Mauritania is gaining support and recognition as a good ally in North Africa to guarantee stability in the region, contribute effectively to controlling migratory flows, confront the threats that have arisen in the Sahel with terrorist groups and the new situation in neighbouring Mali, where the operations of Wagner's Russian mercenary groups have raised many concerns and suspicions about Putin's intentions in the region.
Mauritania is a humble country of 4.5 million inhabitants, with a large territory that places it in an important geostrategic position due to its more than 740 kilometres of coastline on the Atlantic Ocean, bordering Algeria, Morocco and the Sahara, with Mali and Senegal.
Mauritania's Ministry of the Interior states that the security strategy is comprehensive internally and externally, with development programmes and social services for all citizens. And they consider the G5 Sahel, which groups together the countries of the region except for Mali, which has been expelled, to be the best framework for action and cooperation, with European support.
The new situation in Mali must be taken into account, with a transitional government following the latest coup in October 2020 that has decided to extend to five years, instead of the 18 months originally planned, the time needed to achieve the stability and normalisation necessary to call new elections. This decision taken in February this year has led to the maintenance of economic sanctions by ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) and the deterioration of relations with France, which decided to withdraw its troops after years of fighting terrorist groups. The European Union decided to halt its training programmes for the Malian armed forces, while Russian mercenaries from the Wagner group have been deployed in the capital Bamako and are active in various regions of the country, where some local authorities report attacks against the civilian population.
The result of this instability in Mali is the constant flow of refugees crossing the border into the desert south of Mauritania to seek refuge in the Mbera camp, which has been open for 10 years and is home to almost 100,000 people.
Some of these refugees manage to reach Nouakchott and are seen at traffic lights begging or trying to clean the windows of cars or set up along the fence of a central street in order to access aid from the Mauritanian government.
These refugees are one of the problems Mauritania and other countries in the Sahel region are facing as they take in people fleeing attacks by terrorist and paramilitary groups. Mali itself, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad and Nigeria offer assistance to those fleeing certain death. According to UNHCR (United Nations Refugee Agency) data, almost 6 million people have fled their homes because of the threat of jihadism, conflict, mafias and a whole loop of crime that feeds back on itself. The political and strategic interests of Russia and Turkey, and China's more economic interest in raw materials, are causing substantial changes in the balance of power and forcing the European Union and the United States to intensify their actions of all kinds in the Sahel, despite the fact that Ukraine has a large part of the resources and capabilities, both economic, military and intelligence.
Mauritania has vigorously controlled the danger of rising Islamist extremism, but there is a growing concern that is not being voiced.
Former President Mohamed Abdulaziz used very expeditious methods to contain the Islamists' advance as much as possible. The current president, Mohamed Grazwani, also exercises rigid control to prevent terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda, Daesh and other lesser-known groups from infiltrating the country. The government's policy of social actions to benefit the most disadvantaged and help them overcome their situation is one of its hallmarks, which aims to put an end, within its resources and possibilities, to inequality that could lead to protests and altercations and serve as a doctrinal breeding ground for radical Islamists.
In schools, children are taught to reject violence and radical approaches. Religious political parties are banned, but moderate Islamists have managed to gain some support in Mauritanian society, winning almost 30 deputies in the National Assembly with the Tawasul party (National Rally for Reform and Development), anonymously supported by the Muslim Brotherhood, which for now acts discreetly due to the tight control of the Mauritanian security forces. Qatari investments in Mauritania are growing in sectors such as tourism and industry, compared to those of the United Arab Emirates. China is also playing a leading role in the construction of numerous infrastructures and public buildings.
The collaboration of the Mauritanian government and its security forces with the Spanish authorities to control irregular immigration is working well. In recent months, the number of boats arriving in the Canary Islands from points along the wide Mauritanian coast has been less than 5%.
The mixed patrols made up of members of the Spanish Guardia Civil and the Mauritanian Gendarmerie are producing good results within the framework of a clear will to collaborate, which was reflected in the signing of a memorandum of understanding in other areas such as cultural, educational and scientific cooperation during the visit to Spain by the Mauritanian president, Mohamed Grazwani, and his wife, Mariem Mohamed Fadel Dah, last March.
In recent years, Mauritania has become one of Spain's priority partners outside the European Union due to strategic security and stability issues, migratory and trade cooperation, and the fishing grounds, which are among the most important for Spanish vessels outside the European Union.
Mauritanian Interior Ministry sources point out that the border posts are equipped with biometric devices that register the entry of refugees and immigrants who are received in camps equipped with basic services such as water, electricity, health care and food. They state that Mauritania is an area of exchange between the Maghreb, Europe and West Africa. It is an area of transit and migratory flows, which means that the country is making many efforts to counteract illegal immigration with great success.
For three decades, Spanish cooperation has maintained programmes dedicated to improving health, food security, governance and the fight against gender violence. Queen Letizia will pay special attention to these projects during her visit to Mauritania, which began on Tuesday. The Mauritanian First Lady is particularly interested in showing Queen Letizia the centre of the Autistic Children's Association Zayed Centre of Mauritania, which is the first entity specialised in the treatment and rehabilitation of autistic children in the African country.
Article previously published in ABC on Tuesday 31 May 2022