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Mauritania: Where Security Trumps Democracy

 5 min read / 

Since the eruption of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ on December 17 2010, in Tunisia, a revolutionary wave of political uprisings changed the landscape of North Africa and the Middle East in ways previously unimaginable. Longstanding authoritarian regimes were challenged and toppled in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, with varying degrees of long-term success.

Other regimes survived. By all appearances, the Islamic Republic of Mauritania was barely touched by the spring, and authoritarianism endures.

Widespread Tolerance

Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, is the textbook strongman – a former general and head of the presidential guard who seized power by means of a military coup d’état in 2008. Coup d’états are habitually decried and condemned by leaders across the world, yet Aziz has been largely tolerated by the international community.

Initial demands from the United States and the African Union for the return to office of the ousted Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi, Mauritania’s first democratically elected leader, soon fell silent, and there was very little internal disruption as a result of the coup.

Fast forward ten years and Mauritania is described as “an excellent security partner” by the US State Department, with links between the two countries at an all-time high. The connection between Aziz being accepted by world powers and the success of his regime in countering the advances of regional jihadist groups is indisputable, yet controversial.

Border Troubles

Owing to a long and porous border with Mali on its western flank, Mauritania is inextricably connected with security problems plaguing the Sahel; the belt of states between the Sahara in the north and the more fertile tropical regions to the south.

Hard-line Islamist groups seized control of Mali’s vast northern region in 2012, and despite being rolled back by the intervention of French troops in 2013, jihadist groups continue to operate in Mali, and beyond. Earlier this month, an attack in Ouagadougou, capital of Burkina Faso, left 8 people dead, with more than 80 injured.

Strategically positioned on the edge of this nexus of regional insecurity, Mauritania hosts the headquarters of the G-5 Sahel group, which was formed in 2014 to provide a security apparatus capable of combatting the threat of jihadist groups in the region.

Under the G-5 apparatus, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Mali have joined forces to step up the fight against regional insecurity that has plagued the Sahel of late, and to provide the conditions necessary for much needed economic development. The international community has thrown their weight behind the G-5 initiative, with $500m raised for the force at a conference on the Sahel in Brussels in late February.

Global Security Concerns

Security in the Sahel is increasingly a priority for western-European states in particular, with one eye on migration, and another on the activities of jihadist groups such as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Since Libya became the main departure point for African migrants attempting the dangerous cross-Mediterranean journey to Europe’s shores, the Sahelian countries of Mali and Niger developed into key transit points, and the EU wants a system built to provide security and economic conditions whereby these routes are cut-off at their source.

With security top of the agenda, democracy promotion efforts have stalled in Mauritania and the broader Sahel region. When President Aziz pushed through a proposal to abolish the Mauritanian senate last year, the international community was silent, despite the opposition calling the decision “a rebellion against democratic legitimacy.”

Opposition groups fear that the constitutional changes are a precursor for Aziz clinging onto power beyond the expiration of his second term in office, the maximum permitted under the Mauritanian constitution.

2018 Elections & Slavery Allegations

Elections scheduled for 2018 have been confirmed as being on-track, but there has been no confirmation of President Aziz’s plans in regard to stepping down, or violating the constitution and running for a third term. The Mauritanian opposition boycotted the previous elections in 2014, and may very well do so again if Aziz did indeed announce his candidacy.

All signs point to President Aziz being able to continue in office, thanks to a strong grip over state organs, and safe in the knowledge that the international community would be quietly pleased at the survival of a strong ally in the regional fight against jihadist groups.

Meanwhile, the human rights situation deteriorates: Amnesty International released a report last Wednesday that described the Mauritanian government’s position on the existence of modern-day slavery as “a disgraceful disregard for human rights.” The African Union has slammed Mauritania for failing to crack down on its slavery problem, with one in 100 people estimated as living in some form of slavery.

Meanwhile, Mauritanian opposition figures and activists are routinely detained and intimidated. Biram Ould Abeid, a prominent anti-slavery campaigner, was held by Mauritanian police back in February, following rare demonstrations by the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement (IRA).

Such allegations and protests, even when from bodies as influential as the African Union, are falling on deaf ears; in the current international political environment, security trumps democracy.

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