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Mauritania re-elects President El Ghazouani for five-year term

7 Jul 2024

What is happening in Mauritania?

On Saturday 29th of June, the citizens of the Islamic Republic of Mauritania were called to the ballot for the presidential elections. The Northwestern African country saw leader Mohamed Ould El Ghazouani re-elected with over 56% of the votes, according to the country’s Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI).

El Ghazouani came well ahead of his main rival, anti-slavery activist Biram Dah Abeid (22.10%), as well as his other opposition Hamadi Ould Sid’ El Moctar, head of the Islamist Tewassoul Party (12.78%). Turnout for the elections was over 55% according to CENI.

The elections had both internal and external monitoring bodies and mechanisms. The former came with an election monitoring body set up by the government, which the opposition criticised as a way of manipulating the ballot. Third-party monitoring notably came from the African Union which sent a team of 27 short-term observers, as well as the European Union which sent three election experts.

This is only the country’s second-ever peaceful transfer of power with the first being the 2019 elections that first placed President El Ghazouani in power. Prior to that, Mauritania had been under dictatorships (military or one-party) for nearly all of its 59 years since gaining independence from France in 1960, notably facing a series of coups from 1978 to 2008. 

Mauritania is today a republic with the president elected by absolute majority popular vote, with a second round if needed, if absolute majority is not reached in the first round. The president rules on a five-year term (eligible for a second one) and notably appoints the prime minister. Legislation is assured by the National Assembly, the country’s parliament composed of 176 members, elected in single-seat constituencies.

Mauritania has a population of over 4.9 million but a territory twice the size of France, with approximately 90% of its landmass covered by the Sahara desert. TrendEconomy data shows the country is rich in natural resources such as iron ore (35% of exports) and gold (30%). Nevertheless, the country’s economy is largely based on livestock, agriculture and fisheries. According to the International Trade Organisation, the fishing sector is estimated to contribute between four to ten percent of Mauritania’s gross domestic product and account for 35 to 50 percent of the country’s exports.

The country is notably reliant on imports for fuel and petroleum oils(37%) as well as wheat, meslin and sugar (12.1%). President El Ghazouani has been trying to shift the country’s economy, notably through trying to bolster gas production and the renewables sector, efforts he will likely build upon in his second term.

President El Ghazouani has been criticised by human rights organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW) over a poor record on human rights. The main critiques include repression of political opposition, enforced disappearances and crackdowns on freedom of speech and assembly. Cases, as reported by the organisations as mentioned above, range from the jailing of human rights defenders and activists to the arrests of students or journalists over “blasphemous” comments or Facebook posts.

What is in it for you?

For readers in Mauritania, these elections come in the context of growing difficulties for the population. Indeed, a United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) briefing from 2023 showed over 58% of the population is “multidimensionally poor” (with the dimensions being health, education and standard of living). 

Additionally, as explained by the United States Agency for International Aid Country Program Manager for Mauritania Lisa Washington-Sow, “more than 60% of the population is under 25 years old in Mauritania, with unemployment rates among 15 to 24-year-olds estimated to be 21%.[…] The combination of unemployment, poverty and limited opportunities can lead young people to resort to unproductive behaviours to express their frustrations”.  As such, much of the domestic engagement with these elections pertains to the improvement of living conditions and the ability of EL Ghazouani to provide better opportunities for the country’s youth in his second term.

For readers in the broader Sahel region, Mauritania plays an important role and has much strategic importance in the collective efforts to combat terrorism. Indeed, El Ghazouani’s presidency has been characterised by relative stability since 2019 in a volatile region, especially with the rise of armed groups and the increase of military coups in the region notably in Chad, Guinea (2021) and Burkina Faso (2022). Another prime example of this is how these have affected Mauritania’s neighbour country of Mali which saw continued terrorist violence over recent years and suffered a military coup in May 2021.

Despite this, Mauritania has not suffered a terrorist attack on its soil since 2011. This is the result of continued efforts from the country’s leadership, with the government maintaining countering terrorist activity as a top priority. The El Ghazouani government took steps to increase deterrence capacity notably through strategic partnerships with the United States, NATO and the EU. As such, El Ghazouani’s re-election may indicate further efforts invested into the fight against terrorism, a positive sign for regional stability.

For readers in the European Union (EU), beyond cooperation efforts on counter-terrorism, Mauritania is also a strategic partner in regards to migration. Indeed, according to the UN Refugee Agency, Mauritania currently harbours over 150,000 refugees and asylum seekers, many of whom are from neighbouring Mali. Mauritania is considered to be an important transit country into Europe with many boats carrying migrants from its coasts to the Spanish Canary Islands. Spain’s interior ministry estimated 110 boats carrying over 7,000 migrants reached the islands’ coasts in January 2024 alone, with over 80% of them coming from Mauritania.

This has prompted the EU to work closely with the country and notably El Ghazouani, with a €210 million agreement being sealed earlier this year to support Mauritania’s efforts to manage migrant flows. The President of the EU Commission Ursula Von der Leyen has characterised Mauritania’s welcoming of refugees as “worthy of praise” stating during a visit to the country’s capital Nouakchott that she had discussed a “common roadmap” on migration management with President El Ghazouani.

What happens next?

Although election runner-up Biram Dah Abeid has said that he did not recognise the results of the election, stating that “we'll not accept these results from the so-called independent electoral commission. We'll use our electoral commission to proclaim the results”. 

Nevertheless, the result is likely to stand and Mohamed Ould El Ghazouani is now set to appoint his prime minister and rule on another five-year term. Some of his promises for his second mandate include investing in commodities as well as preparing to produce gas by the end of this year, a development that could have big economic impacts on the country. 

The Polis Team in Barcelona

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