Mauritania’s leader delivers 'last testimony' of his presidency

The January 9 march and rally were devoid of any call or slogan about a third term in office for President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz.

TUNIS - Amid signs he might not be running for a third term in office, Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz urged citizens to “attach the greatest importance to education” to overcome issues such as racial inequality and “strengthen national unity.”

Ould Abdel Aziz, 62, addressed a “national march against hatred and discrimination” January 9 in Nouakchott, delivering a speech that’s been described by analysts as his “final political testament” before stepping down after 10 years in power.

“My last testament to you is education. A good educational system is the fundamental solution and a key to all problems,” Ould Abdel Aziz said.

The government declared January 9 a holiday to encourage public servants and students to attend the demonstration and invited opposing parties to join. Most leading opposition groups boycotted it on the grounds that authorities planned the march to endorse a Ould Abdel Aziz’s re-election bid.

However, the march and the rally were devoid of any call or slogan about a third term in office for Ould Abdel Aziz, another sign he is sticking to his pledge to abide by the constitution and step down as president at the end of his second term in mid-2019.

Ould Abdel Aziz branched out in his speech, avoiding topics he’d made a point of mentioning before, such as preserving the achievements of his regime and its continuity.

“We will not shut down social media and we will not cut the levels of freedom and democracy the Mauritanians enjoy because they are smart, observant and intelligent but we will not accept the suffering endured by some other Arab countries,” he added in reference to the violence and instability following “Arab spring” uprisings.

“We must preserve our unity and strengthen it and shut the door to criminals who propose extremism and radicalism,” he added in reference to Islamists and their allies in the opposition.

Ould Abdel Aziz is credited with “drying up” Islamist radicalisation among disaffected youth. Mauritania was previously one of the major recruiting grounds for al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups.

An affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood remains the main opposition party in Mauritania, which is divided along ethno-racial lines and highly sensitive to “Arabicisation” and social and economic marginalisation of black Mauritanians.

Mauritania’s anti-slavery group, Haratines Political, Economic and Cultural Rights Pact, dismissed the government-sponsored march as an “example of the denial of discrimination.”

The Haratines, Mauritania’s largest minority, are a distinct ethnic group that descend largely from black African slaves. They are discriminated against in the country, where many view them as an underclass.

“The march sows more thorns on the path of peace and social co-existence,” it said in a statement. “The government’s responsibility is clear in continuing to discriminate against the Haratines through its denial of the existence of slavery and skirting to fight its devastating consequences.”

Mauritania abolished slavery in 1981, the last country to do so, and criminalised it in 2007. There have been four prosecutions of slave-owners in its history but dozens of cases are currently in courts.

The Global Slavery Index estimates that 2% of the Mauritanian population of 4 million are enslaved. The government rejects international figures, saying cases of slavery exist but the practice is not widespread.

Last November, the United States said it would end trade benefits for Mauritania for not doing enough to end forced labour, a move praised by activists who urged other countries to follow suit.

Ould Abdel Aziz said the large number of Mauritanians who participated in the march showed the wide support for the government’s efforts to tackle social issues such as racial inequality.

“Anyone, whatever his position, his relations, contacts and wealth who attempts to destabilise the country will be punished by the state and rejected by the Mauritanian people,” he said.

“The army, which is the army of the people, not one of the president, will punish these people who are criminal politicians,” he added without naming parties or groups.

Analysts said the speech pointed to Ould Abdel Aziz’s departure, as he called it his “last testimony.” He also appeared to anoint his successor, Defence Minister Mohamed Ould el Ghazouani, who was alongside the president at the rally.

In November, Ould el Ghazouani, then army chief of staff, was appointed defence minister, replacing veteran politician Jallow Mamadou Bhatia and breaking a 23-year tradition of the position being occupied by a civilian.

Ould el Ghazouani was among those dismissed in 2008 by former President Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi. Ould Abdel Aziz, then head of the presidential guard, was also fired at that time before ascending to the presidency.

The two former generals have since maintained close ties and Ould el Ghazouani is being picked by analysts as the most likely successor to the president.

“The signals... (made by the president) are easy for the viewer to understand: ‘The army is the guarantor of democracy and the defence minister is by my side and is my successor,’” said Mauritanian political writer Ahmed Salem bin Maayebi.

Lamine Ghanmi is a veteran Reuters journalist. He has covered North Africa for decades and is based in Tunis.

This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.