Mauritania's camel-back mission to win hearts and minds

by Daphn� BENOIT
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Villages like Ouad Initi are at the centre of a push to win hearts and minds in remote Mauritania

The sleepy Mauritanian village of Ouad Initi is about to get a makeover: a bigger school, a health centre, and more running water. All part of internationally-backed efforts to win over hearts and minds and stop the spread of jihadism.

A lean, wrinkled man in sky-blue robes, the village chief, with several curious children at his heels, emerges to greet a posse of visitors -- European Union workers out on a reconnaissance mission.

Remote villages like Ouad Initi, near the border with Mali, have long been neglected by authorities, making them easier prey for jihadists and other armed groups that have proliferated in Africa's Sahel region.

Now they are at the heart of a push to win over grassroots support in Mauritania with authorities ramping up both security operations and infrastructure development to stop the spread of extremism.

"What is boosting confidence and stopping Al-Qaeda recruiting is continuity in governance," a senior Mauritanian official told AFP.

The European Union has earmarked 13 million euros ($14.7 million) of aid to boost Mauritania's development and security at the same time.

"This type of joint civilian-military action is pioneering for the EU," said Francois-Xavier Pons, the project's head of mission.

"We know very well that development allows for progress on the security front, encouraging people's loyalty to the state."

The vulnerability of remote villages is also a major concern for the five nations of Africa's fledgeling G5 Sahel anti-jihadist force, which groups Mauritania with four others along the Sahara's southern rim: Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad.

The five, which have been battling jihadists from Boko Haram and the Islamic State group, will seek funding for 40 projects in border areas at a conference in Mauritania's capital Nouakchott on December 6.

- Preventing a rural exodus -

Villagers in Ouad Initi, where cows and camels graze among rudimentary houses dotting a rocky landscape, have already provided valuable intelligence in the fight against extremism.

In 2010 they warned officials that suspected militants had been passing through the area on their way to Nema, capital of the southeastern region.

This led authorities to a plot to attack a barracks in Nema, which on Wednesday was to host celebrations for Mauritania's national day.

Infrastructure workers on the ground say strengthening the farming economy is key to preventing a rural exodus which would make such territory an easier target for jihadists.

"There is a clear link between the difficulties affecting farming and the development of illegal activities such as jihadism locally," said Abder Benderdouche, who works on agricultural projects.

Agriculture is the regional economy's lifeblood, he stressed, and encouraging it will help make remote areas more secure.

"Areas in the Sahara and Sahel hold the region's meat reserves. That's worth its weight in gold," Benderdouche said.

- Camel-back missions -

Heavily-hit by jihadist attacks and the kidnapping of foreigners during the 2000s, Mauritania has been waging major efforts to improve security in recent years.

It has sought to strengthen its army while boosting aid to remote areas where the state's grip had grown shaky, especially on the border with Mali.

Last week, President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz said efforts to engage with "young people who were lost" had stopped "waves of Mauritanians" leaving to join jihadist groups.

The military's Nomad Group (GN), which includes camel-back units, is a prime example of the two-pronged approach fusing security operations with infrastructure development.

The GN has been growing in clout with support from the EU, which is set to buy 250 more camels for the force.

"Where the state doesn't have any infrastructure in remote and isolated areas, we're coming to help in terms of sanitation and education," said GN commander, Colonel Abderrahamane El Khalil.

"My men can help to dig a well, but they're also there to collect information, thanks to their proximity to the population."

On camel-back, GN members can travel up to 70 kilometres (43 miles) a day, roaming villages for up to four weeks at a time.

The construction of a G5 outpost 25 kilometres from the Malian border, meanwhile, will also be accompanied by measures to boost the economy and win locals' trust.

In Nbeikit Lehouache, two hours into the desert from Nema by road and dirt track, cash from the project will allow for a mobile hospital that will treat locals as well as G5 troops.

"Here, a box of paracetamol is welcomed with joy. Imagine a hospital capable of performing operations," said Pons.

Villages like Ouad Initi are at the centre of a push to win hearts and minds in remote Mauritania

Farming and animal husbandry are crucial to the local economy on Mauritania's border with Mali

Mauritania is waging a two-pronged approach to boost security while building trust among local communities