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Two tidbits on Mauritania and coups d’Etat

February 28, 2009

While leafing through Antoine Glaser’s and Stephen Smith’s – two French journalists – “Comment la France a perdu l’Afrique” (“How France lost Africa”, Hachette, 2006 – for a critique, see here), I stumbled on two interesting pieces, one concerning Mauritania and the Pan Sahel Initiative/Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Initiative (TSCTI) (these initiatives produced the on-going Operation Enduring Freedom Trans Sahara led by the pentagon’s African command – Africom), the other the international – i.e. Western – reaction to the toppling of the Central African Republic‘s (CAR) infamous president Ange-Félix Potassé – recently rumored to be investigated by the International Criminal Court for war crimes in the CAR – by general François Bozizé, which seems to contrast with the reaction to the recent coup d’Etat in Mauritania.

1. Mauritania, France, the US, NATO and the Pan Sahel Initiative

On pages 201-202, the reader gets to read the following:

Jusqu’au sein de l’OTAN, Paris est perçu comme “une puissance agrippée aux lambeaux de sa présence en Afrique, une force d’inertie qui empêche d’innover, de passer à autre chose“, selon un haut responsable de l’Alliance transatlantique à Bruxelles. En février 2005, l’opposition française à un séjour d’entraînement en Mauritanie de la Force de réaction rapide de l’OTAN a irrité non seulement les Américains mais aussi nombre de ses partenaires européens. Constituée en 2003 avec neuf mille cinq cents hommes, dont deux tiers de soldats européens, la NRF – NATO Response Force – doit monter en puissance pour devenir pleinement opérationnelle en octobre 2006, avec un effectif de vingt mille hommes, capables de se déployer en cinq jours. La NRF s’était déjà entraînée en Turquie et en Sardaigne. Mais sa présence en Mauritanie, malgré l’accord des autorités de Nouakchott, est apparue à la France comme une manoeuvre américaine pour rehausser l’importance stratégique du Sahel dans la lutte antiterroriste, déjà mise en exergue par l’Initiative Pan Sahel.

Il n’est pas indiqué de transformer un exercice militaire en une démonstration politique dans cette région. La France n’y voit aucun intérêt“, a commenté une source diplomatique française à Bruxelles, citée dans Le Monde. “La Mauritanie participe déjà au “Dialogue méditerranéen” de l’OTAN et d’autres pays de la région, comme l’Algérie, ont signalé leur accord pour participer à l’opération Active Endeavour, qui a pour but de contrôler le trafic maritime dans la Méditerranée, a estimé un diplomate américain. C’est ce qui gêne la France.” A Paris, l’intrusion du GI américain sur la rive sud de la Mare nostrum et dans les “sables chauds” de la bande sahélo-saharienne, qui a fait le bonheur de la tradition méhariste de l’armée française, est en effet vécue comme un revers historique.

I do not intend to translate the whole excerpt – after all, if someone really wants to get something out of her readings on the Maghreb/Sahel region, she should pick up at least a passive understanding of French – but to put it in a nutshell, the French opposed the holding of a NATO military exercise in Mauritania in 2005 for political reasons, refusing to see the Sahel region dragged into Washington’s “global war on terror“. To hear the French complain about the impropriety of instrumentalising security concerns in Africa for political benefit is rather amusing to anyone even superficially acquainted with the concept of Françafrique. The other question that pops up is by what right France did oppose and managed to block a military exercise accepted by the government of the host country – Mauritania (I suppose Ould Taya was still president then). It certainly says a lot about the nature of political relations between France and most of its former colonies – Maghreb included. A but surprising, however, as Chirac – then president, as the incident took place in 2005 – had bent over backwards after the invasion of Iraq to re-ingratiate himself with the Bush administration – as exemplified by France’s very US-friendly stand on Afghanistan, Syria and Iran.

For the record, since the 2008 coup d’Etat the US have officially withdrawn their military advisers from Mauritania.

2. There are coups d’Etat and coups d’Etat: comparison between the 2003 putsch in the CAR and the 2008 coup d’Etat in Mauritania 

More interesting for me was another excerpt, on France’s relations with the CAR, – French troops left the country in 1998, on Patassé’s urging:

(…) Les hélicoptères de l’armée française transportent aux quatres coins du pays les urnes transparentes dont le verdict désigne, en septembre 1993, Ange-Félix Patassé comme nouveau président “démocratiquement élu“, selon le pléonasme vite consacré par l’usage. (…) Tentant de faire chanter Paris, Ange-Félix Patassé  provoque la fermeture des bases militaires françaises. Au printemps 1998, les derniers “barracudas” quittent Bangui (…).  En 1999, le président est “démocratiquement réélu” pour un second mandat. S’ensuivent de nouvelles violences en cascade, à la faveur desquelles des rebelles du Congo-Kinshasa voisin traversent l’Oubangui pour mettre à feu et à sang la capitale centrafricaine. A son tour, avec l’aide de frères d’armes tchadiens, des “libérateurs” qui se remboursent sur le pays, le chef d’état-major limogé de l’armée centrafricaine, le général François Bozizé, renverse à Bangui, le 15 mars 2003, un pouvoir fantôme aux abois.

Formerly a French “unsinkable aircraft carrier” ¹, the CAR had lost its usefulness for France after 1998’s troop withdrawal. Stunningly enough, instead of being castigated, the putschists were awarded immediate military relief by France in the form of 300 troops sent hurriedly to Bangui to give the putschists some more bite and a “special adviser on military affairs”, general Jean-Pierre Pérez, placed with the putschist general François Bozizé. I’ve only found some trace of sanctions imposed by the African Union, which seems to have a consistent policy on coups d’Etat, but which were lifted in 2005. The European Union condemned the coup, but did not cut the substantial amounts of aid doled out by the European Commission in that country (142,8€ in grants over 2008-2013, excluding humanitarian aid), nor take any sanctions against the putschists – the EU merely launched bilateral consultations with the RAC’s new government

The reaction to the Mauritanian coup d’Etat of August 6, 2008 is in significant contrast to the relative indifference with which Bozizé’s putsch was received internationally. As mentioned previously, the US have withdrawn their military presence in Mauritania, and the African Union as well as the European Union enforce some sanctions. Of the major countries – from Nouakchott’s perspective – only Morocco seems to have implicitly recognised the putschist régime. Why is that?

In an excellent overview of the Mauritanian putsch’s consequences on democratic governance in Africa, Neldjingaye Kameldy makes precisely that observation:

Il est vrai que bien avant le pustch mauritanien, des président démocratiquement élus du continent, Pascal Lissouba du Congo et Ange Félix Patassé de la République centrafricaine ont été évincés du pouvoir par des coups d’Etats, respectivement en 1997 et 2003, mais ces cas diffèrent de celui de la Mauritanie, en ce que les renversements se sont produit durant des périodes de confusion caractérisées par des guerre civiles

I have never entertained any greater delusion that foreign policy decision-makers would let general legal principles get unduly in the way of their ideology or perceived interests, but this sounds reasonable. As far as I know, no war crimes allegations have been raised against general Ould Abdel Aziz, whereas Ange-Félix Patassé is probably busy setting up his ICC defense team at time I’m writing this.  The absence of any such allegations against Abdel Aziz is not only due to the ICC not having any jurisdiction over war crimes in Mauritania – unless the Security Council refers a case to its prosecutor - since that country hasn’t ratified the Rome Statute, but due to the absence of such crimes on his part – even his coup was bloodless. Furthermore, no civil war or internal armed conflict has afflicted Mauritania since the ethnic violence that flared up in 1989. Political reasons, not unreasonable by the way, would therefore seem to explain if not justify the difference in treatment of these two coups d’Etat.

Further reading:

1. On terrorism in the Sahel/Sahara and correlative US policy:
– First, straight from the horse’s mouth: the UNITED STATES AFRICA COMMAND’s (Africom) website.
– In the same vein, “Political Islam in West Africa and the Sahel” as viewed in Military Rebiew, a Pentagon publication.
– The most comprehensive and independent analysis of the TSCTI is Toby Archer’s and Tihomir Popovic’s “The Trans-Saharan Counter-Terrorism Initiative: The US War on Terrorism in Northwest Africa” (Finnish Institute for International Affairs), but it dates back to 2007.
– For a neo-con’s views on the Sahel and the Maghreb in the perspective – perhaps not entirely outdated yet – of the “global war on terror“, see Peter Pham’s “The War on Terrorism in Africa: Assessment and Prospects” (World Defense Review – one of whose leaders is the infamous Walid Phares).
– For USAID’s – outsourced – appraisal (I thought they were busy with development aid, I must have been misinformed…) on the TSCTI, see USMC Lieutenant Colonel Mary Jo Choates “TRANS-SAHARA COUNTERTERRORISM INITIATIVE: BALANCE OF POWER?“.
The International Crisis Group’s (ICG) report on terrorism in the Sahel, astutely called “Fact or fiction”, is a must-read.
– Adrian’s – the blogger behind Politics & Soccertake on the US war on terror in the Sahara/Sahel.
AfricaFocuscritical views on US anti-terror policy in Africa.
– Lengthy, interesting and quite recent article by the NY Times, “The Saharan Conundrum“.
– Another interesting article published in 2007 in Vanity Fair, of all places – “Letter from Timbuktu“.

2- On the CAR and Françafrique – a bit off-topic but interesting nonetheless:

- On the catastrophic political situation in the CAR, see ICG’s two reports – they brand the CAR a “phantom state“.
– The widely respected Fédération internationale des droits de l’homme (FIDH) issued a report on war crimes in the CAR in 2003, before Bozizé successful coup – he had another previous and unsuccessful attempt in 2002.
– For a critical – justifiably so – view on French policy vis-à-vis the CAR, see “MASCARADE ELECTORALE EN CENTRAFRIQUE“.
Survie is a French NGO initiated by the deceased François-Xavier Verschave, unflinchingly critical of French policy in Africa.

3- On Mauritania – apart from what has been published by alle and Kal:
– Unfortunately enough, the ICG has only published two reports on Mauritania, here and here, and the latest one dates from 2006.

Notes:

(1) The expression applied initially to the UK, with a view to its purported military usefulness for the USA – see Duncan Campbell’s eponymous book.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. March 1, 2009 19:08

    While you had me at the analysis of the Tuareg rebellion, this synthesis is invaluable, and proves MPR merits daily attention. You’ve saved me much rutting around the internet.

  2. tidinit permalink
    March 3, 2009 10:56

    Thank you Ibn Kafka for this summary and retrospective/parallel on the coups in CAR et Mauritania. Still reading. The case of Mauritania is different from the CAR: banning coups and taking power by anti-constitutional means by the AU is more recent and General Aziz was out of luck this time. He did it in 2005, got excused and repeated it again in 2008 for the sole purpose of grabbing power for hismself. He was anyhow planning it legally or forcefully if his friends in the Senate or Parliament could not do so legally resorting with the same process as the orange revolution (marching on the Presidential Palace to smoke out Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi. Sidi knew it at the end and fired the three Generals he just promoted: Aziz, Ghazwani and Negri. They took over and they have been trying to sell their “rectification” storyline for 7 months without succes. Now enters Gadhafi and we don’t know excatly what he has in mind and we will know on Saturday and Sunday. I think Kal has said something interesting on Gadhafi intentions and he will be a fool to go against the AU stance. Two mistakes Gadhafi did with Mauritania these two weeks: (1) accepting a new Ambassador from the Mauritanian junta and (2) allowing General Aziz and his Foreign Minister to travel to Libya altough they are barred from getting a visa to any African country member of the AU. These guys can only go to Morocco that is not member of the AU. Count on Gadhafi’s peers shewing his back if he persists in doing things his way, away from what was decided in Addis in February, and he can say bye bye to his United States of Africa.

    Regarding the parallel between the junta and Patassé, Mauritania has still unresolved problems of human rights done under the military and the drug rings that appeared as soon as Sidioca took over from Ely Ould Mohamed Vall. The EU and the US can always bring charges on these two problems like the US and France did for Noriega (Noriega finished his almost 20 years sentence in a jail in Florida to be passed over to France for another jail sentence). These guys can fabricate anything ….

    Lastly, thanks for the handy references but you cannot avoid adding 4 articles from Jeremy Keenan published over 3-4 years in The Review of African Political Economy (ROAPE) and the excellent work of Melllah, Gèze and others. Even if some believe it is full conspiracy theory, but recent events seem to give credit to what they have been saying about the manipulation of jihadists and touaregs in the grand desert over there. You can’t understand what is going on in Mauritania (and Mali and Niger)without listening to Keenan, Gèze, Mellah and others.

    I will read again and come back. Very interesting and timely post. Thanks.

  3. ibnkafka permalink*
    March 3, 2009 17:30

    T Miles: thanks!

    Tidinit: From when does that stricter rule against coups d’etat apply?

  4. Tidinit permalink
    March 12, 2009 02:19

    Since 2001 or 2002? I don’t recall Ibnkafka. Gadhafi is gone and left a mess behind him. He was, in fine, supporting the junta. Things in Mauritania have gone to square one.Trusting Gadhafi with mediation is like trusting a baby playing with a snake or the other way around. The junta will never win.

Trackbacks

  1. Deux petits trucs sur la Mauritanie, la Françafrique et les coups d’Etat « Ibn Kafka’s obiter dicta - divagations d’un juriste marocain en liberté surveillée
  2. Mauritania, Qadhafi, and the Arab world « Maghreb Politics Review
  3. Mauritania, Qadhafi, and the Arab world- News Robot

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