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Mauritania: is it fighting corruption or is there a soft coup?

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Mauritania President Mohamed Ould Cheikh Ghazouani on 30 June 2020, in Nouakchott [LUDOVIC MARIN/POOL/AFP/Getty Images]

Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Cheikh Ghazouani has just completed his first year in power by launching a campaign to fight corruption and protect public funds. As part of this campaign, cases from the decade-long rule of former President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz were opened. The first success of the campaign was the resignation of Ismail Ould Cheikh Sidiya's government, less than a year after its formation, following a report by the Parliamentary Investigative Commission which suggested that ministers in the government were involved in corruption. President Ghazouani proposed the formation of the committee at the beginning of this year.

Ghazouani seems intent on making a break with the era and legacy of his predecessor, to the point that the matter has become like an open confrontation between them. This suggests that the dispute has reached the point of no return, especially after the dismantling of a large part of the influential network of the former president's supporters in the military establishment, notably by removing key officers from the Presidential Guard, the most important unit in the army. This is the unit which carried out military coups in 2005 and 2008.

The anti-corruption campaign is part of President Ghazouani's reform programme which has been accepted and approved of by the majority of Mauritanians, not least because it establishes responsibility and accountability. There is also an emphasis on equality for all before the law, as confirmed by making influential figures in the state hierarchy accountable. A few days ago, the Economic Crimes Police summoned a former two-term president to provide evidence in corruption cases in which he is suspected of being involved. The accusation was broadened to include the seizure of property and questioning of his son and son-in-law.

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Many were optimistic that the move would signal the dismantling of ingrained corruption that has taken over the entire state body to the extent that it was the norm when dealing with all public institutions and administrations in Mauritania from the early 1990s. That is when the military legitimised systemic corruption during the era of former President Maaouya Ould Sid'Ahmed Taya.

Mauritanians are optimistic about a new way forward for an Arab and African country that possesses natural and human resources that are completely disproportionate to its ranking on lists of global indicators. There are some, though, who remain sceptical about what is happening because the dispute is between the current and former presidents.

This started with a political movement within the Union for the Republic Party (UPR), which led to the emergence of the "reference crisis", as Ould Abdel Aziz received ministers and political officials at the party's headquarters after returning from Europe, in his capacity as a founding president of the party and the sole reference point. He chaired a meeting of the ruling party's committee to present his new vision and approach to Mauritania's situation, disregarding the outcomes of the party's conference in December 2019, during which he announced disengagement with the former president, and considered Ould Cheikh Ghazouani's programme as the new reference for the ruling party. The meeting irked supporters of the head of state, and some considered the move to be insulting and unacceptable against a man with whom there was a relationship of forty years as friends and colleagues in the army and politics; there is even a connection through marriage, as a former wife, and mother of one of the president's daughters, is the daughter of Mohamad Ould Abdel Aziz's aunt. Ghazouani was also one of the loyal individuals in the most difficult moment, as he stood alongside Ould Abdel Aziz in his coups and protected the government when the president was shot in the desert in 2012.

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Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz has defended himself and stressed that the party's move is based on the idea of protecting democracy, as he accuses the current president of working to destroy it by controlling the party institutions and eliminating supporters of the founding president. This argument does not hold up in the face of Ould Abdel Aziz's political history, as he is led the military coup against Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallah, the first elected President of Mauritania ousted in 2008. The hot weather that Mauritania is experiencing is matched by the hot politics.

What might happen now? There are three possibilities. For a start, the Ould Ghazouani government will want to mould Mauritanian politics to suit itself. It is using the anti-corruption campaign to achieve this, summoning the former president, his family and his senior aides with the aim of silencing them and removing them from the scene. At the very least this will ensure that their political role is reduced and contained. This is the purpose of the corruption and mismanagement charges.

Furthermore, the government will want to gain new legitimacy among Mauritanian citizens by moving the corruption file, which is viewed by the public as a hornet's nest. Thus, Ould Ghazouani hits two birds with one stone, breaking his political opponent and obtaining a blank cheque from the people in order to manage his affairs quietly, despite the fact that economic conditions are very difficult.

Finally, the government will seek to recover the stolen money and bring the criminals to justice. This is only a faint possibility, because it needs strong political will, which the Ould Ghazouani government still lacks. The strength of its backing by foreign supporters was revealed in its election campaign, as supporters of the President of the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies in the UAE, Sheikh Abdullah Bin Bayyah, with all their weight, supported Ould Ghazouani. It became even clearer when the newly-elected President Ghazouani chose the UAE for his first foreign visit. Moreover, Sheikh Bin Bayyah's eldest son, Mohamed Mahmoud Ould Bey, has been appointed as Minister of Justice.

When considering all of this, we can expect a reaction from the other side at any moment. Ould Abdel Aziz, who led a military coup, cannot risk another without keeping cards for himself that he can play against the new government.

This article was published in Arabic in Al-Araby Al-Jadeed on 24 August 2020

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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