Despite his main rivals boycotting the elections, which they called a sham, preliminary results indicated late Sunday that Mauritania’s President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz has been re-elected after gaining an overwhelming 81.89 per cent of the vote.
The results, which were released by Mauritania’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) on Sunday, indicated that Abdel Aziz was firmly ahead of anti-slavery candidate Biram Ould Dah Ould Abeid, who obtained 8.67 per cent. Taking third place was Ibrahima Moctar Sarr, with 4.44 per cent of the vote, while the only female candidate, Lalla Mariem Mint Moulaye Idriss, took only 0.49 per cent.
In the weeks leading up to the elections, which were held Saturday, the former general, who seized power in an August 2008 coup, campaigned strongly, highlighting his successes in fighting armed groups linked to al-Qaeda militants both at home and in neighbouring countries in the Sahel region.
When Abdel Aziz came to power in 2008, kidnappings and attacks carried out by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) occurred frequently. In 2010 and 2011, Mauritanian troops carried out a number of successful “preventative” raids on AQIM basis in neighbouring Mali. However since then, the President has boasted that he has transformed the nation into a regional haven of peace, mainly thanks to his reorganization of the military and security forces.
While many Western leaders see Mauritania, which is located between the west coast of Africa and the Sahara desert, as a strong fighter against al-Qaeda-linked groups that operate in the region, the country’s opposition has long criticized the president, and has argued that this price of peace has been the result of authoritarian rule. In the weeks leading up to the elections, the opposition called on the country to boycott the vote. However tensions between the president and the opposition are not new as the main opposition parties have never accepted Abdel Aziz’s 2009 presidential victory, with many stating that that election was marred by massive fraud.
The National Forum for Democracy and Unity, an opposition coalition formed of eleven parties, including a moderate Islamist movement, called out to voters ahead of Saturday’s elections to denounce what they call Abdel Aziz’s “dictatorial power.” While the opposition’s hopes of attaining a high abstention rate were not achieved, the boycott did have some affect on the overall turnout. On Sunday, officials from the electoral commission indicated that voter turnout reached 56.46 per cent, below that of the 2009 elections, when participation stood at 64 per cent.
Despite a decrease in voter turnout, African Union (AU) observers indicated Monday that they were satisfied with the vote. The head of the AU mission, Beji Caid Essebsi, who is also Tunisia’s former prime minister, indicated “overall, this election took place peacefully and in a spirit of political tolerance…I welcome the civic sense among the Mauritanians.” He however also noted the boycott and urged that both political sides to seek dialogue in a bid to prevent any post-election violence.
The French foreign ministry announced on Sunday in Paris that the body of a French hostage, who was announced killed by his al-Qaeda captors back in March of this year, has “very likely” been found in Mali. The announcement was followed by French leaders vowing that “we will determine the cause of death and nothing will go unpunished.” While in Mauritania, a Canadian has been released after being charged with having links to al-Qaeda militants in Mali.
Tests are currently being done in order to confirm if the body, which was found in early July, is in fact that of Philippe Verdon, who was kidnapped by militants belonging to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) from a hotel while on a business trip in northeastern Mali in November 2011. Foreign ministry spokesman Philippe Lallot indicated on Sunday that “there is a very strong possibility that a body recently found in northern Mali is unfortunately that” of Mr. Verdon. Earlier on Sunday, French President Francois Hollande also noted in an interview that Mr. Verdon had appeared to have been killed, stating that “we have the worst of news on Philippe Verdon…everything indicates that he died weeks ago.” According to reports, the body was found ten days ago in northern Mali.
In March of this year, AQIM announced that it had killed 53-year-old Verdon, however French authorities had not officially confirmed his death at the time. With the announcement of a possible confirmation of the death of Philippe Verdon, it is necessary to note that AQIM is still holding eight Europeans hostage, including five French nationals. Theirry Dol, Daniel Larribe, Pierre Legrand and Marc Feret, who were mostly working for French public nuclear giant Areva and its subcontractor Satom, were kidnapped in Niger by al-Qaeda-linked militants on 16 September 2010. Francoise Larribe, wife of Daniel Larribe, was also captured, however she was released in 2011. The fifth French hostage, Serge Lazarevic, was kidnapped along with Mr. Verdon on the night of 24 November 2011 while they were staying at their hotel in Hombori. In late June of this year, AQIM indicated that the eight Europeans were still alive and that they would soon release a new video depicting the five Frenchmen. However no video has yet been released and their current whereabouts remain unknown.
The families of the two men have insisted that they were no mercenaries or secret service agents however AQIM has firmly indicated that they were killed because of their role as spies for the French government. In response to the possible death of Mr. Verdon and the other hostages who remain in captivity, President Hollande indicated on Sunday that France was “doing everything” to bring the hostages back.
Meanwhile in Mauritania, a court on Sunday freed a Canadian who was jailed for attempting to join an al-Qaeda training camp in neighbouring Mali.
Aaron Yoon was serving two years in Nouakchott after he was convicted in July of last year, however his sentence was later reduced in an appeal brought by the prosecution who were asking for the term to be extended to ten years. According to a source, “the Canadian Aaron Yoon was sentenced by an appeals court on Sunday to a year and a half in prison but he was already spent his time in jail and must therefore leave the penitentiary immediately.”
According to the indictment against him, Mr. Yoon was originally arrested in December 2011 when he attempted to visit the camps of AQIM in Mali. He however has denied any links to terrorism, stating that he had come to mauritania from Morocco in order to study the Koran and to learn Arabic. However authorities in Mauritania have maintained that he had “strong links with AQIM terrorists and his plan to join the movement is indisputable.” A judicial source further noted that “we cannot say how and when but he must leave the prison and will probably be removed from the country.” There is currently no information as to whether Mr. Yoon will return to Canada.