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For Mustapha Olahu Weld Bessid, independent candidate for the presidency of the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, campaigning presents a series of challenges. The most pressing one, at the moment, involves getting to Mauritania.
On Sept. 27, with six weeks to go before the Nov. 7 election in the West African nation, Bessid is sitting in the driver’s seat of Red Top Cab No. 46. He is taking a break from accepting fares so that he can explain his platform as he drives around the District and South Arlington.
Bessid, 42, is clean-shaven and wears a charcoal gray suit with necktie. He is fluent in French, Arabic, Wolof, and English, speaking the last with only a hint of accent.
The candidate meant to leave yesterday, but he got caught in Friday rush-hour traffic and missed his flight. So he paid $120 to lease his cab back, so that he could raise a little more money.
“I paid for my airline ticket and hotel thanks to the Americans, to my customers who tipped me $20 or $10,” Bessid says. “This is also how I pay for media advertising.”
He pulls from his inner pocket a Western Union receipt showing a wire delivery of $550 to the Tribune, a small newspaper in Mauritania, for an ad purchase. This last-minute preparation was what made him set out later than planned, netting him a spot in gridlock rather than on the airplane.
Bessid is a native of Mauritania, a nation of some 2.9 million, and was abandoned by his parents at an early age and adopted by a family of peanut farmers in Senegal. “I still don’t forget those who helped me as a kid,” he says. “I appreciated those who would give me a piece of bread or glass of water.” His wife and three daughters live in the Mauritanian capital, Nouakchott, with his in-laws.
Bessid has lived in 14 countries, including Iraq and Libya. He has lived in this area for 14 years and has been a U.S. citizen for the last eight, while still retaining his Mauritanian citizenship.
Besides driving a taxi, Bessid has delivered Chinese food, worked security, and served in the protocol section of the Mauritanian Embassy. In 2001, he started an airport limo service, only to go out of business in the travel downturn after the Sept. 11 attacks. He took up the cab almost a year ago, he says, because the job allowed him the flexibility to take classes in economics and criminal justice at Parks College in Arlington.
He changed his career plans this summer, he says, after news of an attempted coup in Mauritania. “On June 8, we had a coup, and 40 or 50 people got killed, and that broke my heartit really broke my heart,” he says. “Those deaths pushed me to run so that I can create peace and create jobs and make a difference in people’s lives.”
But before he can attack unemployment, illiteracy, and poor health care in Mauritania, he’s got to get into the race. He’s giving up his Alexandria apartment after the first of the month and has cut back on living expenses, aiming to save up the $5,000 he calculates he’ll need to finance his campaign.
Just yesterday, though, he learned that he’s got new costs to deal with. To get on the ballot, he needs to turn in 50 signatures by Oct. 7and the signatures need to be evenly divided among Mauritania’s five regions, which cover an area roughly as big as Texas. Other aspiring candidates have solved the problem by buying signatures.
“I just found out that there are a few people who are selling signatures,” Bessid says. “It’s a very corrupt system. So now if you want them to sign for you, for one signature you have to pay $200.”
Bessid says he believes “the big guy,” referring to President Maaouya Ould Sid’Ahmed Taya, set the standard this year by buying signatures to qualify. Now the people are hooked.
“The people are starving and need the money,” Bessid says. “So now they won’t sign without getting paid.”
Thus, Bessid needs an additional $10,000. Desperate for financial help, Bessid says he has e-mailed the U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee on Africa, the White House, the State Department, and nonprofit organizations promoting democracy. The only response was an e-mail from the Cato Institute wishing him luck, he says, pointing out the Cato headquarters as he drives by on Massachusetts Avenue.
Still, Bessid maintains that once he gets his plane ticket straightened out, he can wineven though there are six other contenders, and President Taya claimed 90.9 percent of the vote in 2001. “The people of Mauritania are in love with me,” he says. “I know 30 percent of the people….It’s a small towneverybody knows everybody.”
He’s not the first cabbie to try to lead the nation. Among the leaders of the June coup attempt was Saleh Ould Hanenna, a former army officer who was also a taxi driver.
“Taxi drivers are giving them a headache,” Bessid says. CP