This is the first time Mauritania has been included in a project by ICIJ and its partners, ever since they started investigating cross-border corruption and the world of offshore companies.
Having graduated from the Ecole Nationale Supérieure de Mécanique in France in the early 1990s, a 28-year-old Mauritanian man started to find his way as an investor in the country’s fishing sector, the country’s main source of wealth, which makes China and many European countries salivate.
The path was not hard to navigate for Mohamed Abdellahi Ould Yaha, who was fluent in French and English. He established his first companies MAY Mauritania in 1994 and MIP-FRIGO in 1998.
MAY Mauritania enabled him to become one of China’s most important partners in Mauritania. He became, among other things, the exclusive representative for YAMAHA overboard motors, which are used in the fishing industry. This opened the door to other Chinese investors who considered Mauretania and Africa a favorable destination.
In 2007, Yaha was appointed as Minister of Investment in the government of the country’s first elected civilian president, which a year later was overthrown in a military coup led by Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, who would become president, and whose name became closely linked with that of Mohamed Abdellahi Ould Yaha.
Yaha left his ministerial post with a whole new network of relations and went on to establish a new company, Maurinvest Goup, which later became part of a giant company, Maurilog, a logistics, services and transport company for industrial projects, oil and gas, and mining activities in Mauritania, of which he is still Chairman and CEO.
Searching For a Tax Haven
While Mauritanians were preoccupied with the constitutional amendments that caused great controversy in 2017, and the legislative and municipal elections a year later, Yaha was in constant contact with SFM Corporate Services (SFM) in Dubai.
SFM is a self-described corporate and trust service provider. It establishes companies and bank accounts in over 25 jurisdictions, provides answering services to emails and telephones, and sets up virtual offices for clients in tax havens.
According to documents obtained by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) as part of the Pandora Papers project, Yaha is a client of SFM, which was founded in 2006 in Geneva, and subsequently established offices in Dubai, Hong Kong and the Seychelles.
The leaked documents reveal that Yaha paid SMF thousands of dollars through his bank account in Dubai to set up companies in Gibraltar and the Canary Islands, which are both considered tax havens.
On his request, MTO Oil and Gas Bunkering ltd was established in September 2017. A second company, Oil and Gas Services MSGBC was established in February 2018.
It is registered at SUITE 925 A, Block 8, an address in Gibraltar where many offshore companies are registered.
That same year Yaha established a third company in the name of the company he owns in Mauritania under the name Maurilog Islands Ltd, which is headquartered in Gran Canaria. It is registered at Calle Franchy Roca 5, Las Palmas, Gran Canaria.
The documents indicate he invested an amount of $1,576,500 in the first month of launching the company, and allocated $3,326,725 to invest within 60 days, while revenues were expected to reach $17 million in the first year.
Expectation regarding the company’s annual revenue were as follows:
2018 – $17 million
2019- $20 million
2020- $25 Million
2021 – $30 million
2022 – $35 million
2023 – $42 million
Highly confidential documents confirm that he created Maurilog Islands Ltd, among other reasons, to submit invoices and ensure the amounts paid to him, both in Mauritania and abroad, were in dollars. This in addition to being based in a country with few or no taxes.
According to the plans Yaha presented during the establishment of these companies, they are active in the field of fishing, oil and gas, and ship spare parts.
In them, he furthermore confirmed he had obtained licenses from the Ministry of Petroleum and Energy for the company Maurilog Islands Ltd to work in Mauritanian territorial waters, as well as to represent partner companies.
According to the economist Mohamed Ould El-Hassan, working in country, yet not paying taxes there through the establishment of offshore companies must be considered an economic crime.
The university professor links the year in which Yaha established the offshore companies in tax havens with the troubles Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz’ regime went through from 2017 onward. Businessmen felt the end of the system, which had protected them for so long, was near, and so they wanted to bring their money into safe haven.
Who Managed the Companies?
According to the documents, Jorge Manuel Rodriguez De La Nuez is Yaha’s right hand man regarding everything offshore.
De La Nuez managed the offshore companies after coordinating the whole process of establishing them from the very beginning until obtaining the final documents.
From 2014 to 2016 De La Nuez worked as logistics manager for Kinross Gold Corp in Spain, while since 2017 he has been general manager for Maurilog Islands Ltd. and Oil and Gas Services, both Mohamed Abdellahi Ould Yaha.
The two men met through Kinross.
Allegations of Corruption
In early 2020, the Mauritanian parliament approved forming commission to investigate corruption during the reign of former President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, who left office in August 2019. It was the first time in the country’s history that such a commission was established.
General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz was the leader of the 2008 military coup. In 2009, he ran for elections and obtained the majority of the vote. Having been reelected in 2014, he stepped down in 2019.
Among the dozens of names the parliamentary committee investigated over a period of months, was Mohamed Abdellahi Ould Yaha. His file, alongside those of the former president, ministers and businessmen, was referred to the judiciary to be investigated by the Economic Crimes Police.
In the parliament we met an MP who had been a member of the parliamentary investigation committee, which worked for six months investigating corruption during Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz’ ten-year-rule.
For professional reasons, he asked us to withhold his identity. He said to be surprised Yaha had not been put on trial, as he considered him to be one of the most involved in the widespread corruption and his case one of the most important files related to the Chinese Poly Hong Dong Company which has been active in the marine fishing for some 25 years.
The MP said he did not understand how Yaha had managed to escape justice. He thought it likely he had settled his case before it reached the judge by returning sums of money to the state. He added that this had happened with a number of people who were under investigation, as the state’s focus was more on returning looted money than imprisoning those involved.
The Mauritanian public prosecutor confirmed the deputy’s words in a statement on the investigation published in March 2021: “The case was closed for suspects after ensuring the state’s economic and financial interests.” Meaning: they returned funds.
This was not the first time the name of Yaha was linked to corruption. Nor that of the former president. In 2017, the French anti-corruption organization Sherpa published a report on Mauritania, which sketched a bleak picture of transparency in the country. Under pressure from Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, many people close to the former president got contracts with international companies.
Sherpa also signalled contracts signed in 2013 between Kinross, Total, Kosmos Energy and Maurilog. Sherpa warned international investors and European donors that corruption in Mauritania under the rule of Ould Abdel Aziz was eating away at the state, and weakened it economically.
William Bourdon, a lawyer and Sherpa’s former president, told us that new information regarding the relationship between businessman Yaha and former president Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz has since appeared. The American Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) in 2018 claimed that Kinross, which operates a mine in Mauritania had bypassed the 1977 Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), as they were forced – by a very influential person – to work with a certain Mauritanian logistics company.
The American Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) in 2018 claimed that Kinross, which operates a mine in Mauritania had bypassed the 1977 Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), as they were forced – by a very influential person – to work with a certain Mauritanian logistics company.
Bourdon had no doubt that the “very influential person” was former president Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, and that the logistics company was none other than Yaha’s Maurilog.
Maurilog is the largest company belonging to businessman Mohamed Abdullah who was born into it, but the story of its establishment is exciting and carries with it a lot of influence and bribery, before it became as large as it is it is now.
The documents reveal that former president Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz played a major role in the founding of “Maurilog” by putting pressure on DB Schenker, who had a three-year business contract in 2013 with Kinross in the field of providing transportation and logistics services.
The company did not last long. In 2014, it faced tax hurdles, which forced it to pay a million dollars in taxes, which made its boss begin to think about how his company could get out of this predicament.
To avoid the problem of taxes and the inability to work in Mauritania, the head of the French branch of the company, Philippe de Cressy, transferred 600,000 euros to the chosen member of the board of directors, Al-Nashbab, in order to give 400,000 of them to the then-president of the Senate, Mohsen Ould El-Hajj, a close friend of President Mohamed Ould Abdulaziz.
Then the former president, Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, ordered the cancellation of the tax debt owed by the DB Schenker Company, but its board of directors announced in the same year a financial loss for the year 2013, which amounted to 4.7 million dollars.As a reaction, the board of directors decided to transfer the shares of Schenker Mauritania to the chosen board member, Al-Nash, through his company, EBBEN SARL, and the shareholders agreed to change its name to Mauritania Logistic.
In 2014, Mohamed Abdallah Weld bought it from Mokhtar El-Nash’s 90% stake in Ebben Sarl, which became Maurilog to become the main partner of DB Schenker and later obtained many work contracts in the field of transport and logistics, with the intervention of President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz.
The former president cannot be reached to ask about these allegations, as he is now in prison, on charges of corruption and money laundering, with no spokesperson .We sent him, via his e-mail, a number of questions within the framework of the right of reply, in which we mentioned all the information we have.
On the other hand, however, we did not obtain a trace of the man named Al-Mukhtar Al-Nashbab, neither on the Internet nor on the ground, as if he had completely disappeared and left no trace, and we were unable to communicate with the former Senate President, Mohsen Ould El-Hajj.
Instead of communicating with the former president, we sent questions to Mokhtar Ould Ajayi, the former Minister of Economy and Finance. During the era of Ould Abdel Aziz, Ould Ajayi was in charge of all aspects of the economy, finance and agreements throughout that period.
Taxes are a Government Game
Taxes are a stick in the hands of successive Mauritanian governments. They are like a sword hanging over the heads of those businessmen who oppose them or swim outside their stream, and a lifeline for everyone within their orbit, an opportunity to accumulate money without paying the state’s rightful taxes.
Yaha was one of the “moneymen” residing in the orbit of former president Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, yet worked to establish offshore companies in tax havens collecting millions of dollars.
The economist Mohamed al-Hassan had an explanation for this. He considered that the money is not very far removed from the imprisoned former president.
According to Ahmed Samb, a financial inspector at the Mauritanian Ministry of Finance, there are no official statistics on the amount of money the state loses annually due to tax evasion, yet added that it is estimated to run into the billions of “uguias,” which is the local currency.
Mauritania has a declarative tax system. It relies on declarations submitted by taxpayers. The Directorate General of Taxes only monitors them to verify their accuracy.
When the directorate does not carry out inspections or investigations, the system “encourages” businessmen to provide inaccurate information and tax evasion.
The penalty for tax evasion is double the amount the taxpayer was required to pay. In case of failure to pay the fine, the institution is subject to closure and bank balances can be seized by the state.
Searching for an Answer
Despite our many repeated attempts to contact Mohamed Abdellahi Ould Yaha, we never received a response from the man who has been shying away from the media since the very start of his career.
As communicating directly with the former president is impossible, we sent our questions to Mokhtar Ould Ajayi, who was Minister of Economy and Finance, under Abdel Aziz.
He responded he was unaware of Kinross signing a contract with a Mauritanian company under pressure from an important figure. “I am not aware of any transactions outside the law with this company or any other,” he said.
While Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz is no longer in power, he is the one who granted businessmen like Mohamed Abdellahi Ould Yaha access to contracts he could not have reached without help of an influential person, in addition to obtaining mining and fishing licenses in Mauritanian territorial waters.
The current president, Mohamed Ould Cheikh Ghazouani, has launched a war on corruption since coming to power in 2019. Yet, he faces a challenge as in how to deal with the legacy of his predecessor, which included exploiting the state for private gain, tax evasion, and transferring money to Europe and tax havens, and that in a country suffering from poverty, unemployment and weak public services.
We managed to reach his son, who in his response, ignored the talk about the current situation of Maurilog Islands Ltd. He did not provide information about it, and focused on the reserve company, which announced its closure, which means that it is still operating but publicly acting as though it has closed.
As for the former Minister of Economy and Finance in the regime of Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz El Mokhtar Ould Ajayi, he responded to us by saying:
“I am not aware of any extra-legal transaction with Maurilog or any other company”