip a little, after his palms were oiled with a palatial home and “former head of state” status – including a generous allowance. The cabinet has 31 ministers, including five from Sanogo’s camp. The head of the interim government, Cheick Modibo Diarra, stays on as prime minister. For now.

Early-stage pre-coup pineapple during US training

During this incubation period, interim President Dioncounda Traore was attacked, and spent several weeks recovering in Paris. No doubt he spent more of that time in the briefing room of  Boulevard Mortier  than in recovery. Shortly after Dioncounda returned to Mali, one of the former President’s elite Red Beret guards, Staff Sergeant Amadou Traore, was murdered in his barracks. That signal seems to have been received loud and clear; no further attacks on the interim president have been reported yet.

Last month, the regional bloc ECOWAS threatened to expel Mali unless a unity government was installed, according to the BBC. Yesterday, there were news reports of ECOWAS and Algeria [ar] barring military shipments to Mali. Meanwhile, Major General Suleiman Mahmoud al-Obeidi, Libya’s former Deputy Director of Military Intelligence and Chairman of the Republican Guard in Benghazi, reveals that, when there was a weapons amnesty and surrendering of arms in Libya last year, his unit alone boycotted the deal and instead their weapons passed to mercenaries from Egypt, for onward transfer to AQIM in Algeria and Mali. Doubly painful, as it was the ousted former president Touré, aka “ATT”, who said in February that they needed more military hardware to respond to the MNLA’s attacks, widely reported to be using massive fire-power brought back from Libya.

Weapons in 30 Days or Your Next Government Half Price

We need to wait to see if the formation of a new unity government defrosts the supply of arms, and whether they’ll be delivered by shipment or in person. Just last weekend, Al Jazeera Arabic reported a training exercise in Libya (irony alert) of 2,000 troops including 800 special forces from Great Britain, France, Spain and Italy, in preparation for an incursion into Malian territory. The training programme lasted from February to June. Here’s the video:

There are many competing theories about what is going on in Mali. One school of thought insists that the plan is, and always has been, to get the boots of foreign troops on the ground. However, just as with the reports of armed rebels severing someone’s hand as a punishment for stealing (and the victim later dying), and of their threat-or-promise to repeat the exercise with hundreds more after the Eid holiday, or even of the beheading* that UNHCR’s spokesperson Melissa Fleming claimed to have happened, there’s no way of knowing if the scenario portrayed in this video sheds light on the actual situation.

How can we figure Mali out? To butcher the old standard, “follow the ransom money” and we find food for thought. For example, fresh claims of Swiss support for the rebels appeared last week. This was denied by the MNLA as a rumour created by a Swiss journalist and promoted to a fact by a website in Mauritania, where the media has carved a niche for exclusive revelations about Mali.

I was anticipating more mention of Switzerland, after a Swiss woman was apparently taken hostage in Timbuctu by a private militia who planned to trade her to AQIM. The lady was reportedly “rescued” by Ansar Dine and released for an alleged 1 million Euro, in a deal where they demanded to liaise directly with the Swiss officials, rejecting the offer of a human rights NGO to mediate.  That event was soon followed by a spectacular betrayal of MNLA by Ansar Dine, who hijacked the uprising and forced the secular separatists into a retreat from which they have yet to emerge. Speculation about how the more radical supporters of religion achieved this feat includes the investment of ransom capital to buy supporters. There have been other kidnappings: three Westerners abducted nearly nine months ago by AQIM in Mali, seen today urging their governments to help free them in an Al-Jazeera television exclusive video, and the seven Algerian diplomatic staff taken from the embassy in Gao, three of whom were returned last month, shortly after the release of one Italian and two Spanish hostages. This last exchange was said to be accompanied by a few more million Euro and the release of two more prisoners – one assumed by some to be connected to the POLISARIO – who were being held in Mauritania for their part in the kidnapping of the three Europeans.

Within days Mauritania benefited from a capitulation by the EU (Note: the EU Africa team is led by a Spaniard) finally agreeing to their exorbitant new terms for renewing the fishing agreement, and an agreement from Spain to salvage the small aircraft “donated” to Mauritania in June last year to help in the fight against illegal immigrants, and which had remained, unairworthy and stranded on the tarmac, more or less the whole time.

This brings me to another stranded plane – the famous “Air Cocaine” Boeing jet from South America which landed/crashed just north of Gao in a village called Tarkint at the end of October 2009, and was reportedly torched by the smugglers after their cargo of drugs had been retrieved. The local mayor was known as an intermediary with AQIM for the release of kidnap victims.

The char grilled remains of “Air Cocaine” /JON SISTIAGA

“Air Cocaine” was registered in Saudi Arabia,  rented in Venezuela, and had made previous trips from Colombia  under a licence issued by Guinea Bissau, but which had expired at some point. The drug trafficking was said to be linked to AQIM, and this flight’s cargo could have been worth anything between 150 and 300 million Euro. Some of these details only became apparent much later, after WikiLeaks’ cables release, as the original investigation was handled by the intelligence services and shrouded in secrecy.  There were dozens of arrests, but few detentions or convictions in connection with this scandal. Then last week, we learned that the last two suspects, one French, one Spanish, had been released in Mali. The drug smuggling case against the Spaniard was thrown out.  This chap is a real charmer: a former Madrid policeman, until he was busted for trafficking, drugs, explosives, weapons, and counterfeit identity documents. He also had a suspended sentence in Mali connected to the gruesome murder [es] of a Colombian with a forged Ukrainian passport. He apparently plans to stay in Mali. One would hope he is short of alternatives but why leave Mali, when half the world is ready to come to you?

Additionally, a wealthy businessman from Tilemsi in the Gao region – Mohamed Ould Awaynat – who had been sentenced to one year in prison for his part in the trafficking scandal, was reportedly released in January this year, in an alleged deal with the Malian government. In exchange for his freedom, he is said to have paid to recruit and train northern fighters to boost the ranks of the army against the MNLA. They do say money makes the world go around. If you add massive cash flows from drug trafficking it begins to spin put of control. That is certainly what appears the be the case in Mali.

All these rebel groups in Mali seem like just so many finger puppets. But to which “invisible hand” do the fingers belong?

If you enjoy bizarre details – and you’ve got this far, so I should take that as given – then you might be further entertained by the fact that the article in the previous link, by Andy Morgan in Think Africa Press, was posted on FaceBook in a now lifeless MNLA group, requiring 14 comments to post in its entirety. The comment poster uses the name Ghazi Agizul and, although his bio says he’s a proud Amazigh from Tunisia, I found it odd that “Ghazi” used a translation tool to render the English original into French, which should be a natural language for him. That he didn’t post a link to Google Translate or use a Note instead of 14+ comments is not mysterious, only irritating. If it transpired that Andy Morgan and Ghazi Agizul were one and the same person, that would be interesting. It would also raise many general questions about the clandestine online and offline activities of certain people who present themselves publicly as working in the media, but that is a whole other story. Going back to the article itself, it’s too lengthy to analyse in depth but there are some factual errors, which always has the effect of eroding credibility. For example,  Mr Morgan claims to have spent years in northern Mali, yet placed Kati near Timbuktu. I wouldn’t blame him if the article was simply too long for him to cope with when it got to proof-reading.

Also in the WikiLeaked cable, we learn of another incident involving a plane:  US military making a “hard landing” 65 miles from Bamako, and receiving assistance. ATT was happy to help because “he knew the United States was coming to help Mali”. Sadly, nothing could be done to help the three US military and their three civilian companions who died in a vehicle accident in April this year. Will the US be coming to help again; will they feel they no longer need an invite?

Short of the IAEA declaring that there are nuclear weapons hidden in the barren wastelands of northern Mali, I wonder how many more UN agencies or NGOs can enter the fray, wringing their collective hands over the many unverified domestic dramas that they claim are engulfing this most coveted of would-be war zones, declaring every incident a war crime, and clamouring at the gates to be allowed in to rescue Mali from itself and the horrors of Sharia law’s unjust desserts.

As ATT noted in February, with a prescience we have yet to fully to appreciate: “There are many rumors. If we are not careful, we’ll fall into the hands of those who are attacking Mali and who want to oppose the government.”

*I assume Ms Fleming meant to say “stoning” – but there is no solid evidence of that having happened, either. If she did witness a beheading, I’d have liked her to verify in reply to my question, especially since her bio includes the phrase “Tweets highlight the stories of human suffering and resilience I witness every day.” [my emphasis].

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Western Sahara Under Mounting Pressure

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Heightened Security

“We’ve been building a lot of new walls lately,” says Polisario Front commander Ahmed Salem as he drives his 4 X 4 across Tindouf in Western Algeria. But the newly introduced security measures may not be enough to ensure the survival of the Western Sahrawis.

Salem Ahmed drives along the desert sand wall towards the entrance of Rabuni camp near Tindouf (about 700 km southeast of Moroccan capital Rabat). Rabuni is the nodal point for refugee camps in southern Algeria for the Sahrawis, as the local Western Sahara people are called.

Just a few yards from where an excavator that works day and night, we are waved in through a checkpoint manned by men in camouflage from the Polisario, which heads the Sahrawi independence movement. At only a few kilometres from the Mauritanian border, this sea of mud houses and corrugated iron roofs is “home” to over 200,000 individuals.

Western Sahara was the victim of a decolonisation process interrupted in 1976, when Spain – its former colonial power since the late 19th century- left that barren land in the hands of Morocco and Mauritania. After a ceasefire agreement in 1991, most of the territory which is greater than the size of Britain -including the entire Atlantic coastline – is under the control of Morocco. A small, largely uninhabited and economically useless desert portion remains under Polisario rule, strongly backed by Algeria.

This is where the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (RASD) declared its independence in 1976. Since then, the Polisario has won formal recognition for the RASD from 82 nations.

“We are totally dependent on international aid, especially from Spain. We cannot let a repeat incident, like the one that happened before, or we’ll die of hunger and thirst in the desert,” says Ahmed Salem. Spanish aid workers Ainhoa Fernandez, Enric Gonyalons and Italian Rosella Urru were abducted from Rabuni’s international camp on Oct. 22, last year.

Many suggest that the first and only kidnapping in the territory, under the Polisario Front’s control, could trigger a conflict that has remained frozen for 37 years.

The abduction was claimed by a hitherto unknown armed group, and through unusual channels. Ahmed Mohamed Ali, a worker at the centre who was handcuffed during the attack told IPS that the attackers “were not from the region and most likely of Touareg origin.” The Touareg are Berber people inhabiting the Saharan interior of North Africa.

Some observers fear that conflict is brewing in the Western Sahara. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS

Increasing Isolation

The decrease in the number of foreign visitors is evident after the kidnapping. Rabuni camp has a capacity for 200 visitors; usually now there are just half a dozen.

“Any attack on foreigners, whether it’s a kidnapping, a roadside bomb, or any kind of assault can lead, in the short term, to unpredictable consequences for the future of refugees. It is certainly the most vulnerable side of the Saharawi people,” says Andoni Berriotxoa, coordinator of a project to build water wells in Bir-Lehlu, administrative capital of the Sahrawi territories under Polisario control.

The newly introduced security measures may look draconian to many: night curfew for foreigners starting at seven; compulsory military escort for any journey by road, and a network of earth and sand walls in which the Algerian army also joins with watchtowers and radars.

The Moroccan media will soon broadcast that we are restricting visits for foreigners, but this is for their safety,” says Salem. This military engineer who graduated in Cuba adds that it is Morocco that has built the world’s longest military wall: a French-designed project, over 2,500 kilometres in length, crisscrossing Western Sahara.

“It’s true that the number of visitors has dropped dramatically in the last seven months,” Salem Sehir, a Polisario executive member and district governor tells IPS. “There’s a big fear over new attacks, but we cannot forget that the financial crisis in Spain is also behind the fewer numbers. The number of our kids visiting Spain in summer was cut by half. Spanish families simply cannot afford it any longer.”

Political Stalemate

Back in Rabuni, Jatri Aduh, president of the Sahrawi Parliament and the Polisario leader in negotiations with Morocco, speaks of a conflict “that neither side is able to win.” The senior official openly admits his disappointment over the inaction of the former colonial power and of the UN, compounded by the unconditional support that Morocco gets from France.

“As a full member of the African Union, the RASD is committed to the security in the region and we will not spare any effort to implement it,” says the high-ranking official.

Aduh cannot hide his concern over the growing instability in the region, which is the only shelter for his entire people. In the inhospitable Algerian desert and halfway between the borders of Mali, Mauritania and the Western Sahara territory, this cluster of mud and corrugated iron houses lies on a crossroads for drug trafficking, and for Al-Qaeda fighters and Touareg rebels from Azawad – the newly self-proclaimed state in northern Mali.

“The challenges for the near future are so massive that we have even extended our hand to Morocco to liaise on common security issues. Unfortunately, we are still waiting for a response to our initiative.”

Norwegian Council for Africa.

#Mauritania: On The Edge

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Update of an article which originally appeared in Zenith Online in April 2012, when it seemed that all Mauritania’s sources of discontent were erupting at once. But protests are nothing new in this land where a coup has been the answer to every political ill, whether real or imagined, for decades.

Operating in a Constitutional Vacuum

General Aziz

The coup in which the Aziz regime seized power in 2008 created a wave of protest, which continued despite General Aziz switching to civilian garb and claiming a democratic victory in the 2009 presidential election. After a year in which they failed to complete national registration, failed to maintain dialogue with the opposition, and postponed legislative, parliamentary and municipal elections indefinitely, the Aziz government is no longer teetering on the brink of legitimacy: it fell off that precipice back in November 2011 when the mandate of the government expired. The only legally elected official in Mauritania is now the president, Mohammed Ould Abdel Aziz. Many of those who accused the junta of merely paying lip-service to democracy in order to add a veneer of respectability and secure regional and international acceptance (and funding) are now feeling fully vindicated.

Anti-government protests which resurfaced last year gradually increased since February 2012 to become a daily occurrence in Nouakchott, Nouadhibou and other towns further afield. Incidents of strikes have also increased, with actions by fishermen, mining workers, teachers, college professors and students. Even a group of administrators for the national registration programme threatened a strike over pay and conditions. Throughout all this, the junta continues to impose constitutional and legislative changes, and to enter into financial and trade agreements with foreign investors, lenders, and trade partners.

Neighbourhood Watch

Mauritania map

Geographically, Mauritania is a foreign invention. The uncomfortably angular shape of Mauritania’s north eastern borders were decided long ago by colonial powers in London and Paris. There are few links with London now, although last October, William Hague did become the first the British Foreign Secretary to visit. But deep ties with France persist, and many are watching to see how Hollande’s victory in the French presidential election will impact the country. The neighbours who inhabit the other side of those awkward borders are also subject to the vagaries of Mauritania’s fickle nature. Western Sahara lost it’s southern region to Morocco when Mauritania decided to withdraw from occupation after being outclassed by the POLISARIO rebel force in 1979. This land that only time remembers, and which the world tries to ignore, now presses in awkward silence against the north-western border, a permanent reminder of Mauritania’s humiliating defeat, tribal hegemony and political naivety.

During the relatively brief 1989 conflict with Senegal, tens of thousands were forcibly expelled or repatriated between the two countries. The enmity was eventually resolved, but there is no great bond between them, as the April2012 crackdown on Senegalese workers and residents in Nouadhibou demonstrates. While Mauritania worked with the UN HCR to repatriate some of the Senegal refugees, a process which was declared complete only in March 2012, those in Mali were never even counted. In a peculiarly schizophrenic episode, tens of thousands of refugees displaced by the unrest in Mali are now being sheltered in Mauritania. In Mali’s case, there is an almost total lack of respect for its sovereignty: Mauritania maintains close associations with the MNLA (Mouvement National pour la Libération de l’Azawad) and conducts frequent military sorties supposedly targeting AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) – even if those targets turn out to be civilians. With the introduction in May 2012 of a new residency tax for all foreign nationals of 30,000 MRO per person, including children, Mauritania now appears to be in breach of two clauses of its 1963 accord with Mali, which prohibits both taxation on citizens and uninvited military presence.

As a member of the Arab League, Mauritania has always had close relations with the Gulf States, although we are encouraged by unreliable media sources to consider some, for example Saudi Arabia or Kuwait, as being closer than others. Once deeply indebted to Muammar Gaddafi’s patronage, Mauritania was an unexpected choice as chair of the African Union’s special committee on Libya during the 2011 uprising. It was also one of the last of the Arab states to officially recognize the National Transitional Council, and entertained visitors from both sides during last year’s conflict.  This year finds Mauritania playing host to former Libyan intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senussi, after an improbable arrest (which France claimed to have a hand with) and showing no signs of releasing him from “detention” any time soon.

Islamic in Moderation

One of only four Islamic Republics in the world, Mauritania might be expected to enjoy close relations with Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, but this is not the case. Relations with Iran did seem warm last September, when they received Ahmadinejad and his entourage on the way to and from the UN General Assembly in New York, then seemed to have cooled by March, when Mauritania voted in favour of extending the UN Human Rights Special Rapporteur’s mandate. But by early April, Iran had “repatriated” former Al Qaeda strategist Mahfouz Ould al Walid aka Abu Hafs al Mauritani, who arrived to join his family, already returned from Iran. For company, they have one of Osama bin Laden’s former wives and her children, while Mali is fast becoming the Al Qaeda time-share capital of Africa.

Mauritania is reportedly keeping al Walid in detention and there are unconfirmed reports that he has refused visits and food in protest at being pressured to meet with delegations from “foreign powers”. Such reports have all the hallmarks of a smokescreen intended to dampen observers’ inclinations to link his presence in Mauritania with reports of increasing AQIM activity in the Sahel, or indeed with the recent spate of allegedly successful US drone attacks on Al Qaeda leadership figures. By all accounts, Mauritania is firmly against terrorism, and its preferred brand of moderate Islam is jihad-free. In fact the government has carved out a cosy niche as a player in the global war on terror, with its lucrative funding opportunities. This might get a boost due to the level of hysteria about Mali. For development funding, the EU remains an important source of funds and is joined by Japan, Spain, China and others. All of these donors surely know that their funds are being sieved through a mesh of corruption but they seem unperturbed.

Not Just Desert

Harsh Desert Conditions

Despite it’s massive land area of over 1 million km2, the majority of Mauritania’s population – which is roughly the same as that of Berlin – is concentrated in the capital Nouakchott, and the port of Nouadhibou. These cities lie on the West coast where the Sahara desert meets Mauritania’s vast fishing grounds in the Atlantic ocean. While the sea provides a wealth of fish, not much reaches land: most of it is destined for export after processing in huge factory ships. The European Union recently ordered its fleet to cease fishing in the waters, as the quota has been reached and their agreement expires in July 2012. Meanwhile, China has moved in as another pelagic fishing partner in a deal that was denounced as unfavourable and suspect.

The vast desert, though inhospitable, is also rich in natural resources such as iron, copper, gold and gypsum. One of the major criticisms levelled at the government concerns mining rights sold to foreign companies, such as Canada’s Kinross, on terms which fail to provide a reasonable return. Mining workers appear to be trapped in a cycle of industrial action and broken or half-kept promises, although an unprecedented and costly 5-day strike by 1500 Kinross workers in early June appears to have improved their situation.

Decades of desertification and increasing frequency of severe drought have pushed people from a life of humble self-sufficiency as smallholders in rural villages to the cities. It’s a race for survival, with the edge of Africa as the finishing line. But there are few opportunities for skilled workers or university graduates in the cities, fewer still for semi-nomadic herdsmen and farmers with only a rudimentary education. The towns were not built to cope with such dramatic increase: essential support infrastructure is lacking, and plans to create or improve it are failing to keep pace. This situation is the basis for a raft of social issues – unemployment, poverty, homelessness, healthcare, education, social welfare – a constant source of domestic tension. Another source of social friction is racial discrimination, inescapable in a country with such a mixture of “white” and “black” Moors as well as black Africans and all possible variants. Racial division is a “hot button” and the regime is highly skilled at applying pressure whenever it suits.

Sowing Division, Reaping Chaos

In April 2011, when the new population census and biometric registration programme was launched, there was an outcry over allegations of racial prejudice against citizens of black African heredity.  This year, it was the turn of slavery to grab headlines.  Recent media focus on slavery actually garnered little attention inside the country until a Saudi cleric suggested Muslims could seek atonement by purchasing the freedom of slaves, who he said  were readily-available in Mauritania. This was followed by a comment from the cleric Cheikh Dedew, who is also the patron of the Islamist party, Tewassoul. Dedew made a statement along the lines of “slavery does not exist in Mauritania”. In turn, this provoked Biram Ould Abeid, president of anti-slavery group “IRA” to hold his own Friday prayer meeting on 27 April, and afterwards burn several volumes by Islamic scholars which he said condone slavery through Islam.

Aziz goes Trad

The response was immediate and significant, some might even say orchestrated. Angry protesters marched to the Presidential palace the next day, and president Aziz came out to meet them in full traditional dress instead of the usual couture suit, promising to defend Islam. Biram Ould Abeid and 9 of his associates were arrested that evening. Protests against Biram’s act continued for a time, with demands ranging from an apology to expulsion, and even execution for apostasy. Mauritania does include some precepts of Islamic “Sharia” law, but has not actually executed anyone for many years. Whether knowingly or not, Biram Ould Abeid’s attempt to demonstrate a link between Islam and slavery provided a golden opportunity for Aziz to stifle the slavery debate and restore his flagging reputation by championing the one thing all people in Mauritania have in common: Islam.

As the indignation began to wane, regular Saturday protests by supporters of Biram and his fellow-prisoners began, and were immediately and repeatedly repressed by police with customary violence. Biram’s wife Leyla was attacked several times, and on one occasion shot in the face with a tear gas grenade. On 9 June 2012, a young man – who was not part of the protest, but a shopkeeper on one of the roads where police were clashing with the unarmed protesters – died from tear gas suffocation. As has been the case with previous incidents, officials denied any wrongdoing and claimed the youth died from a pre-existing medical complaint. Biram has in fact published an apology but he and six others, including a journalist, remain in custody.

Now Mauritania appears to be entering a new phase in its ever-evolving struggle. Last week there was a visit from the UN representative for West Africa, fresh from talks with ECOWAS* about the situation in Mali. He met with leaders of the the political opposition coalition for about half an hour before meeting with Aziz. Former transitional leader Ely Ould Mohammed Vall, a cousin of Aziz, provided some distraction by allowing himself to be quoted making outlandish and insulting comments about the 1989 atrocities. This got the abolitionists and anti-racists nicely worked up, while Massoud Ould Belkhair, leader of the more compliant opposition, worked on COD leaders by making overtures about dialogue. For the hat-trick, the failed group which was created last year to call for a national unity government was brought out of cold storage.

Former Chief Justice Ould Ghilani

In the background, the illegal Aziz government pressed on with its agenda. Unqualified diplomats have been dispatched to various international locations. Unqualified candidates have been assigned to a new Electoral Commission, and the former Chief Justice Ould Ghilani was removed from his post and replaced by a very junior and inexperienced jurist. Legislative elections are still not scheduled, but the country’s jurists are forming a union of sorts, just to keep themselves occupied. Next for the arbitrary chop could be the Chief of the Bar Association, Ould Boubehna, who is talking far too much sense these days, echoing constitutional law expert Lo Gormo’s 3 March pronouncement on the government’s  lack of legitimacy.

Eventually, all these issues must be resolved. It is not possible to continue like this indefinitely. The lack of comment or concern over this constitutional imbroglio from international partners, and their willingness to enter into legal agreements, provide aid, and accept and extend invitations to a government which has remained in power through a “coup by default” is at best puzzling and at worst hypocritical.

*Mauritania is not a member of ECOWAS.