Mauritania is a vast land, mostly flat and parched dry, yet ancient in that its rulers between the 12th and 15th centuries controlled the powerful Almoravid dynasty that spread Islam across North Africa and held swathes of Muslim Spain. And today, it has a new president — Mohammad Ould Gazouani.
The former general’s victory on Sunday following a vote the day before marked the first time since the nation of 4.2 million gained independence from France in 1961 that Mauritanians voted to elect a successor to a democratically elected president. Gazouani succeeds Mohammad Ould Abdul Aziz, who stepped aside after 11 years in power ruling the nation that is rich in untapped iron and mineral resources. Abdul Aziz, like others before him, came to power through a military coup in 2008 and won subsequent elections a year later and again in 2014. That 2014 vote, however, had been largely boycotted by opposition parties.
Last Saturday’s election, therefore, marked the first time that opposition groups participated in such a process, but their failure to agree on a single unifying candidate helped ensure that Gazouani would be the favourite in the transition of power. That is indeed what happed, with Gazouani winning 52 per cent support — enough to remove the need for a run-off election between the two top candidates.
Mauritania too is a land where the shadow of slavery still falls dark. It became the last nation to abolish the horrific and inhumane practice but United Nations agencies estimate that two per cent of the population are still bonded labour in some form. Indeed, Gazouani’s nearest rival, prominent anti-slavery activist Biram Dah Abeid earned 18.6 per cent of ballots. An Islamist party candidate, Sidi Mohammad Ould Bombacar, polled at 17.9 per cent. Despite the clear victory by Gazouani, Bombacar said he rejected the result, claiming that there were irregularities that put the result in doubt. Abeid echoed those sentiments.
The key issue in the election was Mauritania’s underperforming economy that is dependent on subsistence farming and scant livestock production, heavily indebted and reliant on international aid and development programmes. But things are changing.
The nation’s 750km coastline borders an ocean teeming with fish — and that’s a resource that has attracted large foreign trawlers and factory ships operating outside Mauritania’s territorial waters. Candidates in the recent election campaign were largely unified in pledging action against the threat posed from overfishing and foreign fishing fleets.
Offshore too, petroleum and energy deposits are being tapped, and there are burgeoning copper and iron ore mining operations under way. Former president Abdul Aziz is credited with bringing those developments as a result of the relative political stability since his coup and subsequent re-elections — and Gazouani has been closely linked to Abdul Aziz. Indeed, Gazouani was Abdul Aziz’s partner in the 2008 power struggle between the latter and Sidi Ould Shaik Abdullahi. Gazouani participated in a 2005 movement led by Abdul Aziz that toppled President Maaouva Ould Sid’Ahmad Taya.
Born at Boumdeid on New Year’s Eve in 1956 into the prominent Ideiboussat tribe, he joined the military and holds a master’s degree in administration and military sciences.
As Abdul Aziz’s right-hand man and chief of staff, Gazouani also served as Mauritania’s state security head and was appointed Minister of Defence for the government in October last year. He resigned that post in March to concentrate on winning the presidential campaign for the ruling party, Union for the Republic.
He is married to Mariam Mint Mohammad Vadhel Ould Dah, a physician, and together they have five children.
According to political analysts, Gazouani’s victory likely ensures continuity in terms of maintaining Abdul Aziz’s economic programme. Gilles Yabi, the founder of the West African think tank Wathi, told Reuters that the new president would follow his predecessor’s policies. “Gazouani is someone who is very discreet,” Yabi said. “It could well happen that the change is not merely cosmetic.”
As it was, the former general campaigned on a theme of continuity, solidarity and security.
“There are only two choices,” Gazouani told supporters in the dying days of the presidential campaign, “either going backwards, towards extremism, waste and instability, or your candidate, who will continue what has been achieved to build a stable and developed state.”
It’s a message that played well to the electorate of more than 1.5 million Mauritanians. Until recently, the nation had struggled with the threat posed by terrorists and extremists but has managed to quell those forces — with Gazouani as the top security official playing a key role in that process.
Having passed his electoral test, Gazouani’s biggest challenge will be continuing to grow his nation’s chronically underdeveloped economy, balancing its foreign payment obligations and ensuring that it eradicates the last vestiges of bonded labour.