The latest speech delivered by the new Mauritanian president Ely Ould Mohammed Vall, saw the leader pledge to fight all forms of slavery in his country, which raised wide concerns in the international media that broadcast this news with some excitement. The media drew attention to the fact that Mauritania may be the last country in the world where this despicable phenomenon still takes place.
It is true that the clear reference made by Ely Ould Mohammed Vall concerning traces of slavery is a categorical shift in the official political discourse on the matter, especially in comparison to the former leader’s position on the issue. Vall’s predecessor always considered the subject a taboo and has consistently repressed human rights organizations and political associations concerned with it.
However, the issue has a multitude of backgrounds and various factors are connected to the conditions of the country and its current problems. This requires a thorough look into the matter to surpass preconceived notions. In this article, I will restrict myself to clarifying four main facts that are rarely recognized by external observers of Mauritania.
Firstly, the phenomenon of slavery in Mauritania is not historically or presently distinct to the general West African context. The active slave trade in this region in the 17th and 18th centuries was practiced by many ethnic groups and was not distinctive to a single ethnic group. Thus, the illusionary image stressed by the colonialist historians that Arabs played the pivotal role in the slave trade has to be refuted. It could be easily contested by the historical objective accounts.
Perhaps many do not realize that traces of slavery still exist in most of the countries of the West African coast. It is enough here to highlight that the Nigerian parliament promulgated a law that prohibited slavery in May 2003. Meanwhile, last July, the government of Burkina Faso held a seminar on “the Impacts and Features of Slavery.”
Secondly, the phenomenon of slavery in Mauritania in particular is not akin to a specific ethnic group nor is it integrated in the ethnic composition of the country despite the common false conviction that it is exclusively practiced by the Arabs who make up the majority. The fact is that slavery is also practiced in the same manner amongst African ethnic groups such as the Pulaar, Soninke, and Wolof. Also the Harratin (descendants of slaves) belong to many ethnicities even if the black color of their skin is dominant amongst them.
In any case, this group makes up a significant component of the Arab majority. Mostly, they have no nationalist demands. In fact, the leader of the political bloc defending their rights, Messaoud Ould Belkheir, is himself the leader of the Mauritanian Nasserist party (the Progressive Popular Alliance). Belkheir constantly states that the demands of the Harratin focus on achieving equality rather than pushing for a distinct ethnic identity. However, I must stress that this social historical problem correlates and overlaps at times with the conflict of ethnic identities, which erupts at times of crises. However the matter is related to ideological and political factors rather than objective ones.
Thirdly, it is not true that Mauritania is the last country in the world to abolish slavery. In fact, it is somehow possible to agree with the prominent sociologist Abdel Wadud Ould Al Sheikh that Mauritania is “the strongest country in the world in its fight against slavery.” The first official abolishment of slavery in Mauritania dates back to the beginning of the 20th century when the French occupation generalized abolishment on all its African colonies. Then, since independence in 1959, all consecutive constitutions emphasized the abolition. In 1979, the ruling military government was forced to issue an exciting law to abolish slavery once again as a response to the Al-Hor (the Free) movement, which was concerned with defending the rights of the Harratin. The 1979 law in itself did not add any new provisions to the already existing legislation. Such legal wavering reflected the difficulties that faced Mauritanian governments with regards to the impact of slavery.
Fourthly, regardless of the idiomatic difference in Mauritania concerning the objective definition of slavery, are there actual features of slavery or only social traces of this phenomenon? The fact is that slavery correlates and is often confused with other forms of exploitation and social disparity that nevertheless do not qualify as slavery. The two prominent researchers Mohamed Ould Mawlood and Babakr Moussa have shown in published studies on the topic that the relationship of slavery, the possession of one human being by another, was integrated into a socio-economic system that no longer exists. However, they concluded that presently, it is clothed in new networks of exploitation that are the result of current modern violations, where the government has been unable to fulfill its assimilation role, and the result of a bestial economic structure that causes poverty and marginalization. It is only natural that historically excluded groups pay the price of these transformations that are not related to the socio-historical patterns that resulted in slavery.
In conclusion, the talks about slavery in Mauritania at present have numerous facets that are comprised of many paths to observe the social and political situations of that country. It is for that reason that the president’s speech last week in the city of Akjoujt caused such controversy. Finally, I would like to recite the words of a black American Senator who visited Mauritania at the end of the 90s. He told me “the first request that I made to our embassy when I arrived to Mauritania was to allow me to visit the slave market that I heard about in Nouakchott. I did not believe the embassy when it told me that the market did not exist. I decided to travel across the entire country to find it after having no luck in the capital. After a week in your country where I met all political currents and their associations, I concluded that your situation was not particularly different from the rest of the African nations… poverty and independence, if you want to call this slavery then you can.”