Several events occurred in Mauritania over the last month that are worth recounting partially and in the context of the current government’s style of rule (which is not especially different from those of the past).
1. Human rights minister fired. Mauritania’s, Human Rights Minister, Mohamed Lamine Ould Daddah was dismissed and promptly replaced by Mohamed Abdellahi Ould Khatr. The Minister is accused of embezzling something like $1 million from his ministry, which the government would like him to return. Interestingly, informed sources relate that much of that money was used to fund Ould Abdel Aziz’s presidential campaign. Ould Dadde was at one time the head of one of Mauritania’s most important (and secretive) opposition groups, but took to spying on his partners for the regime and was rewarded with dominion over the Human Rights Ministry. Unfortunately for him, though, it seems his graft became conspicuous too quickly and at the wrong time: the president is on a personal mission against corruption and the targets tend to be those low in the pecking order and outside of his inner circles. Additionally, it is important to note that Ould Dadde has close to no tribal backing whatever, meaning he was practically expendable. Had he come from a larger, more powerful tribe his firing would have been more difficult. It is often the case that ministers or commissioners from larger tribes can get away with more corruption than those from smaller ones. In cases such as Ould Dadde’s, removal on grounds of embezzlement of a man from tiny or political inconsequential tribe comes with low risk and medium returns for a leader looking to make a point.
2. Changes in embassy accountants. In a display of force designed to illustrate the president’s commitment to combating corruption, the government replaced a whole slew of accountants in Mauritania’s foreign missions . Sources close to and in the Foreign Ministry have communicated that this is meant to send a message to the public and to ambassadors and others with sticky fingers to control themselves. The objective here, as with Ould Daddah’s dismissal, is to make a loud public stance against systematic official corruption at as low a cost as possible. Corruption is thoroughgoing in Mauritania’s public and private sectors; it is likely that measures targeted at middle management and in everyday instances of corruption may have some impact in addressing the problem. It is also likely that anti-corruption measures will continue to be undertaken for appearances or revenge while ignoring the big fish — and usually without long-term planning.
Embassy accountants are employees of the Mauritanian Ministry of Finance and are responsible for managing budgets and accounts; an ambassador cannot initiate any initiative at all — including paying employees — without the compliance of his (or her) accountant. It is a commonplace for ambassadors and their accountants to enter various get-rich-quick schemes. An ambassador and an accountant will, for instance, connive a story to justify withholding employees’ pay checks for months at a time while these monies sit in an account somewhere earning interest. At the right time, the money will be withdrawn and disbursed to the embassy’s employees while the ambassador and his accountant split the interest between themselves. Similarly, an embassy may acquire imaginary friends (usually fictitious local help) whose salaries subsidize the higher ups’ luxury fittings.
3. The old game. Anti-corruption campaigns in Mauritania have often been components in broader political crackdowns or retributions. They often come as outbursts — a president, cameras and aides and all, appears at a schoolhouse or post station or mine demanding to know where some missing centime has gone and quickly using his executive authority to humiliate and then dismiss some minor civil servant. These kinds of surprise visits were common among ambitious leaders in the early 1980s in Mauritania. The affect is to give the common people a happier view of the presidency, and sure up its charismatic authority; its broader affect is to embarrass frequently corrupt state employees only so long as the president and his cameras are in town. As soon as the presidential motorcade is in the distance and the cameras are turned off, the stealing and the nepotism and the tribalism continues much as it did before. These are not institutional reforms demanding accountability; they are stunts designed to strengthen whichever faction is dominant at the time. This is especially the case in the current situation given Ould Abdel Aziz’s style of leadership which lends itself to just the kind of emotional and short sighted caprice that makes even reasonable initiatives short-lived and problematic. These measures resemble those of previous, short-lived, governments in Mauritania dominated by men with strong personalities but lacking the stamina, vision and skill to institutionalize their intentions.
4. The green line. Early in August, President Ould Abdel Aziz, amid massive flooding, took to the outskirts of Nouakchott to break ground at a project aimed at holding off the affects of desertification by planting a green line of vegetation around the city — the One Million Tree Initiative. This is a fine idea from which Mauritania(ns) can surely benefit. Military aircraft dropped seed from the air and a large ceremony gathered for the event. Ould Abdel Aziz is said to have felt very strongly about the symbolism and the impact of the ceremony: the president hoped to make a grand showing of Mauritanians hard at work for the betterment of the nation under the hot August sun, most of them fasting for Ramadan — miserable, God-fearing but determined but ready to struggle for the public good. All seemed to go well; people, many reportedly against their will, were bused in to swell the mass and get down to business and a large number of ministers and officials made appearances. Yet when the president’s entourage left the scene the whole rest of the crowd did as well, leaving behind a meagre group insufficient to continue work on the project. Sources close to Ould Abdel Aziz say the president threw a fitful tantrum after realizing that the crowd had gathered solely to please him and not to do any work on the much needed green line. However strongly Ould Abdel Aziz believes in his own causes, politics (his and others’) naturally complicates things; there is the issue of interest and sincerity in the official class and political culture at large. For these reasons, no government action (anywhere, including Mauritania) should be taken at face value; political events occur and are played deliberately by men.