Mauritania’s Election: A Litmus Test for Democracy and Reform

Bianca Bridger
Bianca Bridger
Bianca holds a degree in Political Science from the University of Otago, New Zealand. As the Africa Desk Chief for Atlas, her expertise spans conflict, politics, and history. She is also the Editor for The ModernInsurgent and has interests in yoga and meditation.

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Mauritania is poised for a pivotal presidential election on June 29, a crucial step in its journey toward democratization. If administered correctly, this election could mark a significant milestone for the nation, which has seen limited peaceful transitions of power since gaining independence from France in 1960. The incumbent, President Mohamed Ould Ghazouani, is seeking a second term amidst a competitive race featuring six other candidates, including prominent Haratin-rights activist Biram Dah Abeid. The outcome of this election will likely shape Mauritania’s political landscape and its ongoing efforts to address longstanding issues of slavery and ethnic inequality.

Mauritania on the Precipice of Democracy

The 2024 presidential election in Mauritania is a critical moment for the country’s political development. Incumbent President Ghazouani is contesting the elections against six other candidates. Among them, Haratin-rights activist Biram Dah Abeid stands out for his outspoken criticism of Mauritania’s approach to slavery, which it only abolished in 1981 and still widely affects the country’s Haratin community, who are estimated to comprise 40 percent of the nation’s population, despite census data not recording ethnicity.

In 2019, former President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, who had ruled the country since 2009, stepped down from his position at the end of his second term, as mandated in the country’s constitution, and transferred power to his long-time ally Mohamed Ould Ghazouani. This incident represented Mauritania’s first peaceful transition of power since it gained independence from the French in 1960.

Since 1978, when the country’s first President, a civilian named Moktar Ould Daddah, was deposed in a military coup, Mauritanian politics has been dominated by the military. Current President Ghazouani is a former General and served as Minister of Defense to former President Aziz. Both Aziz and Ghazouani orchestrated the coup d’etat which ousted the country’s second civilian President, Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi, from power in 2008.

The President’s Power

While the country operates under a semi-presidential system, the Mauritanian Constitution places immense power in the hands of the President, with Article 30 stating: “The President of the Republic determines and conducts the foreign policy of the nation, as well as its policy of defense and of security. He appoints the Prime Minister and terminates his functions [et met fin á ses fonctions]. On the proposal of the Prime Minister, he appoints the Ministers to whom he may delegate[,] by decree[,] certain of his powers. The Prime Minister [being] consulted, he terminates their functions [il met fin á leur fonction]. The Prime Minister and the Ministers are responsible before the President of the Republic. The President of the Republic communicates with the Parliament through messages. These messages do not lead to any debate.”

Article 33 of the Constitution outlines the President’s power to appoint to civil and military offices, while Article 42 outlines the Prime Minister’s role, under the President’s authority, to define the government’s policy.

Initially, the country’s Parliament had two chambers—the National Assembly and the Senate—with the Senate being abolished through a 2017 constitutional reform, giving way to the establishment of six regional councils, elected by indirect suffrage, that “assure the representation of the territorial collectivities of the Republic.”

Additionally, the President appoints three of the six Constitutional Court judges, the Supreme Court Chair, and the Independent Electoral Commission Chairman.

As mandated by the Constitution, the President-elect must be Muslim and between 40 and 75 years of age. A Presidential term is 5 years, with incumbents able to run a second and final time, although this clause was only respected for the first time by outgoing President Aziz in 2019.

Military Retains Influence

As seen throughout the country’s history, and despite the concentration of power with the executive, is the military’s influence on the direction of government policy. Strong patron-client relationships between businessmen from influential tribes, high-ranking military officers, and the political elite ensure the continuation of a Presidency insofar as the President does not attempt to stifle their benefits.

The Bertelsmann Transformation Index highlights the complex power dynamics in Mauritania, noting that the President, high-ranking military officers, and influential businessmen often engage in power struggles. These relationships can lead to political stability or upheaval, depending on whether the President can maintain their support. This dynamic was evident when President Ghazouani renamed the ruling party from the ‘Union Pour la Republic’ (UPR) to ‘El Insaf’ (Equity) in 2022 to diminish the influence of his predecessor, Aziz, who was later jailed for corruption.

These tensions between former allies can further be seen in the jailing of former President Aziz in December 2023 for money laundering and ‘illicit enrichment.’ Aziz was on trial alongside 10 former high-ranking politicians, although the charges against the 10 were later dropped. The sentence carry’s a 5-year jail term, and whilst the former President was allowed to leave jail to submit his documents to run in the 2024 Presidential election, his application was dismissed under the claim that the documents he had submitted were incomplete.

Presidential Candidates

Current President Ghazouani, under the El Insaf (Equity) party, is running for a second and final term against six candidates.

  • Hamadi Ould Sid’El Moctar, from the Tewassoul party, which is seen as the Mauritanian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood.
  • Biram Dah Abeid, under the electoral coalition ‘Democratic Alternation Pole’, an alliance between the Ba’athist Sawab party and Biram’s anti-slavery ‘Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement’ (IRA). While the IRA was officially recognized in December 2021, the IRA’s political party, the Refoundation for a Global Action (RAG), has not been recognized as a legitimate political party by the Mauritanian government, hence why Biram is running under the recognized Sawab and unrecognized RAG alliance.
  • Mamadou Bocar Ba, under the Alliance for Justice/Movement for Renewal (AJD) party, who seeks to improve the standing of Mauritania’s ‘Black African’/afro-Mauritanian communities, which include the Haalpulaaren, Wolof, Sooninko, and Bamana. These communities tend to reside along the Senegal river.
  • El Id Ould Mohameden, under the l’Espoir Mauritanie (Hope Mauritania) coalition, with the Republican Front for Unity and Democracy (FRUD), the only coalition member who is recognized by the Mauritanian Ministry of the Interior.
  • Mohamed Lemine Ould El Mourteji Ould El Wavi, an independent.
  • Outouma Antoine Souleimane Soumare, an independent.

In the country’s 2019 Presidential elections, Ghazouani won in the first round, with 52 percent of the vote. Abeid gained 18.7 percent, up from the 8.7 percent he received in the 2014 elections, while Tewassoul earned 18 percent of the vote. Furthermore, after the country’s May 2023 regional, legislative, and local elections, opposition parties- the Rally of Democratic Forces (RFD) and the Union of the Forces of Progress (UFP)- agreed with the ruling El Insaf to open dialogue and consolidate democracy in the country. The agreement culminated in the signing of a national unity agreement in September, although the move has been seen by some analysts as an attempt by Ghazouani to co-opt some aspects of the opposition.

Ghazouani’s first term was characterized by his ‘Programme Prioritaire Élargi du President de La Republic’, a government policy which focused on improving education, developing natural resources, and emphasising social justice. And while in the last decade, improvements have been made in regards to the social status of the country’s Haratin and ‘Black African’/afro-Mauritanian populations, activists are pushing for concrete reform, while at the same time attempting to not pose so much of a threat as to incur the wrath of the state’s security apparatus.

As highlighted by the Bertelsmann Transformation Index, “no sitting President has ever lost an election in Mauritania because the incumbent can count on the support of the state apparatus, key economic actors and the ruling party.”

A joint statement released by jailed President Aziz alongside several opposition candidates on May 14th shed further light on this phenomenon: “We denounce the hegemony of the majority parties, who are thus choosing their opponents from among the candidates and leading the country towards the holding of a unilateral electoral parody.”

Geography and Country Information

Mauritania’s geographic position, straddling the Maghreb and West Africa, makes it an increasingly important player in regional dynamics, especially as insurgent activity in the Sahel increases. Its longest border, with Mali, is nearly 1,400 miles long, making it a key destination for Malian refugees. Currently, Mauritania houses approximately 104,000 Malian refugees, who are situated in the Mbera camp in the country’s Hodh Ech Chargui region.

Despite the influx of refugees and the insecurity plaguing its neighbor, the country has managed to avoid terrorist attacks since 2011, partly due to its multifaceted approach to countering Islamic extremism, which includes military modernization and dialogue between the civilian population, prison population, and theologians. Declassified documents released by the United States after the death of Osama Bin Laden do however, point to the possible existence of a non-aggression pact between the Mauritanian government and militant Islamic groups in the region, particularly as the Islamic State (IS) did not attempt to incorporate Mauritania into its wilayat (province) in West Africa.

Mauritania’s coastline connects the country to the Atlantic Ocean, with fishing accounting for an estimated four to ten percent of Mauritania’s GDP and 35 to 50 percent of its exports. Other exports include iron ore and gold, although prices fluctuate on the global market, negatively impacting the Mauritanian economy. As such, the country is heavily dependent on foreign aid, with the European Union estimating that approximately 30 percent of the Mauritanian population is multidimensionally poor. Moreover, the World Bank estimates that while 78 percent of the population has access to basic drinking water, just 47 percent have access to electricity. In 2023, the European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operation claimed that upwards of 844,000 civilians needed humanitarian assistance. However, the discovery of the Tortue Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) field along the Mauritania-Senegal maritime border in 2015, with production expected to commence towards the end of 2024, and expansive areas for wind turbines, has prompted some analysts to claim that Mauritania has the potential to become an energy hub in the future.

The country’s climate is dry and desert-like, with vast expanses of pastoral land. However, just 0.5 percent of its land is arable, making the nation reliant on cereal imports for an estimated 80 percent of its national food consumption. It is also sparsely populated, with just five inhabitants per square kilometer. Much of the population is concentrated in the capital Nouakchott, the city of Nouadhibou, and along the Senegal River to the south.

Malian refugees in the Mauritanian desert. MSF

Historical Context

In Mauritania, in some ways, ethnic distributions can be conflated with distributions of power, specifically in looking at the historical status of the Haratin and ‘Black African’/afro-Mauritanian populations.

Mauritania’s Haratin population, sometimes referred to as ‘black moors,’ as a remnant of French colonial interaction, to distinguish them from their lighter counterparts, the Bedan, or ‘white moors,’ have faced subjugation in Mauritania’s economic, political, and social spheres as a result of their real or imagined ancestry as former slaves.

As the academic David Malluche highlights, “according to the locally acknowledged conception of social status, which is based on supposedly inherent moral qualities grounded in genealogical credentials (Klein 2005), and, in the case of zw?ya lineages with divine blessing (baraka), those of slave origin, although nominally free Muslims, remain inferior to those of freeborn status. This stigma can attach to them indefinitely, even if their ancestors were manumitted generations ago, as long as the collective memory of their slave origin is kept alive.”

Haratin boys learning the Koran in the village of Maata Moulana, three hours drive from Nouakchott. PHOTOGRAPH BY SEIF KOUSMATE

Continuing, “hereditary slavery was tolerated because it was considered an essential pillar of the local social fabric that could not simply be abolished ‘from above’ without causing the collapse of traditional authority and jeopardizing the strategy of indirect rule. Therefore, it was still widespread when Mauritania became independent in 1960.”

Throughout this period and up until the overthrow of President Daddah in 1978, many Haratin populations were ‘attached’ to wealthy Bidan families, working as serfs on Bidan farms or in Bidan households.

Despite Mauritania’s white and black moors sharing the same language, Hassaniya Arabic, which distinguishes them from the Tuaregs and other Arabic-speaking North Africans, the distinction between the two, first promulgated by the white moors who held power, has morphed over time into a push by the very groups who had been viewed as separate from the Bidan to indeed be viewed as separate.

Aside from the Hassaphone population, the ‘Black African’/afro-Mauritanian populations, which are found mostly near the Senegal river are diverse in their languages, speaking Wolof, Pulaar, Soninke, and Bambara.

Currently, politicians such as Biram Dah Abeid and parties such as the Alliance for Justice/Movement for Renewal (AJD) are seeking increased state recognition of their ethnic groups in the hopes of accessing the same standards of education, employment, and civil rights as their Bidan counterparts. Pushing back against the ‘Arabization’ of Mauritania, which began in the mid-1960s, through the introduction of Arabic as a compulsory subject in Mauritanian high schools, has been a key driver of many of the country’s evolving political parties, whose focus is on uplifting their own populations to the same level of that of the white moors.

Academics Eric Hahonou and Lotte Pelckmans have stated that “in West African contexts of political and institutional reform implementation, demands for recognition of new identities are a way of accessing resources.”

In the Mauritanian case, the concept of a resource extends beyond material notions, as will be illustrated below.

Identity-Based Politics

Gaining power in 1960 upon the exit of the French colonial authorities, President Moktar Ould Daddah embarked on an ‘Arabization’ policy, seeking to establish Arabic as a compulsary secondary-school subject as well as a state language alongside French, much to the dismay of the educated afro-Mauritanian elite.

President Daddah was overthrown in a military coup in 1978, and by 1981, a decree abolishing slavery was issued, which in essence, sought to appease the Haratin population who had begun to organize under the ‘Organisation pour la libération et l’émancipation des Haratines’ (El-Horr). The decree was not followed by concrete reform and was in essence, an attempt to co-opt members of the organization into the state apparatus.

In 1983, the afro-Mauritanian population had also begun organizing under the ‘Forces de Liberation Africaines en Mauritanie’ (FLAM), with afro-Mauritanian military personnel linked to FLAM attempting to overthrow President Maaouya Ould Sid’Ahmed Taya in 1987, who had taken power through a coup of his own in December 1984. The coup failed and prompted the Taya regime, in 1989, to begin the expulsion of 80,000 Afro-Mauritanians to Senegal and Mali. Hundreds were killed or removed from their positions in the civil and military service.

By 1991, Taya had removed much of what be believed was the FLAM leadership from the areas surrounding the Senegal river, and thus stated his intention to democratize and introduce multiparty elections in 1992.

In 1993 however, against the current of Taya’s democratic wave was the introduction of the Amnesty Law, which granted amnesty to all members of the Mauritanian security apparatus for their actions during the afro-Mauritanian expulsions of 1989-1991. This law is still in place today and is a contentious issue for afro-Mauritanian political parties such as the Mamadou Bocar Ba’s Alliance for Justice/Movement for Renewal (AJD).

By 1995, an NGO called SOS-Esclaves, under which Biram Dah Abeid served as Secretary-General, began producing reports on the state of slavery in the country, acting as a conduit between the Mauritanian abolitionist movement and Western civil rights organizations.

President Taya was ousted in a military coup in 2005, after attempting to consolidate power and pull back what little democratic freedoms he had afforded under his rule. As a result, in 2007, a law criminalizing all slavery-related activities was passed due to immense pressure from the likes of SOS-Esclaves and international rights groups.

After the country’s short stint under its second civilian President, Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi, between 2007 and 2008, several slavery laws were passed in relatively quick succession under President Aziz.

A 2012 amendment removed the previous ten-year time limitation for the prosecution of slavery-related crimes, while in 2015, slavery crimes were categorized as crimes against humanity, and three slavery-specific criminal courts were established in the cities of Nouakchott, Nouadhibou, and Nema.

At this same time, between 2008-2012, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) facilitated the return of many of the Afro-Mauritanians that were expelled under the Taya regime back to the Senegal river areas. However, issues persist around the land and citizenship rights of these returnees, many of the refugees who returned under the UNHCR’s program have struggled gaining authority over their previously owned land and have struggled to access full citizenship, despite being nationals of the country.

Additionally, as outlined by Freedom House’s 2024 report on Mauritania, “despite 2015 amendments to the antislavery law, slavery, and its aftereffects remain a challenge, with many former slaves unable to access adequate accommodation, health care, or education.”

Thus, as illustrated, and as posited by David Malluche, “whereas ‘traditional’ forms of slavery have gradually receded due to the extensive ecological, economic and social transformations, descent-based status hierarchies largely persist in the country.”

In this context, we see the rise of ‘identity-based’ parties in Mauritania, such as Biram Dah Abeid’s RAG and Mamadou Bocar Ba’s Alliance for Justice/Movement for Renewal (AJD). However, President Ghazouani’s recent steps to consolidate his power base, as seen in the jailing of former President Aziz, do drum up concerns over his commitments to Mauritania’s path, albeit gradual, of democratization.

What To Expect

The upcoming election will serve as a litmus test for Mauritania’s commitment to democratization and political reform. In the upcoming elections, it is likely that Ghazouani will secure for himself a second term. Nonetheless, the true markers of the ‘opening’ or ‘closing’ of the Mauritanian political space will be seen in the election’s immediate aftermath. Should Ghazouani move to criminalize IRA/RAG/AJD activities or likewise undertake other means of repression, whether that be against opposition parties or members of the political elite who may threaten his power base, then it can be anticipated that members of the military/political elite will move to remove him from power. On the other hand, Ghazouani may enable the political space to ‘open up’ further and instead choose to co-opt members of opposition parties, as seen in El Insaf’s 2023 national unity agreement with the RFD and UFP.

Currently, Mauritanian faces increasing threats along its border with Mali, as in the past year, Malian armed forces and Wagner personnel have pursued Tuareg rebels into Mauritanian territory. Despite the nation’s wildly successful counter-insurgency policies, new players, in the form of Russia’s Wagner Group and the Malian armed forces (FAMA) may inadvertently force a further militarization of the Mauritanian political space, as the nation’s government attempts to bolster its forces, secure its border regions, and limit the spread of radical Islamic ideology within its own territory.