Mauritania’s anticorruption investigation of former president Mohammed Ould Abdel Aziz is motivated by a broadly shared effort to frustrate the former president’s apparent desire to return to power. Ould Abdel Aziz’s unpopularity with the military, political class, and Mauritanian population has unified the elite behind a judicial push that could put him behind bars. He was taken into custody on allegations of corruption on August 17 and released on conditional bail on August 24.
Ould Abdel Aziz came to power in 2009 following a coup he helped orchestrate in 2008. The extent of his greed and drive to enrich himself was widely known. One civil society leader, who requested to remain anonymous after a September 2020 WhatsApp interview with the author, went as far as to say, “Ould Abdel Aziz . . . is power-hungry, aggressive, and won’t give up unless he is stopped.” During his ten years in office, he shielded himself from accountability despite calls from the opposition to investigate corruption. He supported President Mohammed Ould Ghazouani as a successor, hoping Ould Ghazouani would be a puppet. But from early on the new president—who took office in August 2019—indicated his break with the former president.
Staggering Levels of Corruption and Cronyism
The National Assembly announced the creation of the Parliamentary Inquiry Committee (PIC) in January 2020 to investigate suspect government contracts that were concluded during Ould Abdel Aziz’s time in office. The commission, composed of members of the opposition and of the ruling party, seems to have conducted its investigation largely free of interference. It examined a number of projects including infrastructure projects worth $1.14 billion, the container and hydrocarbon terminal at the Port de l’Amitie of Nouakchott, and the construction and management of fishing complex in Nouadhibou, among other deals. The committee’s findings revealed that senior state officials colluded with beneficiaries in the sale of public land, awarded hundreds of millions of dollars in illegal concessions, and made staggering profits through partnerships, for example with foreign fishing companies that engaged in tax evasion at the expense of the local fishing communities.
After the report’s release in late July, a government reshuffle on August 6 removed six officials, including three who were named or implicated in the report—although the secretary general of the presidency announced that anyone cleared of wrongdoing could regain their post.
Many of the investigated deals seem to have benefitted Ould Abdel Aziz, his immediate family, and several close associates. An example is the controversial sale of 80 percent of the shares of F’Derick mine. The mine has 30 million tons of iron ore—valuable, given that mining accounted for more than half of Mauritania's export earnings in the late 1990s. The PIC revealed that Ould Abdel Aziz’s son-in-law Mohamed M’Sabou was involved in the sale, which apparently took place without the approval of the National Company of Mining and Industry’s board of directors. The deal shows Ould Abdel Aziz’s willingness to capitalize on the country’s natural resources for personal gain. The former president’s government also allocated 3.5 million square meters (3.8 million square feet) of property to eighteen fake companies, violated the public procurement code in a number of infrastructure projects, and flagrantly violated regulations on project management through awarding infrastructure contracts to public companies that passed assets onto Ould Abdel Aziz’s family and political allies.
A Slew of Attempts to Wrest Back Power
One of the reasons for the investigation is that Ould Abdel Aziz has shown clearly that he hoped to remain part of Mauritania's politics after he left office. Once out of power, Ould Abdel Aziz tried to remain in the leadership of the ruling Union for the Republic (UPR) party—which he founded in 2009. In November, Ould Abdel Aziz convened and chaired a meeting with the UPR’s interim management committee to discuss a plan for him to maintain his influence and a role within the party. A few days after the meeting, twenty-two out of twenty-seven committee members responded by signing a statement recognizing Ould Ghazouani as the party’s leader instead. Ould Ghazouani swiftly moved the UPR’s general elections up several months and buttressed his position further by securing leadership posts for his allies.
Meanwhile, Ould Abdel Aziz was also maneuvering to mobilize parliament against Ould Ghazouani. In an attempt to take over the ruling party, he claimed it was unconstitutional for Ould Ghazouani to head the UPR. Ould Abdel Aziz also pronounced that the Muslim Brotherhood had infiltrated the new government, and even attempted to take control of a smaller party, the Socialist Democratic Union Party, to gain a political foothold. According to long-running rumors, he also tried to wrest control over the presidential guard, the Bataillon de Sécurité Présidentielle. After these attempts, Ould Ghazouani undertook a major shakeup of his security detail and military leaders to distance figures close to or associated with the former president.
The Current President’s Balancing Act
Although Ould Abdel Aziz has lost the support of key military leadership—who at the end of his second term reportedly refused to support him for a third mandate and convinced him to peacefully hand power over—still Ould Ghazouani faces somewhat of a balancing act. On the one hand, if the current president fails to put a clear end to his predecessor’s maneuvers, the former president may continue his efforts to worm his way back into power, potentially using old terrorist networks, militias, factions within the military, and those disenchanted with the current regime. On the other hand, if Ould Abdel Aziz is imprisoned and stripped of his wealth, members of his tribe (the Oulad Bou Sbaa tribe) may object out of tribal solidarity, possibly mobilizing sympathizers to create unrest.
This unprecedented anticorruption campaign has revealed the unbounded greed of Ould Abdel Aziz and the desire of the current elite to prevent his return to power. In a September 2020 WhatsApp interview with the author, UPR spokesman Sidi Amar Chikna put it this way: “The situation is more than just pushing out a former president with an unsound and unpopular ambition. It is that his vision . . . does not serve stability, does not represent democratic transition, and does not suit the country right now.” While the campaign does not signal broader efforts to increase government accountability, it nonetheless demonstrates what can be done when there is a unified political front to maintain stability and adherence to established political process.