A Disaster 50 Years in The Making

20 01 2013

Tuareg Woman

Mali’s problems did not start with the fall of Libya’s Qadhafi. They started even before it gained independence from France. A diverse set of ethnic groups were forced to coexist without much thought of the immense potential for conflict caused by that arrangement. France’s 25th hour short-legged attempt at Shock and Awe is potentially a doomed effort because it is a decade late. Relying on inept militaries, and hoping to win a guerilla warfare without a credible strategy is a defeat waiting to happen. A decade into wars of pacification, Western nations should resist the urge to fight in yet another war without fully thinking through the consequences– potentially disastrous. None of this is an argument to look the other way on the spread of Jihadism, it is a call to think, then act decisively. Too much is at stake.

Unlike some writings popping up with depressing regularity in English-language media, the current Mali crisis pre-dates Qadhafi’s demise, and even the appearance of Jihadis in the territory in 2003. In fact, Mali’s internal problems started even before it gained its independence from France. Azawadis sought desperately to have their own state when it became apparent that France was intent on abandoning the French Sudan. They latched on the mirage of the Common Organization of Saharan Regions (OCRS) created by the January 10, 1957 French law.

The OCRS covered areas in today’s Algeria, Mali, Niger, and Chad. Had it been retained, it would have been an Amazigh-majority state with considerable Arab, Songhai and Toubou pluralities. The project however had another purpose altogether: divide and conquer. it was a French ruse aimed at Algeria’s then independence rebellion led by the FLN. The idea was to keep the northern part of the territory as French, and offer the rest the option of independence.

Once Mali became independent, it took only 2 years for the first Azawad rebellion to break out in 1962. Triggered by their opposition to the then-dictator Modibu Keita’s socialist policies, the Azawadis took to arms starting a tradition of defeating Bamako militarily that lasts till today.

That episode’s trauma still lives today in their minds; Keita’s army resorted to a two-year collective punishment campaign against the Azawadi population to offset their military defeats.

Entire areas were emptied of their populations. Long forced marches claimed the lives of hundreds, not to mention those shot because of their kinship with rebels, or the suspicion of being rebels themselves. By the time the revolt was crushed, the region had lost most of its charismatic leaders to war, or repression.

Azawadis troubles were only compounded by a combination of Bamako’s brand of dirt-poor socialism and the 1968 droughts that decimated their cattle– just as it did Mauritania and Niger. Overnight, they became a destitute famished population. Dying by the thousands in their land of hunger, they began to migrate to the neighboring countries. The sight of clear-skinned beggar children wandering the streets a in big cities as far as Cotonou became common. It was at that time they found a sanctuary in Libya which began a utilitarian relationship ultimately ending with Qadhafi’s fall in 2011.

Used as canon fodder in Qadhafi’s foreign adventures in Chad, and brief clashes with Sudan and Tunisia,  the Azawadi diaspora found work, housing and an income they desperately needed. Their remittances to their families and clans back in Mali offset the abject poverty resulting from Mali’s failed governance and the climatic changes that wiped out their traditional sources of wealth.

In the meantime, Moussa Traoré’s dictatorial reign over all Malians continued the trend of stagnation and impoverishment in all of Mali, not just Azawad. By the time he was deposed, the seeds of revolt planted by his predecessor were ready to harvest. An armed insurrection broke out from 1990-1995. Another one followed in the next decade, this time under a democratically elected government from 2007-2009. New-old Azawadi tribal and wanna-be chiefs have begun to learn another important lesson: if you fight Bamako, sooner or later, you will be recognized Primus enter pares.

In both instances, agreements were signed between Bamako and Azawadis promising to improve the livelihood in the north, the end of discriminatory policies and integrating some northerners in the state army. Both agreements, brokered with the help of foreign powers, broke down because of the faulty assumption behind them. These were arrangements where Azawadi chieftains were asked to accept remaining Malians in exchange for services Bamako offered as incentives for allegiance.

For too long, a lot of conspiracy theorists and crackpots have been spreading myths about Mali’s travails. According to them, Algeria’s military intel service DRS has been masterminding simpleton Jihadis. Even more predictably, said crackpots see America’s hand under every rock, and caressing the back of every lizard running the Sahara desert. Sniffing for oil, and Uranium and other resources said to be under the arid desert.

A new false concept gaining currency these days is the notion that Mali’s collapse is the bastard child of the Nato intervention in Libya. Sorry, but that does not even begin to explain the total collapse of Malian governance by the time Azawadis took to arms in early 2012. A considerable segment of the local population was not aloof to living in a free independent Azawad. They did not begin to grumble until they realized that they were in essence trading one occupation for another.

By the time Qadhafi’s regime in Libya fell, northern Mali had been home to Jihadi elements that left Algeria a decade earlier after being thoroughly defeated in the civil war. By 2002, remnants of Algeria’s GIA found sanctuary behind the borders away from their nemesis the Algeria’s army. They were also attracted by the allure of making easy money by partnering in the flourishing Saharan smuggling commerce. Drugs, tobacco, weapons and stolen cars provided a lucrative alternative to war.

Jihadis made new and strange bedfellows in that period. Mali, Algeria, Mauritania and Senegal army officers started to skim off the new source of wealth. Getting a cut from the smuggling revenues in exchange for looking the other way was the the policy for almost a decade. Jihadis venture capitalism extended to an even more lucrative business: kidnapping western hostages all over the Sahara yielded over 90 Million Euros over a decade. Unlike the conspiracy theorists and snake oil merchants claim, things are a tad more complex in reality, and at times, even more unflattering to our world’s big powers.

Time and again, European nations chose to negotiate, and pay ransom money. Germany, Italy, Spain, France cut deals with hostage takers not thinking much of it. After all, Europe’s politicians thought the savages were deep in the Sahara and did not pose much of a threat beyond their forsaken deserts. Or at best, let the Malians deal with them. Complacency was Europe’s strategy.

Slowly but surely, the region became a Jihadi Eldorado. The modus operandi was very simple: why get killed trying to create an Islamist emirate in “apostate-ruled” neighboring countries when you can build your own sanctuary AND have the West pay for it? Even better, now that you are flush with cash, blend into the local communities. Those whom you cannot buy, you marry. To Azawadis the offering was: Bamako cannot build you a water well? Here’s a cash wad of Euros, go build it yourself.

Once the nexus was set up, there was no going back. The joint Franco-Mauritanian operations of 2010 and 2011 were just grandiose hostage release operations. By then, the United States had been pursuing its own classical approach of throwing money at problems it cannot deal with. Development programs were set up in Mali to reward the democratic progress. Military assistance in the form of training for the Malian military was ongoing. The US even tried very hard to get the neighboring countries to start a meaningful cooperation.

Algerians were miffed by the suggestion that they should be told what to do about their own security. Morocco was scheming and trying to make itself relevant in a problem it has nothing to do with just to score points over Algeria. Burkina Faso and Mauritania were fighting their own covert wars by proxy. Mali’s government was doing nothing meaningful about the Jihadis in Azawad. Instead it was locked in a war of words with Mauritania’s General Aziz who seemed intent on humiliating then President Amadou Toumni Touré for daring to oppose his coup of 2008.

When it was not busy blogging from Germany on its Maghrebia news website, America’s Africa Command (Africom) in charge of the Sahel region, was in earnest trying to make sense of this maze of interests, pushing for a regional command to deal with the lawless mess that Azawad was slowly becoming.. All things considered, these efforts’ ultimate outcome is not encouraging because yet again their premise is profoundly flawed: no country around Mali, or in West Africa has the muscle, nor the will to engage in an open war which in essence is a nation-building exercise.

All of these schemes and plans became moot by the time Ansar Dine’s columns pushed south from its Azawadi sanctuary. The skeleton of an untested idea became a doctrinal principle in France’s Operation Serval: we will stop the Jihadis, but the Africans will have to go north and defeat the enemy– said France. This plan of an ECOWAS force that will spearhead the fight with the backing of the African Union, and the necessary paperwork from the UN Security Council is a recipe for disaster. Rotten and corrupt militaries, commanded by equally corrupt leaders cannot be a credible partner once the shooting starts. This line of thinking owes a lot more to post-colonial discourses than it does to the practical matter of drying out the northern Malian jihadi swamp.

The other principle complicating matters is Africa’s biggest taboo. Today, no one is willing to recognize that Mali, like most of Africa, is an artificial construct. Just like the Middle East’s levant, countries were created without much thought of whether they made sense for those destined to live in them. Ethnic groups with competing cultures were condemned to live in them. Maybe they will end up making sense in the future, but just as in Mali, that will cost a lot of blood and treasure.

Although the logical next step in Azawad’s history is independence, in practical policy terms, it is impossible to advocate for an Azawadi state now. Autonomy would be a good step in that direction, even if it’s unlikely to gain much traction in African Union meetings..

This is the compromise that any serious attempt to defeat Jihadism must include. after all, as the French learned a century earlier, the only tried and tested strategy to control that area is divide and conquer. Giving Azawadis incentives to repudiate Jihadism is the only way to go. More importantly, a purpose and a reward for their past sufferings denying Jihadis the opportunity to pose as the people’s defenders.

In plain terms, let the natives of the region do the job outsiders cannot do. Let them earn the right to decide their destiny in exchange of defeating all foreign and domestic terrorists who have infected their lives, destroyed their shrines and cut their limbs. Back those whose interest is to cut Al-Qaeda’s tentacles. Keep a credible threat of firepower in place. Keep Mali’s military under close watch, and neuter it if necessary– they have already caused more than their fair share of harm by overthrowing an elected government.

Put an offer to negotiate on the table and build smart alliances. Let diplomats talk, and keep warriors close. Feed refugees, and keep their hope of going back home soon alive. Only such a policy is likely to save lives, and defeat nihilist jihadism.

Today, hope for a better future is the only way to win a peace with honor for all the peoples of the Sahel instead of endless wars allowing criminal thugs to shape the region’s future. Capitulating to fear and age-old hatreds is not an option.





Operation Serval: The View From Mauritania

15 01 2013

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Mali War: “Arab states might send troops.” “No thanks, we don’t need help.” by Algerian cartoonist Dilem

Four days into the French operation in Mali, Mauritania’s government has been conspicuously silent. This not at a surprise as the regime is fully aware of the public opinion’s opposition to any Mauritanian involvement in Aazawad.

Interestingly, the only on the record reaction to the operation from a political group till now has been from the Feb25 youth movement on Saturday. their statement seems representative of the Mauritanian public opinion views on the matter: they reiterated their fundamental objection to any Mauritanian involvement in the ongoing combat in Mali. it indirectly accused France of pushing Mauritania into the Malian war via General Aziz. If anything is to be retained here is that the legacy of Sarkozy’s backing of General Aziz is a serious image problem for France in Mauritania.

We completely and fundamentally reject involving our military in that war. we stress the importance of having a continuous … Of our armed forces’ mission during these unique circumstances.

We also would like to remind the ruling regime that our armed forces’ mission is limited to our national territory with the aim to defend our borders and provide security to its citizens all over the country– particularly those near the [conflict’s] hotspots.

We warn against the consequences of pushing our sons into a conflict outside of our borders fulfilling the wishes of a foreign country that has no regards for their lives, or their families’ fate. We would like to remind the regime of the dire consequences of such a decision.

I spoke to several high ranking opposition members and well-connected players off the record. Their pessimism is sobering: the war in Mali is not going to resolve the terrorist issue, in fact, it might backfire. They do not believe that France, nor the ECOWAS nations can resolve the problem through force alone.

I was told that Mali is a political quagmire: “even if the French beat off jihadis, that does not address the fundamental problem of Azawad: the inability of the Malian state over 50 years to provide services to the citizens is what made the place a fertile ground for extremism. The terrorists have cash, the state does not.” When I pushed my interlocutors on the fact that many fighters in AQIM and MUJAO are Mauritanians and that this should be an alarm bell. I was told that “there will be always nihilists around here. If this war drags on, it could be a destination to thousands of Mauritanian youth who lost all hope in their own State. Give them hope in a life in Mauritania. otherwise, they will try to go to heaven via Azawad. Or they might try to recreate their own Jihad here on Mauritanian soil. Either way, our country loses.”

On the record, Saharamedia published tonight a quick roundup of individual politicians’ views on the war. Interestingly the only one among those with a real political weight is Ahmed Ould Sidi Baba, the current chairman of the non-participatory opposition block COD. Echoing a strongly held belief that General Aziz had covertly backed the MNLA against Mali’s former President Amadou Toumani Touré, he is quoted as saying that: “things would have not gotten to where they are had it not for the involvement of General Aziz through raid into Malian territories, and his support to certain forces in Bamako, there would not have been a coup d’état against the civilian government.”

The local branch of the Muslim Brotherhood has not yet issued an official statement on the matter. Their politburo is reported to be in session tonight to formulate a position. They are the one Mauritanian formation that has the most to lose politically from any faux-pas. They are suspected by many to be sympathetic to some of the Islamist elements in Mali, in addition to their ingrained anti-western worldview.

Columnist Abbas Ould Abraham (@abbassbraham) feels that the Mauritanian involvement in the war will be in function of the intensity of France’s engagement in the operations. He further infers that the Islamist groups in Mali already anticipate a Mauritanian attack. they built strong positions in the Ouagadou woods near the border– a spot that saw a major clash in 2010 between AQIM and Mauritanian troops.

Overall, Mauritanians are not thrilled by this war. However, they are not actively opposing it. As long as their military is not involved in combat operations, and their territory is not invaded they will observe from the sidelines. Even if their territory is invaded, the public opinion will not tolerate any extended incursions inside Malian territories.

Update:

A Mauritanian soldier serving in the Lemghaity base (500 km Northeast of Zoueirate) shot himself. The soldier, according to the report , was protesting the cancellation of his leave to visit his family over 1500 km in the south in Nouakchott. This is not a good indicator of the morale of Mauritanian soldiers in light of the ongoing war next door..





Better Be A Refugee Than A Citizen?

9 01 2013

 

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Mauritania’s decision-maker(s) ought to look at this item published today on Saharamedia’s website: “Mauritanian citizens living in the Bassiknou district hosting Malian refugees in the Hodh Elchargui region have been apparently registering as refugees to get food assistance.”

Here, were are not dealing with a simple case of fraud. But rather with an eloquent indictment of the state of affairs in the country: an impoverished population that is living on the margins of the state, and lacking most basic services. As the world gears up to deal with the Jihadi infection next door in Azawad, it should consider learning the lessons of Azawad: if you leave a population living in abject poverty, you will undermine its immunity to radical jihadists. If said population reaches the conclusion that the State is no longer credible, then Islamism becomes a real alternative. 

Finally, we are told in the same piece that there are 200000 Malian refugees in Mauritania. The question is rather: How many Mauritanian refugees are there in Mauritania?





Crooked Sticks, Crooked Shades: A Critique

5 01 2013

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“Mon Dieu, gardez-moi de mes amis. Quant à mes ennemis, je m’en charge!”
Colonel Taya quoting Voltaire- in his first and last television interview ever- reacting to the news of Aziz’s 2005 coup.

One of my new years resolutions for 2013 is to write here more regularly about Mauritania instead of limiting myself to twitter as I did over the past year. I hope to help readers make sense of that area of the world as we race towards a certain war in Northern Mali. That war could have major consequences for Mauritania’s internal political crisis.

The US Ambassador to Mauritania Jo Ellen Powell gave a very little noticed talk two months ago at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C. Initially, I was excited by the prospect of hearing from her given the current state of affairs in my birth country.

US policy on Mauritania is often a matter of interpretation and speculation given that few media inquiries are made given the low level of interest in that area of the world by the public globally. Thus, seldom do we get to hear a US official’s views on Mauritania issues, let alone candid views.  I was in for a major surprise as Ambassador Powell’s remarks were an explosive mix of uninformed commentary, culturally-insensitive inexactitudes topped with a ringing endorsement of Mauritania’s strongman General Aziz. Her unconditional embrace of General Aziz is an anachronism from a bygone era. Two years into the Arab uprisings it is astonishing to see that some official have not interiorized its main lesson: alliances with authoritarian and corrupt leaders under the guise of bringing stability and security are a mirage bound to failure.

The assumptions behind these remarks raise serious concerns about the long-term impact for Mauritania of eventual American policies informed by these highly problematic views. My critique of these views can be broken down into three categories: historical, political, and policy-related. The choice of these categories is not random as they encompass some of the common mistakes and biases prevalent among some Mauritania commentators.

 History: Past Glories and Present Wounds

The Ambassador’s tone when speaking about ethnic relations in the country will not win her many friends in any of Mauritania’s communities. Describing Afro-Mauritanians as “closer to Senegal than they are to Mauritania” is a talking point that was used by Baathist ideologues within Taya’s army to deny the citizenship of Afro-Mauritanians. Ultimately, the ethnic massacres and expulsions against them in 1989 were justified by Taya’s regime as: “returning foreign elements where they belong.”

The Ambassador moves on from there to assign the blame for these events collectively to “light-skinned Moors.” The least that can be said of that claim is that it is ahistorical: Taya regime’s responsibility for these atrocities is well-documented. Paradoxically, many of the people responsible for these crimes against humanity still populate today the very military she praises.

When discussing the so-called “Counter-narratives” component of prevalent counter-terrorism practices, Ambassador Powell informs the audience that “Mauritanians do not like to be told how to be Muslim..” and that “..they [Mauritanians] do not like to be told what to think..” These statements gloss over the country’s own narrative about its place in the world and Islam’s role in its power structures.

It is the main pillar of both its social and political history; the cast system both in Moorish and Afro-Mauritanian communities is a direct function of the monopoly and dispensation of islamic knowledge. Social ascension for individuals, clans and tribes in both communities could be achieved in pre-colonial times only through two ways: the gun for warriors, and Islam for Marabouts. In modern times, religion remains one of the fastest ways to climb to the top of Mauritania’s social pyramid in all communities.  Mauritanians- like any Muslims – will inevitably be suspicious when a foreign non-muslim tries to advocate the merits of a certain brand of Islam over another.After all, they are acutely aware that they produced most of the ulemas leading the main Sufi orders in all of West Africa over the last 4 centuries. The assumption in the remarks is that an American can “evangelize” Islam in a Muslim society. Any reasonable observer will not take too much convincing to see how counterproductive this attitude can be.

Politics: Shifty Sands, Constant Grievances and Fledgeling Institutions

In discussing the Mauritanian opposition, Ambassador Powell candidly channels wholesale General Aziz’s views of his own detractors– the very same talking points he uses to describe them. For starters, the gentleman she calls a “tired old elite whose time has gone”– Ahmed Ould Daddah, is the leader of the biggest opposition party in the country historically and as of today. His party, the RFD, got 16 seats in parliament in the country’s last free and fair electoral cycle in 2006 and 2007 placing it as the single largest opposition party.

Daddah got 47% of the vote against Aziz’s backed candidate in the presidential election that year.  A quick review of the electoral results of that cycle paint a more accurate picture of opposition parties electoral weight. Powell’s attitude towards Daddah and the non-participatory opposition reflects the challenge of fully appreciating the complex legacy of Mauritania’s last 20 years of politics and power dynamics. Many players have different motives, they cannot all be explained through ethnic, tribal affiliations alone.

Take for example her assertion that “the Haratine vote will go to Messaoud Ould Boulkheir” because he is the top Haratine in Nouakchott. Not so. Messaoud’s APP party saw the departure of two top Haratine leaders Mohamed Ould Bourbous, and union leader Samoury Ould Biya. Both said their motive of defection is that Ould Boulkheir betrayed the Haratine’s cause. Not to mention that the APP strictly speaking was born of the merger between Arab-nationalists (the Nasseriste flavor) with Haratine historical movement ElHor.

Another interesting view the Ambassador holds is that the Mauritanian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, Twassul, is the country’s biggest party. In the last free legislative elections in 2006, they got 4 seats, well behind the RFD, the leftist UFP (9 seats) and Parliament Speaker Messaoud Ould Boulkheir’s APP (5 seats). A serious handicap Twassul has to overcome is that almost all its leadership is made of Moors who hail from one district: Ouad Naga. Although the party makes a lot more noise on Aljazeera Arabic than its real weight, it still has a long way to go before it can replace the RFD at the top of the opposition. Mauritania’s ikhwanis have yet to capture crucial constituencies one needs to be truly a power to recon with in that society.

Daddah, and his fellow COD member parties do not contest Aziz as such, but oppose the system that allowed him to grow from a bodyguard opening his master’s car door to become the tsar of their destinies. For them, Aziz is only the newest avatar of military regimes rampaging through their country  and stifling any democratic institutions since 1978. The army’s hegemony over all matters in Mauritania is what they perceive to be no longer acceptable. For them to be Machiavellian in their dealings is only fair in a polity like Mauritania’s– at times, the instinct of survival trumps against overwhelming odds sound logic. for the Ambassador not to follow the shifting sands is also legitimate only if she were to keep an equal distance from all belligerents.

As of the country’s weak institutions, the ambassador does not fully address the causes of Mauritania’s lack of strong institutions and Aziz’s role in their desolate condition. That weakness played itself out brutally in the weeks following Aziz’s “friendly fire accident.” After the General’s courtiers accompanying him in Paris blocked the military and civilian’s access to him for over 10 days, it became clear that should he be incapacitated and if he refuses to relinquish office, no legal way was available to make a smooth transition. Tragically, a coup was the only way out. Matters were made worse as the state was paralyzed. nothing could be done without the President’s signature.

Articles 40 and 41 of the constitution (PDF link) gives the President, the head of the Senate and the Prime Minister the power to ask the Constitutional Court (supreme court) to declare a vacancy of the presidency. So, the first person on the list was unreachable for 10 days. Next in line, the Senate head, Ba Mbaré, took off with a diplomatic illness. The Prime Minister Ould Mohamed Laghdhaf turned off his phone after getting summoned by the Chief of Staff General Ghazouani to his office. He remained there for 72 hours. The third, and most important party in this process, is the Constitutional Council itself. Even had Aziz being truly incapacitated, it would not have been able to perform its role as 3 of its 5 members had not been sworn in yet. A telling sign was that after Aziz’s short return to Nouakchott, he signed into law a decree banning coups, then he took off back to France.

The lapsed Senate and parliament whose terms were extended (since October 2011) through dubious rulings of co-opted judges are not an inconvenience for Aziz: their strength would spell his doom. By definition, strongmen in our corner of the world do not build strong institutions, they thrive on their weakness. Aziz is no exception, or else, he would have never become president to begin with after launching two coups.

Policy: The Strongman Gambit 

The Ambassador’s embrace of General Aziz, and her vocal wishes for the opposition to fail in its attempts to unseat him is the undiplomatic moment par excellence in the talk. Here, the Ambassador of the United States of America is openly advocating for the survival of a corrupt dictator highly contested by the Mauritanian people.

Powell is equally adamant about Aziz being the man fully in charge. Her motives are clear: she believes him to be a responsible and valuable ally in the upcoming war in Northern Mali because he has a strong army. However, her calculus does not seem to include two main factors:  the Mauritanian army’s morale and the public opinion’s vehement opposition to any Mauritanian involvement in a war in Mali. The issue is politically sensitive because the war in Azawad is perceived as a war of choice.

On paper, Mauritania’s military is the most natural available choice for fighting AQIM. it is better trained and more disciplined than ECOWAS armies. It is also more experienced in fighting highly mobile hit and run battles inherent to desert warfare. Strong with some of the world’s best desert trackers; and its Saharan ethos of fighting hard, eating little, then going after the enemy as far as their Toyota pickups would get them. With such a romantic outlook, one almost feels nostalgic to the scenes of Lawrence of Arabia storming Aqaba’s fort at the head of an army of battle hardened desert warriors.

In practice, the September 2010 Hassi Sidi battle in Mali saw the Mauritanians ambushed and nearly defeated by AQIM. For days, the military refused to reveal the casualty list until the terrorists posted videos on the internet showing their war booty of large quantities of equipment seized from the Mauritanians. Mind you, these were new “elite” counter-terrorism units created for the purpose of fighting AQIM.

The Mauritanian army’s route in Hassi Sidi is a result of being poorly led by officers sitting in air-conditioned rooms hundreds of miles behind the front lines. Its NCO’s and troops have little motivation to spill their blood in a conflict they view to be of little consequence to them.

Uncertain of whether their families will be looked after, should they make the ultimate sacrifice like their fallen comrades over the last seven years, their own media tells them they would die not for their country, but on account of some far off Western official. After all had Spain, France, Germany and Italy for years not paid the terrorists millions of Euros to free hostages? If their enemies were armed to the teeth, it was certainly not their fault.

Plagued by a coterie of Francophone senior officers whose very language they can barely understand, Mauritanian grunts wonder why should they be spilling their blood as their bosses amass wealth and glory without ever setting foot in the desert’s scorching heat, let alone fighting along with them. For three decades, their officers were busy competing to outdo each other’s wealth and power.

General Aziz’s positions and commitment to any military operations has been somewhat of a work in progress. He first engaged in pre-emptive strikes at France’s behest against AQIM. Then changed his tone once the protest movement reached unprecedented heights last winter. Then stated more than once publicly that Mauritania will not participate, then the regime hinted that the country will offer logistical support. How come?

Mauritania’s strongman, General Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz, understood better than anyone that the Mauritanian army does not fight in shooting wars. He owes his very position of strongman to that maxim. his genius in toppling Taya was to play on the senior officers’ corps fears of a replay of the catastrophic Sahara war against the Polisario 30 years earlier: fighting a war was out of the question for them, even if it was a national interest.

in August 2005, then-president, Colonel Ould Taya gave a direct order to his military to hunt down AQIM’s precursor – the GSPC – after it attacked and killed Mauritanian soldiers in Northern Mauritania. That order was his last. his undoing was forgetting that in July 1978, after 3 years of warfare against the Polisario, he was among army officers that felt that a putsch was the only way to stop a war of choice. They swiftly deposed the country’s founding father Moctar Ould Daddah, then signed a cease-fire without any meaningful gains to justify the sacrifices made. However, let’s not forget that Mauritania’s entry in that war was in part a result outside interference– primarily fear of Morocco.

Plainly put, the psychological parallels between that period and today are fueling popular rejection of a Mauritanian intervention in Mali. All these factors account for the new Aziz Mali posture: if Mauritania’s borders are not attacked, and terrorist bases are not established within 200 km from its borders then Mauritania will not attack. All told, this is an elegant formula to reconcile the strongman’s internal needs with his needs for Western goodwill: Mauritania’s active involvement in the impending war.

A question worth considering for Western policymakers is: what is the potential political fallout in Mauritania from a military operation in Azawad? Will the Mauritanian military officer corps tolerate a high casualty count? Given that a good portion of the junior officers in the military are natives of regions bordering Azawad, what will their tribes do if they begin to die in big numbers? And the more important question of all: Do Western decision-makers have a Plan B in case things went bad for Mali’s neighbors during the upcoming intervention?

As we say in Mauritania: crooked sticks will always have crooked shades. Hedging so much on a strongman in the post Arab uprisings era is a risky policy. If the fallout in Mauritania from a war in Azawad is not realistically assessed on the basis of facts instead of wishful thinking about the regime’s considerable shortcomings, then we could end up with two failed states instead of one. A perfect host body for an already severe jihadi infection.





Mauritania’s Béni oui-oui

4 01 2013

 

Béni oui-oui

Béni oui-oui about to go to war..

 

Béni oui-oui is a North-African expression from the Frnech colonial period, it is based on the Arabic Beni (plural of Ibn meaning son of) and of the French oui. The term describes servile and automatic agreement of a group of people with any decisions by an authority.

During the recent vote in the Mauritanian parliament on the 2013 budget, MP’s from the UPR, Aziz’s majority “party” raised hell and demanded that the vote be repeated. They discovered that they had voted massively against their own government. Outraged that they backed an amendment introduced by the opposition to increase the Islamic Studies Institute (ISERI) which was exactly what the Finance Minister asked them not to do. Unfortunately for Minister Thiam Diombar, most Aziz’s majority party members did not understand his speech because it was in French. Apparently, the parliament does not have interpreters nor equipment to do the job. Once they got their way and the vote was repeated, they voted massively against the amendment. Noor info reports:

Retour à l’Assemblée Nationale, où les débats se poursuivaient avec des séquences dignes du “Guiness des Insolites”. C’est le cas de ce vote général par OUI des députés de la majorité et ceux de l’opposition en faveur de “l’augmentation du budget de l’ISERI” contre laquelle pourtant le ministre des Finances, Thiam Diombar s’était opposé. Se rendant compte de leur bêtise, les députés de la majorité demanderont à ce que le vote soit repris de nouveau.

Explication, certains députés de la majorité qui avaient voté “OUI” n’avaient pas compris l’intervention du ministre qui s’exprimait en français. L’absence de toute traduction des débats avait contribué à ce quiproquo. Revoté, l’augmentation du budget de l’ISERI a été rejetée cette fois par l’écrasante majorité des députés du pouvoir.

Democracy you say? Poor Mauritania and poor us for having a herd of Béni oui-oui commanding our destinies.





Fallen Heroes: Habib Ould Mahfoudh

4 01 2013

My generation of Mauritanians owes a great deal to the late Habib Ould Mahfoudh (1960-2001) His often censored French-language “Mauritanides” column in Le Calame were a rallying point for all of the country’s intellectuals. His writings were a study in irreverence, anti-conformism and a thorn in the military regimes’ side. Many of us classical liberal Mauritanians found solace and inspirations in his weekly columns. His beautifully written unflinching criticism of rulers, customs, tribes encouraged us to question the status quo.

His legacy ultimately is that he is one of the few truly beloved figures in the country. Affection for him crosses the ethnic divides. Moors love him for taking on their corrupt leaders, and tribal chiefs. Afro-Mauritanians remember him fondly as one of the few Arab intellectuals to denounce their oppression as it happened.

It is only befitting to embed above Maalouma Bint ElMeidah’s musical tribute to him. She is one of many he inspired to dissent. Her own journey ultimately led her to run and win a senator’s seat. You can find the entire collection of his Mauritanides columns here. It is a must read for anyone aspiring to better understand our part of the world.

His ringing denunciation of the logic and  opportunism of Mauritanian politicians who are always happy to support the ruler. The same people, the same names over thirty years remain unchanged. The only thing that changes is their party’s name: under Haidalla, it was the infamous Hayakil. Under Taya it was the PRDS, today under Aziz it is the UPR. Many of us tagged walls with his famous line: “to biscuit or not to biscuit, that is the pot’s bottom” mocking those who justify knowingly supporting dictators in order to feed their families.

To biscuit or not to biscuit, zat is le fond de la marmite. Une défense courante, la défense de ceux qui sont au pouvoir, quand on dénonce les abus, les incompétences, les insuffisances, les aberrations, est de dire: “Tous les autres pays sont passés par-là”. Oui. Raison de plus d’en tirer les leçons qui s’imposent. Quand votre guide tombe dans une crevasse, se foule le pied, se relève et continue en claudiquant, vous sentez-vous obligé d’en faire autant ou tout simplement d’éviter la crevasse? 
Il est désormais inutile de vouloir discourir à moins de sauver l’essentiel: nous-mêmes.





Dad Blogs About Azawad

29 12 2012

My father (1st from left) meeting Egypt’s Nasser during first Mauritanian official state visit to Cairo in July 1963

It is not every day that one can call their own dad a fellow blogger! My father, a retired diplomat and historian has been blogging more than I have of late. He produced a 12-part series on his Arabic-language blog “Ewrag Mussafir” (Travelers Notes) about the Azawad province in Mali. The series covers in short format the history, politics, sociology and ethnography of that troubled region.

It is a very useful contribution for Arabic-language readers explaining the background of the current upheaval in that region. Very few has been written of late in accessible language explaining a rather complicated and profoundly unfortunate fate of the peoples of Azawad.

Given the current context,  these writings also offer insights into how Mauritanians think of Azawad and their perspective on its affairs. My father’s views were informed by his diplomatic and journalistic career spanning over 4 decades, as well as, translating into Arabic of some of early 20th century French colonial sociologist Paul Marty‘s books about today’s Mauritania and Mali. Marty’s work was instrumental for France’s colonization of that area and informed its policies aiming to dominate that space.

the impending war in Azawad remains a highly unpopular prospect among Mauritanians who fear that the conflict would spill over into their own territory. Alas, I do not have much time to translate these posts. Hopefully, someone else would.





Mauritania Water Uprising?

17 04 2012
Image

"Rest assured, it's either water or confrontation"
photo credit: Al-Akhbar.info

“Give us water or we will take you down” was the unceremonious welcoming General Aziz got today in Magta Lahjar (Brakna Province.) What was supposed to be another on-demand carnival tour of the Brakna province by Aziz’s loyalists, ended up with the strongman reduced to delivering a short speech on top of a car amidst “we want water” chants.

Magta Lahjar, like other towns in the country, saw a rash of protests over the government’s failure to provide drinking water, or basic services. For instance, Aziz was greeted with a wave of protests in Aleg (Brakna’s capital) culminating in arrests and beatings of the youth, many of them members of the UFP and Tawassul opposition parties.

Magta Lahjar’s protesters did not fair any better today; over 30 remain under lock. some were preemptively arrested earlier in the day after anti-regime slogans appeared on walls in the town.

The scene as reported in local media was one of an ambush quickly escalating into a classic street fight: protesters infiltrated the security ring pretending to be loyalists, then broke out in chants while fighting off the police’s attempts to flush them out.

Earlier this week, the authorities violently suppressed a February 25 youth protest in the capital Nouakchott, and a university student demonstration. Today, pro-regime thugs attacked opposition events in the northern cities of Atar (Adrar), and loyalists tried to sabotage an opposition event in the mining town of Zoueirate (Tiris Zemmour.) These attempts to interfere in opposition activities by regime loyalists are yet another warning sign that the crisis is rapidly escalating.

Overall, these events may not stand out in comparison to scenes from Mohamed Mahmoud street in Cairo, or even Sanabis in Bahrain. However, in a nation of 3.8 Million, they are unprecedented. This  trend is an entirely new phenomenon far surpassing the Kadihine (Maoists) golden age of street protests in the 70’s.

Far from being ephemeral, General Aziz is increasingly facing a comprehensive protest movement led by an emboldened opposition, and a population driven by the instinct of survival to demand urgent solutions to their most basic needs. Just to further complicate things for Mauritania’s ruler, the opposition is mobilizing for mass demonstrations on the second of May. Aziz will need more than water to put out these fires as he potentially faces either a generalized popular uprising, a coup d’etat, or both.

In Mauritania today, the equation is no longer democracy versus dictatorship, but rather water versus droughts.





#Mauritania Opposition 43-page Rebuttal to General Aziz

18 03 2012

Mauritania’s opposition: National Unity Government, Now!

 

 

Mauritania’s Democratic Opposition Coordination Committee, a coalition of parties allied against General Aziz’s rule, issued on Thursday a 43-page document detailing the current regime’s failures across the spectrum. This document should be read, and viewed, on the basis that represents the views of the biggest factions of the country’s opposition. it provides fresh insights into the thinking of Mauritania’s super politicos on a host of issues, and the hierarchy of problems the country faces from their perspectives.

The authors summed up their views of Mauritania’s dire straits in the on the document’s first page: Political deadlock, institutional crisis, collapse of the Mauritanian State, impoverished citizens, rampant corruption, systematic pillaging of the country’s natural resources, military adventures, and diplomatic incoherence.

The information contained in the document is not new per se, what is new is that the opposition is demanding a national unity government and elections to remedy the unconstitutional parliament that lapsed back in November 2011. Additionally, the last chapter of the document (page 36) has a detailed discussion of the the fact that Mauritania’s institutions today are outside of constitutional legality. A fact, that very few outside observers have either picked on, commented, or even acknowledged.

That constitutional void has consequences beyond the internal political power struggle. For example, It would be worth pointing out to foreign investors that their recent agreements with Aziz are null and void– particularly mining companies that signed any deals with the current government after May 2011.

This is good news to Mauritanians because the current regime had previously signed egregious, and blatantly exploitative deals with foreign companies like Kinross Gold Corporation. That agreement leaves Mauritania with only %4 of the total proceeds of proven reserve of 7.46 Million Ounces of the Tasiast mine. This kind of deals is what is ultimately running the country to the ground by creating a Congo-like formula: Rich Country, Poor People.

It also would be very hard to argue that such deals are corruption-free. Conversely, the problem is that no one is scrutinizing any of these companies’ dealings in Mauritania.

In the final analysis, the facts about Mauritania’s reality speak for themselves: %69 of women, and %51 of youth between 18-24 are unemployed. This is a recipe for a disaster in the making if there are not political solutions to the current crisis.





#Mauritania: General Aziz’s image problem

14 03 2012
Image

Taqadoumy.com cartoon

Mauritania’s strongman was today in Nouadhibou to put on his own long-planned show of force. The crowd was estimated to range between 15000-20000 people.

This was no spontaneous affair. for months, government ministers and the UPR ruling party officials have been shuttling back and forth to Nouadhibou to prepare the rally. Originally, the visit was decided after local party bosses threatened to leave the ruling party a few months back in the fall of last year. The stakes became even higher after the opposition’s successful protests yesterday in Nouakchott.

On the form, the visibly tense General surrounded himself with his government ministers at the rally to present an image of a hands-on manager. Calling on each of them, or pointing at them throughout the one-hour speech, Aziz was intent on matching promises with faces. Without missing a beat, rattled off a series of promises of electricity, water, roads and civil state reforms. Visibly, the man was on a mission to show that he is a man of action and principles. This was a replay of his 2009 campaign theme of the “President of The Poor.” Only, this time, he is not facing any elections but a growing wave of protests after disillusionment with his policies, as well as, the lack of any tangible improvements to the country’s living conditions. 

On the substance, the General attacked vehemently his critics and opponents describing them as: “liars, thieves” and went further to simply state that they were “marginal, and inexistent opposition.” A strange thing for the strongman to say in the same breath as he claimed to be a democrat allowing opposition figures “to go on TV to lie and insult him.” In essence, this was a Qadhafiesque performance but on a shorter time schedule. 

Borrowing a page from Hugo Chavez’s playbook, Aziz’s message was a mix of populist grandiose promises of prosperity, and aggressive self-styling as a “man of the people.” However, lacking Chavez’s and Qadhafi’s oratory style, it still remains to be seen whether the man will win over his national audience with this performance. In his eagerness to mitigate the seriousness of the current crisis, the General went as far as denying that the country was on the verge of a famine claiming it to be “an opposition lie.”

Another singular moment was when the General attempted to stoke up nationalist and patriotic sentiments. Aziz alleged that Mauritania’s soldier, recently released by AlQaeda, was not free due to any negotiations. His explanation was that he, on principle, does not negotiate with terrorists but..that the soldiers was traded against a terrorist that was in Mauritanian custody. He further added that once handed over to the terrorists, the air force was prompt to bomb them. The raid was reported as having occurred over Malian territory, and to have missed its targets, hitting instead a truck loaded with goods.

The aggressive rhetoric is likely an attempt to repair the strongman’s tarnished image after a slew of corruption scandals since his 2008 coup. By far, the most serious among those was the scandal involving his own son Badr that sent shockwaves across Mauritanian society. 

The young man was released from police custody back in January after he shot a girl with a pistol lodging a bullet in her spine. The presidential family moved swiftly to save the son. it put immense pressure on the victim’s family and the Attorney General to avoid any legal pursuit of General’s son. Finally, the family’s victim received a substantial sum of money from the Aziz family in order to keep them quiet.

Arguably, today’s most awkward moment came just before the speech begun. A man was heard live on Mauritanian TV shouting: “Aziz we want jobs, Aziz we want jobs.” The sound was interrupted in the live broadcast, and the camera quickly shifted to people carrying signs praising the General. After all, one man in Mauritania can claim today that he gave the authoritarian ruler a piece of the people’s mind.








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