The prosecution of a former leader is unprecedented in Mauritania and extremely rare in Africa.
Former Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz has gone on trial, accused of amassing an illicit personal fortune during his 11 years in power.
Aziz, a 66-year-old former general, appeared in court on Wednesday in the capital, Nouakchott, along with nine other defendants, including former prime ministers, ministers and businessmen. They face charges that include abuse of office, influence peddling, money laundering and illicit enrichment.
Proceedings began with a roll call of the defendants. When his name was called, Aziz, dressed in a blue gown, rose and raised his hand. The defendants were placed in a metal cage-like stand in the courtroom as hundreds of police stood guard outside.
Aziz, a trader’s son who came to power in a bloodless coup, stepped down in 2019 after two terms in which he defused violence from armed groups that has swept across other countries in the Sahel.
He was succeeded by his former right-hand man, Mohamed Ould Ghazouani, in the first transfer of power between elected leaders in the history of a country marked by military coups and upheaval. But within a month of the handover, allegations emerged of financial misdealings.
Aziz is suspected of syphoning money from state contracts or the sale of real estate and amassing a fortune equivalent to more than $72m.
He has denied the allegations against him but refused to answer investigators’ questions about the source of his wealth.
He describes himself as the victim of score-settling and argues he has immunity from prosecution under the constitution.
“He completely rejects the accusations against him,” one of his lawyers, Taleb Khayar Ould Med Mouloud, said before the trial.
“Lots of people have grounds for hating him, including the Muslim Brothers, which he threw out of the country,” Maloud said.
Lawyers say the trial is likely to last weeks or even months.
Ghazouani, who is also a former general, played a key role in Aziz’s successful strategy against the armed groups.
As late as December 2019, Ghazouani described his former boss as “my brother, my friend”.
But the following year, Aziz’s woes began.
A parliamentary investigation was opened into financial dealings during his presidency. It delved into oil revenues, sales of state assets, the winding-up of a public company in charge of food supplies and the activities of a Chinese fishing company.
He was expelled from the ruling Union for the Republic party.
According to local reports, Aziz was arrested on the eve of the trial for refusing to report to the police. French broadcaster RFI also reported that his passport was confiscated as he was about to fly from Nouakchott to Paris this month.
The prosecution is unprecedented in Mauritania, a large, conservative desert state that gained independence from France in 1960. The case is also extremely rare in Africa as a whole.
Mauritanians interviewed by the Agence France-Presse new agency said they hoped the trial would set a new benchmark in the fight against graft in their country.
The nation is ranked a lowly 140th out of 180 in the 2021 Corruption Perceptions Index by the organisation Transparency International.