A Coup-Less Coup For Mauritania?
NOUAKCHOTT, Mauritania — With two coups in just seven years, the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, a vast and sparsely populated Saharan state on the Atlantic, is accustomed to seeing its presidents depart.
On Saturday, though, its people gathered to greet one’s return. From mid-morning, several thousands lined Gamal Abdel Nasser Street in the sandy capital Nouakchott to welcome President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz. He was expected back from a secretive convalescence in Paris; last month someone shot him in the gut.
The official version of the accident holds that a military convoy accidentally fired on his vehicle. But some say the shooting was the result of a tribal or family dispute. Others say the president’s mistress pulled the trigger. Or maybe it was her husband?
Although no one seems to think the shooting was a power grab, the seriousness of Aziz’s injury — which kept him in Paris for six weeks — raises fears about yet another hasty leadership change. No doubt the regime encouraged many of the loud Aziz supporters to fill the streets of Nouakchott on Saturday. But the welcome-home parade nevertheless reflected the widespread appetite for continuity.
Women veiled wearing malafas, boldly patterned curve-enhancing cloths, and flashy sunglasses arched out of SUVs to shout slogans toward the crowds; gaunt teenagers balanced on top of parading cars with their fists raised. A few men rode horses with the green star and crescent of the Mauritanian flag painted on their haunches. Nomad warriors shifted on their camels to pose for photographers.
“President of the poor,” some posters said. “You sacrificed yourself for our country.”
In fact, Aziz’s record is mixed. In 2005, he staged a first coup to topple a dictator, leading to the country’s first free elections; in 2008 he staged a second coup to topple the man who won those elections. Aziz did get himself elected president in 2009, but since then, parliamentary and municipal elections have been suspended; his authority is now institutionally unchallenged.
At the same time, the existence of a strong, outspoken political opposition reveals greater freedom than under former regimes. The Coordination of Democratic Opposition (C.O.D.), a coalition of opposition political parties and civil society organizations energized by the Arab Spring, has been demanding Aziz step down.
At the gathering on Saturday two state officials told me their ministers had gathered all staff members to deliver instructions about how to turn out for the welcome. Groups of drivers, builders, entrepreneurs, teachers and masons held enormous congratulatory banners pairing a picture of Aziz and words of welcome with the name of their unions. Such demonstrations of support, I was told, could bring lucrative contracts or a raise in salaries. Teenage boys earned about $17 each for piling into pro-Aziz buses.
With no sign of Aziz more than an hour after his E.T.A., I retired to a friend’s house to watch the live broadcast on Mauritanian state TV. A newswoman in a malafa was interviewing Aziz supporters in the radiant desert sun. “I hope he does three or four more terms!” the president of the truckers’ union said.
Grateful for shade, we reclined on the carpeted floor next to the low mattresses that lined the wall. Mauritanians do not sit on their chairs and couches: they lean against them; it’s a kind of nomad rebellion against the institution of a fixed house and furniture. We drank the bittersweet tea of the Sahara and waited.
Three hours late, a small, unmarked plane suddenly appeared, landed smoothly and expelled an unsmiling Aziz. After shaking hands with rows of politicians, generals and foreign diplomats, he got in a black Mercedes and positioned himself standing, emerging from its roof. The crowd massed past security and swallowed him up. Even the SUVs with flashing sirens that sandwiched his car disappeared in the swell. Now and again, the television cameras caught a glimpse of the president’s shiny pate or the white cuff around his waving hand.
His apparent frailty revived concerns over succession. Aziz’s political opponents, who include democracy activists, Islamists and ex-military officers, are restless. Soon after the shooting, they claimed he was in a coma; at a press conference on the occasion of Aziz’s return, the C.O.D. chairman Saleh Ould Henenna said the president was “incompetent” and incapable of leading the country. Although Aziz appears medically unfit to run the country — and is widely expected to return to France shortly — he shows no sign of being willing to voluntarily step down.
Support for Aziz in Paris is not strictly of the medical variety. France has oil and mining interests in Mauritania; the Mauritanian government awarded French oil company Total two exploration licenses this year. Last year France gave $2.6 million in military aid to Aziz’s government, and French and Mauritanian forces have carried out joint raids on Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Mauritania is viewed by other Western states like the United States as an indispensable proxy in the war on terrorism — all the more so now that northern Mali is occupied by jihadists linked to Al Qaeda.
Flows of aid and foreign investment only recently revived. A new coup would freeze those revenues instantly. That’s one reason why Mauritania’s current challenge, some locals say, is to somehow engineer a coup-less coup.
Hannah Armstrong is a fellow of the Institute of Current World Affairs in the Sahel.