On March 22, as I was about to wrap up a meeting with a client, I got a phone call. At first I ignored the vibrating phone, but the same number kept calling. “Aren’t you going to take that?” my client asked politely. As I reached out to take the call, the phone stopped buzzing. Then it vibrated with a short message: “Your brother was arrested.” My heart sank. I stumbled out of my meeting trying to find out what I could do to help my brother.
I believed I knew why he had been arrested. My brother Abderrahmane Weddady, 48, is a whistle-blower. Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz—or Aziz, as he is known locally—opted to silence him. The president was betting on global media and institutions to do what they have done throughout his 14-year reign: ignore Mauritania. He had gotten used to this lack of accountability. And he was facing the greatest financial scandal in the West African nation’s history.
My brother believed that he had uncovered a dangerous Ponzi scheme. Sheikh Ali Rada Al Saidy presented himself as a man with a blessing, a pious cleric of many miracles. He offered Mauritanians a tempting deal. He bought their homes at prices way above market value, my brother alleged, offering partial payment in cash and the rest as an IOU to be paid over the next one to three years. His army of representatives then moved immediately to flip the properties at deeply discounted prices—at times, as little as 50 percent of the real value—using the proceeds to pay off earlier creditors, according to my brother’s investigation.
This “blessed money fructification miracle” had been under way for four years until my brother—a construction entrepreneur—noticed that real-estate prices were tumbling fast in January 2016. He began a relentless campaign to warn the public of what he believed was an impending social and economic disaster, leveraging his popularity as a transparency and democracy activist, and his only weapon: his highly read Facebook page.
His plan was simple: to dissuade as many people as possible from falling for the swindle. He even published documents alleging that members of the president’s own family had benefited from the scheme. The scheme imploded last fall. Ever since, the victims have been demonstrating in the streets seeking payment. Rebuffed by the courts and law-enforcement agencies that refuse to investigate the fraud, they are left to fend for themselves. They are incensed that the police and the president have not held the alleged scammer accountable.
The injustice in imprisoning my brother, along with his fellow transparency advocate Cheikh Ould Jiddou, is perhaps the least of all the scheme’s consequences. My brother estimated that more than 7,000 families were affected, and that it cost more than $200 million. That would be 4 percent of Mauritania’s GDP. The social damage caused by people losing their homes, future, and dignity, though, defies efforts to assign it a price tag.
Aziz is due to hand over power in June. His exit may be welcome news to most Mauritanians. Aziz participated in a 2005 coup, then cemented his power through another coup in 2008, and his leadership of the country since then has been anything but transparent. In violation of Mauritanian law, he began his first term as president, in 2009, by disdainfully refusing to publicly disclose his wealth. In 2013, local media outlets broadcast a recording of a conversation between Aziz and an Iraqi citizen from 2006, allegedly about boxes of forged U.S. dollars. Aziz later admitted to the authenticity of the recording, claiming to having been a victim of a con artist. The World Justice Project’s 2019 “Rule of Law Index” ranks Mauritania’s government as the world’s 11th-most corrupt, and fifth worst in terms of the rule of law.
Why does the world tolerate this? Many believe that if a dictator or a strongman is willing to leave power peacefully, he ought to be encouraged, and that his past misdeeds, especially corruption, should be forgotten for the greater good of a peaceful transition. Tolerating corruption, the argument goes, is still a small price to maintain peace and order.
In March 2017, the International Monetary Fund’s Mauritania bureau sent a memo to IMF headquarters recommending that it provide information to the Mauritanian government on the dangers of Ponzi schemes, according to a source familiar with the document. If such a warning was ever issued, it does not appear to have had any effect on the government, or on the IMF’s willingness to engage with it.
There’s another reason for the world’s acquiescence. Aziz, since coming to power, has successfully branded himself as a bulwark against terrorism in the Sahel. This pose, employed by so many others since the dawn of the War on Terror, has become a costly cliché. Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh is a textbook example. He received hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. aid in the name of fighting terrorism, yet left Yemen impoverished, divided, and mired in war.
Mauritania is one of the poorest nations on Earth, and Aziz will bequeath a difficult legacy to his successor. The $200 million lost in the alleged Ponzi scheme is a pittance compared with the country’s galloping foreign debt. It has skyrocketed to $4.9 billion, a 346 percent jump from the year Aziz came to power after his second coup. Like many of his fellow strongmen, Aziz has gotten used to passing on the bill for his excesses to world donors, condemning the next generation of Mauritanians to live on handouts and donations while he and his entourage live large.
Aziz’s exit from power provides a golden opportunity for the United States to change its approach to corruption by former heads of impoverished states, creating accountability for the theft of public moneys. Mauritania presents none of the usual complications of vested interest groups or geopolitical power struggles plaguing other parts of the world. Lawmakers on Capitol Hill can authorize the Treasury Department to employ its arsenal of tools allowing it to track and identify ill-gotten fortunes. Doing so would provide a warning to the leaders of other impoverished nations, deterring them from looting their people and leaving behind failed states.
We have now nearly 19 years of evidence to show that in places such as Afghanistan and Iraq, the single most decisive factor in the failure of nation-building projects has been the inability to install good governance. Instead, many of the leaders backed by the United States turn out to be corrupt, diverting public funding meant to fix roads, provide electricity, and expand access to health care into their own pockets. But solving this problem doesn’t require armed force—it requires addressing it head-on.
Holding leaders like Aziz to account for any corruption, and seizing any ill-gotten gains, sends the message that the United States will not allow them to plunder their nations or turn them into vortexes spewing instability, extremism, and violence for the rest of the world to deal with. That message would ring loud in the ears of the world’s kleptocrats, and perhaps protect others from sharing my brother’s fate.