Mauritania, “compromise candidate”, will chair the African Union in 2024

The decision announced on Friday February 9 by the bloc of North African countries to propel Mauritania to the head of the African Union (AU) relieved many African diplomats

Mauritania, “compromise candidate”, will chair the African Union in 2024

The decision announced on Friday February 9 by the bloc of North African countries to propel Mauritania to the head of the African Union (AU) relieved many African diplomats. They feared a paralysis of the continental organization during the annual summit of heads of state which will be held in Addis Ababa on February 17 and 18. The North African countries, which were responsible for appointing one of their own to hold the rotating presidency of the AU in 2024, have long been unable to find a common candidate.

“The Northern region has unanimously designated the Islamic Republic of Mauritania to hold the role of President of the African Union this year,” announced the embassy of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) to the AU on 9 FEBRUARY. President Mohamed Ould Ghazouani will take over from his Comorian counterpart, Azali Assoumani.

This apparently collegial and unanimous designation was in reality obtained after difficult negotiations within the North African bloc which lasted two years, mainly due to the divide between the great rivals of the Maghreb, Algeria and Morocco. Initially both candidates for the position, Rabat and Algiers did not want to give the privilege of the rotating presidency to the other, even if it meant that the absence of designation would block the institution.

Mauritania, initially reluctant to lead a pan-African institution, ended up giving in to the demands of its region last week. “By elimination, Mauritania was the only possible candidate from this bloc,” analyzes a North African diplomat within the AU, on condition of anonymity.

“The hardest part was convincing Nouakchott”

Indeed, after the Algerian and Moroccan candidates neutralized each other, North Africa only had Mauritania as a credible candidate. Tunisia has discredited itself on the continent after the incendiary declarations of President Kaïs Saïed, stigmatizing sub-Saharan migrants on its soil. “A racist hate speech”, in the words of the president of the AU commission, the Chadian Moussa Faki Mahamat, which shocked Africa.

Egypt, already at the head of the AU in 2019, during the last presidency awarded to the North African bloc, could not return. As for Libya, undermined by civil war, and the SADR, at the center of an intense diplomatic battle, they could not obtain the support of their neighbors. If the North Africa bloc had failed to find a candidate, the 2024 presidency would have been transferred to the Southern African bloc, where Angola seemed the favorite.

“Ultimately, the hardest part was convincing Nouakchott to take on this role,” underlines an East African diplomat stationed in Addis Ababa. The presidency of the pan-African institution, embodied by Comorian President Azali Assoumani since February 2023, requires an active presence in the four corners of a continent where crises are multiplying and requires a representative role internationally, such as at the G20, of which the AU became a permanent member in the fall of 2023.

“The presidency of the AU is, as a general rule, attributed to a country which seeks to project itself and influence continental issues, which did not seem to be the case for Mauritania,” indicates Paul-Simon Handy, researcher within the Institute for Security Studies. Contacted by Le Monde, the Mauritanian representation to the AU did not respond to our interview requests.

“This choice suits everyone”

Nouakchott has other priorities. President Mohamed Ould Ghazouani is seeking a second term in the presidential election scheduled for June 2024. His ruling party won a large victory in the legislative, regional and municipal elections in May 2023. A vote marred by “huge fraud” according to the Mauritanian opposition.

In addition, he takes the reins of the pan-African organization at a delicate moment. “His neighborhood is burning,” remarked a member of the African Union. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) is fractured by multiple crises, first and foremost the announced withdrawal of the three military regimes of Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso. The postponement of the Senegalese presidential election from February 25 to December 15 adds a source of tension to the region. Finally, several complex issues emerged on the continent in 2022 without the AU being able to respond to them: the Sudanese civil war, tensions between Ethiopia and Somalia over access to the sea, the dangerous escalation in the Great Lakes between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“The choice of Mauritania suits everyone, it is a compromise candidate, without an enemy,” warns an AU executive. In its own region, Nouakchott strives to practice “positive neutrality” with regard to the most thorny issue, that of Western Sahara. “Morocco looks favorably on the Mauritanian presidency at a time when it wants to establish its rapprochement with the countries of the Sahel,” continues this executive, while Algeria was until then used to exercising its influence among its neighbors to the South. In addition to the realization of the Nigeria-Morocco gas pipeline, Rabat has now offered access to its Atlantic coast to Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad to open up their economies, and could benefit from the support of Nouakchott in this project.

Conversely, Algeria finds itself in difficulty following its recent diplomatic quarrel with the military regime in Mali. However, Algiers could benefit from the arrival of Mohamed Ould Ghazouani at the head of the AU in another way. According to several sources, in return for its support for the Mauritanian candidacy, Algiers would have negotiated its return to the strategic Peace and Security Council (PSC), the conflict resolution body of the AU. Long at the head of the CPS, Algeria could join the Shereef kingdom, which sits there until 2025.