For a president who has carried out two coups in his fragile, poor country, Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz has made quite a personal turn round.

Only five years ago, the African Union issued sanctions against Mauritania’s general-turned-president; today he is its chairman, counted on by the west as an ally against jihadi militancy and attracting foreign investment from the likes of Glencore Xstrata and Total.

As he prepares for his second set of elections in this Islamic state, likely in June, he “doesn’t need to cheat to win”, according to one diplomat. If the elections are largely peaceful, as expected, it will mark a period of stability following a series of eight successful or attempted coups that have unbalanced the country since Moktar Ould Daddah, the president at independence, was ousted in 1978.

The polls should also recognise the strength of Mr Aziz’s security response – which has involved both uninvited military action across the border in Mali and conciliatory public debate at home – against al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, whose affiliates have carried out kidnappings, assassinations and car bombings on Mauritanian soil since his first coup, but not since 2011.

He can also argue that political stability, thanks largely to his military strength, the financial fruits of a renewed hunt for oil and minerals, along with some efforts at reform and liberalisation, has delivered a turnround in the country’s economic fortunes since the woes of what IMF resident representative Tijani Najeh refers to as the “lost decades” of the 1980s and 1990s. The tiny $4.2bn economy grew at 6.7 per cent last year, inflation runs at 5 per cent and there is no longer a crisis in its foreign reserves. Instead of having funding for only two months of imports in 2009 (international financial institutions can brook only as low as three months without squirming), internationally audited reserves now run at $1bn, equivalent to seven months of imports.

A supporter of Mauritania's President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz holds his picture
Popular support: President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz will soon face voters © Getty

“The president has seen the effects of bad management; he doesn’t want to be like that,” says central bank governor Sid’Ahmed Raïss, who believes administrative reform is paying off, albeit slowly. “Liberalisation started in 1986, but was a failure because of corruption – it was like we created a Russia-style rentier state of barons who took everything for themselves, we had bad management of public resources and there was no economic progress. Now we have more of a culture of responsibility.”

But Mauritania is by no means home and dry. For now, economic growth and a steady government – which some diplomats refer to as “stable fragility” – mask entrenched corruption and social divides that, without greater attention, could threaten the state’s fortunes again. The country already performs poorly in indices that track the business environment and graft, and it also regularly meets widespread condemnation over domestic slavery, which it regularly bans; an indication it persists.

“It’s an apartheid system,” says Biram Dah Abeid, an anti-slavery activist who has been tear-gassed and arrested, but wants to run for president in the June elections. He says new laws are passed solely to please the west and that slavery continues.

His campaign highlights wider ethnic and historical fissures in the 4m-strong society. He is attempting to unite the Arabic-speaking black Haratin, descendants of slaves, of which he is a member and who he believes comprise half the population, with non-Arabic-speaking black Africans who come from the south and have longstanding grievances against the Moor elite.

Others say the Haratin – who have long taken the names of their former masters – have more in common with the Arabic-speaking Moors who occupy most of the top positions of the administration than with black Africans.

Mr Abeid will probably face obstacles – he may be banned from running, and many black Mauritanians lack identity cards that would give them the right to vote, following a flawed registration process that may have left many out, in the words of another diplomat, “by design”.

The government understands the danger of these cleavages. The president positioned himself as the “President of the Poor” on the eve of the 2009 election that rendered him legitimate, following his 2008 coup in which he deposed the country’s first democratically elected leader.

However, his detractors quip he has earned the title not by reducing poverty but by increasing it. It is a tricky point to argue: the latest household survey dates from 2008. It found 42 per cent of people lived below the poverty line – high for so small a country.

But the update to the survey is two years late, and a more targeted poverty survey intended to reveal the greatest need that would direct resources better has still not been conducted beyond the capital Nouakchott. Even the new government agency set up to target poverty and assist former slaves refuses to determine how many it should be helping.

Such delays, along with a gap between the promise of publicly declared good intentions and results, mean few can decide how much of a reformer the president really is. “He’s in search of international legitimacy and recognition, [but] the elite runs the country as if it’s their property,” says a senior western diplomat, who is nevertheless impressed at recent efforts to reach out to the public. The president, for the first time in African history, convened a meeting last month with 400 under-40-year-olds to hear their complaints and suggestions in 10 areas from economic policy to free speech.

The working groups, attended by a president who says he is determined to renew the political class, lasted until 3am. A commission will now take up and implement their solutions.

Mr Aziz has also liberalised the media, and defamation is no longer an imprisonable crime. “You really have liberty of expression, even when it comes to saying things about the president,” says Mohamed Aly Ould El Abady, president of the Mauritanian union of websites, which run to about 100. “Before, if you wrote against the president it crossed a red line; you could be arrested right away.”

When the president was “accidentally shot” in 2012, newspapers ran reported conspiracy theories blaming everything from errant lovers to coup plotters alongside the official explanation – that a guard fired when the president failed to stop at a checkpoint after returning home from the desert late at night.

Freedom of expression stops short of religious opinion, however, and Mr Aziz has emphasised that religion outranks democracy, aware that this red line is quickly thickening in popular opinion.

Demonstrators took to the streets last month on hearing a rumour a copy of the Koran had been torn up inside a mosque. And when a young man was convicted of apostasy in January, the president took to the streets to reassure protesters calling for his death that he sympathised with their view. Whether that signals a state-led step towards conservatism (older Mauritanians remember plenty of easy, energetic debate about whether God exists without invoking state crackdowns and death threats) or what one diplomat describes as a canny “pandering” to the cause, it is clear that the state wishes to appropriate religious debate.

“We’re worried these could be the first steps in the radicalisation process,” says a government official.

“We want the Islamic Republic of Mauritania to remain more traditional and tolerant.”

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