Mauritanians in the capital Nouakchott woke up on Sunday to what amounts to a piece of political intrigue.
Their president, former military general Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, was shot and wounded amid obscure circumstances.
Since the incident Abdel Aziz has been lying in the military hospital for treatment since the early hours of the morning.
As explanation, the Minister of Information made a televised announcement saying the president was shot at by mistake while returning to Nouakchott by road.
He said the fire came from a security patrol that did not recognize the president’s convoy.
But was it a proper convoy with body guards, or was the president driving alone without proper security precautions?
The space between these two scenarios is where rumours thrive.
Al-Akhbar, one of the main opposition websites, quoted what it described as a security source saying the president was directly shot at by a civilian who was driving a car next to his.
This account contradicts the official version about shots fired by mistake by a security patrol.
One source says he was shot in the leg, another says he was shot in the arm.
Yet another source, which is supposedly close to the president’s entourage, said Abdel Aziz was shot in the stomach and preparations are under way to fly him to France for better medical care.
The official story claims he was seen walking inside the hospital, which would suggest that his wound was light.
After what is now more than 10 hours in the hospital, this account has been cast in doubt.
According to another, stranger, version of events, the president was driving his own car back from his farm outside the capital when he was wounded.
In any case, little has so far been revealed about who shot him, regardless of whether or not it was in error.
The incident certainly challenges the government’s account that he was in a presidential convoy when a security patrol opened fire on him personally and wounded him in particular – all by mistake.
After all, Mauritania is notorious for its history of military coups. It has seen at least half a dozen since 1978.
Abdel Aziz himself staged two of them the first against former dictator Mouawyia Ould Taya in 2005, and the second against a democratically elected civilian government in 2008.
A year later, Abdel Aziz won elections after a deal with the opposition parties that initially opposed his military coup. Since then, he has adopted an uncompromising stance towards the opposition.
Unlike former dictators, however, he never really resorted to crackdowns and mass jailing of opponents.
During the peak of the Arab Spring, hundreds of opposition youths took to the streets to call on the president to resign on the grounds that he initially came to power through undemocratic means.
Those protests were small and sporadic, but they have continued since the winter of 2011.
Even so, unrest among Abdel Aziz’s civilian political opponents did not prove contagious among the military. This may have been due to his pro-military policy in terms of officers’ salaries and other benefits.
During most of his three years in power, however, he committed troops to the tough task of defeating al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in parts of the Sahara, including southeast Mauritania and northern Mali.
Some of his military adventures in northern Mali caused considerable loss of life and drew harsh criticism among the population.
Mali military campaign
Perhaps in response, Abdel Aziz recently announced that he would no longer send troops outside the national territory.
Interestingly, that announcement came at a time when Western countries were starting to increase pressure on West African nations, including Mauritania, to participate in a military campaign against armed groups in Mali.
Observers might conclude that Abdel Aziz’s lack of interest in participating in Mali might be the reason behind his decision not to go to Kinshasa for the French African summit. He would have then been forced to face French President Francois Hollande, the leader who has been spearheading the Western effort for a military campaign.
Mauritania is known for its many coups, but not for one single high-profile political assassination. If we are to rule out a plot by Al-Qaeda in The Islamic Maghreb – becasue they never really showed remarkable skills in tracking presidents to this level of precision – we may also rule out any possibility that the national civilian political class could be behind the incident.
The wildest guess, if the incident indeed proves to be a murder attempt, could probably centre on the military.
If it turns out the shooting was deliberate, and done by a man in uniform, it may not be unwise to think of a collective or at least an individual plot.