Éditoriaux de l'Ifri L'Afrique en questions
Alain ANTIL, Sylvain TOUATI

Mauritania: Security Threats on a Young Democracy - Interview with Alain Antil L'Afrique en Questions, n° 2, May 2008

L'Afrique en questions n°2 : Mauritanie : Menaces sécuritaires sur une jeune démocratie

Summary: Last year, the Islamic Republic of Mauritania finally got a legitimate government with Sidi Ould Chiekh Abdellahi's election as president. This first year in power has seen the new authorities taking over burning issues, while the economic crisis and acts of violence by islamists are increasing. The purpose of this discussion is to observe if these security threats, mingled with political and economical uncertainty, are able to weaken the young Mauritanian democracy.


Sylvain Touati : Have the attacks, carried out in recent months and weeks, been organized Islamists?

Alain Antil : Some acts of violence can be attributed to radical Islamists in Mauritania. In June 2005, the attack against the Lemgheyti military post led to the death of more than 10 Mauritanian soldiers. The Algerian GSPC (Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat), now called "Al-Qaeda for the Islamic Maghreb" (AQMI), has claimed responsibility for this action. On the 24th December 2007, five French tourists, who were travelling through Mauritania's soil, were attacked on a roadside by a group of young men. Four of the five were killed. After their arrest the perpetuators acknowledged that they were influenced by religion AQMI, however did not claim responsibility for this attack. On the 27th December 2007 a military patrol tried to check a vehicle near the locality of El Ghallaouya (North of the country). The passengers opened fire killing three soldiers and fled. AQMI claimed responsibility for this attack. On the 1st of February 2008, gunmen attacked, in central Nouakchott, the Israeli embassy and/or an adjacent nightclub the "VIP"[i]. Three people leaving the club were injured. Finally, on April the 8th this year, one of the main suspects in the killing of the French tourists, Sidi Ould Sidna, escaped from a prison in Nouakchott. Police officers chasing him ended up surrounding the house in the northern district of Nouakchott where the suspect and some of his aides had taken refuge. The proceeding shoot out killed two people, meanwhile Sidi Ould Sidna escaped. During the same week in Nouakchott, security forces arrested a third person suspected of murdering the French tourists, Maarouf Ould Haïba (investigators believe he is the person behind the assassination). Since then, almost everyone else arrested in connection with the murder and prison escape have been arrested in the capital. The sharp increase in acts of violence apparently linked with radical Islam has dominated media coverage especially after the death of the French tourists.

ST : Are we heading to an Islamist destabilization of the country?

AA : It is tempting to answer 'yes', but we need a deeper analysis. Firstly, it is a fact that there has been contact between some young Mauritanian Salafists and AQMI. AQMI welcomes and trains people coming from the different Sahelian countries. These contacts happen in a "grey zone" located between Northern Mali and South-Western Algeria. However, some specialists have noted that the Sahelian branch of the AQMI is weakening. There are no longer enough executive members or even normal members to organize "long-term" training where trainees can learn how to use weapons or explosives. Nowadays, short-term training, around 15 days long, is organized but the lessons are more ideological than technical. Then, we need to distinguish two different dangers. 1 - Northern Mauritania (around Tiris Zemour region and the North-Eastern part of Adrar) is a notorious trafficking and contraband zone. AQMI elements are also present in this zone. During Ould Taya's presidency, the Mauritanian power had control of this zone due to the fact that Ould Taya was, indirectly, controlling trafficking thanks to alliances between his tribe (the Smacid) and the huge Rgueibat's tribe (which controls Polisario[ii]). This situation changed and the zone has become more internationalized with the arrival of new actors (Tuareg, illegal emigration networks, drug smugglers, Moorish tribes' alliances). The current government doesn't seem to intelligence detailing what is happening in this zone or even the capacity to control it. 2 - There is, mostly in Nouakchott, a small section of the youth seduced by radical speech[iii]. And from this small section, only few dozen attended AQMI camps in Northern Mali. Unfortunately, it is possible that the Aleg attack (French tourists assassination), with its massive impact (exceptional media coverage and the cancellation of the Paris-Dakar rally), can provoke copycat attacks. The youth, even if they do have contact with AQMI[iv], do not seem well-organized. However, some Security specialists in Nouakchott argue that the type of "hand-craft" organization, as shown by the assassination of the French tourists, is not good news because the threat is becoming more diffused and less predictable.

ST : Is the civil power elected in 2007 able to face the phenomenon?

AA : President Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdellahi, elected on March the 25th 2007, is the first civilian president since 1978. Since the 1978 coup which deposed Mokthar Ould Daddah (1960-1978), a series of juntas and colonels took power, even if the most important of them, Maaouya Ould Sid'Ahmed Taya (1984-2005) tried to begin a democracy in 1992. It quickly failed. In august 2005, Ould Taya was deposed by a junta, the "Military council for Justice and Democracy" (CMJD), led by Ely Ould Mohammed Vall. This junta promised the return to a constitutional legitimacy and to send troops back to the barracks immediately after the elections. On the institutional legality, this new power was legitimized by the first transparent elections. However, there is another reading of the 2007 elections[v]. The candidate Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdellahi was not a first-rank politician in Mauritania. Saying that is a euphemism. He was minister in the 1970's and 1980's. Then, he worked in foreign countries (Kuwait, Niger). So, it was a surprise to discover this man, disconnected from Mauritanian realities, as a candidate for the presidential mandate and instantly supported by CMJD's members and leading figures from the former regime. Most analysts concluded that his candidacy was masterminded by the head and second in command of the junta (Ely Ould Mohammed Vall and Mohamed Abdelaziz[vi]). There is a persistent feeling among Mauritanian populations that the current president is subjugated by his "creators". This feeling seems to be particularly highlighted by some "red lines" that the president cannot cross. Notably on some diplomatic and security issues but also on the redistribution of some money. Quite old and married to a woman from the Ouled Bou Sba's tribe (tribe of his two presumed "creators" from the CMJD), he is judged as a weak-willed person by the population. Moreover, president Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdellahi, who was absent from the country for a long period, has not succeeded in developing important personal networks (let's say tribal and political networks). Indeed, he seems to have been chosen by his "creators" for this reason. But, in order to govern and impose his policy, it is a heavy handicap to not have regional, tribal and political intermediaries. It is this assessment which led to the creation of the "presidential party" in January 2008. Finally, being not a soldier as his predecessors such as Ely Ould Mohamed Vall[vii] (2005-2007) or Maaouya Ould Sid'Ahmed Taya (1984-2005), he has, apparently, a less efficient understanding and control of the security apparatus.

ST : So, is this a president with limited powers?

AA : We need to moderate this stance. On one hand, he was elected, and nicely elected. As president, he has all the levers of power. The "puppet" theory requires deeper analysis or at least need to be moderated. For example, he has clearly reinforced his influence by surrounding himself with former collaborators who worked with him, notably in Niger. He did not oppose the creation of the PNDD-ADIL[viii], a party founded in order to back his actions. The choice of his closest collaborator, Yahya Ould Ahmed El Waghev, as prime minister of his second government[ix] is also a strong signal. Then, since his election, he acted on two sensitive issues which are important to him: slavery and refugees[x]. The law on slavery from August 2007 completes existing texts by adding sanctions, a first in Mauritania's history[xi]. Of course, all the implementing decrees have not been accepted yet and the information is difficult to diffuse among populations. But it is a symbol that provides one more judicial tool for the people who fight against slavery. Doing this, he courageously challenges a powerful conservatism in the country. The second burning issue is the return of the refugees. President Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdellahi took it upon himself to solve related problems although there is reluctance, even amongst his supporters, on the methodology and the objective itself. That is another proof of his political weight. Finally, in one way, this president is surprising because he does not seem to dispatch authority based on a tribal criteria. That is in opposition with Maaouya Ould Sid'Ahmed Taya's manners who almost institutionalized this process. So the current president is quite unpredictable[xii]. Nevertheless, since independence, Mauritanians have been used to strong-willed presidents. They are quite disconcerted by this new system composed of different clans or rival political pools which, at the moment, seem to neutralize themselves. They are also surprised by the government's weak reactions to security threats[xiii].

ST : Islamists threats?  

AA : Yes but not only this type of threat. With the return of black refugees[xiv], the country may relive the specter of new communitarian tensions such as the ones seen during the 1989-91. Tensions among neighbors of the refugee populations are already really high. They are accusing the government of not having prepared the future of the refugees[xv]. Some sources close to Arab nationalist movements are affirming that refugees should not be a priority of the government while the country is in a deep economical stagnation and facing important security threats (The increase of Islamism/ criminal acts[xvi]). It is possible that ethnic tensions will become more "visible". Besides, recent army promotions have been criticized among the black activist circles: - On one hand, some community leaders say that there are not enough black officers on the promotion list; - On the other hand, the promotion of colonel Ely Ould Vall[xvii] as deputy of the Mauritanian Army's chief of staff had been not well perceived. Numerous black leaders argue he carried out torture in the period between 1989 and 1991. This assessment was already made during the composition of the government composition or during the first wave of nominations for new ambassadors Other sources, including some black circles, have concluded that the nomination of Yall Zekeria Alassane's (issued from the black community) as Home office Minister is progress. In one way, the president's personality itself is a symbol for national reconciliation. He comes from the Guebla's region[xviii], where Arab-Berber and black populations have coexisted for a long time. He is also a member of the Tidjani brotherhood which groups together both populations. Thus, he differs from president Maaouya Ould Sid'Ahmed Taya who came from the North and led a pan Arabic policy (rapprochement with Maghreb countries and Arabic states in general, Mauritania's departure from Ecowas, promotion of Mauritania's "Arabian roots" during foreign visits, massive introduction of the Arabian language in the education system[xix], negation of the community tensions and in particular the Mauritanian refugees in Senegal and Mali…). In general, the refugees' return is going to reopen deep wounds, specifically since victims will have to coexist with their tormenters. Nevertheless, resilience of Mauritania's society is big. Before everything else, the key to a successful reintroduction of refugees will be in welcoming infrastructures and compensation (land recovery and the recouping of salaries). Finally, we need to underline that some refugees have returned individually before the beginning of this process framed by the UN Refugee Agency and had varying fortunes in recovering their goods and rights. Another threat for the government is the explosion in prices of vital commodities which, like in other parts of Africa, is undermining the purchasing power of modest households (the majority of Mauritanians). Lately, the World Food Program announced the country's worst food crisis since the severe droughts in the 1970 and 80's. But this time, there is no mention of a relation between the food crisis and the climate. In November 2007, violent protests against the rising cost of vital commodities took place in a dozen of Mauritanian cities[xx]. And yet, the continuing price explosion does not show any sign of ending. Some local journalists[xxi], noting prices on the same markets in a 6 month-long period (September 31st 2007 - March 31st 2008), noticed really significant hikes[xxii]. This situation could effectively lead to localized riots such as the ones last November. Finally, the last uncertainty is the national Army which at the moment is back in the barracks. Even if since 1991, Ould Taya had massively attributed important posts (administration, state-owned companies' management, or certain ministries) to civilians, the army's reaction to this relative political marginalization is still unknown. The army is undermined by different issues - on one hand, it has suffered from successive purges caused by the different political changes in the last decades, notably under Ould Taya's rule when nominations was based mostly on tribal and vote-catching criteria; - Besides, the army is, like many other institutions, on the road to chronic vagrancy. What would the reaction of the Army and the security system in general, be towards the sharp increase in high value goods trafficked through the country (notably the spectacular appearance of Colombian cocaine on its way to Europe since 2006) ? Each of these issues is urgent, should have priority and is extremely delicate to manage. Especially with those who are nostalgic for the last regime wishing that the current president ends his mandate. They will be tempted to politically exploit his failures or to cause his disgrace, maybe by galvanizing some young "Islamists".



[i] It is still unclear what the target of the attack was. Some of the wounded were " VIP's " customers, but the Israeli Embassy was part of a target list mentioned in a 2007 Al-Qaeda message.

[ii] Further reading: "RIM : Népotisme et potentiel de désordre en Mauritanie. De l'architecture de la spoliation aux espaces de violence ", http://www.conscienceresistance.org/rim_nepotisme.pdf ; Alain Antil : " Une dimension mal connue du conflit du Sahara Occidental : la position de la Mauritanie " p.83-88 in Afrique contemporaine, N°201, January-March 2002. Mohammed Fall Ould Oumère, " Aux origines du conflit du Sahara ", La Tribune, Nouakchott (article written in 1999 but was censored) and " Maroc-Mauritanie : petite histoire d'une Histoire de malentendus ", La Tribune, n°148, 10th September 2001.

[iii] From a few interviews made in Nouakchott in February 2008.

[iv] Cf. Marianne Meunier : " Sur les traces des tueurs d'Al-Qaeda ", Jeune Afrique, Paris, 20th January 2008.

[v] Cf. Lembarott Ould Moutaly : " Le Parti n'est jamais parti ", La Tribune, n°383, Nouakchott, January 2008.

[vi] Even if some sources affirm that Mohamed Abdelaziz is the main mastermind. Also note, he is related to Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdellahi's wife.

[vii] Former National Security Director (1987-2005).

[viii] " Pacte National pour la Démocratie et le Développement " (National Pact for Democracy and Development).

[ix] The second government's composition was revealed on 11th May 2008. It shows the central part taken by PNDD-ADIL and the return of some political "heavyweights" such as Cheikh El Avia Mohamed Khouna or Mohamed Yehdhih Ould Moctar El Hacen. However, the government has also been opened up to the political majority including members from two rival parties: "Tawassoul" (Islamists) and "Union des Forces du Progrès" (Progress Forces Union).

[x] Between 1989 and 1991, after strong tensions with Senegal, Mauritania expelled Senegalese citizens but also black Mauritanian citizens (notably Haalpular's populations (Peul and Toucouleur). Around 100 000 nationals have been expelled, mainly towards Senegal but also Mali. Some (around few hundred) were killed.

[xi] We have to remember that the second article (never implemented until today) of the 1981 Slavery abolition Law meant the set up of a commission which should have evaluated the prejudices caused on the "former masters".

[xii] Cf. Marianne Meunier : " Les hommes du président ", in Jeune Afrique, 30th March 2008.

[xiii] Following December and January attempts, Mauritanian authorities announced: 1 - the new Nouakchott's security plan, with a numerous reinforced patrol and a call for vigilance towards population. 2 - A set of special measures for the hotels, such as two permanent free phone numbers, hotels have to provide daily information forms filled by the customers, they also have to immediately mention any suspect behavior and hired an increasing number of security guards… That could be judged as a modest reply.

[xiv] Term used in Mauritania to define non-Arab-Berber populations, in particular Haalpular (Peuls and Toucouleurs), Soninke, Bambara or Wolof populations.

[xv] At the moment, three institutions are taking care of this return policy organization. The UN refugee Agency is in charge of the transport from Senegalese camps to Mauritania. It also provides water and vital commodities tools. The World Food Program provides food for a period of 90 days. And the "Agence Nationale pour l'Acceuil et l'Insertion des Réfugiers" (ANAIR - National Agency for Refugee's Welcoming and Insertion) has to provide two cows to each family and soon will set up cereal stocks in each village welcoming refugees.

[xvi] In Nouakchott, feeling of insecurity has sharply increased over the last 12 months. In January 2008, the "Association des Femmes Chefs de Famille" (Association of Head of Family's women) asked officially the authorities to take concrete measures in order to stop the fast increase of criminality in Mauritania and particularly in Nouakchott. This association has also denounced the fact that numerous thief had been released because of "insufficient proof"; police do not having enough meaning to lead serious inquiries.

[xvii] Do not confuse him with the former Head of the junta Ely Ould Mohamed Vall. They are not relatives. Cf. This declaration from Abdoul Aziz Soumare, president of the "Organisation contre les violations des Droits Humains en Mauritanie" (OCVIDH - Organization against Human rights violations in Mauritania). http://www.ocvidh.org/dforum:nav.php3?page=voirsujet&boardid=5&postid=10412

[xviii] Located in the South-Western Mauritania, over the Trarza and Brakna's "wilayas" (district).

[xix] For a tonic assessment on the Mauritania's education system, see Abdel Wedoud Ould Cheikh : "Cherche élite, désepérément. Evolution du système éducatif et (dé) formations des "élites" dans al société mauritanienne", in P. Bonte & H. Claudot-Hawad ': Elites du monde touareg et maure', Cahiers de l'IREMAM, n°13/14, Edisud, Aix en Provence, 2000.

[xx] Some observers had some few doubts on these protests' spontaneity, notably in some regions such as Hodh (Eastern part of the country).

[xxi] ANI (Agence Nouakchott d'Information) : " La hausse des prix continue ", 1st April 2008. [xxii] Such as: Sugar (36%), Rice (22%), Wheat (77.5%)…