Mauritania - Corruption
Despite the current push to fight corruption, wealthy business groups and government officials reportedly receive frequent favors from authorities, such as unauthorized exemption from taxes, special grants of land, and favorable treatment during bidding on government projects. Mauritanian and non-Mauritanian employees at every level and in every organization are believed to flout Mauritanian tax laws and filing requirements. The only exceptions are civil servants, whose income taxes are automatically deducted from their pay. Such widespread tax evasion and corruption has deprived the government of a significant source of revenue, weakening its capacity to provide necessary services. In 2009, the government passed a law requiring all high-ranking government employees to publicly declare their assets, although this law is not fully enforced.
In the July 2009 presidential election, President Aziz ran on an anti-corruption and populist platform. Donor partners applauded the release of the first-ever Mauritanian anti-corruption strategy in November 2009, and a number of high-profile anticorruption cases have demonstrated at least nascent efforts to fight corruption. As of June 2017, about 30 individuals have been detained on embezzlement and corruption charges and are awaiting trial. Although progress has been made, laws and regulations are still not evenly and effectively enforced, largely because corruption is endemic in a society that is still largely based on familial and tribal relationships rather than strict adherence to the rule of law.
Corruption is an obstacle to foreign direct investment in Mauritania, but firms generally rate high taxes, access to credit, an underdeveloped infrastructure, and a lack of skilled labor as even greater impediments. Corruption is most pervasive in government procurement, bank loans, fishing license attribution, land distribution, and tax payments. Giving or accepting a bribe is a criminal act punishable by two to 10 years imprisonment and fines up to USD 700, but there is little application of this law. Firms commonly pay bribes to obtain telephone, electricity, and water connections, and construction permits more quickly.
Since assuming office, President Aziz has embarked upon a program to reduce privileges for government employees and to identify and punish those guilty of financial crimes. The current anti-corruption push began in November 2009 when the Bureau of Economic Crimes arrested the former governor of the Central Bank for alleged crimes committed between 2000 and 2001. His arrest was quickly followed by the arrest of the former deputy governor of the Central Bank and the launch of an investigation into the business practices of 12 other prominent businessmen and bankers. The former Central Bank governor was accused of laundering approximately USD 95 million over the course of two years, the equivalent of nearly 10 percent of Mauritania’s 2010 budget. All of the individuals arrested in this first anti-corruption push were released in January 2010 and ordered to repay the entire amount.
Mauritania’s Office of the Inspector General of the State handles financial investigations in the public sector. This agency, created in 2005, reports to the Prime Minister and has the authority to conduct investigations into all government offices and departments. From 2013-2015, there were several investigations into various government institutions which resulted in dismissals of senior governmental officers and managers of public institutions because of corruption or mismanagement.
The former Human Rights Commissioner was relieved of his duties and imprisoned in August 2010 on grounds of mismanagement. His trial concluded in December 2012 with time served, a USD 253,333 fine, and an order to reimburse USD 934,482 to the Mauritanian government. Mauritania has also reimbursed funds diverted under the previous administration from Global Fund programs intended to benefit those living with HIV/AIDS, and the international organization has now resumed support to the country.
These most recent investigations highlight the degree to which corruption in both the public and private sectors continues to occur. While most people do not doubt that the accused did in fact engage in corrupt practices, these investigations are controversial, as critics claim they are being conducted to settle political scores.
In 2016, the UK Serious Fraud Office (SFO) put the Smith and Ouzman printing company on trial for bribing officials (in the amount of $680,000) in four countries, including Mauritania, between 2008 and 2010. The trial revealed that the Secretary General at the Ministry of Interior received a bribe from the company in the amount of $78,000. Recent efforts to increase tax collection have proven controversial as business owners, for the first time, face tax obligations that reflect the relatively high level of formal taxation for businesses that are not eligible for specialized exemptions. Tax collection efforts frequently incur criticism for their lack of procedural transparency.
There are several organizations that track corruption within Mauritania. Transparency International has a representative who reports on local corruption policies and events. Additionally, in 2010, several local nongovernmental organizations worked with a UN representative and the Mauritanian government to submit a national action plan to fight corruption.
In practice annual auditing of government accounts is not enforced and therefore rarely conducted. However, the government rectified previously misreported financial data in an effort to be more transparent, such as by publishing quarterly financial statements on a government treasury website www.tresor.mr.
In April 2016, a new anti-corruption bill was introduced to address the provisions of the UN Convention Against Corruption and to provide protection to NGOs involved in investigating corruptions cases. Corruption is most pervasive in government procurement, bank loans, fishing license attribution, land distribution, tax payments, and mining licenses.
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