Mauritania is a large, mostly desert territory, populated by 3.2 million inhabitants and with a history of military rule and regime change through coup d’états. It has a history of inter-ethnic conflict and politicisation of identity with a notable border dispute in 1989 between Mauritania and Senegal resulting in violence and the deportation of non-Arabic speaking (i.e. black) Mauritanians. The current President is Abdel Aziz, a former military colonel, who largely (but not unwaveringly) enjoys support from the powerful military and the legislature.
Mauritanian security threats are complex and intertwined. Key drivers of conflict are Islamist terrorist movements and the risk of radicalisation; the often divided and belligerent Mauritanian military; domestic protests similar to the Arab Spring protests; trafficking and kidnapping; and wider social, economic and political tensions. Specifically, these conflict drivers are:
- Growing radicalisation of Mauritanian youth: Islamist terrorist groups, especially Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), may increasingly recruit disaffected Mauritanians even though mainstream Mauritanian Islam rejects such ideologies. AQIM have recently increased attacks and criminal activities in Mauritania and neighbouring countries.
- Divided and belligerent military: Democratic practices are not yet ingrained in Mauritania. The military retain political and economic control but are themselves often divided and prone to foment instability. The military seem largely supportive of the current regime but an upcoming troop deployment may anger certain members.
- Arab Spring and protest movements: Though perhaps not as radical as the Arab Spring movements in Tunisia or Egypt, there have been, so far peaceful, protests across Mauritania demanding government reforms. There are doubts over the protest movements’ sustainability given internal divisions and co-optation by the regime.
- Trafficking (i.e. arms, drugs, cigarettes) and kidnapping: Mauritania and surrounding countries have become routes for arms trafficking, drugs trafficking (especially from South America to Europe) and cigarette smuggling. Such activity, as well as the growth of kidnapping for ransom, have provided funds for Islamist terrorists, and is hard to counter given the lack of alternative economic opportunities in the region.
- Weakness of economy and state institutions: Mauritania’s economy lacks diversification and is not able to generate sufficient tax revenue from its widely dispersed population and politically connected industries. The judiciary is politicised, understaffed and underfinanced, and the state is unable to provide basic services for everyone.
- Weak and factious political system: The political system is clientelistic, with influential informal networks rather than set interest groups, and is dominated by the ruling party and their associates.
- Sociopolitical tensions: Mauritania continues to be divided along ethno-racial lines with heightened sensitivities from ‘Arabicisation’ policies and following the expulsion of black Mauritanian citizens in the 1989 Mauritania-Senegal border dispute.
There do not seem to have been significant international responses that deal specifically with Mauritanian conflict. There are, however, notable actions taken by the Mauritanian government:
- Anti-Islamism drive: The military has improved its fighting capacity, anti-terrorism legislation has been passed, and there are measures to delegitimise Islamist ideologies.
- Anti-corruption drive: There is a new code of ethics for public servants and there have been a number of criminal corruption investigations and prosecutions, though notably not against regime allies.
- Ethnic reconciliation and democratisation: Mauritania now allows voluntary repatriation of those (primarily black) Mauritanians exiled in the 1989 border dispute. There have been social cohesion government programmes and constitutional amendments which affirm state multi-ethnicity, affirm the criminalisation of slavery and prohibit coups.
- Stabilising Mali: Mauritania will deploy troops to the Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali to safeguard Mauritania-Mali borders.
There are a number of practical recommendations from the literature:
- Avoid pigeon-holing (e.g. state vs. non-state actors) and oversimplified thinking (e.g. the state must be either autocratic or Islamist).
- Include previously marginalised communities within state institutions and political processes.
- Support legitimate, democracy-leaning political regimes.
- Control use and proliferation of firearms.
- Incrementally weaken criminal networks.
- Form a common position on ransom payments with other countries.
- Support livelihoods and economic opportunities.