Mauritania’s trials and tribulations

By Arnaud Gallet - 16 October 2015 at 2:37 pm
Mauritania’s trials and tribulations

This year hasn’t been a good one for Mauritania. The West African country is reeling from the combined effects of plummeting commodity prices, the growing humanitarian burden of housing tens of thousands of refugees, political infighting and a renewed terrorist threat – a list of challenges that would severely test the strengths of even Western countries. Like the proverbial willow, however Mauritania will not break. Whereas most stories would stop at painting the country as a typical African basket case, this writer is convinced that Mauritania can bounce back. And here’s why.

1) Dropping commodity prices

China’s crash has taken a steep toll on Mauritania’s finances. A desert country with substantial deposits of iron, copper, gold and oil, Mauritania counts China as its premier trading partner, with more than 40% of its exports going East. Unfortunately, global commodity prices took a tumbled throughout 2015: iron lost a third of its value, copper halved over the past three years, while oil is see-sawing around the $45 mark. This perfect storm of fickle commodity prices led Bloomberg to list Mauritania as the third most exposed country in Africa to China’s economy. In October, rumors emerged that Malaysia’s national oil company Petronas, would pull out of Mauritania over low prices.

2) Humanitarian crisis

Unbeknownst to many, Mauritania is one of the few countries in the world where Syrians can travel without a visa, as a result of good bilateral relations spanning back to the days of the cold war. As a result, hundreds have chosen to make the perilous cross-continent crossing and have taken refuge in the impoverished country. More than 500 have found shelter, being drawn by the fact that Mauritania is the only Arab-speaking country that accepts them without putting them through a gauntlet of Kafkaesque bureaucracy and political plays. However, this is just the tip of the iceberg: the country is already home to an estimated 71,110 refugees and asylum seekers, the fallout from the Malian war. More than half of them are living in difficult conditions in a desert camp 50km away from the Malian border. While the UNHCR is on the ground, a severe lack of funding means has constrained the agency’s capacity to deal with the humanitarian crisis.

3) Political infighting

 As it befits a country in crisis, external problems are usually doubled by internal political squabbles, as callous figures seek to capitalize on a country’s problems and bid for the top job. Indeed, while President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz won the 2014 Presidential elections with 80% of the votes and retains a measure of popularity with the country’s population, he has come under fire from the country’s richest man, Mohamed Ould Bouamatou. One-time allies, the two had a falling out after Mauritania’s revenue service found that Bouamatou had swindled national accounts to the tune of €10.3 million, and questioned the sources of his large fortune. The millionaire promptly fled to Morocco, from where he started planning his return to Mauritania. In August, Bouamatou launched a foundation “for equality opportunities in Africa”, that some see as a bid to weaken the leadership of Abdel Aziz pending the 2019 presidential elections.

4) ISIS presence

Once a safe heaven for terrorist groups operating out of Africa, Mauritania had reigned in jihadist elements by striking military deals with France and the United States. A general by training, Abdel Aziz managed to mount a two-pronged offensive, aimed at degrading the motley groups of al Qaeda and Boko Haram terrorists seeking to use Mauritania as a springboard to Western Africa: on one hand, intense military campaigns, while on the other, de-radicalization programs that won accolades from the US. Unfortunately, with Libya foundering next door, Mauritania is now the man in the middle of the pan-African north-south migration of jihadists. In March, Fox News headlined a story with “Terror Triumvirate: ISIS, Al Qaeda, Boko Haram Training Together in Mauritania.”

It has been a harsh and cruel year for Mauritania and Mauritanians. However, remember the willow? Thanks to a combination of government policies, local particularities and external circumstances, the country will only bend without actually shattering.

While the country is powerless in the face of global market forces, Mauritania is not just a commodity manufacturer. In July 2015, the country signed a four-year agreement with the European Union for access to its fisheries worth $240 million. Indeed, Mauritania and Gambia possess one of the richest fisheries in Africa (making up a quarter of the economy), an essential source of income that could increase their GDP by more than $2billion per year with the help of western financing. If mineral wealth is subject to the whims of markets, the riches of the sea are not.

The influx of refugees has subsided compared to previous years, as Syrians and other African refugees flock to Europe. Bouamatou’s forays into politics are bound to fail, as the millionaire is not very popular with Mauritanians, distrustful of people who have amassed massive wealth by swindling the state. As for Mauritania becoming a global terrorist hub, respectable security analysts have played down such scenarios, describing them as inflammatory and hyperbolic. Thanks to Abdel Aziz’s ruthless dealings with fundamentalists and the country’s security partnership with the US and France, the Mauritanian army is well equipped to face down the jihadists.

For all its many problems, Mauritania makes for an unlikely African success story. Yet 2015 might be not the annus horribilis after all.

Arnaud Gallet

Arnaud Gallet

Arnaud is a French freelance writer with an African heart who has lived in 10 different Sub-Saharan countries in the past decade. He is currently based in Paris.

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