assessments

Mauritania's President Makes a Risky Gamble

10 MINS READOct 14, 2016 | 09:15 GMT
Politics and governance in Mauritania
(GEORGES GOBET/AFP/Getty Images)
Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz is testing the waters on a controversial constitutional reform that would allow him to stay in power beyond 2019.
Forecast Highlights

  • Though constitutionally required to step down in 2019, Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz may soon propose a reform that would allow him to extend his term.
  • If he does, he risks inciting opposition and unrest that could exacerbate Mauritania's profound structural weaknesses.
  • The country's location in the desolate Sahel belies its importance to regional counterterrorism efforts, which could be disrupted by prolonged political instability.
  • Unrest could spread beyond Mauritania's borders, destabilizing the country's equally weak Sahelian neighbors. 

Mauritania's national dialogue, which will wrap up on Oct. 18, was intended to bring members of the opposition and ruling party together to discuss constitutional reform. Several groups, however, have accused President Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz of using the talks to launch a "constitutional coup d'etat." They claim the president is intent on extending or lifting presidential term limits. Though Abdelaziz still has three years left in his second term, such a controversial move — should he choose to make it — could undermine the stability of the West African nation and the region surrounding it.

Even in the best of circumstances, Mauritania is a weak country. Located on Africa's westernmost coast, it has a population of fewer than 4 million people, most of whom live in poverty. This, coupled with the country's underdeveloped resources, has ensured Mauritania a marginal role in regional politics that dates back to well before French colonial rule began at the start of the 20th century. At the time, French strategists understood Mauritania's position and considered it a "trait d'union" — a literal "hyphen" — between Paris' holdings in the Maghreb (Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia) and its sub-Saharan possessions. And in many ways, Mauritania's image has not changed: Even today it is considered to be as much in Africa's periphery politically as it is geographically.

Colonial Africa Map

Nevertheless, Mauritania may be an important country to watch in the coming years. Its October dialogue might have given Abdelaziz the opening he has been searching for to push through a controversial set of reforms. Among the purported changes are the creation of a vice presidency and the abolishment of the Senate, which would be replaced by elected regional councils. Perhaps more important than the ideas that have already been floated, however, are those that many believe are yet to come. The country's opposition has charged the president with using the discussion over his proposed reforms to broach the possibility of modifying the constitution's term limits to allow him to stay in office indefinitely. If their allegations are true, the president's ambitions could ignite a conflict between the ruling party and opposition in a country struggling to overcome its tumultuous past.

The Colonel Clings to Power

Under Mauritanian law, each president is permitted to serve two five-year terms. After spearheading a coup as a colonel in 2008, Abdelaziz was elected to the presidency in 2009. He was re-elected five years later to a second term, which will conclude in 2019. Since early last year, however, several figures within his government have publicly declared that he deserves another term — though each time the president has demurred. Now, over the past few weeks, reports have emerged of discreet (and not-so-discreet) conversations being held among members of the ruling party about extending or lifting term limits.

The idea of a president engineering his way into a lengthier stay in office is not unique to Mauritania. In fact, it would align with a continentwide trend in recent years of African leaders refusing to hand over power. Changing constitutions, many of which were written after the end of the Cold War when the push for African democratization was strong, is a common means of preserving political standing. Mauritania, whose constitution was created in 1991 after France quietly but forcefully encouraged it to transition to a multiparty democracy, seems to be no exception.

Of course, some African leaders have had more success in manipulating the law to suit their needs than others. Republic of the Congo President Denis Sassou-Nguesso finagled a lengthier tenure, but in Burkina Faso, then-President Blaise Compaore was forced to flee to Ivory Coast after trying and failing to eliminate term limits. Still others have seen only mixed results: Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade managed to run for a controversial third term, only to inspire so much popular consternation that he lost the election.

Mauritania's history of political instability will loom large in Abdelaziz's decision whether to pursue a longer reign. Since gaining its independence from France, the country has seen 10 coup attempts, two of which Abdelaziz himself played a pivotal part in. While his high-profile role in toppling two governments underscores Abdelaziz's status as a decisive figure in Mauritanian politics, it may also have led him to believe he is far stronger than any opponent and capable of keeping hold of the country's highest office. Moreover, he and his inner circle may feel compelled to try to stay in power for fear of becoming targets themselves later, should the political winds shift in the years ahead.

Either way, this could bode ill for Mauritania, especially if its economy continues to founder as resource development lags and massive structural deficiencies persist. Combined with low commodity prices — particularly for iron ore, on which Mauritania heavily depends — these factors could spur social unrest and cut into the funding the government relies on to dole out patronage to the country's tribes, whose allegiance to the government is based more on financial kickbacks than national pride.

Signs of Trouble

Should Abdelaziz continue to press for a longer stay in office, his actions could undermine Mauritania's — and by extension, the surrounding region's — security. Several Islamist militant groups operate in the Sahel, and they have proved willing to exploit any power vacuums that emerge. But whether a complete political breakdown will occur in Mauritania depends on several things.

For one, the country's political opposition would need to form a strong, united front against Abdelaziz's efforts to extend his term. After all, some African heads of state have met little resistance to their aspirations for extra time in office, while others have been forced from their seats by bursts of social unrest. If rising dissatisfaction with Abdelaziz's moves morphs into widespread or violent protests, it could jeopardize his grip on the country.

Opposition groups would also need to tap into other sources of popular discontent to create a big enough base to stop Abdelaziz's reform. As of now, some factions have engaged in dialogue with the ruling party, while others have opted to boycott the talks. If a wider movement is launched to shut down his measure — especially if it is put to a popular vote as Abdelaziz has promised — then the president's rivals would have a chance of thwarting his efforts.

Should they fail, it is possible that dissident segments of the military could rise up and oust the president, though even with Mauritania's coup-ridden history, this would be an unlikely scenario. Abdelaziz is popular among the military and security services. That said, his decision to seek a third term could engender resentment among the ranks, particularly if the economy remains palpably weak and patronage funds begin to dry up.

The president may yet choose to step down and throw his weight behind a weak successor or close confidant instead, especially if he cannot force his term limit reform through the legislature. Given Abdelaziz's proposal for the creation of a vice presidency, the possibility of him pivoting to a second-in-command and ruling from behind the scenes cannot be ruled out. Even so, the chances of this happening are fairly low: Abdelaziz rose to power by using his position as President Sidi Cheikh Ould Abdallahi's trusted adviser to oust him, after the two men's relationship deteriorated. Abdelaziz will not be eager to make the same mistake his predecessor did.

The Canary in the Coal Mine

Mauritania is Africa's proverbial canary in a coal mine. It suffers from a host of problems that make it easy for terrorist groups, including al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and professed Islamic State affiliates, to exploit. The government in Nouakchott has difficulty asserting its sovereignty over its vast stretches of territory, particularly in the interior, where it more often than not must resort to bargaining with local tribes for their loyalty. These remote areas also serve as hubs for terrorist groups that use the ungoverned zones to transport illegal goods and hide from French-led counterterrorism forces stationed in Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad. Though French and U.S. forces occasionally cooperate with the Mauritanian military, the international attention paid to the African state is fairly minimal — a fact that has made the country even more attractive to Sahelian terrorist groups.

This could bode ill for Mauritania, especially if its economy continues to founder as resource development lags and massive structural deficiencies persist. Combined with low commodity prices — particularly for iron ore, on which Mauritania heavily depends — these factors could spur social unrest and cut into the funding the government relies on to dole out patronage to the country's tribes, whose allegiance to the government is based more on financial kickbacks than national pride.

Though Mauritania itself has not suffered many terrorist attacks, it is all too aware of the threat the groups moving across its borders could become. In fact, in May the U.S. government released several documents it had seized during the raid on Osama bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The cache, dated from 2010, reportedly included a deal between AQIM and the Mauritanian government. In exchange for the group's promise not to carry out any militant activities in the country, Nouakchott pledged to give it funding, release a number of AQIM prisoners and cease all attacks against the group. (It is unclear whether the deal was ever put into practice.) So, while Mauritanian security services have arrested alleged Islamist militants — and recently, at least 20 supposedly linked to the Islamic State — the country's ability and willingness to combat extremist forces within its borders are by no means certain.

Porous security is not the only issue Nouakchott has to grapple with, either. Growth in Mauritania's gross domestic product has been declining since 2012, a fall undoubtedly made worse by persistently low prices of iron ore, the country's chief export. Considering global demand for iron ore will likely remain weak in the years ahead, there seems to be little respite on the horizon for the country's coffers. Meanwhile, drought remains an inevitable threat that, when it strikes, bears steep social costs. As each of these problems cuts deeper into the government's funds, Nouakchott may have a harder and harder time maintaining the complex patronage network that ensures loyalty among the country's far-flung tribes.

Mauritania's fragile government could someday prove to be the weak link in international efforts to prevent a major threat from rearing its head in the Sahel — efforts that have been ongoing since Islamist militants attempted to take over northern Mali in 2012. For years, Abdelaziz has sold his military competence as a guarantee to foreign powers concerned with the emergence of lawless territories in North Africa. But the tough stance he publicly takes on terrorism may be little more than a facade meant to hide the flimsy political structure upholding his rule — and the lengths he is willing to go to keep it from collapsing.

Mauritania may be located on the fringe of its region and continent, but that is precisely why it is important. Geography, along with structural deficiencies, makes it and its neighbors vulnerable, and if instability breaks out in Mauritania, the consequences may not stay confined within its borders. Though it is too soon to tell whether the president's ambitions will upset his country's stability, the chance that they could should not be discounted.

Lead Analyst: Stephen Rakowski

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