President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz (left) indicates a successor in General Mohamed Ould Sheikh Mohamed Ahmed Ould El Ghazouani (right)

President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz (b.1956) announced to several deputies on 28 January that General Mohamed Ould Sheikh Mohamed Ahmed Ould El Ghazouani (b.1956) will be the candidate of the ruling Union pour la République (UPR) in the presidential election to be held in June-August. The former head of the army and current defence minister has been the favourite to succeed Abdel Aziz for some time.

After vainly trying to tamper with the Constitution to continue his presidency, Abdel Aziz has realised that it was no longer possible to stand for a third term. He therefore had to find someone who was very favourable to him in the person of General Ghazouani. It has been widely thought for some time that Abdel Aziz would manage the constitutional impediment to him remaining in control of the country by adopting the Vladimir Putin – Dmitry Medvedev option. This involves finding a replacement who will take over the office of president while Abdel Aziz continues to run the country from behind the scenes, possibly as Prime Minister or, more likely, as the UPR’s president. It is then presumed that Abdel Aziz will return to the Presidency in five years’ time.

Ghazouani is both the ideal and obvious choice for Abdel Aziz. The two men have been close friends since meeting at Morocco’s Royal Military Academy in Meknes in 1978. They climbed the ranks of the army together and worked together to achieve the two military coups: in 2005 which overthrow President Maaouya Ould Sid’Ahmed Taya (1984-2005); and in 2008 when they ousted President Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi (2007-2008). When Abdel Aziz moved into the Presidency it was Ghazouani who took over as Army’s Chief of Staff before recently moving to head the defence ministry.

When Abel Aziz was hospitalised in France in 2012 — officially after being accidently shot by a young lieutenant — it was Ghazouani who took over control in Nouakchott before handing over to Abdel Aziz on his return home.

Together, the two men have transformed Mauritania’s small and relatively backward army into a modern, mobile force, which, thanks largely to its intelligence service, has effectively eradicated Islamic terrorism in Mauritania. Along with the Chadian army it is the most effective of the G5S force.

Ghazouani is said to be adored by his men whose living and working conditions have been considerably improved. He is also respected by, and on good terms with, both the French military establishment and the Pentagon. In particular the Americans have supplied special detection equipment that is theoretically prohibited for export.

Ghazouani, who is the son of a spiritual leader of the influential Ideiboussat maraboutic tribe, has hardly any declared enemies. Even the Islamist main opposition Tawassoul party has spoken of him with respect.