Mauritania: rising geopolitical outlook

As Mauritania approaches a geopolitical inflection point in the form of a presidential election set to be held roughly April 15, the outlook for the country is positive and rising. The combination of significant investment in Mauritania’s oil and gas sector and a likely smooth presidential transition makes for an orderly era ahead.

The presidential election will be the biggest political event on the Mauritania calendar for 2019 and follows legislative elections held in September 2018. While the presidential election is not likely to see a result in change insofar as the ruling Union for the Republic (UPR) party is concerned, what is likely to take place is a changeover from incumbent leader President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz.  

Much domestic political debate has taken and continues to take place regarding the status of Abdel Aziz to run for a third term as Mauritanian president. Abdel Aziz, who came to office in 2008 through a military coup, was formally elected in 2009, and reelected in 2014, has seen calls from his UPR to amend the country’s constitution and continue in office. Given how his UPR dominates the Mauritanian legislature, it would not be a stretch to direct a favorable amendment if the incumbent president were interested to do so.

Despite the apparent political attractiveness of being accorded another five-year term in office, the risk to Mauritania’s geopolitical stability in so doing could be considerable.

The risk there is flows from Mauritania’s system of a clan-based balanced of power that can react violently against attempts by narrow political groups to entrench power. Though the UPR is the dominant political party in the Mauritanian national assembly, this threat does not apply in that branch of government because, as far as parliamentary power is distributed, the party comprises a diverse electoral constituency that diffuses decision making and patronage across broad sections of the Sahelian country. 

The risk, instead, comes from reactionary fears that the permeating nature of Mauritania’s substantial executive authority will be exclusively concentrated in the clannish hands of the incumbent president. The traditional actualization of fears of ethnopolitical power grabs in Mauritania are military coups and counter-coups with commensurate abrogations of social and economic developments. 

With this knowledge, Abdel Aziz is selecting instead to consolidate political inclusivity and transition as a lasting precedent of his presidential time in office. The two-term president is consistently rejecting persistent calls to yield to popular UPR pressure to amend the constitution and preside for another term beyond what legally should come to an end in April. 

The interest from some quarters to preserve presidential continuity is informed by the economic prominence the Mauritanian government is now achieving thanks to significant developments in the country’s oil and gas sector. While a vast geographic country, it has historically been empty of meaningful economic developments, and its heretofore reliance on fishing, cross border trade, and donor relations for the funding of socioeconomic advancements has constrained the country’s ranking among human development indices to the bottom quarter. 

But substance to the Mauritanian economy will soon significantly change. Developments in BP’s Greater Tortue Ahmeyim offshore hydrocarbons field, whose deposits are estimated to hold fifteen trillion cubic feet, will commence in the first quarter. The output of the first gas of the projected two and a half million metric tons per year of the liquified natural gas project is expected by 2022. France’s Total is expanding its exploration and production operations in the country. Lastly, the Mauritanian government is receiving significant donor funding to support its efforts in developing and diversifying its economy and also in its counterterrorism support of the G5 Sahel initiative against Islamist militants pervading the Sahel sub-region of West Africa. 

These notable economic developments will begin to pay material dividends but during the presidential term to come, clearly raising the attractiveness of presiding over the 2019-2024 administration. Rather than be perceived as monopolizing these economic gains for narrow clannish interests, however, the outgoing Mauritanian president will leave it to his successor to manage the new inflows to the national treasury. While this does not mean no risk of political exclusivity going forward, the broadening of presidential space in the form of an expected changeover, in addition to the country’s already broad parliamentary space, elevates conformity to a balance of power system that underwrites stability through the regularized redistribution of presidential power.

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