Location: Northwest Africa, latitude 250 & 150, longitude 170 & 70. Bordered by Senegal to the south, Mali to the east, eastern Algeria to the north, West Sahara to the north and the Atlantic Ocean to the west.
Main geographic features: The country occupies an area of 1,037,000 sq. km, of which 80 per cent is arid and 20 per cent semi-arid. It consists of a plateau, of which the highest point in 915m, and the Adrar Mountains in the north. Mauritania has 700km of Atlantic Coastline and 800 km of shoreline along the Senegal River.
Population: Estimated to be 2 million in 1988.
Ethnic division: Black Africans and Arab-Berbers.
National languages: Hassaniya (Arabic dialect). Pulaar (Fulani), Soninke, Wolof, Bambara and Imraguen.
Official language: Arabic, and as administrative language French.
Religion: 100 per cent Muslim of the Malekite Rite.
Date of Independence: November 28, 1960 from France.
Currency: Ouguia Mauritanie (UM)
Political System: At different times - one-party rule and military rule, plus contested multi-party system. Currently governed by a military junta.
Economy: Agriculture, livestock, fishing and iron-ore.
Literacy rate: 17 per cent.
Main problems: Racial division, slavery, political instability, serious environmental degradation caused by drought and desertification.
The geographical position of Mauritania makes the country a meeting point between Arab and African cultures. The interaction between these two cultures has bred tension within Mauritanian society and thereby generated a political tradition of intolerance and repression in the country.
Historically, Mauritania was inhabited by Black Africans (Diallo, G., 1989). Here was the setting for the most advanced West African civilizations: Ghana and Tekrur (Fulani) from around the 5th to 12th century A.D. Whereas the former evolved into the great empires of Mali and Songhay which survived up to the 17th century, the latter developed into the theocratic Kingdom of Fouta Toro under the leadership of Oumar Tall who led the Fulani struggle against French colonial encroachment during the last decade of the 19th century. The massive influx of Arabs from the north during the 13th – 15th centuries drove settled Black communities south toward the Senegal River, whilst the French colonial encroachment, beginning in the 1850s from the south, had the opposite effect (Gerteiny, 1981). The indigenous population was consequently hemmed in between the two invading forces from the south and north
Since its artificial creation by colonial France in 1960, Mauritania has been a playground for violent ethnic strife, the shameful practices of classical slavery, civilian/military authoritarian rule compounded by serious ecological degradation resulting from prolonged droughts and catastrophic desertification processes.
These four elements seem to have been mutually reinforcing to make Mauritania one of the least politically stable, most underdeveloped and heavily indebted countries among the least developed nations of the Third World. The arbitrary creation of Mauritania by the forcing together of two ethnically distinct and historically antagonistic communities makes any attempt to build a sense of nationhood and national identity a daunting task. This has been exacerbated by an obsessive determination on the part of the Arabs not to share political power with their Black co-citizens. The decolonization formula, as in Sudan, was that power was given to an Arabised minority to hold in check the Black majority. As in Sudan, such a prescription was a formula for tension and conflict. Mauritania and Sudan maintain close relations, based on mutual interests.
Mauritania is comparable with Sudan in that there have been bloody ethno-racial wars between the indigenous Black Africans on the one hand and the immigrating Arabs on the other. The Arabs began to arrive into both countries from the north following the emergence and triumph of Islam in the Middle East from the early 7th century onward. The immigrants have been pressuring the original populations towards the south since that time. This has resulted in chronic north-south ethnic conflicts for political power and economic control within both nations. The Arabs have false assumptions of the superiority of their culture over that of the local, believing that there exists a culture vacuum, waiting to be filled by Islam/Arabization. This has been manifested by the forced Islamisation and Arabisation campaigns orchestrated by successive Arab regimes. As in the case of South Africa and Zimbabwe, the colonial powers left authority firmly in the hands of settlers in both Mauritania and Sudan.
Mauritania and South Africa/Namibia are similar in that:-
The color divide between the Whites and Blacks is clear in both places.
The Arabs in Mauritania call themselves Beydane (Arabic for white) as
the Boers referred to themselves as Blanke.
As the Boers claimed historical anteriority in South Africa/Namibia, so the
Arabs claim that they were the first inhabitants and the only true citizens
In both places the settlers used ruthless methods to gain territorial control through the forced displacement of the natives. Native territories are welcome as integral parts of the nations but the inhabitants of these territories are labeled foreigners.
The Bantu Education Act of 1953 in South Africa and Arabisation Acts Nos. 65-025 & 65-026 of 1966 were introduced in order to secure cultural hegemony through the education of docile Black servants.
Land Act No. 27 of 1953 in South Africa and Land Act No. 83.127 of 1983 in Mauritania were adopted to give settlers access to and control over the most productive parts of the native lands.
Banning and confining Blacks to remote villages is a method used by both regimes, and
Divide and rule policies are central in the maintenance of settler hegemony. South Africa/Namibia formed and armed Black vigilante militia whereas Mauritania constituted a Haratin (slave) militia group in 1990 (Africa Confidential, 1989; Amnesty International, 1990, numbering 6,000-8,000; Diallo, 1991b).
Mauritania consists of about two million inhabitants; 32 per cent free Black Africans of
Fulani, Soninke and Wolof ethnic origins, 28 per cent white Moors of Arab-Berber origin and 40 percent Black slaves known as Abid or Haratan, which apporoximates some 800.000 persons. The power nexus in Sudan and Mauritania has many similarities, being held by an Arabised minority. The slaves belong to the White Moors, who have monopolized the government in the country since the French colonial regime transferred political power to them in 1960. The White Moors have no intention or interest in abolishing slavery, because this may incite the slaves into challenging Moorish supremacy. Because of the massive sexual exploitation of female slaves by White male masters, the slave population has increased to become the largest single ethnic group in the country. Even though slavery was officially abolished on paper in 1960, 1966 and in 1980, slavery and the slave trade are still a living reality in Mauritania.
In the cultural clashes between the Moorish regime and free Black Africans, slaves have been used by the regime as a buffer and as death squads against Africans. Slaves have been organized into militia groups, which the authorities in Mauritania have used to massacre and deport Blacks to Senegal and Mali. As in South Africa in the Apartheid days, Black on Black violence is orchestrated. Slaves were recruited as soldiers to fight in the West Sahara War from 1976 to 1979.
Enlightened slaves organized themselves and established an emancipation movement called
‘El Hor’, meaning freedom. El Hor’s aim is the total abolition of slavery and the adoption of effective and concrete measures to assist slaves to become economically independent. El Hor was able to sensitize international opinion as to the existence of slavery in the country. In order to prevent a slave rebellion in the country, on the 5th July 1980 slavery was abolished and Islamic Sharia law imposed. By virtue of Sharia law masters have a right to compensation for setting their slaves free. However nothing was done to free the slaves in any meaningful sense of the word. The slave masters are the same white Moors who control the state machinery. Emancipation was aborted. In the Mauritanian slave system masters own slave families through generations, as chattels. The Master’s right comes from God and he has the right to sleep with any of the female members of the slave families he owns. The slave cannot go to the Mosque if the master needs him. If the slave tries to escape he will be tortured. If the master takes his slave to, say, Dakar, Senegal or Bamako, Mali, the slave relationship subsists in Dakar or in Bamako. The author recalls, in his youth, in Banjul, Gambia going to shops owned by Mauritanians, the equivalent of Portuguese shops in Namibia, and seeing Black Mauritanians doing the lifting and carrying, overseen by their White Moorish slave owning masters.
The question is asked, why is the international community largely silent about slavery in Mauritania ? According to the Mauritanian, Garba Diallo, this is due to :-
‘ There is little inter-African communication on cultural or political issues. Otherwise, Africans would have realized that the slaveholders consider all Blacks to be either tamed or potential slaves. African complicity/silence in the OAU/AU has been purchased by Arabs, at the expense of those Africans living in the Afro-Arab Borderlands.
This problem is a part of the Afro-Arab cultural divide, which ranges from the Sudan on the Red Sea to Mauritania on the Atlantic Coast. This conflict zone has racial origins which have been evident for more than a thousand years. Both African and Arab leaders prefer not to talk about this humiliating and deadly north-south conflict within the south, because this would suggest a lack of solidarity within the Third World. The traditional ‘imperialist North versus exploited poor South’ attitude in international relations could not be sustained.
The legacy of trans-Atlantic slavery has left a collective and eternal guilt in the European mind, which makes it difficult for European nations to take a moral stand on condemning Arab slavery in Mauritania.
Most European writers who have been to Mauritania belong to the romantics who worship the magic of the desert and its rough and violent social order. This love for the desert and its feudal system helps to preserve the evil system in its racist form ’.
B.F.Bankie, former Researcher at the Kush Institution, Juba, South Sudan.