In the late summer of 2001, thousands of delegates from around the world gathered in Durban, South Africa for the United Nations World Conference Against Racism, Xenophobia and Related Intolerances (WCAR). For two weeks, the Durban air resounded with the slogan: “Zionism is apartheid.” The US and Israeli withdrawal from WCAR drew further attention to the conflicts between pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel delegates, and the American press had reported on almost no other issue when the conference closed on September 9.

Almost unnoticed amid the din of meetings, debates and demonstrations on the question of Zionism, another group of activists at WCAR worked to foster an international and inter-religious campaign against slavery and institutionalized racism in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania. According to the French-Mauritanian human rights group SOS-esclaves, there are as many as 90,000 slaves in Mauritania today. Along with four Mauritanian organizations, SOS-esclaves focuses on exposing the racist practices of the Mauritanian state. In addition to slavery, they fight against the forced Arabization that entailed the expulsion of tens of thousands of black Africans from the country in 1989 and the ethnic cleansing of the army in 1990-1991.

Aïssata Satiqui Sy, an anti-slavery activist from the Mauritanian Human Rights Association, lobbied long hours at WCAR, concentrating on building support among Arab delegates to explicitly condemn current conditions of slavery in Mauritania. She also filed documentation of the racial cleansing of the army. Sy succeeded in gaining personal support from delegates from Iraq, Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia. Bakary Tandia, from the Committee for the Defense of Human Rights in Mauritania, and Moctar Tayeb, leader of the Haratine Institute for Research and Development, reported similar outcomes from their lobbying efforts in Durban. The success of these activists is remarkable, since they are all black Africans seeking the backing of Arab nations in their struggle against their own avowedly Arab-identified government.

These Mauritanian defenders of human rights achieved their clearest success by securing the inclusion of Mauritania in a list of states that continue to practice slavery in the final NGOs’ report from WCAR. However, the personal support offered by Arab delegates in informal meetings has not been matched by any official statement or declaration by an Arab government. Tandia characterized his interaction with Arab delegates as largely educational. According to Tandia, most Arab delegates share an image of Mauritania generated by the Mauritanian government — that is, of an Arab state with only foreign black Africans in residence. Tandia longs for concrete action by Arab governments. Arab countries and Muslim nations, he argues, must recognize Mauritania as a multicultural society and that it is a human rights violation to destroy African cultures in the name of Arabization. He points out that the International Islamic Organization needs to develop a respect for African cultures if it wants to lead the Muslim community. The 1993 meeting of the International Islamic Organization issued an official condemnation of Israel’s deportation of 443 Palestinians. Tandia remains baffled that this same meeting, which took place in Dakar, ignored the deportation of some 80,000 Muslims from Mauritania. The Mauritanians, of course, were black African. Sixty thousand were expelled into Senegal and another 20,000 were expelled into Mali.

Divinely Sanctioned Order

Advocates of human rights in Mauritania face formidable opposition from the government and traditional elites, and also contend with cultural and ethnic divisions among the population. Since attaining independence from France in 1960, Mauritania has possessed a constitution modeled on the French Fifth Republic, yet has also hewn closely to a traditional Islam. The constitutional guarantee of equal rights for all its citizens is tempered in day-to-day living by local officials, including the judiciary and police, who largely act to maintain the stratification of power and status characteristic of the colonial and pre-colonial era.

Mauritania straddles the geographical and ethnic divide between Arab North Africa and black sub-Saharan Africa. This Arab-black African divide lies at the root of a troubled national identity, and feeds the insecurities of the Arab-identified central state. Social divisions within Mauritania can be simplified into three large categories: Arabs (also known as Moors or Beydane), the Haratine and tribal Africans. The Beydane belong historically to the slave-owning elite. The Haratine are those whose ancestry lies among the enslaved. Since enslavement in Mauritania stretches back more than five centuries, the Haratine have lost their knowledge of their black African tribal affiliation and language. Identified culturally as “black,” the Haratine nevertheless also speak Arabic and belong to Arab tribes, yet their status within those tribes is distinctly third-class. A good deal of cross-breeding between Beydane and Haratine has ensured that one’s identity as Beydane or Haratine does not follow clear-cut racial lines. Ancestry — particularly whether or not one is acknowledged as the free offspring of a free father, and for how many generations he had been free — determines affiliation as Haratine or Beydane.

In a sense, the Haratine are a population caught in the middle of the Beydane-black African struggle. Although the Haratine compose the majority, the Beydane have effectively seized and consolidated a near monopoly on state power in the post-independence era. Enslaved for centuries by the Beydane, the Haratine nevertheless often identify with their social superiors. Indeed, in some instances the bonds of slavery current today continue not only out of ignorance or powerlessness, but out of a religiously inspired deference to the “masters.”

The tribal Africans who inhabit Mauritania belong to larger groups also living in Mali and Senegal: the Halpularen, the Soninke, the Bambara and the Wolof. Current population estimates indicate that tribal Africans compose 30 percent of Mauritania’s population, the Beydane another 30 percent and the Haratine 40 percent.

Within the Arab tribes and the black African clans, everyone is born into distinct status groups: nobility, artisans, tribute-paying peasants (former slaves) and the enslaved. This social hierarchy is viewed as a divinely sanctioned order. Slaves and former slaves who might otherwise protest against their plight are held in check by the belief — cultivated by the religious authorities — that to challenge their masters will earn them eternal damnation.

Arabization by Force

Racial and caste hierarchies are buttressed by policies of the state. Moctar Ould Daddah, independent Mauritania’s first president, pursued a campaign to ally Mauritania with the pan-Arab movement of the 1960s. By 1966, a small group of black Africans rose in protest against this policy, publishing their “Manifesto of the 19,” and were suppressed with bloody force. Beginning in 1967, Arabic became the chief language for education throughout the state. This policy coincided with the inculcation of an “Arab” identity in all Mauritanians, including the tribal Africans. Black Africans, who had participated more readily in the colonial educational system than the Arabs, dominated the state bureaucracy at the time of independence. However, the Arabization campaigns of the 1960s and 1970s gradually purged them from government positions.

On July 10, 1978, a military coup ousted Ould Daddah from the presidency. For some years the government passed rather quickly from the hands of one military commander to another, until December 12, 1984, when Colonel Ould Taya seized power. Ould Taya remains the president of Mauritania.

Under Ould Taya, forced Arabization grew in intensity and violence. Defenders of tribal African identity organized as the Force de Libération Africaines de Mauritanie (FLAM). The government denounced members of FLAM as racist extremists, and began a campaign that smeared any black African in a position of any degree of power as a threat to the unity of the nation. Efforts on the part of black Africans to defend themselves against the racist policies of the state occasioned greater repressive measures and heightened rhetoric about the black African threat to Arab Mauritania. In this way, Ould Taya’s government laid the foundation for the ethnic cleansing of 1989-1991, during which government propaganda effectively roused Haratine sentiment and violence against the black Africans.

Laws Without Enforcement

Slavery has been outlawed twice in Mauritania since 1960. The newly independent state reiterated the French colonial ban on slavery; its constitution guaranteed civil rights to all citizens. As in the colonial era, however, Beydane elites continued to hold slaves, and less frequently to traffic in them. Legislation passed in 1980 again banned slave practices and promised to indemnify Beydane who freed their slaves. Since no such indemnification program has ever been established, enforcement of the anti-slavery legislation by local courts has been sporadic at best.

Enslavement takes on many forms in Mauritania. In the most extreme cases, individuals or whole families live in miserable daily subjection to the demands of harsh masters. In other instances, “former” slaves who have lived independently for years on end are suddenly revisited by the “former” master and made to give up their possessions, their homes, their fields and sometimes even their children. The Haratine continue to suffer from traditional servitude (of varying degrees of extremeness), and increasingly seek redress from human rights organizations such as El Hor and SOS-esclaves.

Shari‘a courts in villages and provinces actively maintain the subjection and powerlessness of the technically freed “slaves.” The Haratine have no standing as witnesses in shari‘a courts; hence they cannot defend themselves or their interests in court. Traditional law stipulates that “the property of the slave is the property of his master,” legitimizing the confiscation by “former” masters of the money, goods, land and children of slave-caste Mauritanians. “Former” slaves with the temerity to demand pay for their work are beaten by “masters” — as are their family and friends. Local police, even in the capital city of Nouakchott, routinely refuse to investigate complaints by “slaves” against “masters.” Even when beatings result in death, masters have not been prosecuted. “Former” masters routinely claim rights to the children of their female slaves by claiming that the women were actually their wives, and the children their own. Again, the Haratine’s lack of standing in the judicial system effectively prohibits them from fighting off such ploys.

Gag Rule

In May 1998, the Mauritanian government created a High Commission for Human Rights, Poverty Alleviation and Integration. The cabinet position carries a mandate to address the vestiges and consequences of slavery. However, the government simultaneously prohibited all public speech referring to slavery or alleging that slavery still exists in the country. The government’s logic seems to be: slavery is banned. Therefore it does not exist. Therefore to allege it exists is an extremist or racist allegation designed to provoke national unrest.

The ban on discussing slavery has disturbing and paradoxical effects. International human rights organizations with offices in Nouakchott carefully avoid referring even to vestiges of slavery for fear of offending the government. Officially and in international arenas, poverty and illiteracy, rather than discrimination based on birth status, are usually listed as Mauritania’s prime social problems.

Within Mauritania, judges have refused to resolve disputes in which slavery is an issue. For example, the SOS esclaves 2001 annual report describes an inheritance dispute raised by the death of Bilal Ould Abeid in June 2000. This dispute involved on one side Ould Abeid’s brother and daughter, and on the other Ould Abeid’s former owner, Marième Mint Brahim Ould Ahimdi. Mint Brahim argued to the judge, “I am the one with the right to the goods left by Bilal, my slave from birth, whom I never emancipated.” The judge’s reaction was to expel all parties to the dispute from his chamber saying, “I don’t preside over cases of slavery!” Due to the general ban on recognizing or discussing slavery, the judge would not dismiss the slaveowner’s claim as illegal.

Setbacks to the Struggle

After Durban, Aïssata Satiqui Sy is confident that the time is ripe to create a new debate for Arab states centering on the human rights of their own citizens. Such a debate would encompass other North African countries where black African communities suffer discrimination at the hands of Arab-identified states. She links the support that she was able to elicit to a willingness to entertain human rights arguments.

But for Bakary Tandia, the larger political drama in the Middle East still overshadows the Mauritanian civil rights struggles. In 1999, Mauritania opened full diplomatic relations with Israel. Mauritanian support for Israel could make it easier for the anti-slavery activists to gain support from the Arab states. On the other hand, the Mauritania-Israel connection has helped ensure US support for the Mauritanian state. The opening of diplomatic ties to Israel coincided with an abrupt about-face in US policy toward Mauritania. Suddenly, documented cases of slavery and sale of slaves in the 1998 State Department human rights report became “unconfirmed reports” in the 1999 report, and mere “vestiges” of slavery in reports filed since then. In 1999 President Bill Clinton recommended that Mauritania be reinstated as a country eligible for trade benefits, though it had been precluded from preferential trade relations since 1996 because of the continued existence of chattel slavery. Despite concerted efforts by Mauritanian human rights organizations to convince the US government that slavery continues in that country, in 2000 Mauritania was named as a beneficiary of the African Growth and Opportunity Act.

In the months since the UN conference on racism, the movement for human rights and racial equality in Mauritania has suffered setbacks. On January 2, 2002, Action pour la Change, a political party that creates common ground for the Haratine and black Africans, was banned. The ban followed on the heels of a parliamentary debate during which Action members alleged that slavery continues to exist in Mauritania and protested continued government inaction to atone for the 1989-1991 ethnic cleansing of southern Mauritania and the Mauritanian military. Since January, members of Action have reported that they are under intense police surveillance. On May 2, the president of SOS-esclaves, Boubacar Ould Messaoud, was arrested after he spoke in an International Radio France interview about state-sponsored torture of political prisoners. The state also suspended Radio France broadcasts in Mauritania. Although Boubacar Ould Messaoud was freed several days after his arrest, he currently faces criminal charges and the possibility of further imprisonment.

How to cite this article:

Alice Bullard "Mauritanian Activists’ Struggle Against Slavery," Middle East Report 223 (Summer 2002).

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