Are there unsafe areas in Nouakchott Mauritania

Dangerous desert. Mauritania's different approach to jihadism.

Another summit of the G5 Sahel took place in Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania, on February 25, 2020. In view of the security challenges in the region threatened by terrorism, human trafficking and cross-border crime, the five states of Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad joined forces in the G5 Sahel in 2014 on the initiative of France. Its secretariat is based in Nouakchott. The main donors to the G5 Sahel are France and the EU. In view of the deteriorating security situation, the Sahel countries set up the “Force Conjointe” (Joint Armed Forces) three years ago to secure the borders between the G5, which is based in Mali.

No security without development

The G5 Sahel aims primarily at regional integration and development and expects substantial support from international donors - after all, these are five of the poorest countries in the world, which are also particularly vulnerable due to the consequences of climate change and rapid population growth. However, development without security will not be possible and therefore the focus of cooperation has so far been on expanding the security sector with international - primarily French - participation and funding from the EU. Conversely, however, a noticeable progress in development is essential for stabilization. Although it is clear to everyone that neither security nor development are possible in regions in which the state, at best, leaves the population on their own or, in the worst case, harasses them rather than protects them from attacks, the focus is hardly on the elimination of the social and political causes. These causes include poor governance and corruption, also within the security forces, which first led to the tense security situation and the strengthening of jihadist terrorist groups, first in individual neighboring countries and then in the entire region of West Africa. They are now to be eliminated by further expansion of the security sector.

Mauritania's own way

At the summit at the end of February, Mauritania, under President El-Ghazouani, took over the rotating chairmanship of the G5 Sahel for the current year. The least populous of the G5 countries is thus given greater political weight and increased international attention. It is all the more worthwhile to take a look at the country, which the West often mistakenly associates with terrorism, even though there have been no more incidents on Mauritanian territory for around twelve years. In addition, it has found its own way of fighting jihahdism, which does not question religion, but rather relies on it.

In the desert town of Oualata; Photo: H. Dickow

Mauritania is the only purely Islamic state in the region and Islam has been the state religion since independence. Like the Muslims in the United Arab Emirates, the Mauritanians are Malekites; they are predominantly religious, but at the same time have a remarkably unideological effect - apparently under the influence of Sufi traditions (marabutism). In contrast to Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger and Chad, where there are substantial Christian minorities, the almost 4,000 predominantly Catholic Christians in Mauritania are all foreigners who are not hindered in their religious practice. The other four Sahel states adhere, at least on paper, to a secular constitution inspired by France.

Even before the military coup in Mali in 2012, which is widely regarded as the beginning of the security crisis in the Sahel, Mauritania experienced attacks by jihadist groups: attacks on military posts and kidnapping of foreigners - not only in the vastness of the desert, but as far as the gates of Nouakchott the order of the day in the first decade of the 21st century. But even then - under the presidency of Mohamed Abdel Aziz - the country was looking for a remarkable answer to the challenges, in addition to border security, especially in the north. Political and religious leaders jointly relied on dialogue: Fatwas were imposed on assassins, convicted jihadists in prisons received religious instruction from highly respected sheikhs, who informed them about the incompatibility of violence and religious regulations; religious authorities questioned jihadists while in detention about their motives for joining Islamist terrorist groups; The ideological orientation of Koran schools was closely monitored, while graduates from the Koran were given posts in the public administration in order to make them less susceptible to extremist propaganda. Scientific conferences also take up the topic. The management of the Islamic University of Aioun founded - again in consultation with state authorities - a research center on violent radicalism last year.

The social responsibility of Islam

The country's top Islamic scholars recently discussed the role and responsibility of Islam in society at a United Arab Emirates-sponsored conference in Nouakchott. The Spiritus Rector of this event and doyen of the Mauritanian Ulema, Sheikh Abdullah Beyeu, has already met with the Pope and Federal President Steinmeier. He does not appear as a mouthpiece for politics, but as a self-confident and at the same time humble scholar who eloquently expresses his views. He faces up to the debate with those who think differently - both with Muslims and with followers of other religious communities - and advocates peaceful coexistence, especially between followers of different Islamic currents. Violence is not justified by Islam, said Beyeu.

The state also takes its tasks seriously: In remote border regions, a modest expansion of the infrastructure has begun. And unlike in some neighboring countries, the state authorities do not place the civilian population in Mauritania under general suspicion of cooperating with terrorist groups. On the contrary, on trips through the country one can observe a respectful interaction between the population and the security forces as well as state representatives. State welfare leads to identification with the state and its security forces: The local population reports suspicious movements by strangers, but does not treat foreigners with suspicion, but with friendly curiosity. Indeed, in contrast to neighboring countries, there have been no more jihadist or terrorist-motivated attacks in Mauritania since 2010.

A fragile peace

Mauritanian soldiers in a training battle; Source:

Of course, the peace is fragile in the face of developments in the region, where jihadist terror and organized crime, from which high levels of government often benefit, go hand in hand. With the assumption of the G5 presidency after the summit in Pau in January 2020, Mauritania is again targeting the jihadists, as the first incidents in the Malian-Mauritanian border region show. This can also be observed in the case of Burkina Faso, which until recently was not affected by jihadist terrorism: The expansion of the military presence in Mali pushed jihadist groups south into less militarized regions. The borders are porous, the extremists mobile. In Pau, the French President reaffirmed the partnership between France and the five Sahel countries. Ultimately, however, the summit served to increase the publicity of the French influence, in particular the military operation Barkhane.

After two terms in office, Mauritanian President Mohamed Abdel Aziz did not stand for election last year, in accordance with the constitution, and paved the way for a democratic transition - a historic event after a series of military coups. His successor Mohamed Ould Cheikh El-Ghazouani was chief of staff for many years and then - after retiring until the election campaign - defense minister. He is considered the strategic planner of the new, apparently functioning security architecture of Mauritania.

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In addition to the precarious security situation in the region, he is facing other challenges. Mauritania is ranked 157th out of 188 countries on the Human Development Index. The so-called Harratin, descendants of released slaves, belong to the poorest groups in the population. Corruption is high and the dominance of the military apparatus, in which the so-called White Moors are overrepresented, persists. Ghazouani, however, relies on a cautious democratic opening, he has entered into dialogue with the defeated candidates and the political opposition, and the expansion of the international military presence is also not on his agenda. His first trips abroad show that he attaches great importance to cooperation in the region, in particular with the southern neighbor Senegal, with whom joint offshore gas explorations have been agreed. Contacts with the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, which are important donor countries, seem to be intensifying even more, but less so with the former colonial power France.

Development without France?

It is also of essential importance for Ghazouani's opening that realizable progress in development - education, employment, health care and infrastructure - can be realized in a timely manner. On the sidelines of the G5 summit, a general assembly of the so-called Sahel Alliance took place, of which Germany is one of the founding members. The General Assembly President, French Foreign Minister Le Drian, and Development Commissioner Urpilainen also attended the meeting. The Sahel Alliance aims to promote donor coordination and accelerate the implementation of projects, particularly in precarious areas. Le Drian and Urpilainen jointly signed the European Investment Bank (EIB) joining the Sahel Alliance in order to ensure stability in the G5 countries through projects in the fields of education and youth employment, agriculture, rural development, food security and energy and climate strengthen. The subsequent planned summit of Europeans with the G5 on the sidelines of the European Council in Brussels in March 2020 was canceled for the time being due to the COVIS-19 crisis.

It remains to be seen to what extent France will try to implement its security policy agenda under the name “Coalition for the Sahel” as a follow-up to the Pau summit in Mauritania, or whether Mauritania will continue to go its own way with active support from Europe - in alliance with neighboring countries in the Sahel . The domestic political pressure on President Macron is immense in view of the high costs and the blood toll of the military engagement in the Sahel, and so he needs success in the fight against terrorism and relies on the military to do so. Mauritania, however, relies on dialogue and signaled as early as 1973 that it took its sovereignty seriously: Mauritania was the only one of the G5 to say goodbye to the controversial currency area of ​​the CFA franc, which is controlled from Paris. But the country needs the support of the international community for its own path.