Page last updated at 09:55 GMT, Thursday, 14 August 2008 10:55 UK

Mauritania strongman steps forward

Gen Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz

By James Copnall
BBC News, Nouakchott

General Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz, the new military leader of Mauritania, is no stranger to coups d'etat.

Mauritania's new strongman helped Maaouiya Ould Taya seize power in 1984, then served as the soldier-turned-head of state's aide-de-camp for many years.

He's a simple man, who likes order
Ally of Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz
Gen Abdelaziz, who was born in 1956 in Akjoujt, to the north-east of the capital, Nouakchott, later set up the presidential guard, which quickly became the elite military unit in the country.

Then President Ould Taya became increasingly unpopular, but Mr Abdelaziz saved him twice, playing a key role in wiping out attempted coups in 2003 and 2004.

Then, in 2005, he changed course, and was one of a group of soldiers who removed Mr Ould Taya.

There are different opinions in Mauritania about whether Gen Abdelaziz followed in the footsteps of the coup leader, Colonel Ely Ould Mohamed Vall, or whether he was the real key to the operation.

Either way, he served under Col Vall in the military junta, which kept its promise to hold elections within two years.

'Good soldiers'

Gen Abdelaziz is credited by many Mauritanians with reducing the length of the transition, as this military interlude was known, from 24 to 19 months.

A driver with poster of the new leader on her car makes the victory sign
Some are convinced the general is here to stay

The polls the junta organised last year, won by President Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi, were widely applauded as free and fair.

In some circles Col Vall, Gen Abdelaziz and the junta were known as the "good soldiers", the military men who took power and then gave it back.

But that does not mean that Gen Abdelaziz had no interest in the political life of the country.

"Sidi [Ould Cheikh Abdallahi] was his creature, Abdelaziz was the one who pushed him to the front of the political scene," one political source said.

After the elections Gen Abdelaziz was again appointed the head of the presidential guard.

But a struggle for power between the general and the head of state developed.

Gen Abdelaziz was accused of stirring up the politicians from President Abdallahi's governing coalition, and 48 of them resigned en masse two days before the coup, destabilising the elected head of state.

When the president attempted to sack Mr Abdelaziz and three other senior officers, the moustachioed general reacted.

The coup, it is said, took only three phone calls to carry out.


So who is the man now in charge of Mauritania?

"He's a simple man, who likes order," says a collaborator who has known him for many years.

I love my country, not power
Gen Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz
During a recent interview with the BBC, Gen Abdelaziz was clearly tired by a long day of explaining his coup to diplomats and envoys.

Dressed in a military uniform - he is rarely seen in public without it - the career soldier appeared slightly ill at ease as he refused to rule out running in the elections he promises to hold.

Gen Abdelaziz has yet to give a timetable for the poll.

He also claimed he had no particular affection for the benefits of office.

"I love my country, not power," he said.

But those who work in the presidential palace, where the general is installed, already refer to him as "the president", with all the deference reserved for overwhelming authority.

Law inforcement agents block a street during an anti-coup rally
The general has the full backing of the security forces

His friends and supporters, meanwhile, refer to him using the diminutive "Aziz" - which means "well loved" in Arabic.

Mauritania's political class is divided - many parties and a majority in the senate support the putsch, while other parties and the president of the National Assembly are firmly against.

Mohamed Lemine Ould Biye, a senior member of the UFP party, which is part of the National Front for the Defence of Democracy, a group set up to call for President Abdallahi to be returned to power, is predictably scathing about the general.

"I know he's discreet, you hardly notice him," he told the BBC.

"And when you see him talking in Arabic or French, you certainly don't get the impression he's particularly brilliant.

"It's obvious he has no vision, no plan for what happens now."

Mr Biye does acknowledge Gen Abdelaziz's cunning in setting up and concentrating military power in his presidential guard.

The opponent also does not believe the general will spend much time in the president's chair.

"He must know the international community, and most of Mauritania, doesn't want him to stay, so he will think about it, and find a way to get out without humiliating himself."

Others, however, are convinced that the general is here to stay, either in the president's chair or in a position he has become accustomed to in recent years, one of the real forces behind the scenes.

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