The judicial investigation into the ill-gotten gains and related financial crimes of former President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz and his family has stuttered to a halt. It has been impeded by his lack of cooperation and a trial now seems inevitable.
The problem, however, is that virtually everyone knows that he was guilty of extensive defrauding and embezzlement but it will be difficult to present the court with solid and convictable evidence.
The problem of an impartial trial is exemplified in the way that Abdel Aziz’s family is now ridiculed in the press. For example, one recent piece summarised the family by starting with his son, Bedredine, who dropped out of high school and has no known business activity other than owning a vehicle maintenance and repair garage. Despite this he has apartments in the Canary Islands, drives luxury cars, sports Hublot watches, and claims to own dozens of villas and properties in Mauritania and elsewhere.
The former First Lady, Mariem Mint Ahmed dite Tekber — nicknamed the ‘regent of Nouakchott’, after Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s widow Leila Trabelsi was nicknamed ‘the regent of Carthage’ — bought a duplex in the 16th arrondissement of Paris, along with real estate in Morocco, Turkey and the UAE. She is also still being paid by the Mauritanian Central Bank.
Abdel Aziz’ daughter Asma — who in recent years took to appointing and sacking senior officials — is currently sitting on a fortune despite having never held any office or engaged in any known commercial activity. Dozens of buildings and land in Nouakchott and Nouadhibou are registered in her name. Her husband, Mohamed Boussabou, has morphed from a simple used car salesman into a successful businessman. From being a lowly employee of the Société Nationale Industrielle et Minière de Mauritanie (SNIM) — the country’s iron ore monopoly and main source of its wealth — he somehow rose to become the main salesman for Mauritania’s iron ore.
Abdel Aziz’s very discreet second daughter, Leila, made her name and wealth by selling off land illegally acquired by her mother, much of which passed into the hands of Sheikh Ali Ridha, a prominent religious leader, known as ‘Sheikh Ponzi’, who had close spiritual ties to Abdel Aziz.
Meanwhile, Abdel Aziz’s cousin and nominee, Mohamed Lemine Ould Bobatt is the registered owner of the building that headquarters the International Medical Centre as well as an insurance company whose troubles with the justice system have been the subject of recent media headlines. He also has a number fishing, agriculture and agency handling businesses. Other Abdel Aziz favourites include: the Maurinvest Group’s chairman and CEO, Mohamed Abdellahi Yaha; and his first cousin Feil Ould Lahah. Between them they have managed to amass much of Mauritania’s wealth over the last decade or so.
Abdel Aziz’s defence strategy has been to systematically refuse to cooperate with the various investigators, stressing that he is facing a ‘political trial’ to which he claims immunity under Article 93 of the Constitution. He said, ‘My money does not come from the Treasury, nor from the Mauritanian Central Bank,’ but he did not deny having accumulated a large fortune. According to his lawyers, his wealth has come from the donations to his various electoral campaigns and ‘gifts’ from various foreign leaders.
As other regional political leaders in the region are finding — such as Algeria’s former prime minister Ahmed Ouyahia who is currently having to explain the source of his wealth to the courts — reliance on political donations and ‘gift’ from supposed foreign friends is not a good defence.
In Abdel Aziz’s case, the problem for the court may not be in finding him guilty but in actually recovering the wealth which could keep a raft of lawyers in business for quite some time.