Mauritania: this exception in the Sahel

Burning and bronzed, the dunes of Leklawa undulate with the caresses of the wind

Mauritania: this exception in the Sahel

Burning and bronzed, the dunes of Leklawa undulate with the caresses of the wind. A unique, breathtaking desert, undoubtedly one of the most beautiful in the world. By treading on this hot sand, we understand better why Mauritania and its devouring spaces of humility were the favorite playgrounds of the writer Théodore Monod: "I was lucky to meet the desert, this filter, this revealing . He shaped me, taught me about existence. He does not lie. That is why it must be approached with respect. »

Our camel follows our rhythm, with measured steps, six dromedaries loaded with water and food. Only a few Sodom apple trees, the characteristic plant of the desert, dot the sandy expanses that stretch as far as the eye can see.

Before my departure, I had been able to read the incomprehension on the faces of those to whom I entrusted my destination. Why a report in Mauritania, in this so dangerous zone, moreover epicenter of jihadism?

Mauritania is a country apart, which claims to be forgotten on the international scene, a country which is tackling major challenges in terms of education, health and terrorism. All are far from over: the situation is worsening in terms of poverty, education is no longer a priority, and the Covid has worsened an already alarming health situation. But this small, discreet country has on the other hand achieved a feat: that of creating a bulwark against terrorism. This performance was also highlighted at the G5 Sahel meeting last February in N'Djamena and intrigues many countries meeting at this summit.

The dissonance between the image of Mauritania and the situation on the spot deserves that we dwell on this famous Mauritanian exception. Because the observation on the spot is clear: we have traveled dozens of kilometers on foot since our arrival, and I see that serenity and tranquility inhabit the spaces we cross: ergs, palm groves, cities, villages and oases. Besides, not a tourist on the horizon. The weekly flight that dropped us off at Atar – in the middle of the country – a few days ago was barely full. And yet, in the early 2000s, Mauritania was a paradise for walkers in search of solitude. At the time, it was four flights a week that dumped these sporty and curious hedonists. Tourism was a driving force in the local economy.

Until the coup de grace. On December 24, 2007, four French tourists were killed with automatic weapons in the middle of the desert.

This country could have died slowly. To die of this terrorism which plagues the region today. But he chose a completely different path. The former President of the Republic in power between 2009 and 2019 was able to imagine a global strategy and I see that Mauritanians have created solidarity around this subject. Moreover, their way of uniting around this cause is quite poignant and certainly a factor of national cohesion.

The soldiers whom I interviewed on the spot wish to remain anonymous. But they are unanimous: the cornerstone of this miracle was to revalue their profession. The strategy of the one who will remain in power for ten years is clear and limpid: the army must become more attractive than the jihadist groups. First brick deployed: increase defense budgets, including military salaries to make them more attractive. Thus, the defense budget is multiplied by four in ten years, which is considerable in a country where six people out of ten, according to Unicef, remain in a situation of poverty. In the isolated villages that we cross in the middle of the desert, neither water nor electricity is common, the children often live there barefoot and too regularly in the middle of the waste. Some villages are completely deserted, as if abandoned hastily… The inhabitants left in a hurry because the school closed. Poverty is disarming, education budgets are shrinking. The money is put elsewhere. Right or wrong ?

In any case, the financial swing on defense is visible: the land forces are now equipped with modern and fast pick-ups or surveillance radars that outclass those of the jihadists. The roads are monitored by the air, as soon as a vehicle circulates without authorization, it is immediately neutralized. And new military bases are installed along the 2,200 km border with Mali. The new Lemreya military base is an eloquent example: located in a triangle on the borders of Mauritania, Mali and Algeria, it is, ironically, on a desert area that once served as a rear base for Islamist groups and traffickers… Lemreya is today the headquarters of the GSI, the special intervention groups.

Finally, an essential complement to this system: systematic border controls and checkpoints throughout the country. We only traveled about sixty kilometers of paved road before sinking into the desert and crossed three checkpoints guarded by soldiers who checked our travel permits.

Ditto on the Atlantic Ocean: the Ministry of Defense has invested in specially adapted boats, refurbished ships in Spain or China to patrol its 754 kilometers of coastline.

Thus, the quality of life of the soldiers via the revalorization of the wages, the renovation of the barracks, the formations - of the French, in particular the members of the special forces or the Americans go to the country - improves. But the bet is even more successful when we observe that their morale and the esteem of their profession increase, a loyalty lever.

Last string to the bow of the Ministry of Defense: to ensure quality intelligence even in the most remote areas. The creation of camel units of nomadic groups (GN) is one of them. Kinds of guardians of the desert, these soldiers, dressed in civilian clothes, move discreetly, only on the back of dromedaries, which gives them the possibility of crisscrossing ultra-isolated regions. These GNs come to the aid of very poor populations, improve their living conditions along the way (food, cleaning of wells, etc.) and are, undeniably, an extremely valuable source of intelligence for the army. One way to track jihadists through intelligence in these remote areas and avoid the slightest infiltration into the Mauritanian population. Ismail Diawara, a former civil servant who studied abroad, guides us through this bewitching desert. In love with his country and proud of what he has put in place, he reminds us that LARPs were born from the imagination of the French during colonization. The latter confides to me that he is "always on the lookout while feeling very safe: no car can venture so deep into the country, it would be immediately intercepted". An inclusive, mobilizing and trust-based security policy.

At the same time, Mauritania has sensitized the entire population. Terrorist risk campaigns purr on television or radio. "Beware of people who seem suspicious to you. Infiltrators may be among us…” And it works. In Atar, I am told the story of this child who was picked up after school by a Malian who asked him: "Where do tourists usually meet? Ultra aware of the issue through the various campaigns he saw scrolling on his television screen, the child rushes to the gendarmerie and the suspect is arrested on the spot. In Mauritania, the fight against terrorism has become everyone's business.