Ex-security boss turned president: Mauritania's Ghazouani

President of Mauritania and leader of the Union for the Republic, Mohamed Ould Cheikh El Ghazouani waves to supporters celbrating his reelection in Nouakchott on July 01, 2024. PHOTO | AFP

What you need to know:

  • Victory gives the former army chief a second term as head of the vast desert country, seen as a rock of relative stability in Africa's volatile Sahel region and set to become a gas producer.

Nouakchott. Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Cheikh El Ghazouani, who has won a second term at the helm of the vast West African nation, ran on the promise of being a safe pair of hands in the relatively stable outlier in the volatile Sahel region.

The former army chief -- who was the overwhelming favourite to win -- was re-elected with just over 56 percent of the vote, the electoral commission said Monday, avoiding the need for a run-off.

During the campaign, Ghazouani's posters presented the 67-year-old former general as "the safe choice", delivering both security and development in the desert state, which has largely withstood the tide of jihadist violence in the Sahel.

The incumbent is widely regarded as the mastermind behind the country's relative security -– first in his role as director of national security, later as army chief, and since 2019 as head of state.

His campaign posters overshadowed those of his political opponents both in the capital Nouakchott and throughout the country, with his face plastered on dilapidated walls, billboards, cars and T-shirts.

Ghazouani's supporters praise his "sense of consensus" and "vision", which they say has helped bring calm to Mauritania's political landscape.

During a first term hit by the fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine, Ghazouani prioritised social issues.

His spokesman cited aid that has benefitted 1.5 million poor Mauritanians, the construction of thousands of social housing units and health insurance cover for more than 100,000 people.

"We must all agree to give priority to the most vulnerable," Ghazouani said in a rare interview with AFP ahead of the vote.

The incumbent has also pledged to improve the situation for young people, create the conditions for economic development, and uphold the stable security situation.

On the campaign trail, Ghazouani expressed a desire to "definitively resolve" the issue of compensation for the victims of intercommunal violence which killed hundreds of black Mauritanians from 1989-1991.

The gesture was welcomed by black voters, who accuse the Arab-Berber Moors of wielding the majority of political and economic power.

Patience or hesitation?

Father-of-six Ghazouani comes from a powerful Sufi Muslim brotherhood and belongs to the Ideiboussat tribe, known for its wealth, discretion and influence.

His spokesman, Abdallahi Kebd, praised the president's "strong listening skills and his blend of vigilant patience and calm resolution".

But Ghazouani's critics say he governs with hesitancy and decry the slow pace of his reforms.

Ghazouani is the current chairman of the African Union and has forged good relations with Western partners such as France and the European Union.

But he has also been careful not to alienate the military governments that have seized power in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger in recent years, all turning away from France and pivoting towards Russia.

The president told AFP that cooperation with the juntas was necessary to improve the region's security situation.

But he has previously said he is against dialogue with jihadists.

After serving as director general of national security, Ghazouani became the army's chief of staff shortly before the 2008 coup that brought his predecessor Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz to power.

He held the position until he left the army in October 2018, before joining the government as president Aziz's defence minister from November 2018 to March 2019.

Aziz then picked Ghazouani -– one of his oldest and closest allies –- to succeed him as a candidate in the 2019 presidential election.

Ghazouani won in the first round with 52 percent of the vote, with the poll marking the first transition between two elected presidents since Mauritania's independence from France in 1960.

But relations between the pair later soured.

Aziz fell into disgrace in 2020 and in December 2023 was handed a five-year prison sentence for having abused his position to amass an ill-gotten fortune.

He accused his successor and former friend of betraying him, while Ghazouani denies any interference in judicial affairs.