As Threats Mount, Can Mauritania’s Fragile Stability Hold?

As Threats Mount, Can Mauritania’s Fragile Stability Hold?
Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz at the end of an EU-Africa summit, Brussels, April 3, 2014 (AP photo by Yves Logghe).

Against a broader backdrop of regional turmoil, Mauritania has remained surprisingly, if delicately stable. This feat is especially noteworthy given that just a few years ago the country was considered at significant risk of destabilization. Its politics and society have been perennially buffeted by the storms of racial tensions, ethnic cleavages and political volatility. Since its independence from France in 1960, Mauritania has wavered precariously between this state of fragile stability and state collapse. Its record of successive coups and attempted coups between 1978 and 2008; major ethnic clashes in 1989 and 1990; and terrorist attacks between 2005 and 2011 have put the country at a constant boiling point. Yet Mauritania never collapsed into civil war or violent disintegration.

This uneasy stability, however, will be difficult to maintain in a context of mounting internal stresses and external shocks. There is little doubt that the ascent of Mohammad Ould Abdel Aziz to the presidency in 2009 following a coup in 2008 brought a much-needed reprieve from the mix of violent extremist threats and economic paralysis the country had experienced. The respite, however, could be fleeting, given Mauritania’s increasingly precarious political landscape, exacerbated by rising dissent, risks of ethnic confrontations, plummeting state revenues and the volatile geopolitics of the Sahel and Sahara regions. The incremental effects of these threats are difficult to predict. Depending on the combination of risks, Mauritania could continue limping along in its current tense fragility, succumb to yet another military coup, or descend into communal strife.

Tucked between Arab North Africa and black West Africa, Mauritania faces several multifaceted problems and structural challenges. Five domains of insecurity have emerged as especially critical: a challenging political climate marked by unresolved tensions between the president and the opposition; a deteriorating economic outlook filled with considerable uncertainty; the hardening of socio-political tensions rooted in historical ethno-racial divisions; the growing radicalization of social movements; and the threat of internal militancy. These five factors reinforce each other, creating a vicious circle that must be broken in order for the country to avoid destabilization.

Simmering Political Tensions

After six years of Abdel Aziz’s presidency, including a re-election in 2014, Mauritania’s political landscape is currently dominated by a struggle between the president and the opposition over succession, with no clear end to the dispute in sight. The opposition suspects that Abdel Aziz is toying with the idea of changing the country’s presidential term limits in order to extend his time in power beyond the end of his current term in 2019. The president has yet to clarify his intentions, in keeping with his propensity to keep his rivals and enemies in suspense. This has created a toxic political climate, setting off interminable rounds of political recriminations and partisan bickering. Abdel Aziz is known to hold the political class in disdain, blasting its resistance to the national renewal and rejuvenation project he feels his leadership has ushered in. For its part, the political opposition decries the president’s alleged cronyism and political nepotism. Its press organs regularly accuse Abdel Aziz of doling out patronage to loyal businessmen and divvying up the spoils among his family and influential members of his tribe. The president’s authoritarian style and personalized rule are also major sources of contention.

Mauritanian politics and society have been perennially buffeted by the storms of racial tensions, ethnic cleavages and political volatility.

The persistence of this “dialogue of the deaf” aggravates political tensions at a critical juncture in which the country’s security is threatened on multiple fronts. Should Abdel Aziz decide to scrap the limit on presidential terms, the possibility of a constitutional crisis resulting in political disorder or another military takeover cannot be discounted. Such high-stakes gambling is a risky business for both the president and the opposition, not to the mention Mauritania’s stability.

The president has so far tried to divide the opposition by enticing the most conciliatory members of the 16-party opposition coalition, grouped under the banner of the Forum for Democracy and Unity (FNDU), into a vague and undefined national dialogue. So far, these attempts have been rebuffed despite emerging signs of fracture within the FNDU. Tawassoul, an Islamist party, has cleverly kept one foot in the FNDU and another in the government’s door by not boycotting the 2013 legislative elections, in contrast to virtually all other opposition parties, which refused to recognize the vote. As a result, Tawassoul is the only member of the opposition bloc represented in parliament. Other fault lines in the FDNU run between the hard-liners, such as the Rally of Democratic Forces party led by Ahmed Ould Daddah, who insists on written guarantees by the president that he will not run in 2019; and conciliatory politicians such as the FNDU’s president, Ahmed Salem Ould Bouhoubeyni, who believes that the best option remains a resumption of political dialogue through which the regime and the opposition can pursue a win-win solution.

Supporters of President Ould Abdel Aziz, Nouakchott, Mauritania, July 19, 2009 (AP photo by Rebecca Blackwell).

The contours of such a compromise have not been defined yet. One possibility is for Abdel Aziz to replicate Russian President Vladimir Putin’s strategy and handpick his replacement as president, while he becomes prime minister with the power to pull all the strings. This solution assumes that Abdel Aziz can find a loyal protégé and preserve the support of the military. A second possibility is to hold early legislative and presidential elections while scrapping the age limit of 75 for presidential candidates. This would allow old opposition stalwarts to contest the presidential election, the opposition to claim seats in parliament, and Abdel Aziz to run without violating the constitution. Whatever scenario ultimately takes shape, the protracted stalemate between the opposition and the president is increasing Mauritanians’ disillusionment with politics, exacerbating the country’s political crisis. It is also introducing great uncertainty about the country’s political future.

Risks of Economic Derailment

The second biggest risk facing Mauritania is its deteriorating economic outlook. The floundering of state revenues and finances—caused mainly by a precipitous decline in the price of the country’s extractive resources, particularly minerals—risks aggravating poverty and economic inequality. The fact that the economic crisis is occurring amid rumors and allegations of government corruption adds to popular frustrations and undermines the president’s carefully crafted platform to fight graft and improve transparency. Abdel Aziz has banked on economic growth, development and a reduction in corruption as the best means of alleviating socio-economic inequalities and racial and ethnic grievances. The economic downturn comes at a bad time on both counts.

Since the onset of the Arab revolts in 2011, two forms of contestation have expanded and multiplied in Mauritania. The most formidable has an ethnic and racial dimension, and is geared toward socio-political change. Marginalized groups such as the Haratine—Arabic-speaking descendants of black slaves, also known as black moors—and Afro-Mauritanians who come from the south of the country have escalated their battle for equal rights and access to economic resources and employment opportunities. The second form of contestation is non-ethnic, and its standard-bearers are youths that are aggrieved, unemployed and beaten down. They demand an equal distribution of opportunities and public resources, as well as the implementation of targeted programs to help the unemployed and society’s most vulnerable members.

Abdel Aziz had counted on economic growth to help address these grievances. The government, for example, has made some efforts to invest in human capital and provide targeted cash transfers to Mauritania’s most vulnerable households. In 2013, it created the National Solidarity Agency to fight poverty and combat the residual effects of slavery. Progress can also be noted in infrastructure development and investment in peripheral areas.

Banking on the prospect that depressed commodity prices will recover or that the political opposition will implode is a dangerous gamble.

The slump in commodity prices now places Mauritania’s economy, and with it the president’s plans, at risk. If the prices of minerals, especially iron ore, remain low for long, Abdel Aziz might find it difficult to contain popular contestations, especially those powered by racial and ethnic discontent. The president certainly hopes that the fiscal buffers the country built up during the years of the commodities boom and the maintenance of prudent macroeconomic stability will help him weather the current financial turbulence. With 4 percent economic growth, a 3 percent budget deficit and 1 percent inflation, Mauritania can hold on for a year or two before the economic crisis starts to bite. Abdel Aziz would therefore be ill-advised to keep delaying the needed reforms to defuse political tensions and the socio-economic drivers of social conflict. Banking on the prospect that depressed commodity prices will recover or that the political opposition will implode is a dangerous gamble.

Ethno-Racial Powder Keg

The third source of insecurity that is constantly hovering over and menacing Mauritania’s stability is the real risk of ethnic and racial confrontations. At its core, ethnic and racial tensions tend to center on the grievances of black communities against a legal, political and cultural system characterized by the dominance of light-skinned moors. Grievances are especially associated with a set of factors rooted in the predatory politics of racial discrimination, ethnic socio-economic exclusion and inequality. Since independence, the Haratine, which share the same language and culture as their former masters, the Bidhan, have gotten the short end of the stick, suffering from the most painful and outrageous forms of socioeconomic, legal and institutional exploitation. Despite representing only 40 percent of the population, the Haratine constitute an estimated 80 percent of Mauritanians living in absolute poverty, 85 percent of the country’s illiterate, 90 percent of small farmers without the right to own land, and conversely just 2 percent of officials in positions of high authority.

The Afro-Mauritanians historically fared slightly better, as they have not faced the same level of severe socio-economic conditions as the Haratine. But as is the case for all vulnerable non-Arabic-speaking populations in Mauritania, Afro-Mauritanians’ situation has remained what has been described as “structurally precarious,” and the group has always been vulnerable to political and economic discrimination. But in April 1989, a border dispute between Mauritania and Senegal erupted over grazing rights along the Senegal River, leading to serious ethnic confrontations and massive expulsions. In total, between 40,000 and 60,000 Afro-Mauritanians were expelled to Senegal, and another 15,000 to 20,000 to Mali. Their land was given to light-skinned moors and the Haratine. The government also fired hundreds of black soldiers suspected of weak loyalties to the established order.

A woman draws water from a well, Natriguel, Mauritania, April 13, 2012 (Oxfam photo by Pablo Tosco).

The conflicts that stemmed from the bloody events of 1989 are still alive and present. Cohabitation between Afro-Mauritanian sedentary farmers and light-skinned mobile herders remains tense. Unsettled disputes over land tenure and competing claims to water access, fishing rights and other natural resources are major sources of conflict. The most critical of these disputes today centers on the thorny issue of land ownership and usage in the Senegal River valley. These lands had been mostly cultivated by Afro-Mauritanians until their deportation in 1989 and 1990. In the absence of basic trust between black and light-skinned populations, these tensions over land and grazing rights risk boiling over into intercommunal violence.

Despite representing only 40 percent of the population, the Haratine constitute an estimated 80 percent of Mauritanians living in absolute poverty.

It is important to note, however, that conflicts over access to and management of land and other natural resources do not always have an ethnic or racial dimension. Intra-group tensions are prevalent within the same ethnic groups and tribes. Some of the Afro-Mauritanians repatriated from Senegal in the late 2000s, for instance, are actively challenging the traditional hierarchies that historically favored black landowners with significant land holdings. By denouncing the feudal system, they hope to claim land they historically cultivated for the black noble families that owned it.

Other conflicts pit Afro-Mauritanians against the Haratine. This intra-racial feud also has roots in the 1989 interethnic clashes, when some Haratine who were themselves expelled from Senegal were granted the right to manage the lands owned by Afro-Mauritanians who were deported or forced to flee the violence. This hostility was aggravated when Haratine who hadn’t been expatriated from Senegal began a voluntary migration to Mauritania’s fertile Senegal River valley. While the migration was mainly driven by economic reasons, the state played a non-negligible role in encouraging Haratine based in Senegal to relocate to the Mauritanian side of the border.

The return in the late 2000s of thousands of black refugees from the Senegal River valley region reignited old social conflicts over civil rights, land tenure and management of resources. The returnees are incensed at their resettlement conditions, especially their prolonged confinement to temporary dwellings. They blame the state for dragging its feet on issuing their identity papers and validating their claims to their former houses and land. These unmet expectations are contributing to an explosion of frustrated desire for drastic political and socio-economic change. In a context of regional turbulence and terrorist threats, these volatile sources of pent-up grievances risk degenerating into social disorder and instability.

Radicalization of Social Movements

This brings us to the fourth factor of instability, which deals with the radicalization of social movements. Protests and strikes are occurring with increasing frequency in a tense political and economic climate. Labor unrest in the mining sector degenerated in 2015 into a prolonged strike at the state-owned National Industrial and Mining Company, or Societe Nationale Industrielle et Miniere (SNIM), which accounts for an estimated 15 percent of GDP. The two-month strike over a salary dispute paralyzed the country’s northern economy and threatened its hard currency earnings. Mining workers and the legions of unemployed in the north also complain bitterly that the government doesn’t reinvest SNIM’s profits in the regions where the industry is based. Private mining corporations have also experienced labor turmoil. Stung by falling commodity prices, Canadian Kinross Gold Corp had to suspend its expansion plans at its Tasiast gold mine on the edge of the Sahara in northwestern Mauritania and lay off hundreds of workers in 2013 and 2015. In 2013, Kinross was hit by weeks of protests and is bracing for more labor unrest in 2016.

The spike in protests is not limited to the mining sector, and encompasses an ever-growing number of industries. Since the onset of the 2011 Arab revolts, societal contention has become much broader, even if the politics of protest remains fractured along sectoral lines and interests. The driving force behind the multiplication of protests is the desire for an equitable sharing of resources and an end to socio-economic exclusion and political discrimination. This societal contention has never escalated into serious calls for Abdel Aziz’s removal as president, even if the political opposition tried unsuccessfully to mobilize a movement for political change.

Unmet expectations are contributing to an explosion of frustrated desire for drastic political and socio-economic change.

The dynamics of contention, however, have hardened along ethnic and racial lines. The Haratine—who at 40 percent of the population are Mauritania’s largest ethno-racial group and at 70 percent of the army make up the majority of its soldiers—have become increasingly assertive in their demands for social equality and inclusion into positions of power. In April 2013, civil society organizations and Haratine community leaders issued a manifesto that demanded the immediate fulfillment of their political, economic and social rights. This manifesto upped the ante through higher demands that are no longer limited to redressing the classic grievances against exclusion of Haratine from top posts in the military and other positions of political and economic power. The central issue driving the protests centers on a distribution of resources, wealth and power according to the relative population size of each ethnic and racial group. To achieve these goals, the protesters are demanding positive discrimination.

Radical Haratine activists have escalated their struggle by provoking major religious tensions and racial confrontations. Biram Ould Dah Ould Abeid, the founder of the Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement, who finished second in the 2014 presidential election, caused a firestorm in 2012 when he burned copies of Islamic texts that he deemed to be promoting slavery. In 2014, Cheikh Ould Mkheitir, a blogger, ignited outrage with an article he wrote for the Mauritanian website Aqlame, which denounced some religious texts that perpetuate “an iniquitous social order” against an underclass that is “marginalized and discriminated against from birth.” Ould Mkhaitir was sentenced to death in December 2014. Other groups at the bottom of the social hierarchy are also mobilizing against Mauritania’s discriminatory caste system. In 2012, the blacksmiths, a marginalized caste, became increasingly vocal in their demands for equal representation. That mobilization is credited for the 2015 appointment of Vatma Vall Mint Soueina, a member of the caste, as minister of foreign affairs.

Group mobilization has also become more organized in the Mauritanian part of the Senegal River valley, where Afro-Mauritanians demand socio-economic and political inclusion through organizations like the Don’t Touch My Nationality movement. The hardening of organized ethnic claims is especially visible in the campaign of resistance to the president’s investment projects, particularly those involving multinational food and agriculture corporations. Black Mauritanians are vociferously opposed to such agribusiness projects, which are usually controlled by white moors. Local black farmers, for example, increasingly challenge the acquisition of farmland by European multinational corporations or Arab development funds such as the Saudi Rajihi banking group, the Arab Monetary Fund and the Arab Institution for Agricultural Development. The government touts the development opportunities that it promises will accompany these projects, including more jobs and new clinics, schools and infrastructure. But for small farmers, the land deals represent new forms of exploitation and neocolonialism. Since 2010, Haratine and Afro-Mauritanian farmers and civil society organizations have protested what they describe as land grabs littered with corruption and nepotism, based on opaque contractual terms that trample on traditional land-use rights. Some want to negotiate directly with multinationals to secure the best deals and benefits for their community.

A protest against the country’s census, which many claim discriminates against ethnic minorities, Southern Mauritania, Sep. 24, 2011 (Photo by Magharebia, CC by 2.0)

Black dissent and opposition to structures of domination have so far remained nonviolent, but also internally divided. Despite attempts to construct a unified opposition consciousness and identity, the Haratine and Afro-Mauritanian forms of activism remain disjointed and at times self-contradictory. Some activists are also bound to question the effectiveness of nonviolent forms of protest should they remain ineffective. Others who are aggrieved beyond repair are only one step away from embracing violence or sliding into militancy, as is evidenced by the cases of Haratines and Afro-Mauritanians arrested for purported involvement in terrorist activity. Despite the widely stated claim that violent militancy is the exclusive domain of white moors, the record of apprehended Mauritanian jihadis shows that the phenomenon of militancy cuts across the boundaries of ethnicity and race. To be sure, light-skinned Mauritanians still occupy a predominant presence within violent extremist groups. But the numbers of Haratine and Afro-Mauritanians in prison on militancy charges—17 and 9 percent of such prisoners, respectively—is higher than it ever was, belying the claim that they are not involved in militant activities.

The dynamics of Haratine and Afro-Mauritanian activism foreshadow a period of deep uncertainty. The potential outcomes or effects of such contestation will largely depend on the state’s attention and responses to intensifying grievances. The same applies to non-ethnic protests driven by socio-economic grievances. Governance flaws and the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a very small political and economic elite are major sources of instability in Mauritania. The overall pattern of political and economic domination has remained unchanged for decades despite the country’s many regime changes. At the center of influence are often the same protagonists who share family ties and clientelist linkages. When there is a reconfiguration in the distribution of power, as is usually the case following a coup, it involves individuals, leaving the same dominant bloc in place.

Internal Militancy

The fifth domain of insecurity is the threat of internal radicalization. At present, the risk of homegrown militancy is still at an embryonic stage. As a result of Mauritania’s two-track approach to extremism—the rehabilitation of dozens of former radicals and the state’s tough counterterrorism crackdown—the most virulent Salafi ideologues in Mauritania have either recanted their previous promotion of jihad or are languishing in jail. The significant falloff in terrorist attacks in the country since 2011, when Mauritania suffered its last one, is also in large part due to the government’s determined efforts to upgrade the army, strengthen border security, and enhance regional security cooperation. France and the United States have also provided critical support to Nouakchott’s counterterrorism efforts through the supply of vital training, equipment and intelligence to the country’s military and security forces.

These achievements do not mean that Mauritania is no longer vulnerable to terrorist destabilization, however. Al-Qaida in the Maghreb (AQIM) and associated violent extremist groups may currently be preoccupied with broadening their influence in countries south of the Sahara. But if Mauritania’s economic and political crisis deepens, the chances that its fragile stability might be shattered would increase dramatically. Yet another descent into precariousness could in turn boost recruitment into militant groups and invite further terrorist attacks.

For now, it is difficult to assess the trajectory of violent militancy in Mauritania. Young Mauritanians associated with militant activities or hard-line Salafi ideologues can be found across the country, as was evidenced in October 2014 with the arrest of four youths in the mining city of Zouerate on the northern border. The men belonged to a cell accused of having ties to the so-called Islamic State; one was a “repentant” jihadi freed in 2011 after allegedly recanting his extremist views. In August 2015, the government apprehended another Salafi-jihadi cell that included a previously jailed major ideologue of violence, Mohammad Lemine Ould Mohamed Salem al-Majlissi. In September 2015, another purportedly repentant ideologue, Dahoud Ould Sebti, was once again arrested for incitement of hatred.

Despite the low number of recidivists, the return to prison of al-Majlissi and Ould Sebti illustrates the difficulty of altering the radical outlook of former jihadi detainees. Amid fears of recidivism, the state has been slow to release radical Salafists who have finished their prison sentences. This policy seems unsustainable, however: In January 2015, a group of Salafi detainees in Nouakchott’s central prison revolted, setting fire to parts of the prison and taking two guards hostage. The hostage drama ended with the conclusion of a deal allowing prisoners who had finished their sentences to be released.

If Mauritania’s economic and political crisis deepens, the chances that its fragile stability might be shattered would increase dramatically.

There are many unknowns about the risk of recidivism or the potential radicalization of young Mauritanians. Salafi ideas associated with intolerance are alive and well, notwithstanding the state’s clampdown on proponents of violence. The virulent reactions of an appreciable number of Mauritanians to cases they deem blasphemous show the high degree of sensitivity to religious sentiments in a deeply conservative society. In January 2014, tens of thousands of protesters vented their anger in front of the presidential palace against the publication of an article that seemed critical of the Prophet Mohammad. Two months later, media reported that copies of the Quran were desecrated in a mosque, prompting hundreds of angry demonstrators to protest at the door of the presidential palace. Violent confrontations with security forces ensued. Controversies over interpretations of religious doctrine and cultural traditions and practices run the risk of being manipulated by a minority of radical self-proclaimed religious entrepreneurs.

Indeed, small self-designated groups claiming to defend Islam and its prophet have popped up since the 2014 unrest. The most visible is Ahbab al-Rasul, or Friends of the Prophet, which is active on social networks, where it denounces nontraditional perspectives and other so-called heretical innovations. In July 2014, the group issued a virulent fatwa calling for the death of human rights activist Aminetou Mint El-Mocta, who had called for a fair trial for Cheikh Ould Mkheitir, a writer accused of apostasy.

External Domains of Insecurity

Despite its vulnerabilities, Mauritania has weathered the turbulence of the popular Arab uprisings of 2011 and contained the threat of militancy. The country has managed to withstand the residual impacts of the fall of Moammar Gadhafi in Libya in late 2011 and the resultant chaos in Mali in 2012, despite fears that it too would be vulnerable to terrorism and destabilization by the proliferation of arms and refugees. This is especially noteworthy given that, just a few years ago, Mauritania was considered at serious risk of political upheaval and a decline in security. From the 2005 terror assault on an army base that killed 15 soldiers to the multiple terrorist attacks that struck at the heart of Nouakchott between 2007 and 2011, Mauritania had been a privileged target of attacks by Sahara-based terrorist groups and seemed primed for destabilization by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. Its success in avoiding attacks since 2011 is in part due to a major shift in the counterterrorism posture initiated by Abdel Aziz. The president’s situational awareness of the varied risks posed by al-Qaida and its regional affiliates led to the adoption of aggressive and proactive counterterrorism measures that drove most hardened militants beyond Mauritania’s borders.

This overall success in fending off terrorist attacks is also due in part to AQIM and its affiliates’ focus on other countries in the Sahel. Furthermore, in the past few years, the escape of several jihadi prisoners and the freeing of others amplified concerns about the existence of a tacit, covert non-aggression pact between the Mauritanian government and violent extremist groups. The liberation in August 2015 of Sidi Mohamed Ould Mohamed Ould Bouamama, a former spokesman for the al-Qaida-linked Malian group Ansar Dine, baffled Malian officials who had issued an international warrant for his arrest. The rumors of deals between Abdel Aziz and the various terrorist groups roaming the Sahel and Sahara flared once again with the 2016 release of documents seized from Osama bin Laden’s Pakistani hideout in 2011, indicating that al-Qaida leaders made plans for a secret peace deal with the government of Mauritania.

Whatever the truth is, this lull in terrorist attacks since 2011 is not guaranteed to last long. As long as the Sahel and Sahara remain a hotbed for extremist groups and jihadi recruitment, the specter of terrorism will loom large over Mauritania. Of particular concern are Mauritanian jihadis battle-hardened from operating in the Sahel and Sahara with groups such as al-Mourabitoun and AQIM. Their potential return to their home country must be cause of concern to Mauritanian authorities.

Mauritania also remains highly exposed to a resurgence of violence and militancy in northern Mali. Despite the 2015 Algerian-brokered peace deal between Bamako and the Tuareg-led rebel alliance, the security situation in Mali’s north has deteriorated. Mauritania still hosts over 50,000 Malian refugees in the Mberra camp in the east. Some have melted into the population, at times within Mauritanian communities that have the same ethnic kinship ties, and Mauritanian authorities fear that the country’s refugee system is vulnerable to infiltration by violent extremists.

As long as the Sahel and Sahara remain a hotbed for extremist groups and jihadi recruitment, the specter of terrorism will loom large over Mauritania.

Containing the geographic scope of instability is difficult because of the linkages between conflict and ethnicity in the permeable Sahel and Sahara regions. Conflicts often transcend national frontiers and involve tribes that are scattered throughout Mauritania, Algeria and Mali. The leading actors in the terrorist group Movement for Tawhid and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), for instance, hail from the Lamhar tribe, an influential Arab group based in Gao, Mali, that also has tribal and business ties in southern Algeria and Mauritania. The growing extent and interconnectedness of these networks—which are increasingly enmeshed in the drug trade, car theft, illicit cigarette trafficking, weapons smuggling and counterfeiting—is a source of major concern for Mauritania, particularly the possibility for cross-pollination with extremist actors roaming the Malian, Algerian and other deserts in the Sahel. Increasingly, tribes, mafias and corrupt state officials coexist and complement each other. This collusion has created conditions that are conducive to increasing profitability for both organized criminal networks and armed groups.

The cross-border networks of dense political and tribal ties make Mauritania an important player in efforts to contain ethnic and tribal conflict in Mali. Fears of northern Mali’s rise as a terrorist sanctuary led Mauritania to conduct, in 2010 and 2011, several cross-border air and commando raids on militant cells linked to AQIM. These attacks were carried out in close concert with France, whose nationals and expatriate workers are at high risk of kidnappings and ransom in Mauritania. Following the outbreak of northern Mali’s separatist insurgency in 2012, Nouakchott has also been indirectly involved in intergroup crisis negotiations in the region. Since the 1970s, several influential Arab, Berber, Tuareg and Songhai political leaders have sought refuge and protection in Nouakchott. Mauritanian leaders leverage these historic links to Arab tribes and rebel groups in Mali, such as the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), to better anticipate events with an eye to controlling them.

Mauritania’s military raids in Mali and its involvement in the country’s internal disputes, however, have worried some Mauritanians who fear being sucked into Mali’s intractable problems. The political opposition criticized the Abdel Aziz regime for providing intelligence and logistical support to the French military intervention in January 2013 in northern Mali. Critics charged that the Mauritanian government was manipulating the struggle against terrorism to cement Abdel Aziz’s hold on power and secure Western support, but Abdel Aziz’s shrewd political instincts and subsequent reluctance to contribute troops to the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Mali blunted these accusations. Nevertheless, this lack of political consensus on the regime’s foreign and security policy exacerbates political tensions amid already tense relations between the regime and the opposition.

The Precarious Path Ahead

Abdel Aziz’s ability to maintain Mauritania’s fragile stability is noteworthy in a country bedeviled by political fault lines, military coups, ethno-racial tensions and budding militancy. Under his leadership, the Mauritanian government has neutralized terrorist threats, restored macroeconomic stability, contained inflation and improved tax collection. The president also seems to have consolidated his power base in the military. His investments in modernizing the army, coupled with important increases in salaries and opportunities for promotion and training, have permitted Abdel Aziz to gain the army’s goodwill, at least until the next political crisis.

But despite the progress toward stability, Mauritania is at risk of social and political unrest. Its commodity-heavy economy remains highly exposed to external shocks and catastrophic bouts of drought and water shortages. At the regional level, the country is vulnerable to terrorist spillover and the economic implications of Ebola-style epidemics among its neighboring trading partners in West Africa. All this significant uncertainty threatens to undercut Abdel Aziz’s efforts to contain simmering political tensions and hardening ethno-racial positions and demands.

In the case of a double shock, such as the collapse of mining prices and dramatic fluctuations in rainfall, Abdel Aziz’s regime would be under immense political and societal pressure.

In the next three years before the presidential election, Mauritania will be faced with a set of political risk scenarios that range from the pessimistic to the mildly optimistic. The first challenge deals with succession. The plausibility that a severe institutional crisis erupts if Abdel Aziz decides to change the constitution and extend his tenure beyond 2019 cannot be ruled out. To forestall this eventuality, the president and the opposition need to revive the political dialogue seeking a win-win outcome. The second risk factor deals with growing uncertainty about the country’s economic outlook. The negative developments in the commodity markets complicate the government’s efforts to boost investments and job creation. There are fears that a prolonged slump in commodity prices could have a disastrous effect on Abdel Aziz’s plans to reduce poverty and mitigate socio-political tensions. In the case of a double shock, such as the collapse of mining prices and dramatic fluctuations in rainfall, Abdel Aziz’s regime would be under immense political and societal pressure.

The third and potentially most explosive source of insecurity resides in the real threat of interethnic and racial confrontations. To address grievances over the representation of ethnic minorities, the Mauritanian government must design strategies to promote social inclusion, political integration and economic empowerment. To succeed, these policies must target aggrieved communities, such as the Haratine, Afro-Mauritanians and other marginalized groups. Abdel Aziz’s token appointments or promotion of Afro-Mauritanians, Haratine and blacksmiths to senior government positions is a good first step. But greater inclusion in state institutions is needed to signal genuine change to the most disaffected groups in society. Equally important are policies that support community-development programs that invest in basic social services and promote equal access to land and economic resources.

International donors can play an important role by investing in development programs that help promote reconciliation and stability. Aid must be predicated on the government making progress on implementing laws criminalizing slavery and advancing policies that foster socio-economic and political inclusion. Without such conditionality, externally led efforts to empower the executive branch and prop up its coercive apparatus—namely the military, police and judiciary—are counterproductive.

The fourth challenge deals with the problem of internal radicalization and transnational terrorism. Mauritania’s resolve in fighting terrorism is worthy of international support. U.S., French and European Union military and security assistance remain crucial in helping the country protect its borders and bolster its defenses against the armed militants roaming the Sahel and Sahara region. Combating terrorism, however, becomes a futile endeavor if the main drivers of extremism, such as corrupt governance, negligence and discrimination, are not tackled. Stemming the tide of youth radicalization requires tackling the sources of disillusionment and frustration. The greater the chasm between youth expectations and the capability or willingness of the state to meet them, the greater the risk that angry youths might look to nonstate actors for essential goods.

Anouar Boukhars is a nonresident scholar in Carnegie’s Middle East Program and associate professor of international relations at McDaniel College in Westminster, Maryland. Boukhars is author of “Politics in Morocco: Executive Monarchy and Enlightened Authoritarianism” (Routledge, 2010). He is also a co-editor of “Perilous Desert: Sources of Saharan Insecurity” (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2013) and “Perspectives on Western Sahara: Myths, Nationalisms and Geopolitics” (Rowman and Littlefield, 2013).

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