Slavery in Mauritania

Slavery has been called "deeply rooted" in the structure of the Northwestern African country of Mauritania, and "closely tied" to the ethnic composition of the country, despite the ending of slavery across other African countries and colonial owners banning it in 1905.[1]

The French colonial administration declared an end to slavery in Mauritania in 1905, but the size of Mauritania prevented enforcement.[2] In 1981, Mauritania became the last country in the world to abolish slavery,[3] when a presidential decree abolished the practice. However, no criminal laws were passed to enforce the ban.[3][4][5] In 2007, "under international pressure", the government passed a law allowing slaveholders to be prosecuted.[3]

Despite this, in 2018 Global Slavery Index estimated the number living in slavery in the country to be 90,000 (or 2.1% of the population),[6][7] which is a reduction from the 140,000 in slavery figure which the same organisation reported in 2013,[8] while in 2017 the BBC reported a figure of 600,000 living in bondage.[9]

A November 2009 United Nations mission, headed by UN Special Rapporteur Gulnara Shahinian, evaluated slavery practices in the country.[10] In an August 2010 report to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) it concluded that "despite laws, programmes and difference of opinion with regard to the existence of slavery in Mauritania, ... de-facto slavery continues to exist in Mauritania".[11] According to the Global Slavery Index 2014 compiled by Walk Free Foundation, there are an estimated 155,600 enslaved people in Mauritania, ranking it 31st of 167 countries by absolute number of slaves, and 1st by prevalence, with 4% of the population. The Government ranks 121 of 167 in its response to combating all forms of modern slavery.[12]

Sociologist Kevin Bales and Global Slavery Index estimate that Mauritania has the highest proportion of people in slavery of any country in the world.[13][14] While other countries in the region have people in "slavelike conditions", the situation in Mauritania is "unusually severe", according to African history professor Bruce Hall,[3] and consists largely of the black Mauritanian population enslaved by Arab masters.[15]

The position of the government of Mauritania is that slavery is "totally finished ... all people are free",[16] and that talk of it "suggests manipulation by the West, an act of enmity toward Islam, or influence from the worldwide Jewish conspiracy."[3] According to some human rights groups, the country might have jailed more anti-slavery activists than slave owners.[17]

One person, Oumoulmoumnine Mint Bakar Vall, has been prosecuted for owning slaves. She was sentenced to six months in jail in January 2011.[18]

Two academics, Ahmed Meiloud and Mohamed El Mokhtar Sidi Haiba, have criticized statements on slavery in Mauritania by anti-slavery organizations and writers for alleged exaggeration, lack of statistical sources and factual errors.[19]

Background and practice

Slave status has been passed down through the generations.[20] The descendants of black Africans captured during historical slave raids now live in Mauritania as "Black Moors" or haratin; some of them still serve as slaves to the lighter-skinned "White Moors" or beydan ("Whites")[1] (which are Berbers or mixed Berber-Arabs, descendants of slave-owners known collectively as al-beydan).[20] According to Global Slavery Index, slavery of adults and children in Mauritania "primarily takes the form of chattel slavery" (i.e. the slaves and their descendants "are the full property of their masters").[14] Slaves "may be bought and sold, rented out and given away as gifts".[14] Slavery in Mauritania is "prevalent in both rural and urban areas", but women are reportedly "disproportionately affected" by slavery. Female slaves "usually work within the domestic sphere", caring for children and doing domestic chores, but "may also herd animals and farm". Female slaves "are subject to sexual assault by their masters".[14] Because slave status is matrilineal, slaves typically serve the same families that their mothers and grandmothers did. They usually sleep and eat in the same quarters as the animals of their owning families.[3] Slaves are "not restrained by chains" but by "economic" and "psychological" factors. They are denied education in secular fields that provide job skills, and taught that "questioning slavery is tantamount to questioning Islam".[3] There is also a "grey area"[21] or "a continuum" between slavery and freedom in Mauritania[3]—referred to politely as the "vestiges of slavery"—where sharecroppers and workers are exploited by Beydane landowners and bosses.[3] According to Ahmed Vall Ould Dine of Mauritanian Human Rights Watch, "Slaves tend to develop very close relations with their masters; the freed ones, who are poor and have inherited nothing from their parents, chose to remain under the auspices of their ex-masters as they provide them with basic necessities of life."[1]

Still today, masters lend their slaves' labor to other individuals, female slaves are sexually exploited and children are made to work and rarely receive an education.

Slavery particularly affects women and children, who are the most vulnerable among the vulnerable. Women of child-bearing age have a harder time emancipating because they are producers of slave labor and perceived as extremely valuable.

From U.S. Dept. of State report on Slavery in Mauritania, 2009[22]

According to the US State Department 2010 Human Rights Report,[23] abuses in Mauritania include:

... mistreatment of detainees and prisoners; security force impunity; lengthy pretrial detention; harsh prison conditions; arbitrary arrests; limits on freedom of the press and assembly; corruption; discrimination against women; female genital mutilation (FGM); child marriage; political marginalization of southern-based ethnic groups; racial and ethnic discrimination; slavery and slavery-related practices; and child labor.

The 2010 report continued: "Government efforts were not sufficient to enforce the antislavery law. No cases have been successfully prosecuted under the antislavery law despite the fact that 'de facto' slavery exists in Mauritania."

Child slavery

Child labor also remains prevalent throughout Mauritania. The Mauritanian government conducted a raid in Nouakchott in November 2017 and rescued forty-two child slaves who were held by Koranic instructors.[24] According to the United States Department of Labor, violation of child slavery laws is rarely punished. The Special Brigade for Minors investigated 406 cases of child exploitation; however, it is unclear whether the Mauritanian legal system further investigated or punished anyone involved in those particular cases.[24] Child slavery continues to be an issue in Mauritania because the status is passed down maternally, from mother to child.

French colonialism

The French colonized Mauritania in 1904 during the Scramble for Africa. Mauritania and other territories the French owned were referred to as sociétés esclavagistes or "slave societies" because slavery was a tradition that they interacted with.[25] The French reshaped slavery socially because "French administrators and French missionaries created a role for themselves ... that was, for the most part, compatible with local cultural customs".[25] However, there was not that great of an economic impact; the prices were not raised high enough to promote a greater supply of slaves.

There were several interpretations of the impact that colonialism had on African societies. Mahmood Madani believed that colonialism let the chief's power go unchecked because of the authority that backed them. However, other scholars believed that there was not a change of African institutions because Europeans were simply consumers.[26] Either way, the French made themselves a part of an already existing slave trade in Mauritania.

The French controlled their territories by the use of African employees from those territories. Mauritanian employees worked low-level positions and the "colonial hierarchy operated on the assumption that its African employees would act as transparent, unthinking conduits who would link white colonial authorities to black African colonial subjects".[26] The African employees were not seen as a threat despite the fact that they had the ability to control the flow of information between the Mauritanians and the French because of the language barrier.[26]

French abolitionist policies

The French implemented abolitionist policies after their territories failed to comply with a law freeing all slaves. Mauritanian administrators told the French that slavery was a custom in Mauritania, and they could not simply abolish it without societal distress, so they enforced certain policies but still allowed slavery. Slaves in Mauritania were returned to their masters and treated as runaway children.[25] Also, African men who were recruited into the French army,[27] or tirailleurs, were allowed to take slave wives, but they had to have been free before they were married, and had to stay in the colony. Tirailleurs could claim their children by proving they were not illegitimate; but if they were not, they were slaves.[25]

The French established villages de liberté ("liberty villages") so that slaves would have an area to be free in Mauritania. They could take refuge there and be taxed by the French. However, within three months the slave could be reclaimed by their masters, and the villages had few resources.[25]

Although the French liberated their other territories successfully, because Islam was so intertwined with slavery the French believed it would go against tradition to enforce abolition in Mauritania. The French also believed that “"laves themselves were simply 'not ready' to be wrenched from their social security, to do so would be to 'sow social disorder'". Consequently, domestic slavery as well as colonial slavery was still permitted in Mauritania.

Role of religion

Islam is by far the largest religion in Mauritania, with the Maliki school of Sunni Islam as the dominant form. Maliki Islam in pre-colonial West Africa campaigned hard against the trans-Atlantic slave trade, but in the 19th and 20th centuries many Malikis justified continued slavery inside Mauritania, in some or all of its forms.[28] Still today, the dominant majority of Mauritanians believe that former slaves (irrespective of the status of their manumission) cannot be full and equal citizens, let alone become imams.[29]

Attempts to end slavery in colonial Mauritania largely failed because abolitionism was molded by Orientalism,[30] or the ideology that Africans were "exotic, intellectually retarded, emotionally sensual, governmentally despotic, culturally passive, and politically penetrable".[31]

Certain aspects of religion might have had an impact in the preservation of slavery-based structures. Concubinage, for example, was admitted in Islam and quite common. Concubines were expected to be treated humanely.[25] Impressions of freedom were molded by notions of social order, and the belief that God would forgive the sins of slaves if they behaved obediently towards their masters.[25]

After 1980, Mauritania's ulama (clerical scholarly community) came to the consensus that no slaves had been acquired through jihad so there was no (however questionable) sharia-based legitimacy to continue enslavement.[30]

Government position

Marie-José Domestici-Met (CNCDH) and Biram Dah Abeid who in 2009 was sentenced to six months in prison for taking part in unauthorised rally.

The government of Mauritania (which is dominated by Beydanes)[3] denies that slavery exists in the country. According to Abdel Nasser Ould Ethmane, a political adviser to the African Union and a cofounder of the abolitionist group SOS Slaves, the Mauritanian government officially says: "Slavery no longer exists, and talk of it suggests manipulation by the West, an act of enmity toward Islam, or influence from the worldwide Jewish conspiracy."[3]

Responding to accusations of human rights abuse, in 2012 the Mauritanian Minister of rural development, Brahim Ould M'Bareck Ould Med El Moctar, stated:

I must tell you that in Mauritania, freedom is total: freedom of thought, equality—of all men and women of Mauritania ... in all cases, especially with this government, this is in the past. There are probably former relationships—slavery relationships and familial relationships from old days and of the older generations, maybe, or descendants who wish to continue to be in relationships with descendants of their old masters, for familial reasons, or out of affinity, and maybe also for economic interests. But (slavery) is something that is totally finished. All people are free in Mauritania and this phenomenon no longer exists. And I believe that I can tell you that no one profits from this commerce.[16]

In March 2013, the President established an agency to "combat slavery", known as the "National Agency to Fight against the Vestiges of Slavery, Integration, and Fight against Poverty".[14][32] The director, Hamdi Ould Mahjoub, a Beydane, told The New Yorker author Alexis Okeowo, "Slavery as an institution, as something accepted by society, does not exist" in Mauritania, and that his agency was working on a program to help farmers and others to build clinics and improve access to water.[3]

According to the Mauritanian government, it has taken action to end all forms of slavery. In 2015, the government expanded the definition of slavery to include child labor, although they have difficulty enforcing anti-slavery laws. The government is underfunded and ill-equipped to deal with slavery.[33]

List of causes of persistence

  • Many of the slaves are isolated by illiteracy, poverty, and geography, and do not know that life outside servitude is possible.[3]
  • The difficulty of enforcing any laws in the country's vast desert.[34]
  • Poverty that limits opportunities for slaves to support themselves if freed.[34]
  • Dependence on masters who provide food and clothing to slaves.[35]
  • Difficulty of "running away" and leaving families in large parts of the country that are desert.[35]
  • Belief that slavery is part of the natural order of this society.[34]
  • Belief in an interpretation of Islam in which slaves are "told that their paradise is bound to their master and that if they do what the master tells them, they will go to heaven".[35]
  • Mauritanian laws, which place the burden of proof on the slave, require that a victim file a complaint before an investigation is launched, and that human rights organisations may not file a case on behalf of a victim, despite the fact that most slaves are illiterate.[14]

In November 2016, an appeals court in Mauritania overturned the jail convictions of three anti-slavery activists and reduced the sentences of seven others to time served leaving three in custody, for their alleged role in a riot in June, as reported by Amnesty International.[36] Another court had originally sentenced the 13 human rights activists and members of the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement (IRA) to 15 years in prison.

List of antislavery organizations

  • Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement (IRA-Mauritania), is led by Biram Dah Abeid, a former slave
  • Al'Hor الحر (translated as "the free")
  • In'itaq إنعتاق (translated as "emancipation")
  • SOS Esclaves (meaning "SOS Slaves" in French) aids slaves to escape from their masters, and petitions the government and the clergy to address the problem of slavery, but stops short of aggressively confronting authorities like IRA-Mauritania. SOS was co-founded by Boubacar Messaoud, a former slave who went on to study engineering and architecture in Mali and Moscow. As of 2014, he was in his late sixties and so, according to Messaoud, may represent an older generation. In 2011, Messaoud and Biram Dah Abeid held a hunger strike in a Nouakchott police station until the police put a slave owner in jail.

International pressure

As a result of Mauritania's failing to curb slavery, in January 2018, the African Union officially reprimanded the Mauritanian government. The ruling was based on a case involving two brothers, Said Salem and Yarg Ould Salem, who were slaves since birth. The African Union ordered Mauritania to compensate the two brothers, causing activists to claim that the ruling would lay the groundwork enforcing anti-slavery laws within the country.[37] In 2015, the Mauritanian government expanded the definition of slavery to include child labor.[38] Extreme poverty and Islamic norms discourage many slaves from attempting to escape. Racial and ethnic division plays a role in Mauritanian government and society, as most slaves in Mauritania are black Mauritanians while members of the ruling class tend to be Arab.[8]

The international community is increasingly pressuring Mauritania to enforce its anti-slavery laws. Along with the African Union's recent ruling, the United States is considering downgrading its trade relations with Mauritania because of its poor record on enforcing its anti-slavery laws.[39]

See also


  1. Ghanem, Omar (21 August 2007). "Slavery in Mauritania Emancipating the Free". Archived from the original on 28 October 2014. Retrieved 28 October 2014.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: bot: original URL status unknown (link)
  2. John D. Sutter (March 2012). "Slavery's Last Stronghold". CNN. Retrieved 25 June 2017.
  3. Okeowo, Alexis (8 September 2014). "Freedom Fighter: A slaving society and an abolitionist's crusade". The New Yorker. Retrieved 16 October 2014.
  4. "Mauritanian MPs pass slavery law". BBC News. 9 August 2007. Retrieved 2010-05-23.
  5. Corrigan, Terence (6 September 2007). "Mauritania: Country Made Slavery Illegal Last Month". The East African Standard. Retrieved 2008-01-21.
  6. "Global Slavery Index country data – Mauritania". Global Slavery Index. Retrieved 26 June 2020.
  7. "Activists warn over slavery as Mauritania joins U.N. human rights council". 27 February 2020. Retrieved 26 June 2020.
  8. Nossiter, Adam (November 11, 2013). "Mauritania Confronts Long Legacy of Slavery". The New York Times.
  9. "The Abolition season". BBC World Service. Retrieved April 20, 2017.
  10. ANI and Journal Tahalil reported on 2 November 2009
  11. "Report of the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, including its causes and consequences, Gulnara Shahinian Addendum Mission to Mauritania" (PDF). Human Rights Council, United Nations General Assembly. 16 August 2010. Retrieved 24 October 2014.
  12. Global Slavery Index 2014 Walk Free Foundation, p. 3 Retrieved 5 November 2014.
  13. Patel, Akhil (August 2000). "Review Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy by Kevin Bales". Human Rights Quarterly. 22 (3): 867–872. doi:10.1353/hrq.2000.0036. JSTOR 4489305. S2CID 145656886.
  14. "Global Slavery Index 2013. Mauritania". Walk Free Foundation. Retrieved 24 October 2014.
  15. "The unspeakable truth about slavery in Mauritania". The Guardian. 8 June 2018. Retrieved 13 February 2020.
  16. "Mauritanian minister responds to accusations that slavery is rampant". CNN. 17 March 2012.
  17. "Mauritania jails two slave owners". BBC News. 30 March 2018. Retrieved 20 April 2019.
  18. "Mauritania woman gets six months in jail for slavery". 17 January 2011. Retrieved 14 December 2013.
  19. "Slavery in Mauritania: Differentiating between facts and fiction". Retrieved 25 June 2015.
  20. "US Trafficking in Persons Report 2013, Mauritania Country Narrative" (PDF). US Department of State. p. 258. Retrieved 24 October 2014.
  21. Mark, Monica (14 August 2012). "Slavery still shackles Mauritania, 31 years after its abolition". The Guardian. Retrieved 27 October 2014.
  22. "Slavery in Mauritania: an overview and action plan" Archived 5 November 2013 at the Wayback Machine, United States Embassy in Nouakchott, 3 November 2009.
  23. 2010 Human Rights Report: Mauritania. (8 April 2011). Retrieved 20 March 2012.
  24. "Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor – Mauritania | U.S. Department of Labor".
  25. McDougall, Ann (2007). Buying Freedom: The Ethics and Economics of Slave Redemption. Princeton University Press. p. 161. JSTOR j.ctv39x8qk.
  26. Osborn, Emily (2003). "'Circle of Iron': African Colonial Employees and the Interpretation of Colonial Rule in French West Africa". Journal of African History. 44: 36–37. doi:10.1017/S0021853702008307. S2CID 162152869. ProQuest 229610259.
  27. Mourre, Martin (August 2018). "African colonial soldiers, memories and imagining migration in Senegal in the twenty-first century". Africa. 88 (3): 518–538. doi:10.1017/S0001972018000207. ISSN 0001-9720.
  28. Hall, Bruce S. (2011). "A history of race in Muslim West Africa, 1600–1960". Cambridge African Studies.
  29. Ould Ahmed Salem, Zekeria (9 December 2011). "Former slaves becoming Imams. Citizenship, Islam and Ethnicity in contemporary Mauritania" (PDF). CODESRIA. Retrieved 3 February 2020.
  30. McDougall, E. Ann (2005). "Les ayants droit de l'esclavage. Entre discours et réalité" [Living the Legacy of Slavery: Between Discourse and Reality]. Cahiers d'Études Africaines (in French). 45 (179/180): 963. doi:10.4000/etudesafricaines.15068. ISSN 0008-0055. JSTOR 4393527.
  31. Mazrui, Ali A. (2005). "The Re-Invention of Africa: Edward Said, V. Y. Mudimbe, and beyond". Research in African Literatures. 36 (3): 69. doi:10.2979/RAL.2005.36.3.68. ISSN 0034-5210. JSTOR 3821364. S2CID 162245529.
  32. "Creating a National Agency for the Fight against the Legacy of Slavery" Archived 2014-10-24 at the Wayback Machine (21 March 2013), National Commission for Human Rights in Mauritania
  33. Mauritania 2016 Human Rights Report. United States: Department of State.
  34. Slavery's last stronghold. (16 March 2012). Retrieved 20 March 2012.
  35. "Slavery In Mauritania". Retrieved 24 August 2015.
  36. "Mauritania court frees 10 anti-slavery activists – Amnesty". Reuters. 19 November 2016.
  37. Kelly, Annie; Hodal, Kate (January 29, 2018). "Mauritania failing to tackle pervasive slavery, says African Union". The Guardian.
  38. "Mauritania 2016 Human Rights Report" (PDF). United States: Department of State. March 7, 2017. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2017-03-07.
  39. Rezaian, Jason (7 February 2018). "Slavery is still alive in Mauritania. Can a new court ruling help change that?". The Washington Post.

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