/ 26 June 2024

Stable outlier in turbulent region, Mauritania heads to polls

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A youth walks past a truck adorned with pictures of Mauritanian President and leader of the Union for the Republic, Mohamed Ould Ghazouani Nouakchott, on June 25, 2024 ahead of the June 29 presidential election. (Photo by Nicolas Remene / AFP)

Mauritanians vote in a presidential election on Saturday, with incumbent Mohamed Ould Cheikh El Ghazouani expected to win a second term at the helm of the West African state seen as a rock of relative stability in the volatile Sahel.

Around 1.94 million registered voters will choose between seven candidates vying to lead the vast desert country, which has largely withstood the tide of jihadism in the region and is set to become a gas producer.

“This election is a turning point in the political history of Mauritania”, said Abdellahi Ewah, a professor at the University of Nouakchott and a presidential supporter.

The poll will allow “stability to take root”, he added.

While the Sahel has in recent years seen a string of military coups and escalating jihadism, particularly in Mali, Mauritania has not seen an attack since 2011.

Experts say Mauritania’s exceptionalism is down to an array of strategies, ranging from conventional military counterterrorism, the recruitment of Imams to preach against jihadist ideology, and the building of towns in remote desert locations -– which could otherwise have become hotbeds for jihadist groups.

Saturday’s vote will solidify the democratic movement in the country, which saw its first transition between two elected presidents in 2019.

Mauritania has also become “very important for Europe’s energy security because it is going to become a gas producer and is very promising in terms of green hydrogen, an energy that is set to replace fossil fuels,” professor Ewah told AFP.

After his first term was hit by the fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine, Ghazouani has made fighting poverty and supporting young people priority issues.

Over 70 percent of Mauritania’s population is under 35, with young people increasingly drawn to the prospect of a better future in Europe or the United States.

With days until the poll, posters bearing Ghazouani’s face and the slogan “the safe choice” are abundant across the country.

Tents of his supporters singing, dancing and chatting dominate the centre of the capital Nouakchott.

“I’m supporting the president for a second term,” said 34-year-old Yacob Abeid Allah.

“We have peace. The people are at peace. He has a vast social aid programme. He’s my candidate,” he added.

‘Radical rebirth’

But criticism of the president rained down in one of the few marquees holding supporters of Hamadi Ould Sid’ El Moctar, the candidate for the leading Islamist opposition party Tawassoul.

“This country is out of breath. The education and health systems, corruption, the confiscation of power by a small group of men…” said activist Ahmed Zeine.

“Everything is at a standstill. We need a radical change for the rebirth of this country”, he added.

In a popular Nouakchott market, 37-year-old shoe seller Idoumou M’Bareck had the same desire for change, but said he would be voting for human rights activist Biram Ould Dah Ould Abeid, the runner-up in the last two presidential elections.

The young shoe seller, however, had little faith in Mauritania’s democracy.

“It’s always the military who dictate our future. Everything is done to ensure that the regime’s candidate wins”, he said.

Ghazouani is a former army chief and defence minister.

Observers consider a first-round win for the incumbent possible, given opposition divisions and the resources of the Ghazouani camp.

The opposition has denounced a “unilateral election” and accused the independent national electoral commission (CENI) of “doing nothing to ensure it runs smoothly”.

After strongly contesting the legislative elections a year ago, the opposition had called for the biometric verification of voters’ names in Saturday’s ballot.

But CENI deemed the request “very costly financially” and “impossible” to meet within the deadline.

The African Union has sent a team of 27 short-term observers, while the European Union has sent no mission but three election experts.

The Mauritanian government has set up a national election monitoring body, which the opposition has denounced as a tool for manipulating the ballot.

© Agence France-Presse