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Mauritanian Elections 2024: the minority lens

15 May 2024

Sitting at the crossroads between ‘Arab’ Africa and ‘Black’ Africa, Mauritania is a country of profound ethnic divisions. Historically notorious for decades of coups, instability and ensuing human rights abuses, not to mention its consistent ranking as the worst place in the world for slavery, with tens of thousands still trapped in total servitude across the country. 

Today however, it’s seeking to capitalize on its rich natural resources and relatively stable democracy to rehabilitate its image, courting increasing international investment and influence. Next Month, it will hold presidential elections, perhaps only the second ever peaceful transition of power in the country’s history. 

The incumbent, Mohamed Ould Cheikh Ghazouani, belongs to the elite, light-skinned Beïdhane (literally, ‘white’) ethnicity which has, since Mauritania’s independence in 1960, held virtually all political, military, economic and even intellectual power in the country.  

Historically, Beïdhanes enslaved the country’s Black Haratine population, though other sub-Saharan ethnicities are also enslaved. Free or not, Black people in Mauritania face systemic discrimination, extreme poverty and the extensive denial of their human rights. 

This is due in large part to a lack of political will to change the status quo. The government has continuously denied the ongoing existence of slavery, creating a culture of impunity for perpetrators and a hostile environment for prosecutions and anti-slavery measures. 

Litigators report that the government ‘appears to have slowed down the prosecution of slavery to avoid compromising the country’s political image with national litigation exposing the extent of the problem’. Scantily implemented anti-slavery legislation has been described as ‘only there to provide Mauritania with some diplomatic cover on this issue.’ Meanwhile, anti-slavery activists face harassment and imprisonment. 

One such activist is Biram Dah Abeid, the main opposition leader, anti-slavery activist and founder of the anti-slavery NGO IRA-Mauritanie. Son of a freed slave, Abeid has campaigned for the total abolition of slavery in Mauritania for decades. 

He has pledged to restore national cohesion by redressing the historical injustice of slavery, the infringements on the rights of Black Mauritanians. Abeid has also pledged to fight for full citizenship rights for Black Mauritanians. 

All Black communities in Mauritania face great difficulties gaining access to citizenship – blocking access to state services and basic rights like healthcare and education. Outside the country, there are thousands of Black Mauritanians who effectively remain stateless refugees. 

A 1989 dispute between Mauritania and Senegal led to the deaths of hundreds of Fulani Black Mauritanians, and the displacement of over 60,000 into Senegal and Mali. About 24,000 have been allowed to return to Mauritania, though none have been able to return to their land or gain citizenship. Many still live in extreme precarity. 

It’s unsurprising then that a census in 2011 was met with distrust by Black Mauritanians, fearing it would simply increase racial discrimination and deprive many of their citizenship. It only recognized four ethnic groups: Moorish, Soninké, Fulani and Wolof. It failed to mention the Haratines at all. Necessitating proof of nationality that many Black Mauritanians simply do not have, it also included questions testing knowledge of Mauritania that were ‘reserved exclusively for Black people’.  

‘During these events the constitution of Mauritania was trampled underfoot.’

The movement Touche Pas à ma Nationalité (‘Don’t touch my nationality’) formed in opposition to the census. Their protests were violently repressed by the police, resulting in several injuries and one death. With equal access to citizenship a prerequisite of a functional democracy, how can Black Mauritanians overcome their marginalization through democratic means? Indeed, IRA-Mauritanie itself is not even recognized by the government and has no legal existence. Abeid, a frequent victim of police brutality, has been arrested and imprisoned several times. 

Even those who do not play an active part in the opposition can still find themselves without the freedom to vote for it; those in slavery or slavery-like conditions are often forced to vote for the candidate of the enslaver’s choosing – yet another reason that politicians overwhelmingly cater to the Beïdhane elite. 

Yet President Ghazouani has in recent years made some gestures towards change, reportedly meeting with opposition figures including Abeid, and even admitting that there may be some remaining cases of slavery (a marked departure from decades of total denial). Even his prime minister, Mohamed Ould Bilal, is of Haratine descent. 

But are these gestures harbingers of change or mere placatory tokens? ‘Nothing has changed fundamentally’, says Salimata Lam of SOS-Esclaves, a local anti-slavery organization. Haratines and Black Mauritanians alike remain vastly under-represented in government. Attitudes to opposition at a popular level appear similarly unchanged: February 2024 protests regarding the unfair redistribution of land in R’kiz to Haratines who had worked it for centuries were met with tear gas, resulting in several injuries. 

The French chapter of IRA-Mauritanie reported that these protestors were subjected to prolonged detention, ‘violence and brutality… insults, physical abuse, deprivation of food and gratuitous acts of cruelty such as the prohibition against a young mother from feeding her baby.’ Said the organization, ‘during these events the constitution of Mauritania was trampled underfoot’.

In such a climate, many predict a landslide victory for Ghazouani, already having won the parliamentary, regional and municipal elections. As Mauritania seeks to enhance its reputation on the world stage, one might hope that this could result in progress for Haratines and Black Mauritanians. For now at least, it seems their hopes must rest in an unlikely Abeid win.

Though the opposition has repeatedly raised concerns about the democratic nature of the electoral process, recent elections have been internationally recognized as satisfactorily credible. But in a country where one ethnic group wields almost total power, a free and fair election will not be enough to turn the tide for Mauritania’s minorities. We can only hope that recent efforts to overhaul its image represent an appetite for change in more than name only.

Featured image: A Haratine woman draws water from a well. Courtesy of Mamoudou Lamine Kane.


Menka Sandrasagren

Legal and Policy and Advocacy Administrative Assistant

Minority Rights Group