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Scoundrel or Statesman? The case of Ely Ould Mohamed Vall

July 12, 2009

It was a stirring start. Before some two thousand supporters, many of them former ministers and high power business people, fmr. Colonel Ely Ould Mohamed Vall began his address. Immediately, the power at the convention center cut out, leaving the entire venue without light. Through the darkness, Vall announced to his supporters that not even electrical failure would stop him from being elected president of Mauritania.

Colonel Ely Vall (allegedly, but not certainly, retired), the face of the 2005 coup that unseated Mauritania’s long time dictator Maouiyya Ould Tayya, is standing in the upcoming elections slated for 18 July. Conspicuously quiet during in the post-coup period, he made his views of Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz’s coup public just some two months ago, letting the world know he had opposed it from the beginning — what is in the heart is more important than what rolls from the tongue, he might have said. Despite his claims to having liberated Mauritanians from nearly two decades of dictatorship and his hopes to continue in such a way as president, it remains to be seen just what Ely Vall stands for.

It may be said that Vall would make a better businessman than statesman. His wealth is well known in Mauritania: his hand can be found on much of the country’s economic infrastructure from markets to rental cars to bakeries to the racket that police charge taxi drivers. A story of the post-2005 coup period tells the story of a man who migrates to Nouakchott from a village in the bush, with hopes of starting anew. He is frustrated, having arrived in the capital with only 200 ouguiya (hardly .70 USD). “What can I do with 200 ouguiya?” he asks in exasperation. His cousin, already established in the city as a taxi driver, takes him to the street in front of Col. Vall’s home, a palatial residence in one of the capital city’s poshest neighborhoods. He points to the castle, saying “This is what you can do with 200 ouguiya!” Referencing the 200 ouguiya police men collect from each taxi driver in exchange for “protection,” a pot from which Vall is known to have profited extensively. Hence his nickname,”Elycom,” stemming from his part in the notoriously corrupt licensing and operations of Chinguittel, the third major cell phone line in Mauritania and owned by Vall’s nephew — which took place during his presidency.

Many foreigners look at the 2005 transition period as a time when Col. Ely Vall rose to prominence as a reformer and emancipator. Many Mauritanians see it somewhat differently. Instead, for them, it was a time when a crook was stationed on patrol at a bank and used ever free chance to purchase whatever piece of real estate and enterprise he wanted without shame and without consequence. It is during the transition period that Vall amassed the fortune with which he is subsidizing his campaign and living happily. For Vall the transition was not about liberating men; it was about emancipating hard cash from the public coffers to his back pocket. And one must not pretend that he left office willfully or gleefully: by every contemporary account of those in his vicinity, his cousin Gen. Ould Abdel Aziz dragged him kicking and screaming from office, for the extent of his fiscal vision was not yet realized. The image of Ely Vall as a grand reformer, with any strong popularity among ordinary Mauritanians as a democratizing savior, might be well described in terms used by Elie Kedourie: “violently eccentric and out of all relation to the facts.” (“The Middle East and the Powers,” The Chatham House Version, and Other Middle Eastern Studies, 2004, Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, pg. 5.)

Last week, Vall’s campaign expected to receive a large contribution from someplace abroad — some say from Qatar, others suspect Libya and Vall’s own holdings abroad might be just as likely. Where ever it would have come from it was blocked, causing Vall’s cohorts to scramble for cash from various domestic sources. These efforts have had some success, his campaign contains some of Mauritania’s richest and most corrupt men. The list of names supporting or working for Vall give lie to the image he is working to craft as a reformer and democratizer. There is the former Navy chief, Abderrahmane Ould Kwar; Abdi Waqeff, of note for his role in sabotaging aid projects with greed and so ravenous in his graft that he was tossed into prison by Tayya; Ahmed Ould sid’ Ahmed, a former Minister under Ould Tayya; Sidi Ould Domane, former head of the Nouakchott port and thus many money bags; Yahya Ould Sidi Javar, who runs the Vall campaign in Adrar; Abdoul Hamet Diop, ex-Minister of Tourism and many other portfolios under Tayya; there are former Colonels, ministers and money makers of the Tayya era all through his campaign. And there his finally his campaign manager, the ex-Tayya minister Ahmed Khelifa. So much for Ely the Reformer.

Ely Vall does not represent a break with the Tayya period and he does not represent a Mauritania on a path towards political normalcy in any reasonable sense. Instead he represents the triumph, perhaps the resurgence and mutation, of elements of the Tayya system. The Mauritania of Ely Vall would look something like a Mauritania run by a banana corporation. At ideational level, when one asks Mauritanians what Vall stands for they are met with a pause and then the word “corruption”. In a country where the conquest of state institutions enables financial success instead of vice versa, Ely Vall is the ultimate example. While Vall may be quite solvent — the wealthy appear to have no trouble tossing money at his campaign, knowing full well that he can pay them back — he is neither well liked nor trusted in Nouakchott or much of anywhere else in Mauritania.

When General Ould Abel Aziz speaks of “corruptors,” he is referencing a particular kind of Mauritanian bureaucrat, civil servant, officer or minister. These are those who were allowed to place their hands into places they did not belong during the rule of Ould Tayya by a dictator who to this day has only one personal home to his name and known less for a hunger for the spoils of power than a case of light megalomania. The largess that was allowed in that twenty year arch was tactical; it was allowed as a means of keeping big personalities from turning on the regime by keeping dirt on them. Ely represents the triumph of such a man over the system. He represents his own kind of national disorder, a republic of mercantile graft and unabashed thievery. This is where his “base” lies, and this is why it is unlikely for him to be elected president. So wealthy and so desperate for support is his campaign that on more than one occasion it is known that men, hungry for cash and with rather different political inclinations than the Colonel, have come to Vall’s campaign and been given money to stump for his cause and then gone off, bought themselves expensivedra’as, cars and skipped town with plans to vote for Ould Daddah or Ould Abdel Aziz He needs whatever support he can get, even if it requires that he cut corners on vetting supporters. So much for Ely the Contender.

Most Mauritanians — both Moorish and black –understand this and thumbed their noses to him well in advance of the campaign season. That in mind it only follows that the other candidates too have dismissed Vall as a non-contender. His candidacy is not indicative of a division of the military’s ranks; the brass has moved to General Ould Abdel Aziz without much hesitation and one will notice that Vall’s backers with military backgrounds are, like him, retired. One finds that discussions surrounding the 18 July elections do not include all candidates: Ould Abdel Aziz, Ahmed Ould Daddah and Messaoud Boulkheir dominate the conversation. Jamil Mansour, Ely Vall and the others are not considered serious candidates.

His wealthiest friends, the Emir of Qatar and the Libyan state, will not be able to push him through to the second round after 18 July. Their support is the result of an understanding that Vall is more internationally credible and acceptable than Ould Abdel Aziz. Both collaborated with the junta leader last autumn and winter, but Vall’s record, internationally, is cleaner than Ould Abdel Aziz. France is also fond of Vall, and he is thought of as Paris’s man in Nouakchott by many. The same policy positions would come from Nouakchott under either man, but the Qataris — who have grown comfortable with Vall through his membership on the board of Sheikha Mozah’s Qatar Foundation — and Libyans and French — who see Mauritania as a part of their spheres of influence — believe Vall to be a known quantity. And so do the Mauritanians.

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