Key political, social and economic developments have unfolded in Mauritania over the past year. Legislative, municipal and regional elections took place in May, following an agreement between the government and opposition parties that was reached in September 2022. This relative political consensus is important for the new regime of Mohamed Ould Cheikh El Ghazouani as it prosecutes the former head of state, Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, who went on trial last February for corruption-related charges. The country’s image as an “exceptional” case of stability in the volatile Sahel region was almost compromised when four jihadist prisoners escaped from the central prison in Nouakchott, killing two prison guards and injuring two others. The week-long nationwide manhunt, which resulted in the death of a gendarme and three of the fugitives, brought back memories from the 2005-2011 period of terrorist activities in the country. On the human rights front, slavery and ethnic grievances still animate political debates. The adoption of a controversial education reform law by the Parliament was criticized for imposing Arabic on other communities. Finally, the country is still struggling with inflation, unemployment and food insecurity, despite significant economic growth rates in 2022 and promising energy prospects.
The Trial of “the Decade”
On 25 January 2023, Former President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz went on trial along with nine other co-defendants, including former ministers, businessmen and family members. In the still-ongoing trial, Abdel Aziz faces charges related to abuse of office, illicit enrichment, money laundering and nepotism during his time in office. Despite the dramatic scene of a former president being dragged to court for corruption crimes for the first time in the country’s history, the “file of the decade” as it is referred to in Mauritanian media (in reference to the 11 years Abdel Aziz spent in power) has apparently more to do with a political tug-of-war between the two presidents than with holding corrupt officials accountable for their crimes.
Investigations into the former President’s alleged misconduct while in office were first started by a parliamentary committee that was formed at the request of the opposition deputies in late 2019. When police investigated the alleged crimes based on the committee’s report, a Pandora’s box was opened. More than two hundred people were initially implicated in these files, but the number gradually decreased throughout the investigation and indictment processes until it settled on a group of 10 individuals, including the former head of state. Among those exempted from the judicial prosecution are former ministers and key members of the former President’s regime who are now active supporters of the new ruler.
Two things are noteworthy from the case of the former President’s trial. First, the new President has apparently succeeded in blocking his predecessor’s attempt to make a political comeback. El Ghazouani has taken over the ruling party and rallied support from the military and other key political stakeholders in the country, while Abdel Aziz seems to be fighting a lone battle. Second, the trial will likely have important implications for the peaceful transfer of power in the country. Regardless of the outcome, the trial will establish a precedent for dealing with the legacy of outgoing presidents. For a country that has just seen its first peaceful transfer of power after attempts at extending executive term limits failed, the implications of prosecuting a former president could go in any direction.
2023 Elections: Political Consensus and Military Presence in Politics
In September 2022, the government and political parties finally reached a consensus over the organization of the upcoming elections. Legislative, municipal and regional elections will take place on 13 May 2023. This is the first election cycle since Mohamed Ould Cheikh EL Ghazouani took office on 1 August 2019. The new President will be represented by El Insaf, which is the new name given to the former President’s L’Union pour la République [Union for the Republic]. But there are also other parties claiming to represent the political majority of President Ghazouani. It is, therefore, unclear whether the election results will lead the President to restructure his majority or throw his weight behind El Insaf.
This is perhaps the first election in at least 15 years in which all political parties participate. Election boycotting was common throughout the decade-long rule of former President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz. The new President initiated a dialogue with opposition parties culminating in an agreement under which the electoral system was slightly modified. The number of deputies elected through the proportional representation system increased, and the opposition parties were also represented in the National Independent Election Commission (CENI). The dialogue between the new ruler and opposition parties, we should point out, had initially started as an inclusive dialogue addressing the larger political and social crises facing the country. When this failed, however, the focus shifted to elections.
Especially important in this election is the nomination of the former Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces and retired general Mohamed Ould Meguett at the top of El Insaf’s national list for the parliamentary elections. Ould Meguett is likely to become the head of the general assembly, replacing Colonel Cheikh Ould Baya who served as the president of the dissolved parliament from 2018 to 2023. With two retired generals controlling the legislative and executive branches in Mauritania, the military seems to be tightening its grip on power in the country. While this nomination did not evoke public criticism of the increased military presence in politics, at least on the part of major opposition parties, it did not go unnoticed by other political actors in the country. FONAD, a coalition of human rights organizations, criticized the nomination of the man they accused of being among those presumed responsible for the persecution of black African soldiers during the events of 1989-1991.
Jihadist Prison Break Disrupts “Exceptional” Stability
Mauritania is often viewed as an exception in the volatile Sahel region. The country managed to avoid the repercussions of the Malian crisis of 2012, which has plagued the central Sahel states and affected other countries in the region. Since 2011, Mauritania has not registered any reported terrorist attack on its soil. But this record of “exceptional” anti-terrorism success was briefly disrupted in March 2023 when four Jihadist inmates managed to escape from the central prison in Nouakchott, killing two prison guards and injuring two others. The four men attempted to make their way to neighbouring Mali before their pick-up truck broke down in the desert, raising suspicions among the local nomads who spotted them. A clash between the army and the four fugitives occurred in the heart of the desert, hundreds of kilometres from Nouakchott, resulting in the death of one gendarme and three inmates. The fourth fugitive was captured, having sustained minor injuries during the encounter.
This week-long crisis exposed the fragility of Mauritania’s security image. A pick-up truck loaded with explosives had reportedly come from northern Mali where the planning of the prison escape was orchestrated and parked in a neighbourhood in the capital Nouakchott (Mint Bamba, 2023). If these reports are accurate, it could suggest that the mutaraka, or the tacit truce agreement that some scholars argue exists between the Mauritanian State and the Jihadists of AQIM (Thurston,2020) could be at risk. In any case, the prison break incident evoked memories of past terrorist attacks in the country. Additionally, the government’s decision to shut down mobile internet services throughout the manhunt operation fuelled further fear of insecurity and disrupted citizens’ daily activities.
Slavery and Human Rights Issues
Slavery and the treatment of “Afro-Mauritanians” continued to hold sway in the country’s political landscape in 2022. Mauritania was ranked in the “Tier 2 Watchlist” category in the US Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report. The government, according to the 2022 report, “does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking, but is making significant efforts to do so.” (USDP, 2023). A Delegation from the US Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons visited the country in December and took stock of the recent developments in the human rights area.
On 25 July 2022, the Mauritanian Parliament passed an education reform law making Arabic mandatory in the school system, while simultaneously introducing national languages (Pulaar, Soninke, and Wolof) into the curriculum. The reform, seen by the government as necessary for improving the education system, sparked protests from civil society groups who believe it perpetuates “linguistic injustice” in the country. The language issue in Mauritania is only one aspect of a multidimensional racial and ethnic crisis that has afflicted the country for decades.
Economic growth in Mauritania rose significantly from 2.4% in 2021 to 5.2% in 2022, due to increased exports on the demand side and the expansion of the agricultural sector on the supply side. But the average annual inflation rate of 2022 hit 9.5%, even though it is anticipated to decline to 8% in 2023 as the external pressure on prices eases (World Bank, 2023). The World Bank also estimates that the current account deficit increased from 8.1% of GDP in 2021 to 13.9% of GDP in 2022. On the ground, protests over surging food and fuel prices were registered in a number of cities in the country, especially after the government decided to reduce subsidies on fuel in July 2022, which led to a 30% increase in gasoline and diesel prices.
Despite this economic growth and promising natural gas opportunities, Mauritania is still struggling with poverty, unemployment and food insecurity, which is affecting a quarter of the population according to some estimates
Meanwhile, Mauritania has high hopes for its energy sector, with important developments in the past year. For instance, British Petroleum and Cosmos Energy are working on Phase Two of the Greater Tortue Ahmeyim (GTA), the gas field shared by Mauritania and Senegal with a capacity of more than 15 trillion cubic feet. In November 2022, BP, Cosmos Energy and the Mauritanian government also signed a production-sharing agreement regarding BirAllah, another gas field that holds around 80 trillion cubic feet. Mauritania’s energy sector also attracted global oil and gas companies, such as Shell and Qatar Energy.
Another important renewable energy source that is attracting global interest in Mauritania is green Hydrogen. On 8 November 2022, Mauritania and BP signed a memorandum of understanding to explore the development of low-carbon hydrogen on a large scale in Mauritania. In March 2023, the German Conjuncta group signed a memorandum of understanding with the Mauritanian government, the Egyptian energy supplier Infinity and the Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company for the construction of a $34-billion green hydrogen complex in the country. Despite this economic growth and promising natural gas opportunities, Mauritania is still struggling with poverty, unemployment and food insecurity, which is affecting a quarter of the population according to some estimates.
Mint Bamba, Oumoulbenina. “Mauritanie : Soutenus par AQMI, les terroristes tués planifiaient une prise d’otages dans l’Adrar.”Senalioune 14 March 2023, https://senalioune.com/mauritanie-soutenus-par-aqmi-les-terroristes-tues-planifiaient-une-prise-dotages-dans-ladrar/
The World Bank. Mauritania: Overview, 20 March 2023. www.worldbank.org/en/country/mauritania/overview
Thurston, Alex. Jihadists of North Africa and the Sahel: Local Politics and Rebel Groups. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020
U.S. Department of State. Trafficking in Persons Report, 2022, p. 378
(Header photo: Bareina, Mauritania | Ferdinand Reus from Arnhem, Holland, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)