Main languages: Arabic (official), Hassaniyya – a dialect of Arabic (83 per cent), Peulh or Pulaar and Toucouleur (5 per cent), Soninké (1 per cent), Wolof (0.3 per cent), French
Main religions: Sunni Islam
Minority groups include sub-Saharan ethnic groups (Peulh and Toucouleur, Soninké, and Wolof, 25 per cent) and Haratine (45 per cent). It is difficult to provide transparent data on the ethnic composition of the population since the Mauritanian government systematically refuses to disaggregate the data in terms of ethnicity. In addition, the government considers that Haratines are part of the wider ‘Moorish’ society and therefore form part of the majority (Haratines and Beydans share the same language and cultural practices, although it is the result of decades of enslavement and assimilation).
Four-fifths of Mauritania’s small population live in the Sahel and the fertile lands along the Senegal River in the south-west called Chemama. The Maures (‘Moors’ or ‘Arab-Berbers’) of the population are divided into a dominant group, Beydan (spelt variously in English including ‘Bithan’) or white Maures, and their former slaves, Haratines, who are Black but of the same culture as their former enslavers. Both speak the Hassaniyya dialect of Arabic. The Beydan control the instruments of state and foreign trade: despite amounting to around 30 per cent of the population, they occupy about 80 percent of the country’s top leadership positions.
Although slavery was abolished in 1981 and criminalized in 2007 (replaced by a stronger anti-slavery legislation in 2015), these have never been enforced and measures to provide for the ex-slaves’ economic integration have never been enacted. A form of slavery still exists in rural areas. Many of Mauritania’s approximately 3 million citizens are traditionally nomadic, but have been migrating into towns as drought and desertification destroy their traditional livelihoods.
Mauritania is consistently ranked as the worst place in the world for slavery, with tens of thousands still trapped in total servitude across the country. This practice, despite officially being criminalized, continues to be sustained by the systematic marginalization of Mauritania’s large Haratine population, who are predominantly affected by the practice. Those affected live under the direct control of their masters, are treated as property, and receive no payment for their work. Those who have escaped slavery remain in abject poverty. People considered of slave caste but who no longer live in slavery face stigma and discrimination, and are economically and politically marginalized.
Over the years, the government has put in place an array of anti-slavery legislative, policy and programmatic measures, yet repeatedly shown inaction and an absence of will to implement these measures. There was just one conviction under the 2007 Anti-Slavery Law, prior to its replacement with a new Anti-Slavery Law in 2015, with Ahmed Ould El Hassine found guilty in 2011 of holding two young brothers, Said and Yarg Ould Salem, in slavery and depriving them of schooling. El Hassine was fined 500,000 ouguiyas (less than the minimum fines for the two offences he was convicted of) and received a mere two-year prison sentence, yet was released on bail ever since his conviction pending an appeal. After a delay of five years, the appeals court ruled in November 2016 that, while the level of compensation awarded to the boys was raised, there would be no change in the prison sentence for the former slave-owner.
In May 2016, the first ever conviction by the newly-established Special Courts for Slavery took place, in Nema. Although welcome, the sentences passed down by the Special Court were lenient: the two convicted slave-owners received a five-year prison sentence, of which four years were suspended. More recently, however, a landmark legal ruling in December 2017 from the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child lent significant support to the longstanding fight to end slavery in Mauritania. The Committee determined that Mauritania had breached many of its obligations under the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the in relation to the case of Said and Yarg. The Committee requested the provision of individual remedies for the two child victims and ruled that Mauritania should make wide-reaching changes to national policy and practice to eliminate slavery and slavery-like practices.
The ruling also extends beyond the case of Said and Yarg to bring hope to other victims of slavery in Mauritania. A number of slavery cases in the country have been brought before domestic courts, but the lack of political and judicial will to move them forward has proven to be a major barrier to their resolution. The Committee’s finding that the government violated several provisions of the Charter by failing to adequately investigate, prosecute, punish and remedy instances of slavery may provide the necessary impetus for advancing current and future cases. Shortly after the Committee’s ruling, another potentially ground-breaking legal ruling took place in March 2018 when two individuals were sentenced to 10 and 20 years respectively, along with a third individual posthumously, for slavery offences. To date, these are the strongest sentences ever handed out for the crime of slavery in Mauritania and gave significant hope to anti-slavery activists that the country might be at the beginning of a more substantial process of reform.
However, since then there have been a number of setbacks. Following the November 2016 appeals court ruling, with the support of their lawyer and MRG, Said and Yarg had requested that the state prosecutor appeal to the Mauritanian Supreme Court. In April 2018, however, the Supreme Court confirmed the Appeal Court’s decision – in total contradiction to the Committee’s recent ruling that emphasized the need to impose stricter sentences in accordance with the 2015 Anti-Slavery Law. This was followed in November 2018 with a decision by the Special Court in Néma, Mauritania to acquit the accused in the case of Lala Aicha Mint Mohamed, a 9-year old who had been forcibly abducted from her grandmother’s house in Bassikounou with a view to enslaving her, and the postponement of the case of Mabrouka Mint Mohamed, a 22-year old had been living in slavery in the Bassikounou area since the age of 4. These rulings represented a significant setback in the fight to end slavery in the country.
The persistence of slavery, despite its criminalization, reflects a wider context of impunity for perpetrators in Mauritania. The President and other senior government officials have continued to deny the existence of slavery categorically, acknowledging only that the ‘legacy’ of the practice remains. Such statements create a hostile environment for prosecutions and implementation of other anti-slavery measures. Anti-slavery activists face harassment and even imprisonment. Among those targeted is anti-slavery activist Biram Ould Dah Ould Abeid, convicted with two others in January 2015 and sentenced to two years’ imprisonment on various charges, including taking part in an unauthorized rally and belonging to an illegal organization. All three were arrested in November 2014 for attending a peaceful protest to raise awareness of land rights for former slaves and other Haratines. Though Abeid was released after his sentence was reduced to a year in May 2016, other activists have since then been arrested, including 13 convicted in August 2016 for between 3 and 15 years in prison, though the majority were subsequently able to quash their sentences at appeal. Abeid was again arrested in August 2018 with another activist, ahead of parliamentary elections, and only released in January 2019. He subsequently declared his intention to run as a presidential candidate in the June 2019 elections.
Mauritania also continues to have a large stateless population – the legacy of a government crackdown on Mauritanians of sub-Saharan origin in the late 1980s. This resulted in a purge of black Mauritanians within the civil service, judiciary and armed forces, and the deportation of at least 60,000 people to neighbouring Senegal and Mali. Though thousands have returned in subsequent years, with the Mauritanian government taking a number of steps in 2008 to support the process, many continue to face obstacles to accessing essential documentation such as IDs, leaving them effectively without citizenship. Outside the country, there are still thousands of Black Mauritanians who effectively remain stateless refugees.
The original inhabitants of Mauritania were the Bafour, ancestors of the Soninké. During the third century Berbers migrated south from North Africa, often enslaving black Africans already living in the territory of today’s Mauritania. Three main Berber clans who formed the Sanhadja Confederation controlled trade routes throught the Western Sahara. They traded gold, ivory, copper and also slaves. From the seventh century CE, Islam filtered southwards from North Africa. The Ghana Empire attacked the Sanhadja Confederation in 990 and in then in 1039 radical Islamic monks attacked the Sanhaja Berbers and converted them to Malekite Sunniism. The Ghana Empire receded, and Mauritania remained under a theocracy until the mid-thirteenth century, when Beni Hassan Arabs entered the region from the north. Their migration sparked widespread conflict in the region, despite a shared Islamic faith.
From 1644-1674, the Berbers made a last unsuccessful effort to oust the Beni Hassan. The loss resulted in a cultural fusion. The descendants of Hassaniya Arabs became the so-called White Moors, forming the upper stratus of Mauritanian society. The lowest caste was the Haratine, who were almost all blacks.
Trade with Europeans expanded in the 17th century, and the 1814 Treaty of Paris granted France territorial rights to Mauritania. Initially the French left the Hassaniya to govern themselves in the north while concentrating their efforts on the south. But in the late 19th century Paris decided to attempt a consolidation of control over all of Mauritania. Military control was largely established by 1912.
The French ruled southern Mauritania together with Senegal, investing in agricultural development and education for the largely Peuhl, Soninké and Wolof population. While many among these peoples took part in colonial administration, France exercised control in the north more indirectly through the zawiya, a Berber caste of religious scholars who collected taxes for France. In the south, land titles and aid were distributed to the elite, who used slave labour to establish oases, dams and cultivation plots. Escaped slaves often became slaves of the southern land-owning elite (primarily Tucouleur). Partly to deal with struggles over slave ownership, the French allocated plots to groups of escaped slaves. Conscription during World War II, coupled with the real threat of famine as food imports were disrupted, generated considerable unrest in the country. At the end of the war France responded to this by expanding African representation in the French as well as the local legislature, which in Mauritania brought about the unification of the country and the election of Mauritanian, rather than Senegalese representatives.
Mauritania became independent as the Islamic Republic of Mauritania in 1960 with the leader of the Union Progressiste Mauritanienne (UPM), Moktar Ould Daddah, as President. Daddah was a French-educated lawyer from a prominent marabout family and this background gained him supporters among both Francophone southern blacks and Arab-oriented northerners. France continued to provide aid, and with a strong fishing industry and mineral resources, hopes were raised for the economic prospects of the country. At the time of independence, the vast majority of Mauritanians were still nomadic.
In 1969 Ould Daddah began a programme of Arabization making Hassaniya Arabic the official language of education and government, amidst protest from southern Mauritanians. Several ministers and black civil servants were purged and discussion of ethnic problems was banned. Settled black Africans in the south who prospered in relative terms under colonial rule were now dominated by northerners.
When Spain withdrew from the Western Sahara in 1976, the territory was split between Mauritania and Morocco, ignoring the demands of the Sahrawi liberation movement, Polisario and a ruling by the International Court of Justice that Western Sahara should be independent. From 1976 Mauritania was at war with the Sahrawi, who are ethnically close to the Beydan, following Ould Daddah’s decision to send troops into the territory. Black Africans and Haratines were drafted into an army that expanded from 1,500 to 17,000 over the course of the war, although they opposed expansion into Sahrawi territory that would increase the Beydan majority. The war was not only unpopular, but also caused a severe drain on the economy despite French and Moroccan support. In 1978 a group of soldiers pledging to end the war overthrew Ould Daddah, and Col. Mohamed Khouna Ould Haidalla became the new head of government. Mauritania renounced claims to Western Sahara in 1979.
A resurgence of ethnic unrest began in early 1979, again centering on the Arabization issue. The results of the 1977 census had been suppressed and black students fared badly in exams which favoured Arabic-speakers. Teachers and students rebelled, supported by a black opposition movement, the Union Démocratique Mauritanienne (UDM) based in Senegal. Some minority concessions on the use of French were made but arrests of blacks continued into 1980. Haidalla announced a new ban on slavery in 1980, but the practice persisted in the interior of the country, and became even more repressive through full implementation of Shari’a law following an attempted coup in 1981. In December 1984, Haidalla was overthrown in a bloodless coup by Col. Maaouya Sidi Ahmed Taya, following alleged mismanagement and corruption. Taya accepted an IMF structural adjustment programme and relaxed Shari’a, thus winning favour among some Mauritanians.
In April 1986 the Dakar-based Forces de Libération Africaine de Mauritanie (FLAM) published the Oppressed Black Minorities manifesto. Distribution of this document provoked the arrest of 30 black Africans in September 1986. Twenty were sentenced to prison. As a wave of civil disturbances swept across the country in October, the military regime responded with further arrests. In municipal elections in late 1986 black candidates were bypassed in favour of government sponsored lists and black voters were allegedly intimidated when trying to vote.
Claiming to have discovered a plot to stage a coup against him, Taya dismissed more than 500 Tucouleur officers from the army and arrested 51 Tucouleur officers, three of whom received death sentences. Riots followed the executions in Nouakchott, Borghe and Kaedi. A state of emergency existed in Borghe for six months, while black people were purged from the police and army.
In April 1989 two Senegalese farmers were allegedly killed in a dispute with Mauritanian herders over rights to grazing in the Senegal River valley border region. Rioting broke out in Dakar and on 3 May 1989 the Mauritanian government announced that it would begin repatriating Senegalese who had settled there since 1986. However, the expulsion of Senegalese also affected the black Mauritanian population. Of the estimated 80,000 who appeared to have fled or been forced to leave Mauritania by July 1989, at least 30,000 were thought to be Mauritanian. Many blacks were rounded up in their villages, stripped of their identity cards and shipped across the river to Senegal. More than 90 per cent of them were Fula agro-pastoralists and herders. Despite foreign mediation, Senegal and Mauritania broke off diplomatic relations.
In 1991 Taya set in motion some political reforms including a resumption of diplomatic relations with Senegal and an amnesty for political prisoners. Arabic became the sole official language. A national referendum in July 1991 provided for universal suffrage and elections for president, senate and prime minister. Elected in 1992 in the country’s first multi-party election amidst allegations of fraud, Taya appointed some black cabinet members but his regime continued to be criticized for discriminating against blacks. Parliamentary elections in 1992 and 1996 yielded increases for opposition parties in Mauritania, although the process remained unfair. Taya was re-elected in 1997 and 2003, also amidst unfair election conditions. Although Taya clung to power, attempted coups in 2003 and 2004 led to violence.
In August 2005, Ely Ould Mohamed Vall and other military officers overthrew Taya, ending his rule of over 20 years. The new Military Council for Justice and Democracy (MCJD) under Vall released political prisoners, and many political activists returned to Mauritania from political exile. Islamists were among those pardoned, but the MCJD largely continued Taya’s policy of close co-ordination with the United States in its ‘war on terror’.
In cooperation with political parties and civil society organizations, the MCJD introduced a plan to lead to elections, including the creation of an independent election commission. Provisional results from legislative and municipal elections in November 2006 indicated that opposition parties continued to demonstrate gains. The Rally of Democratic Forces (RDF) won 12 of 43 seats in the lower house of the National Assembly and opposition parties won a further seven seats including the Progressive Popular Alliance, which represents former slaves. Mauritania has a bicameral National Assembly, with 95 seats in the lower house filled through elections every five years, and Senators selected by a vote of municipal leaders and serving for six years.
In March 2007 elections, Sidi Ould Sheikh Abdallahi, a former cabinet minister under Taya, was elected president. However, he quickly indicated his intention to break with the past, especially over two issues: black Mauritanian refugees living in camps in Senegal and Mali, and slavery. But Mauritania’s first democratically elected president was overthrown in a bloodless coup in August 2008. The military takeover was triggered by the President’s attempt to dismiss the military’s top commanders, including the head of the presidential guard, General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz. This led to the suspension of the country from the African Union (the suspension was lifted ahead of the 2009 election). Following the coup, Aziz became President of the High Council of State composed entirely of army officers. The interim government announced that a presidential election would be held quickly.
In the July 2009 presidential elections, Aziz won in a vote the opposition condemned as fraudulent. During the campaign, Aziz called himself the ‘candidate of the poor’, pledging to lower food and fuel prices as well as improve access to health care. Aziz subsequently survived a shooting on 13 October 2012. According to the official version of events the shooting was accidental, but many political opponents and civil society representatives believed it was a failed coup attempt by dissatisfied factions of the army amid growing opposition to General Aziz.
In the June 2014 presidential elections, the incumbent President was re-elected with 82 per cent of the vote while the prominent anti-slavery activist, Biram Dah Abeid from the Initiative pour la Resurgence du Mouvement Abolitionniste (IRA Mauritania) obtained 8.6 per cent of the vote. The election was boycotted by most of the traditional opposition parties.
The economy, the administration, the legislature, the judiciary and the security forces in Mauritania remain dominated by the Beydan. Haratines and black Mauritanian groups are excluded from middle and higher level positions in the military, police and security forces, despite the fact that they represent the majority of personnel in the lower ranks of these organisations. They are also under-represented in the running of religious institutions.
Until now, no prosecution has been initiated against the perpetrators of killings, plundering and deportations committed between 1989 and 1991 against the Black Mauritanian populations. The truth about what happened during this period represents a taboo and no official report about those events has even been released. This silence over the past has been accompanied, in practice, by the de facto creation of a culture of impunity on questions of racism and slavery and more generally of a culture of amnesty for grave violations of human rights. Torture, for example, and despite its recurrence in police stations, is rarely prosecuted.
Due largely to failures in enforcement by police, judicial officials and others in authority, a 2007 law criminalizing slavery and slavery-like practices resulted in only one conviction in a case involving two brothers born into slavery. In that case, the 2-year sentence plus a fine that was handed down fell below the minimum specified by law and the appeal against its leniency was long delayed, while the convicted slave owner was freed on bail.
In September a new law was approved, stiffening penalties for perpetrators and officials who fail to investigate claims of slavery. It also broadened the definition of slavery to include practices such as indentured servitude and created the opportunity for human rights organizations meeting certain criteria to bring cases on behalf of victims. However, there is still no mechanism for victims to bring a civil suit against perpetrators or for the level of support and compensation to victims recommended in 2010 by Gulnara Shahinian, then UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery. The new law’s success will, like the old, depend on the extent to which it is enforced. Those who fight to raise awareness of slavery and other forms of marginalization affecting Haratines continue to come under official pressure.
General Aziz has repeatedly denied the existence of slavery since he came to power: his government only recognises the ‘vestiges’ of slavery. On the occasion of Mauritania’s independence day, in November 2015, for instance, President Aziz publicly denied that slavery persisted in the country and accused rights groups of ‘sowing hatred and division’ between ethnic groups for addressing events around the expulsion and exclusion of tens of thousands of black Mauritanians in the late 1980s.
This stance has exacerbated tensions with the country’s growing anti-slavery movement, led by SOS-Esclaves and the IRA. Anti-slavery activists are regularly arrested and jailed.
Updated June 2019
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