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Mauritania at a crossroads

Mauritania at a crossroads

As Mauritania announces the date of its presidential elections, the result of the vote will have far-reaching consequences on the country’s economic agenda and political evolution over the next five years.

Mauritania stands at a cross-roads in it’s political and economic history.

Following the country’s election on June 22, their ruler of ten years Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz will step down, handing power to a hand-picked successor.

On January 29 a government spokesperson tweeted that the current defence minister Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mohamed Ahmed Ould Ghazouani, would be standing as the ruling Union pour la République (UPR) party candidate.

Ghazouani, one of Abdelaziz’s most trusted confidants, is known to be discreet in manner and a modernizer who has sought to promote the role of women in the military, says Paul Melly, a consulting fellow on Chatham House’s Africa Programme.

“The president clearly sees Ghazouani as the best man to continue the political, economic and security strategy that he has developed over recent years, and as the man whom he can trust to protect the current framework of power and the interests of the foundations upon which the regime is based,” Melly said.

While the legacy of the old regime is set to continue, the changing of the guard will be a major test for the government which has grown used to Abdelaziz’s personalised manner of rule over the last decade.

It will also have far-reaching consequences in setting the country’s economic agenda and the course of its political evolution.

Economy and elections

In the capital Noukachott, where the desert’s vast expanses wash into the capital, tensions are growing. High-walled villas testify to the inequality of its tiny population of 4.4m, and the wealth of it’s Moorish elite.

Arab moors make up 30% of the population and hold sway over the political system, lording power over the society’s black moor community, who also make up 30%.

Half of the population still depends on farming and animal husbandry, while there is growing resentment in the south among rural communities who feel forgotten by the central government.

The country is also the biggest recipient per head of money from an EU fund for Africa aimed at reducing migration of the country’s poor seeking opportunities abroad.

Mauritania’s economy is on the road to recovery following the slump in iron ore and gold prices in 2014 that trimmed revenues from one of the country’s key mineral exports.

The country’s GDP is set to grow at around 2% as iron ore production growth remains slow. Foreign investment in Mauritania’s mining and oil sectors has driven recent growth and is set to continue as the country makes a stable political transition.

That said, big challenges lie ahead both for the government and the sand-blasted country’s population that is growing by 2.9% a year

Over the years the country has developed a pluralistic political system, with an opposition able to campaign freely but hobbled by internal divisions.

Despite occasional infringements of total freedom of expression and some political motivated detentions, they have been allowed to express their views openly, and secure the occasional victory, Melly said.

“Corruption is a serious problem but the government has improved public services and invested in essential infrastructure,” he added.

The current president, a former general, was a major figure in a successful coup in 2005 that ousted long-serving dictator Maaouya Ould Sid’Ahmed Taya, who clung to power for two decades.

In 2008, Abdelaziz led another putsch, institutionalising his rule with a staged election that he won the following year.

The 62-year-old president’s moderate governing style and ability to contain the threat of terrorism from the restive south and neighbouring Mali, has been lauded by the public.

His intention to stay inside the country following this year’s elections suggests he may continue to wield influence over the future administration, according to Melly.

Mauritania’s opposition, who boycotted the last election in 2014, have until May 4 to throw their hats in the ring.

The next few months will be a test for them to develop a coherent campaign strategy and make the most of their minority roles “given the near certainty of victory for the government candidate, Ghazouani,” Paul Melly says.

Future trade

In recent years the stagnation of the Arab Maghreb Union and strained relations with its regional neighbours has sharpened President Abdelaziz’s focus on West African trade partnerships.

The country has prickly relations with Morocco due to the kingdom’s harbouring of a prominent regime opponent, Mohamed Ould Bouamatou, while Arab neighbours have long treated Mauritania as a peripheral player.

In 1999, Mauritania withdrew its full-membership Economic Community of West African nations (ECOWAS) and has since held back from rejoining the bloc. Their decision hinged on avoidance of the organization’s free-movement of people policy and its agenda for multi-party democracy in West Africa.

Yet the country has strived for closer integration with ECOWAS economies that they hope will boost trade flows along Mauritania’s Road of Hope (Route de l’Espoir), a coastal highway for Moroccan trade with Senegal, whose east–west road links the capital, Nouakchott, to Mali and Burkina Faso.

The strategy also aims to promote Nouakchott port as a gateway for landlocked regions of the Sahel, Melly says.

“The government hopes that integration with West African economies will bolster trade flows along the Route de l’Espoir – the highway from the coast to the remote southeast – and establish Nouakchott as a trade gateway for Mali and even Burkina Faso.”

Mauritania’s full integration into ECOWAS will also align it with the bloc’s tariff regime, cutting the costs and time of cross-border trade, and cracking down on informal trade and smuggling in border regions.

As well as stimulating date and fish exports, this will serve to promote commerce and employment in Mauritania’s disparate south-east region, one of the most isolated and disadvantaged parts of the country.

According to Melly, Nouakchott’s pivot to West Africa is aimed explicitly at tackling poverty, unemployment and social frustrations that fuel extremist ideology and jihadist recruitment across the Sahel.

Their southeast region neighbours the restive violent central regions of Mali.

Mauritania’s top exports are iron ore ($813m), gold ($618m), frozen fish ($421M), processed crustaceans ($384m) and molluscs ($218m).

The region’s prized gum arabic crop made from the hardened sap of the Acacia tree that thrives in the arid south, is a growing commercial market. Yet agriculture exports are still not a key source of income.

“The country is in urgent need of diversifying its pastoral economy to allay resentment among many segments of the southern Afro-Mauritanian population towards perceived neglect by central government and the largely Maure ruling elite,” Paul Melly writes.

“There is a feeling that the government does not really understand or prioritize smallholder agriculture, which provides the main livelihood for the minority population of the far south.

Supporters attend a political rally of Union pour la Republique (UPR) party’s candidate, Mohamed O. Gazhouani, supported by the running political party, in Chinguetti on April 11, 2019. AFP

The road ahead

And yet the future looks bright for the country as the government will soon have the resources to spread the wealth of their budding hydrocarbons revenues.

“The development of the GTA gas field, shared with Senegal, will establish Mauritania as a major hydrocarbons producer,” Melly says.

‘The industrial sector is small, but commerce and services are significant, particularly in Nouakchott. Moreover, in a number of sub-Saharan countries, the Mauritanian diaspora plays a significant role in the trading economy.

While little is known about the economic policies of the likely future leader, there is expected to be continuity of fiscal prudence and budgetary tightening as the country recovers from global mineral prices.

The election result and decisions of the future leader will determine the economic choices of the country and the course of trade and political evolution to come.

“The presidential term that begins after the 2019 election will be a crucial indicator of how Mauritania’s leaders respond to this unfolding landscape of challenge and opportunity,” Melly concludes.

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