When the news spread that Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz of Mauritania had been shot my reaction was, “it finally happened!” While many of the details of the shooting remain unknown, and some accounts are contradictory, for those who have followed Mauritania’s politics since August 2005, it was only a matter of time before another attempt on his life was made. It certainly won’t be the last either.
Since he overthrew the country’s only democratically elected president in August 2008, and succeeded in getting himself ‘elected’ in 2009, former army General Abdel Aziz seems to have gone out of his way to invite opposition. Volatile regional politics and (in)security, a dangerously unsettled domestic political and social situation and the President’s particularly abrasive personality combined to all but assure that an attempt against his life would occur. The shooting should, however, be understood in the context of the country’s recent political evolution – certainly since Abel Aziz masterminded Colonel Ould Taya’s overthrow in 2005, and maneuvered himself into the presidential office following the 2008 coup.
Security apparatus divided
Widespread suspicion that this shooting was not accidental may be supported by reference to the deep divisions and resentments in the Mauritanian security apparatus. In 2007 and 2008, Abdel Aziz took full advantage of his promotion to the rank of General (over what were arguably more senior and meritorious officers) and his appointment as a ‘Security Czar’ of sorts. He marginalized brilliant, loyal, republican minded officers, removing them from strategic positions, to be replaced by his own cronies.
Abdel Aziz thereby sowed additional seeds of division into a security sector already badly splintered along Arab nationalist, Islamist, regional, and ethnic lines, not to mention Ould Taya loyalists waiting for an opportunity to strike. In May 2008, he connived to instigate a parliamentary rebellion against President Cheikh Abdallahi. When the president retaliated by sacking him on August 6, 2008, he made his move and overthrew Cheikh Abdallahi.
Opposition and military combine
Resentment, felt after initial hopes of Mauritanian democratisation were dashed, and the resulting tensions in the body politic, remains high. Regular demonstrations, tense confrontations between political opponents and security forces and the heated rhetoric between Abdel Aziz’s camp and the opposition are a constant reminder of this corrosive political environment. A now radicalised opposition – signatory of the April 2009 Dakar agreement to resolve the post 2008 coup crisis (important clauses of which Abdel Aziz has studiously ignored since his ‘election’) – has been openly calling for his removal from power. The opposition also invited the military to join them in the effort. Prominent retired officers, doubtless with followers still in units of the Mauritanian army, have openly joined the radical opposition – underscoring the divisions within the military.
An Islamist target in a troubled region
At the regional level, there is little doubt that Abdel Aziz has made other enemies, most notably Islamist terrorists currently operating in the Sahel region. In fulfillment of commitments some believe he made to then French president Nicholas Sarkozy (in return for support of his bid to retain power), soon after the July 2009 elections Abdel Aziz started to play a major role in the “fight against terrorism” in the Sahel.
In 2010 he inaugurated a policy of “preventive anti-terrorism” – attacking terrorist camps in neighboring Mali through at least three separate interventions, including once with French paratroopers on July 28, 2010 to try and free a hostage. Subsequently, Abdel Aziz sent his troops to battle terrorist groups in the Wagadou forest within Malian territory. By doing so he made himself the prime target for Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). AQIM issued a communiqué clearly designating him as an enemy of Islam and a stooge of France, vowing to kill him.
Indeed, in late 2010, Mauritania’s security forces thwarted an attempt on his life hatched by AQIM when they spotted at least two 4X4 pickups filled with explosives heading towards Nouakchott. Any security incident involving the President is now analysed through this particular prism.
Making enemies easily
Abdel Aziz’s brash and reckless personality is also part of the puzzle. After securing power, he seemed to take pleasure antagonising friends and making new enemies. His contempt for civilian politicians is boundless and he misses no opportunity to insult and humiliate them publicly. This character trait, particularly his recklessness and low regard for the basic rules of an organised state, may hold the real reason for the incident that could have cost him his life and thrown his country in to perilous instability. His shooting seem to have occurred as he returned from a weekend trip in an unmarked car he was driving when he failed to stop at an army check point about 40 kilometers from the capital. The President’s security detail was some distance behind him in another car.
Shooting reveals who is really in charge
This rashness in a heightened and insecure environment, and the unnecessary risk instability and violence he could have brought on his country, is the real lesson to retain from this incident. As Mauritanian authorities scrambled to manage the situation, the nature of the response also revealed the true colours of the current regime.
As soon as the incident was known, amid contradictory statements and the hesitation of a coterie clearly lost without him, Abdel Aziz’s security apparatus went in to full gear. With the army chief of staff, General Ould Ghazzouani (his alter ego), calling the shots, it sidelined all civilians, including the Prime Minister, and all but took charge of the country. This has left no doubt about the true nature of the post 2008 government: A military regime parading as a democracy, similar in that to the Ould Taya regime which ran the country for 21 years.
As happened with his predecessor, constant instability and an ever-present risk of destabilization is likely to be the country’s fate. The worsening regional security context, the deteriorating political and social climate domestically and Abdel Aziz’s unique predisposition to make enemies, will guarantee that this will not be the last time we are reminded of Mauritania’s peculiar politics.
Boubacar N’Diaye is Associate Professor of Africana Studies and Political Science at The College of Wooster, Ohio, USA: firstname.lastname@example.org