A street in Bir Moghrein

The walls of the Marche Capitale in Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania, are usually covered in advertisements for cell phone companies, but lately they have been papered with election posters. In the market, a dense network of stalls selling everything from stolen phones to imported fruit, casual chatter lately is about national politics. The first round of the country’s presidential election is scheduled for 22 June, shortly after the end of Ramadan. A run-off will be held on 6 July if no candidate reaches 50 per cent of the vote in the first round.

The incumbent, Mohammed Ould Abdel Aziz, will be stepping aside after serving two terms, the maximum allowed under the constitution. He took power in a military coup in 2008. There were whispers that he had considered standing for a third term, which would involve amending the constitution – he had won a referendum in 2017 on abolishing the senate, which would clear the path to do so – but, in the end, he is making way for his right-hand man, the former defence minister Mohamed Ould Ghazouani. Ghazouani will run as a continuity candidate for Aziz’s governing centrist party, Union pour la République.

Mauritania, which attained independence from France in 1960, has never experienced a peaceful transfer of power between elected governments. When elections have been held, the incumbent, if there is one, has invariably won. When a president has ceased to rule, the transition has generally come via military coup. There have been eight heads of state since independence: all have been men, all – with one brief, interim exception – from the country’s Arab-Berber upper class (‘Moors’ to the French, bidani – ‘white’ – to themselves), and most have had a military background (though the first president, Moktar Ould Daddah, is a notable exception). ‘If you have power,’ a Mauritanian friend told me, ‘it’s very difficult to lose to the opposition.’

A president giving way to his right-hand man may be peaceful, but is it a meaningful transition of power? My friend compared it to what he called the ‘Russian scenario’, i.e. Vladimir Putin’s temporary ceding of the presidency to Dmitry Medvedev in 2008. In any case, Ghazouani will have to stand for election. And, with the machinery of the ruling party behind him, he is on the campaign trail.

On an indescribably hot Friday in April, Ghazouani travelled to Bir Moghrein to deliver a campaign speech. Bir Moghrein, a town of around 3000 people, is in Tiris Zemmour, Mauritania’s vast northern province. (At 398,000 square miles, Mauritania is bigger than Egypt, but has a population of only 4.5 million.) Bir Moghrein is about six uncomfortable hours by Toyota Hilux from Zouerate, the province’s capital and only city (population around 60,000). Ghazouani travelled by presidential jet to Bir Moghrein’s airstrip, outside town; most of the time you wouldn’t know it was there, if it weren’t for a set of aircraft steps standing alone in the desert. Bir Moghrein is ‘only Mauritanian depending on the mood of the guard that day’, a European photojournalist who has worked there told me. Most of the cars in town have licence plates from the neighbouring Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. At the moment, though, conversation there is as much about the election as it is about the WhatsApp group for finding lost camels.

The Hilux in which I travelled from Zouerate was delayed, so I missed Ghazouani’s campaign speech, but friends who heard it told me that he covered the expected themes: corruption, nepotism, the fraternalisation of state power (to the detriment of the government) and infrastructure (the government’s strong point). More sensitive matters – questions of inter-tribal and inter-ethnic relations, security, slavery – were avoided. Ghazouani spoke for about half an hour in a public square, and then left, on to the next stop on the campaign trail.

When I was in Zouerate, there was a lot of talk about a leaked audio recording allegedly of Ghazouani in conversation with a younger woman who might have been his mistress. The man who may be Ghazouani apologises for being out of contact, explaining that he has been away in the khalawat, or ‘emptiness’, by which he meant Bir Moghrein and Zouerate. To residents of Tiris Zemmour, it sounded as if Ghazouani was denigrating the margins from which the Mauritanian state draws its political imagery, but which it could be accused, with some justification, of neglecting.

The Ghazouani camp denied the recording’s authenticity. There was really no way of knowing, but rumours abounded: it might be hackers, or the intelligence services, or Aziz, with whom Ghazouani may or may not have had some recent tensions. But what stuck in everyone’s mind was that, no matter how bidani he might be, how glowingly he might talk about the desert that Mauritania calls its own, how much he might promise new infrastructure for remote regions, he had referred to Zouerate and Bir Moghrein as khalawat when he thought he wouldn’t be overheard.

One of Mauritanian democracy’s biggest structural problems is that people tend to vote along ‘tribal’ lines, though ‘tribe’ here is a loaded and possibly meaningless term. The corresponding word in Hassaniyya, the local Arabic dialect, is qabilah, plural qaba’il. It’s sometimes translated as ‘confederation’. Qaba’il, as numerous anthropologists have noted, operate at multiple levels of meaning. They are presumed to have a basis in kinship, but their histories are often so diffuse and contested that they’re impossible to pin down. All of the qaba’il are bidani, although more than half of Mauritanians are not.

Bir Moghrein’s member of parliament, Mohamed Salem Ould Nweighat, won last year’s election despite not being from one of the local qaba’il (he is from Adrar, in central Mauritania). He won by pouring his own money into infrastructure: wells, cellular networks, a truck stop on the road to Zouerate. His opponent, a hotelier from Zouerate, had expected to win because he was from a prominent local qabilah. I’ve stayed at his hotel, and it’s quite nice, but not of much use to most locals. The source of Ould Nweighat’s wealth is said, ultimately, to be his tribal affiliation with the former president Maaouya Ould Sid’Ahmed Taya (ousted by a coup in 2005), who granted his relatives an extremely lucrative monopoly on the cigarette trade. Kinship was translated, more or less, into political power, but only after it had been laundered through semi-legitimate commerce. The gradual strengthening of the Mauritanian state has meant that, more and more, the qaba’il function as professional networks.

It turned out that the cigarette trade was also the reason Ould Nweighat wanted a seat in parliament. Participating in the national government, as a member of the governing party, would allow him to avoid paying the semi-random, sometimes punitive taxes that are occasionally collected. It’s worth emphasising that much of this story is hard or impossible to prove, but pretty much everyone I spoke with articulated some version of it. Infrastructure, though, is infrastructure. Most of the inhabitants are nomadic pastoralists who care far more about access to water during droughts than they do about taxing cigarettes – and, in any case, few of them smoke. One of the people I spoke with in Bir Moghrein compared Ould Nweighat to Donald Trump, but not in a disparaging way: Ould Nweighat was a businessman who had gone into politics for tax purposes, as anyone, apparently, would do in his position.

Only around 30 per cent of the population of Mauritania are bidani. Another 40 per cent are haratin, the descendants of former slaves – although the distinction between bidani and haratin is, as with all such categories, far from straightforward – and the rest are non-Arab Africans – Wolof, Soininke, Pulaar. Bidani control of the army, the economy and the presidency has been largely uninterrupted since independence. The state relies on symbols that cohere around bidani culture, and in particular around nomadic pastoralism, which is why Ghazouani’s alleged use of the word khalawat stung. Nobody, least of all the bidani, expects their dominance to last for ever. There has been a recent upsurge in anti-slavery activism; one of the movement’s leaders is Biram Dah Abeid, a prominent haratin campaigner and former presidential candidate. The backlash has been apparent in parliament, notably in the appearance of a bidani supremacy party.

There are almost a hundred different political parties in Mauritania, and it’s unclear to what extent Ghazouani’s opponents will unify around a single candidate. Perhaps the closest thing to a unity candidate is Sidi Mohammed Ould Boubakar, a former prime minister and ambassador to Egypt. The opposition is making more noise than usual about transparency, following some controversy at the 2018 parliamentary election. Some Mauritanians I spoke with pointed to recent events in Algeria and Sudan, and suggested that the regime is likely to be intimidated into allowing a degree of fairness. It remains to be seen how much of the change will be substantive and how much cosmetic. President Aziz has said he intends to remain active in politics, although his post-election role has not been announced. ‘If he leaves or doesn’t leave,’ a journalist from Zouerate told me, ‘he will be present.’