An expert's point of view on a current event.

The Professor, the General, and the World’s Fishiest Business

Overfishing threatens livelihoods around the world. Now an unlikely experiment offers a solution.

GettyImages-459344286 crop

Mauritania rarely makes the global headlines, and that may be a good thing. No news is good news in this thinly populated desert country, because whenever its sand-blown capital Nouakchott appears in a dateline, the story that follows seems to be about mysterious assassination attempts, the latest shenanigans of Al Qaeda fighters roaming the Sahara, or government persecution of anti-slavery activists.

Recently, a rare chance to move beyond these staple narratives opened up when Mauritania’s ruler, President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, assumed the rotating chairmanship of the African Union. In January, Aziz convened a high-level conference on transparency and sustainable development in Nouakchott. Addressing the assembled dignitaries, he announced the launch of the Fisheries Transparency Initiative (FiTI), an ambitious scheme to curb corruption in the worldwide fishing industry — and declared that his impoverished country of less than four million souls would be the first nation to make its fisheries fully transparent. If his plan works, it could act as a brake on the plunder of many developing countries’ coastal waters by foreign fishing fleets. But its success hinges on an unlikely alliance of politicians, businessmen, and activists from around the globe finding common ground in a sector where bribery and crooked deals have long been the norm.

The Atlantic waters off Mauritania’s coast are teeming with fish, and catching them has been big business for decades, generating billions of dollars in revenue for European and Asian boat owners. “In 1978, licensed catches amounted to a billion dollars, but we only got 23 million dollars in license fees,” Moktar Ould Daddah, Mauritania’s post-independence leader, lamented in his memoirs. In the following years, even these meager revenues — along with much of the state budget — were routinely looted by a succession of military rulers and their families. For decades, foreign companies have bribed local officials all across West Africa for fishing licenses while depleting local stocks. “Traditionally, in this region, fisheries have been seen as the private property of the president,” explained a Mauritanian human rights activist who asked not to be named.

Enter Professor Peter Eigen, patron saint of the global anti-corruption movement. In 1993, at a time when the c-word was still virtually taboo in polite international development discourse, he founded Transparency International and successfully put corruption on the global agenda. (Full disclosure: the author has worked and consulted for Transparency International.) In 2002, Eigen struck again, initiating the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) to tackle graft in oil, gas and mining. Now, at the age of 77, he is collaborating with the Mauritanian government to set up the analogous Fisheries Transparency Initiative to fight corruption on the beaches and at sea.

His partner in virtue, President Aziz, has had a very different career. As head of Mauritania’s presidential guard, he helped to overthrow a military dictatorship in a coup in 2005, ousted a short-lived democratic government in a second coup in 2008, and ran for president in 2009. Since then, General Aziz has been ruling Mauritania as its (arguably) democratically elected president. His country scores just 30 points out of a maximum of 100 in Transparency International’s widely cited Corruption Perception Index, far behind neighbors Morocco and Senegal. Nevertheless, Aziz likes to promote himself as “president of the poor” and as an avid anti-corruption fighter.

In the latest twist, the general doesn’t just want Mauritania to be the first country to join Eigen’s new transparency shop — he’s paying the German professor’s organization to set it up. When I talked to him, Peter Eigen defended the arrangement. “This is a normal consulting arrangement of our not-for-profit organization with the [Mauritanian] government. We do not feel it would be proper for us to disclose details of contracts. If media or taxpayers want to find out how [the] government spends its budget, they can ask the government. This is for FiTI an unimportant side issue,” he wrote in an email. His staff emphasized that Mauritanian money will only cover the development of the initial concept, not the actual initiative; more donors are expected to come on board soon. Eigen said he himself would be working “pro bono” during FiTI’s startup phase.

Observers in Nouakchott are divided as to whether their president is really serious about combating corruption in the fisheries sector. A handful of families from the dominant White Moor social group, including Aziz’s own, have long used their military and political power to capture the state and manipulate markets, forming an entrenched parasitical leisure class that largely excludes lower castes, traditionally subservient socio-cultural groups, and Afro-Mauritanians from the country’s south from the spoils of power. Few of the giant villas mushrooming out of the sand along the wealthier edges of Nouakchott were paid for with the proceeds of honest work. Aziz has been credited with beginning to tackle corruption on some fronts — but his zeal has not extended to his close proxies or top military brass, and so far not a single big shot has been put behind bars.

Pointing to the continued all-pervasive corruption seven years after Aziz first took power, detractors argue that FiTI is just the latest act in a long-running show performed by Mauritanian officials to fool international donors into providing more aid. “We have been advocating for several years to bring more transparency into the fishing sector, and the government did not listen. Then there was a major international event and the authorities wanted to have something to announce,” said Ba Aliou Coulibali, the national coordinator for Publish What You Pay, an organization that lobbies for transparency in extractive industries. “So far this announcement does not seem to be supported by strong political will,” he said. “We [still] have a lot of countries signing agreements with the Mauritanian government without reporting these agreements, and people continue as in the past to get fishing licenses and sell them on to foreign businessmen, for example in Spain, to get a lot of money.”

Other Mauritanians paint a more nuanced picture of the general-turned-president. Of over a dozen civil society activists and political analysts interviewed for this piece, most believe that Aziz is, to some extent, trying to improve how his country is governed. “The president has sent some people to jail for corruption. Civil society is more vigilant, budgets are transparently managed, ministers are more careful. People are starting to think ahead. Take the example of fisheries. If we take everything now, what will be left over in one or two generations?” said Mohamed Fadel Ball of Mauritanie Perspectives, a local think tank. Amadou Ba, who works with the local offshoot of Peter Eigen’s other brainchild, EITI, to bring transparency into the Mauritanian mining industry, agreed. “I think there is genuine political will” to make fisheries more transparent, he said, arguing that EITI had made significant, if gradual, progress over the past ten years.

Ad Corten, a Dutch expert who has worked in Mauritania through his consulting company, thinks incremental progress may be possible. “It would be unfair to say that Mauritania is a corrupt country that will never work. There are many forces that want to institute sustainable management and I’ve seen enormous changes over the past years. FiTI is ambitious but it could work,” he said. However, significant countervailing forces are also in play. “Cheikh Ould Baya, who was the chief negotiator of the recent fishing accord with the European Union, acquired his wealth during his five years as head of the fisheries inspection service, and now he’s Mauritania’s second richest man. He retains commercial interests in the sector and beyond, and has a huge influence on fisheries policy. This is really the bad guy, and FiTI is against his interests,” Corten warned.

Like the president himself, Cheikh Ould Baya (who is now mayor of the mining town of Zouerate) is a former military officer, and the two men are reportedly friends. Aziz has publicly defended the oligarch against those who have criticized him for corruption. As the president sets out to shine light onto the fisheries sector, it remains to be seen to what extent he is willing and able to challenge the financial interests of Baya and other powerful profiteers, who have a high stake in keeping the waters off Mauritania’s coast as murky as possible. “There are a lot of people around the president who control large parts of the economy, that’s how it works in general and also with fishing. The people at the top now become the agents for fishing vessels and secure preferential treatment for them. Presumably, the president himself doesn’t know exactly what is going in the fisheries sector, but I do think Aziz can deliver on his promise to publish this data. It’s not difficult to do,” said Corten. In the fisheries agreement with the European Union signed earlier this month, Mauritania has already committed itself to publishing some key data for the first time, which may limit opportunities for corruption — and the related overfishing of limited stocks — in the future.

Concerns that Aziz or other leaders could abuse FiTI to launder their image are misplaced, Peter Eigen argued. “Whenever a government does something against corruption, people say it’s a whitewash. This will be a multi-stakeholder process involving major domestic and international commercial and non-profit players and the government will have no control over it. No single sector will have control, it’s a form of deliberative democracy, all board decisions have to be unanimous.” Eigen pointed out that EITI, which has a similar governance structure, had not shied away from suspending Azerbaijan and Equatorial Guinea for non-compliance. “We learned from that,” he said.

Eigen also emphasized that the success of the initiative would not hinge on a single country. “Several other countries are also very interested in FiTI,” he said, naming Costa Rica, Guinea-Bissau, Indonesia, Senegal, the Seychelles and several small island nations in the Pacific. “They see these big fishing factories catching their livelihood. And ultimately, this initiative only makes sense if it is embedded in a global system, we need a common approach bringing together everyone, including local artisanal fishermen and big multinational companies.”

Over the coming months, insiders predict, the small FiTI team will have its hands full trying to simultaneously reconcile these divergent interests and craft an approach that has real impact on the ground, not least because positive role models are scarce on the planet’s lawless seas. Campaigners often single out China for especially harsh criticism, but Europe too has a long way to go. But the tide may be turning as stocks of key fish species plummet worldwide, threatening local livelihoods. Political momentum for improving transparency in the sector is growing across West Africa, explained Taib Diouf, a researcher who works for GoWAMER, a marine policy program spanning seven countries in the region. “Due to bad sector governance, overexploitation and bad fishing practices, many stocks, especially traditional ones, are already overfished, and climate change is also starting to have an effect,” he said. “Now, these countries are starting to realize the value and importance of these resources. While each country has its own negotiation logic, I think there is political will to move forwards on this.”

In December 2015, FiTI’s team will return to Nouakchott to unveil their master plan for saving the world’s precious marine resources from further pillage. While Professor Eigen and President Aziz will occupy the center of global attention, Mauritanians will be peering past the podium’s front row to see what Cheikh Ould Baya makes of the new deal.

In the photo, a fisherman arranges dried fish in the Philippines on November 21, 2014, on World Fisheries Day, established to draw attention to overfishing, habitat destruction and other threats to the sustainability of marine and freshwater resources.
Photo credit: NOEL CELIS/AFP/Getty Images

Till Bruckner is an international development expert with an interest in transparency, accountability, and the hidden power relationships that structure global politics and our daily lives. He works as an advocacy manager for Transparify, an initiative promoting integrity in policy research and advocacy. He is based in Mauritania.