Nouakchott, Asharq Al-Awsat – Few Mauritanians had heard of Khet Bint al Boukhari, the wife of deposed Mauritanian President Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi, before he was elected last March 2007. But it didn’t take her long to make her name known after pioneering as the first First Lady to publicly engage in political and social work.
Bint al Boukhari played a pivotal role in helping propel her husband to power by mobilizing popular support during his electoral campaign since Ould Cheikh Abdallahi had not been previously nominated to any political post before the presidential elections – which also accounted for the difficulty of the task that his campaigners were faced with.
After Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi emerged victorious in the electoral battle against his rival Ahmed Ould Daddah, his wife; Khet Bint al Boukhari managed to garner more attention than her husband due to her strong presence in the independent and official media arenas. Moreover, she ensured that she was present alongside the presidents and royals that came to visit Mauritania to hold talks with the new president and was also present in public life among citizens where she undertook social services in Nouakchott’s urban slums.
Bint al Boukhari caused an even bigger stir when she announced that after being appointed by her husband, she intended to establish a charity to help the poor, offer funding for small projects to the residents of remote Mauritanian villages and counteract chronic diseases that afflict the deprived and marginalized classes as a result of malnutrition and the absence of health awareness. It was Mauritania’s first charity [KB Associations, the initials of her name] to be run by the First Lady.
But the First Lady’s presence was an anomaly in Mauritanian society which still remains conservative and where women do not participate in many activities and a sort of ‘modesty’ is imposed on them that prevents them from accessing some areas that are monopolized by men. Previous First Ladies had never been in the public eye and only appeared in the media on special and rare occasions and did not accompany their husbands on official trips. Meanwhile, those close to Bint al Boukhari say that she seized travel opportunities to make contacts and raise money and awareness for the charity she founded.
During the year and a half term that the ousted President Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi served, his wife succeeded in making strong contacts with many Arab, European and African leaders while making her charity known, in addition to the relief work that she undertook to help the victims of natural disasters. These include the floods in Tintan city that resulted after August 2007’s heavy rainfall. Most of the residents were displaced outside of the city and had no place to go but vehicles dispatched by the First Lady were the first to arrive and she was present as the cars unloaded their heavy loads including tents, blankets and food. However, various countries soon followed suit and sent various contributions with Saudi Arabia making the largest contribution of US $20 million.
To her credit, Bint al Boukhari was involved in many social and health fields, in addition to spearheading awareness campaigns in the impoverished areas of Nouakchott. Mauritania’s renowned celebrity, Al Tahira Bint Hinbara, who has known the Bint al Boukhari for some time stated that the First Lady had great ambitions to undertake humanitarian work and that she had been planning to set up a charity for a considerable amount of time but that it had not been possible to execute that plan until after her husband became president.
Hinbara went on to describe the First Lady as patient and flexible “despite the fact that she lacks experience in dealing with others and in spite of her cultural limitedness,” she said.
“The last time I saw her,” she continued, “it was the day she was leaving the palace after the president was deposed and she was good-humored despite the harshness of the situation… she was receiving her guests with generosity and smiling as though nothing had happened.”
However, Bint al Boukhari’s presence in political life and her conflict with the Mauritanian Senate elicited a huge wave of anger and word began to circulate that her alleged growing influence on her husband’s decisions was unacceptable. Also, some of her actions were interpreted by some parliamentarians to be an exploitation of power to raise money from some governmental institutions to benefit her own charity, which flouts the law that charities abide by in Mauritania.
It was these accusations that were leveled at the First Lady that led to demands to launch an investigation into the charity’s sources of funding, which was perceived by some to be merely an attempt to cause disruption for the president who was wrestling with senior military officers after dismissing various top-level figures who had been his predecessor’s [Maaouya Ould Taya] loyalists and who were regarded as a symbol of corruption in the state.
The battle became bitter after President Abdallahi’s ruling National Pact for Development and Democracy (PNDD-ADIL) suffered internal divisions and infighting; add to that the tensions with other smaller-scale coalition partners, such as the Islamist Tawassoul Party.
Last week the opposition Union of Forces for Progress (UFP) parliamentarians issued a vote of no confidence in the president and 48 MPs walked out to protest against his system of governance. The ruling PNDD-ADIL has 50 seats in the 95-member Mauritanian parliament while other coalition parties occupy 17 seats.
And thus, the honeymoon period between the Mauritanian president and the military institution came to a screeching halt and his fate remains unpredictable. According to observers following closely on the events, MPs have demanded an investigation into the funds of KB Associations also calling for an emergency parliamentary session to be held – the motions carried out under the supposed banner of a ‘legitimate and constitutional coup’ before the ex-president’s five-year term ends to ensure no prospects of re-election.
The demand to launch an inquiry into the First Lady’s charity financial sources was rejected by the ex-president. Meanwhile, Khet Bint al Boukhari has publicly insisted that her wealthy cousins [and expatriate Mauritanian tycoons overseas] had donated huge amounts of money whilst fully rejecting the allegations that she obtained the money from a Mauritanian governmental institution.
Following the publication of compelling allegations in newspapers and websites, the Senate rushed to hold a press conference in which they expressed their great surprise over the statements. The Senate then announced that it was going to hold meetings to examine the situation and threatened that it would demand the investigation of the First Lady and would intercept her at the airport on her way back from a trip to Spain with her husband.
Ex-president Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi found that he was confronted by a strong front and he had two choices to get out of this predicament: The first was to dissolve the parliament so as to hinder the Senate’s efforts to investigate his wife’s charity-related activities but which would result in a loss of confidence in his government, or the second alternative would be to dismiss the officers who were believed to be behind this front and who were offering facilitations and guarantees. This option would mean that the ex-president would not have to resort to dissolving the parliament.
In his first televised appearance following the outbreak of this crisis, Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi issued a reminder that he possessed these powers; however he lacked the courage to use them. This marked the third time that he had warned that he could dissolve the parliament without following his words through since he did not want to use this card until the time was right.
The tension between the former Mauritanian president and military officers reached its height following a press conference in which he fervently defended his wife and denied all allegations claiming that Bint al Boukhari had obtained money through governmental institutions. Moreover, he added that pursuing the matter goes against “the ethics and values of Mauritanian society.”
These statements came as the final episode to a saga of struggle that has endured for quite some time before the ex-president took the decision to restrict the military institution’s influence, which came through sacking four high-ranking officials, including General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz and Commander of the Armed Forces General Muhammad Ould Al-Ghazwani. Over two-thirds of Mauritania’s parliament signed a declaration of support for Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz and his fellow generals last Wednesday.
A council led by a military commander ousted President Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi and took him away while other Mauritanian government officials were placed under house arrest. A mere 40 minutes following the media announcement that the former Mauritanian president had dismissed the four military officials; the presidential guard arrived at the palace and staged a bloodless coup.
Amal, Ould Cheikh Abdallahi’s daughter said: “I do not know where my father is. Officers took him yesterday morning and until now I do not know where he is or how he is. I have not even been able to talk to him. I am very worried about his health and his security. He is in jail somewhere, he cannot call. I do not understand why they have done this to him because he is a president, a democratically elected one. It is totally illegal.”
Earlier today, Mauritanian national radio reported that parliamentarians have called for actions that could pave the way for putting the ousted president on trial. This move is intended to try the former president and some of his ministers for committing “grave errors” in managing state affairs. Moreover, they are demanding that the Senate launch an inquiry into “the management and financing” of the KB Association, the ex-First Lady’s charity. Only time will tell which direction these events will take.