Abdel Aziz continues Mauritania's 'experiment' with democracy

Coup-weary citizens hope electoral trend holds, for now, but going by history, anything is possible in this West African country.

Few would classify Mauritanian President Ould Abdel Aziz as a democrat, certainly not the opposition parties that boycotted last month’s election, won handsomely by the  former general with 82% of the vote. 

After all, Abdel Aziz came to power in a coup in 2008, the latest in a long line of soldiers who have held sway over the largely desert country since the first post-independence leader, Moktar Daddah, was deposed.

That coup interrupted what was seen as the most progressive period in Mauritania’s history, after Col Ely Ould Mohamed Vall took power in 2005 and instituted widely hailed reforms, leading to the country’s fairest poll in 2007.

Despite organising elections in 2009, which he narrowly won, Abdel Aziz has struggled to shake off the shadow of a military strongman, an image buttressed by the anti-militant platform he based his latest presidential campaign on.

Yet the fact that there was an election at all suggests a country looking to deepen its poor experience of the ballot box, and which has suffered several blows since independence from France in 1960.

The boycott by the opposition has been a favourite tool of protest, but the general shrug of the shoulders of the international community after a constitutional court Tuesday upheld Abdel Aziz’s victory suggests stability is of bigger concern following the major threat of Al-Qaeda militants in recent years.

Mauritania’s history gives pointers as to why this was such a major factor in the recent election.

Set the tone
The country’s first coup took place in 1978 when the  authoritarian Daddah, the first Mauritanian to ever hold a degree, was overthrown, setting the tone for a long line of  army interventions in which high-ranking army officials were continuously toppled by their former colleagues. 

In 1979, former army commander, Mustafa Ould Salek, was reduced to a figurehead president in a coup led by colonels Ahmad Ould Bouceif and Muhammad Khouna Haidallah, to be eventually replaced by Colonel Muhammad Louly. 

A year later, another coup led by Mohamed Khouna Ould Haidalla replaced Louly, before the new man was himself  ousted in a 1984 coup by army chief of staff, Maaouya Ould Sid’Ahmed Taya.

This musical chairs turns did not churn out soldiers that were all averse to democratic practices: Taya’s regime began a transition to multiparty government in 1991 and the first plural presidential elections were held a year on.  

But critics charge he in this poll and the subsequent 1997 election—boycotted by the opposition and which he won with over 90% of the vote— secured victory through rolling out state largesse and suppression of the nascent opposition.

There were attempted coups in the background, before a successful one in 2005 when Taya was overthrown while on a trip abroad.

Credited with reform
The leader of this coup, Col Vall, is credited with moving the country to democracy, such that he ruled out himself and his junta from running in the 2007 vote won by Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi, a former politician and independent, who  though many viewed as the candidate representing the ruling Military Council for Justice and Democracy.

Abdallahi’s bid to bring in members of Taya’s government soured relations with the military, but it was his attempt to sack four leading generals in August 2008 that saw him deposed when one of them, Gen Abdel Aziz, replaced him with a junta that would clear the path for new elections. 

Abdel Aziz went on to resign from all political and military positions, before controversially winning the July 2009 election. 

Trends however suggest the country could go either way. Abdel Aziz’s army past, the lack of a clear challenger and the boycott by the opposition suggest a country still harbouring grievances of the past, including the deep lack of faith in the heavily pro-government institutions. 

Nouakchott also finds itself having to deal with the threat of militancy blooming in the Maghreb. Previously such threats were limited to the Polisario guerrilla group, which was working to end Mauritanian and Moroccan presence in the disputed Western Sahara

More battlefronts
But Abdel Aziz, 57, is now fighting newer battles: he has taken on Al Qaeda, becoming a key western ally following his iron-fist rule and the ruthless campaign against the extremists. 

This war adds to the cost of violence in the country which currently stands at 9.1% of the economy, according to new data from the Institute for Economics and Peace. This fight with extremists will only worsen as, despite being a predominantly Muslim nation, the president continues Mauritania’s legacy of rapprochement with Western powers and Israel, who are rich targets for the militants.

There are however greenshoots for the country. Abdel Aziz has in recent years improved relations with Morocco, which was alleged to have been behind a coup attempt in 1981.

In 2012 opposition groups also held peaceful demonstrations. 

But a key test was in October 2012 when Abdel Aziz was hurt in an “accidental” shooting by the military, fuelling speculation of a botched coup attempt. 

However, while he was in France for six weeks for treatment, the resulting vacuum did not result in significant uncertainty. Few of his military predecessors would have survived such an absence. 

Abdel Aziz has further worked to burnish his own profile within the region. He is the current chair of the regional African Union bloc, on whose behalf he secured a crucial ceasefire deal between Mali’s struggling army and separatist rebels in May. 

Analysts also say that with the country becoming one of Africa’s newest oil producers, the billions of dollars coming in to state coffers will help strengthen his second term. 

The real test will however be in 2019, when his constitutional term ends. Will he go quietly?

Twitter: @Samooner


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