By Justine Spiegel in Nouakchott for Jeune Afrique
Without mincing his words, the head of state reviews some of the country’s issues, including his succession, relations with neighbouring countries and the Bouamatou saga
Over the years, this private man had multiple public personas. At first he was known as the austere military man who seized power in a 2008 coup, but the general soon traded his combat fatigues for a presidential suit and tie when he was elected president in July 2009. He won re-election in June 2014. Omnipresent, he has laid the foundation stones for numerous projects, while keeping a close eye on the terrorist threat in the region. After having ignored the opposition’s appeals for dialogue, he ended up organising several national conferences that were unsuccessful. The opposition, which accuses him of trying to hold on to power beyond 2019, has grown weaker since its boycott of the 2013 legislative elections, leaving the door wide open for the Islamist party Tawassoul, which is growing in strength. But President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz’s biggest enemy remains his exiled cousin Mohamed Ould Bouamatou, who has been the subject of an arrest warrant for corruption since August 2017. The organiser behind the G5 Sahel regional anti-terrorism force, Abdel Aziz is also focused on the international front. He will host France’s President Emmanuel Macron on the eve of the African Union summit taking place in July.
You said you were not going to run for a third term in 2019. Are you going to keep this promise?
MOHAMED OULD ABDEL AZIZ: People are bound to always have doubts! I respect and adhere to the constitution’s two-term presidential term limit. Obviously, we revised the constitution, but that particular article was not changed, and I won’t change it either.
Do you have a successor?
I haven’t made my choice yet, but time will tell. Each one of the 3.5 million people in Mauritania is free to stand as a candidate.
The highly anticipated November 2017 release of blogger Cheikh Ould Mohamed Ould Mkheitir, who was sentenced to death for apostasy, was met with mixed reactions. In this tense climate, why would the government choose to enforce sanctions against apostasy?
The people wanted it that way, and the laws are made by the people. There were many demonstrations. I would even say 90% of Nouakchott took to the streets to seek justice. We responded to this popular request. We are not obliged to imitate what goes on in other places if it undermines the stability and interests of our country.
Are we not witnessing a re-Islamisation of Mauritania?
We are 100% Muslims, and we practise a moderate Islam where we apply the precepts exactly as they have been taught. Extremism has no place among us. Killing people, blowing yourself up, pointing accusing fingers: that isn’t religion, and it’s very far from Islam.
Is establishing dialogue with the opposition still a possibility?
It is neither planned nor feasible. We are not closing the door, but I am not going to organise an umpteenth, and I say umpteenth, dialogue. I don’t want to spend my two terms engaging in dialogues. I need to work, to build the country and to implement my programme.
Senator Mohamed Ould Ghadda, who was arrested in August 2017, is accused of buying the vote of senators who opposed your constitutional referendum. Aside from the opposition, countless associations and even the United Nations (UN) have denounced it as an arbitrary detention.
To say he is in arbitrary detention is wrong. You should have at least a basic understanding of the situation in order to judge it rather than accusing a country from thousands of kilometres away when you have no idea what’s happening there. This former senator behaved in an irresponsible manner and he is now facing the justice system, which has enough evidence to continue to detain him. The state did not fabricate the evidence. The UN sent us a message and we provided all these details in our reply.
Exiled businessman Mohamed Ould Bouamatou, who says he is the target of a witch hunt, claims to have generously sponsored your close allies, even funding your 2009 presidential campaign.
Yes, he was generous enough to finance part of my 2009 campaign. But why did he leave if he was doing legitimate business for more than 25 years under the former regime? Our aim was not to cause him any concern, especially since he supported us. But we have an obligation towards our electors […] Ever since we started to see his dealings more clearly, especially in terms of taxation, he immediately left the country. There were actually businessmen financing and equipping our army. When we were the target of an attack in 2005, these same businessmen who were bringing the country to the brink of collapse offered logistical support. That is not normal. At a certain point, the state no longer existed. This explains the two military coups that followed.
You’ve always maintained a neutral position with regard to Western Sahara. But what is your take on this matter?
As long as we are not able to deal with the issue, we will lag behind other African regions that are working together. There will have to be a lot of sacrifices on both sides and above all, there has to be the political will to solve the problem that goes beyond the rivalries between countries and has a global vision of the Maghreb region in mind.
Will the Arab Maghreb Union ever take off?
We remain hopeful. If we don’t create it ourselves, we would have failed a big part of our mission. But I’m sure future generations will see it through.
You spearheaded the creation of the G5 force for the Sahel, a framework that appeared largely dormant before several funding rounds and financial pledges these past few months. What is it lacking in order to become fully operational?
You always need to have a long-term vision, bearing in mind that we will not achieve everything on our own. We are therefore working to create an airline and the feasibility study has already been completed. We are going to pool our resources together.
This article first appeared in the April 2018 print edition of The Africa Report magazine