Mauritania is located in the western region of Africa, which is also referred to as the Maghreb. The country is strategically positioned with Atlantic Ocean on the western front, the western Sahara desert on the northern border, the Mediterranean economy of Algeria in the northeast, and by Mali in the east, and Senegal in the southwest. The country got its name from the ancient Roman province of Kingdom of Mauretania. The country’s capital city is Nouakchott, which is ideally located on the Atlantic coast.
The history of the country, similar to its neighbours goes back to more than thousand years – with the region being populated by the Berbers and the Bafours, who were primarily agriculturists and amongst the first in the African region to abandon a nomadic lifestyle. The country was then conquered by Arabs, who were on a Islamic conquest, and ruled most of the known world at that time.
The Arabs were successfully beaten by the Beni Hassan tribe, which gave the tribe an elite reputation in the Mauritanian history – as has been suggested that they comprised the upper strata of the Moorish society. Nevertheless, influence of Arabic is strong throughout the country’s history – with Hassaniya (a language derived from Arab dialect) becoming the dominant language of the country’s population.
During the last 100 years, Mauritania was primarily a French territory – with the French forces gradually occupying tracts of Mauritania via encroaching from Senegal. Xavier Coppolani was in-charge of the French mission in the area – who via initiation of strategic alliances with Zawiya tribes, and via tactical pressures on the ancient Hassane warriors was able to extend the French rule over the area. With a key tribe already a French ally, other main tribes such as Trarza, Tagant, and Brakna also joined the French camp on the back of negotiations. However, the emirate of Adrar showed strong resistance to French imperialism, holding up resistance for over a decade before they were finally defeated – and were amalgamated into Mauritania. With all key tribes under French control, Mauritania was annexed to be a part of the French West Africa in 1920.
The French imposed strict rules against slavery as well as warfare between various clans. Mauritania was able to gain independence from French rule in 1960, despite a nomadic lifestyle of most of the population. Interestingly, post independence people from Sub-Saharan Africa started migrating to Mauritania – and capitalized on their knowledge of French language and customs to take up key administrative posts. Meanwhile, the French continued to suppress the original tribes of the land – trying to shift the balance of power, and planting roots for an armed conflict.
Since independence in 1960, Mauritania has witnessed a number of governments, with the first single party state staying in power for more than 16 years. President Moktar Daddah, who was the first President, ruled during this period and was ousted in a coup in 1978 after dragging the country through a lethal war in southern part of Western Sahara – in order to conquer incremental tracts of land, and create a Greater Mauritania (Mauritania).
The coup led to successive military governments over a course of six years, but they were not able to induce stability in the region. Colonel Mohamed Khouna did attempt to make peace with key tribes, and its neighbours – but was not able to make peace with the French, which led to greater instability in the region, and numerous coup attempts. However, during his era – slavery was legally abolished in the country, making it the last country to legally abolish slavery in the world.
Following the military coups, stability was brought to the country by Colonel Maaouya Ould, who relaxed standards for creation of political parties, and further improved relationships with Morocco and Algeria. Political parties thrived during this era, due to which they have been able to hold parliamentary and senate elections over the years – although the influence of army in the country remains at large. Mauritania remains plagued with military and civilian coups, implying weak democratic institutions – mainly because of inability to attain a progressive stance, and lack of leadership (Mauritania, 2012).
Mauritania is predominantly a young economy, with more than 70% of the population aged 25 or below. The population of the country is estimated to be 3.2mn – with an annual growth rate of 2.5%.
Key ethnic groups present in the country are Arab-Berber (also referred to as White Mood) who belonging to the upper strata of the society due to their historical contributions to Mauritania. The Arab-Berbers are followed by Arab-Berber-Black African (Black Moor), Pulaar, Wolof, and Soninke. The main religion in the country is Islam, given strong Arab dominance in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
In view of Islam being the dominant religion, Arabic remains the lingua franca, followed by Hassaniya – which as explained earlier is also an Arabic dialect. Correspondence is also done in French, as a result of colonial rule and presence of laws and regulations from colonial times. Despite having a poverty rate of more than 40%, increasing focus on education has led to improvement in literacy levels – which for the country is estimated to be 51%.
The country is located on the western coast of Africa and has been bestowed as an ideal trading location. The area of the country is estimated to be 398,000 square miles, making it the twenty ninth largest country in the world.
The country is largely flat, and is composed by magnanimous dry plains which are interrupted by ridges and outcroppings. The highest point in the country is the Adrar plateau is the highest plateau in the country with a height of 500 meters. Roughly 75% of the country is either desert or semi-desert. Lack of agriculture, severe droughts, and extended periods of dryness and heat have led to expansion of deserts of the lsat four decades.
Mauritania after successive military coups and civilian administrations is currently a presidential republic. The bureaucracy is largely composed of parastatal companies, special agencies, and ministries. The French system of local administration has been adopted by the government, with the Ministry of Interior controlling a system of prefects and regional governors. As per the adopted system, the country is divided into thirteen regional, which are also referred to as wilaya and include the capital district, Nouakchott as well (Government of Mauritania).
Efforts to decentralize government and devolve power to the grass roots level are being consistently made – with municipal and national elections producing considerable decentralization of the government since 1992. The country’s bicameral legislature is mainly made up of the National Assembly, which is the lower house and is directly elected for a five year term via universal suffrage – and the upper house, members of which are elected for terms of six years by municipal councilors. Recent national elections were held in 2006 and that for Senate were held in 2009.
Despite being bestowed with an extensive coast line, and enormous natural reserves, Mauritania continues to have the lowest GDP rate in Africa. Population is largely involved in the meager economy of agriculture and livestock in the country. Despite a push towards urbanization following French independence, a large chunk of population in the country prefers to stay as nomads rather than settling in urban areas.
Interestingly the country has large deposits of iron ore, which is a key export commodity for the country – making up more than 50% of total exports. The recent escalation in metal prices globally has led to increase in attractiveness of Mauritania as a key iron ore resource, which has led to opening up of numerous mines in the vast interiors of the country. Furthermore, a long coastline makes the country’s access to the Atlantic Ocean one of the riches fishing areas in the world – true benefits of which is not being utilized by the economy.
As is the case with many emerging economies, particularly in the African region – economic mismanagement coupled with inefficiency of institutions has led to burgeoning debt levels. The country in order to maintain its debt levels became a part of the World Bank and IMF austerity measures, but due to recurring political changes – the progressive covenants of multilateral institutions are not being complied with.
Recent estimated provided by the World Bank indicate that the size of the Maurtianian economy can be estimated to be USD3.8bn – with a growth rate of 4.7%. However, absence of a large population base does allow Mauritania to maintain per capita income levels of USD2100 – which is higher than that attained by other emerging economies likes Pakistan and India. Industrial sector makes up roughly 46% of the economy, followed by services and agriculture at 41% and 12% respectively – despite contribution of industries, the population of the country remains largely employed in the agrarian economy (The World Factbook, 2012).
The inflation of the country is estimated to be in the range of 7-9% and continues to hover in this range due to supply-side inefficiencies, rapid escalation in food prices globally, and a burgeoning debt and deficit position (IMF and Mauritania).
More than 40% of the population remains below poverty line, which remains a serious concern – particularly considering the nomadic nature, and the dry climate of the country, which can lead to severe food security issues. An unemployment rate of t least 25% is also a major drag on the economy – as despite having a labor force and numerous resources, it is not able to reap the benefits largely due to structural inefficiencies (Mauritania – Country Note).
Exports of the country are in the range of USD2.5bn, most of which is directed towards China, and France. It is essential to note that China with its insatiable requirements for resources has been acquiring mining rights all across Africa, which includes Mauritania as well. Although such investments are certainly supporting the economy and the local population – but there is a possibility of a neocolonialist move by China.
Despite all its resources the country remains one of the poorest in the world. The annual budget of the country is estimated to be USD928m of which roughly 90% is to be generated via internal revenue, while the rest is in the form of aid from Arab countries. The share of national security as an expense in the budget is excessive at 17%, with similar rate for education, followed by transportation at 4% (Mauritania, 2012).
Key risk for the country remains that of food supply as more than 70% of its internal food requirements are imported – with any spike in food prices resulting in excessive trade deficits. Droughts and diseases put the country at hi-risk for malnutrition and food security.
Theme Discussion: Slavery
A key social and human rights issue which continues to be a burden on the economy and a progressive state is the issue of slavery – which lies right at the heart of Mauritanian social traditions, roots of which are entrenched in its history. Mauritania was the last country in the world to abolish slavery after French independence, but since then another two attempts have been made to abolish slavery, but to no avail – with the most recent attempt being made in 2007.
The country has imposed tough legal penalties for holding slaves, such as a prison sentence of 10 years, or a two years sentence for promoting slavery. Despite presence of such laws, the practice of slavery remains prevalent with roughly half a million of Mauritanians being classified as enslaved – which makes up approximately one-fifth of the total population of the country. Slavery is a heinous and archaic crime which continues to thrive in Mauritania – with the country’s slaves forbidden from having a last name, legal custody of their children , or even ownership of land or property.
The government continues to maintain a stance that slavery has been completely abolished, however it continues to pass laws to make the trade more and more difficult. The Mauritanian government which is facing multi-pronged crisis in the form of numerous coups, a disastrous economy, and encroachment of Chinese of in its fishing reserves – it continues to face tough challenges in orchestrating a makeover of the society, and completely eliminating slavery. As surprising as it may seem, slavery continues to thrive as a normal practice in the country – despite its abolition in rest of the world for more than hundred years (Slavery lives on in Mauritania, 2001).
Recent roots of slavery can be traced to French colonialism in which it tried to centralize a nomadic population, enabling various tribes and ethnic group to compete for resources. Droughts in the 1970s led to mass urban migration which led to emergence of an escalating unemployment rate, and search for resources.
With a drought and an agrarian background, as well as ethnic hierarchy which places the Moors on top – the black African Arabs were forced to be subservient to the Moors – who had been historically belonged to the upper echelons of society.
Furthermore, many of the displaced children during that time found a guardian in form of an Arab Moor – who eventually became a master. A similar enslavement cycle was also witnessed during the 1980s, when roughly seventy thousand black Africans were expelled from Mauritania due to various circumstances – which left behind a large number of children, of which a large percentage was enslaved.
The self-perpetuating cruel cycle of slaver continues to-date, with second generation of slaves trying to survive. Such is the atrocities of slavery, that a first generation slave accepts degradation from a master for survival, following which a second generation slave does not know anything else, and continues to blindly follow the master and the first generation of slaves.
Post-colonial struggles of Mauritania have further perpetuated the practice of slavery – mainly due to presence of Arab Moors, and black Africans – which led to discrimination on the basis of color. Furthermore, discrimination has also been witnessed between sedentary and nomadic classes, where the nomadic communities were suffering due to their inability of recovering their children who have been enslaved (Modern Mauritania ‘a slave state’).
The roots of slavery can be traced back to the eighth century when the conquering Arabs used to command black slaves – such a practice continued with arrival of European colonialism which did not put a stop to the heinous practice of slavery. Perpetuation of slavery became a norm, making it practically impossible to pass any legislation against the activity (Fisher, 2011).
Despite transitioning towards the twenty first century, Mauritania continues to struggle with its social infrastructure. Even though a significant number of Mauritanians (from the upper echelons of society) continue to hold slaves, a populist movement against slavery has certainly started up in Mauritania which continues to demand for emancipation, for freedom, and more importantly elimination of slavery from the core.
Although the movement for abolition of slavery has certainly gained traction, but political instability due to numerous coups and changes in political structure has not led to any firm controls over rules designed for abolition of slavery.
As has been observed over the last few decades, Mauritania has failed to come up with a concerted effort for abolition of slavery – thereby passage of incremental laws may not necessarily lead to complete abolition.
In order to completely eliminate slavery, it is essential that an aggressive campaign is initiated to emancipate slaves, and more importantly to assist those homeless children who may be pushed into the self-perpetuating cycle of slavery. Such a campaign would certainly not be supported by the upper strata of the Mauritanian society, since they are the ones who control most of the slaves. However, a concerted effort is required, which unifies the nation against the evil of slavery – assistance from international community may also play a key role, and can be pivotal in bringing about a change in the country.
Mauritania has rich reserves of iron ore, and has been an attractive destination for many countries – who can link investment with improvement in humanitarian standards, and more importantly complete elimination of slavery.
It is essential to note that slavery is a function of depressed economic circumstances – which implies that investment, which is contingent upon improvement of social infrastructure can certainly make a difference to the people of Mauritania, as well as the long term interests of the investors.
The international community, the western countries, the colonial forces who pushed the country into such a quagmire, the Arab countries who are flushed with oil money – need to step up to save this country of three million people from sinking into a never ending pit of self-perpetuating slavery. Strengthening the economy, the political institutions, and emancipation of people would certainly assist in eliminating the evil in the shortest possible time – although it would require an aggressive and genuine effort.
Fisher, M. (2011, June). The country where slavery is still normal. Retrieved from The Atlantic: http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2011/06/the-country-where-slavery-is-still-normal/241148/
Government of Mauritania. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.mauritania.mr/#
IMF and Mauritania. (n.d.). Retrieved from IMF: http://www.imf.org/external/country/mrt/index.htm
Mauritania. (n.d.). Retrieved from Encyclopedia Brittanica: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/370109/Mauritania
Mauritania – Country Note. (n.d.). Retrieved from IMF: http://www.imf.org/external/np/country/notes/mauritania.htm
Mauritania. (2012). Retrieved from U.S. Department of State: http://www.state.gov/p/af/ci/mr/
Mauritania. (2012). Retrieved from World Bank: http://web.worldbank.org/WBSITE/EXTERNAL/COUNTRIES/AFRICAEXT/MAURITANIAEXTN/0,,menuPK:362346~pagePK:141159~piPK:141110~theSitePK:362340,00.html
Modern Mauritania ‘a slave state’. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.africandictator.org/?p=2981
Slavery lives on in Mauritania. (2001). Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/programs/specials/racism/010828.mauritania.html
The World Factbook. (2012). Retrieved from CIA: https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/mr.html