“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.