“You’re Going Where?”: A Visit to Mauritania and the Challenge to a Narrative

“You’re Going Where?”:  A Visit to Mauritania and the Challenge to a Narrative

By Bill Fletcher, Jr.

As the plane dropped through the clouds making its final approach to Nouakchott airport, I looked out the window to my right. All I saw was a vast, beautiful, yet desolate terrain. As we landed, I asked myself a simple question, How did I get to Mauritania?

Where is Mauritania?

I was invited to Mauritania by the government of President Mohamed Ould Ghazouani. The invitation came as a complete surprise but, after having been introduced to a representative of the Mauritanian government, I was informed that the newly elected president was intent on moving a significant reform agenda. To be honest, I was skeptical given what I thought that I knew about Mauritania. To my surprise, not only was I invited to visit Mauritania, but it turned out that the Mauritanian government had extended similar invitations to several international human rights organizations. Their objective in inviting me and others was so that we could see for ourselves what is transpiring in Mauritania and the reform efforts that the new president is undertaking.           

When I started to tell people that I was going to visit Mauritania, I immediately discovered that most of the people in the United States with whom I was in contact, had – at best – only a vague idea of where Mauritania was located. To the extent to which they were familiar with Mauritania, there was a common assumption that it was a quasi-medieval country that permitted – if not encouraged – domestic slavery.

The Islamic Republic of Mauritania is located in northwestern Africa. Two-thirds of the country is desert, being located on the western flank of the Sahara Desert. The country is part of the Sahel region of Africa that is a “border” between North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa. What is now Mauritania was part of French West Africa. As I was informed by a staff person from the International Labor Organization, the French did nothing to develop Mauritania. They looked at the region as a source for the extraction of minerals and nothing more.

In effect, when the French were forced out of their formal colonial relationship with West Africa, they drew an arbitrary boundary and thus emerged Mauritania. Within that territory, there were various ethnic populations that had, in some cases, little relationship with one another. But to the extent to which they have had a relationship, it was problematic, a de facto caste system.

The De Facto Caste System

As a light-skinned African American, traveling through Mauritania reminds me of the complexities of the socio-political category of “race” and that racial relations (and history) in the United States does not serve as anything approaching a model for understanding the construction of race internationally. What is in common, whether dealing with race in Ireland, Mauritania, Colombia or the United States, is that it was established as a means of oppression and social control in connection with the development of capitalism. While there may be certain common features, one cannot draw conclusions based on one’s own experiences with race in one’s own country of origin.

Walking through the streets of the capital, Nouakchott, I saw people of various shades and complexions. Using a purely African-American framework, they all looked “Black” to me. I am not blind and recognize that there are various differences within the population but not enough that I would see in each a different reality or, necessarily, identity.

The Mauritanian reality, however, is one within which there is a de facto caste system. In fact, one could argue that there is more than one caste system within Mauritania.

At the top of the social pyramid are the so-called Moors, those of Arab and Berber descent. “Beneath” them are the “Negro-Mauritanie” or Black Mauritanians. These are peoples who are the descendants of people from Sub-Saharan Africa. At the bottom, and according to some studies, constituting 40% of the population, are the Haratin or Hartani, those who are largely the descendants of slaves captured from around the region and who are, in many respects, analogous to the Dalits in South Asia. The languages spoken by the population, as a side note, include Arabic (the Hassaniya dialect), Pulaar, Sonike, Wolof and Malinke. The unofficial major language is French.           

Those at the top of the Mauritanian social pyramid are frequently described as “white,” which, to an African American, makes as much sense as describing them as Martian. In the Mauritanian context, it is not simply a visible color. Those at the top tend to be lighter than those at the bottom, but the distinction is less than dramatic.

Those who identify as “Arab” or “Moors” (a merging of Arab and Berber) have been the “caste” that has largely dominated Mauritanian society. Their ancestors engaged in the domestic slave trade and brought into their families the Hartani. The Hartani have been so integrated into some families – in a subordinate role – that it is inconceivable for many to believe that there is a life outside of de facto slavery; outside of actual subordination.

One the themes which I heard time and again was that of the lack of economic opportunities and the polarization of wealth in the country as having the impact of reinforcing the legacy of slavery. In other words, despite the fact that slavery is and has been illegal in Mauritania for decades, the lack of options makes the old system something akin to a fallback and pit of despair for many, out of which they cannot climb.

So, What About This Slavery Question?

Discussions about slavery in Mauritania are sensitive matters but not necessarily for reasons that one would assume. In the interviews that I conducted with a very diverse grouping from those in government to international nongovernmental organizations to domestic NGOs, no one denied the existence of the legacy of slavery. In fact, in discussions that I held with both a Mauritanian human rights group as well as one with a judge from a special court established to address the legacy of slavery, there was an open admission of continuing problems. The judge I interviewed expressed frustration that more cases were not brought before him despite what he and his team knew was the existence of various human rights abuses. This led him to the conclusion that a more pro-active approach was going to be necessary to address not only the legacy of slavery but related economic and social abuses.           

The unease with the discussion of slavery reflected two main issues. First, the question of which issues really are or need to be at the top of any list when it comes to economic and human rights matters. Second, the alleged objectives of those in the international NGO world who have focused their attention on matters of alleged slavery in Mauritania.           

In virtually every meeting I held the same thing was repeated: Slavery is not the main issue facing Mauritania. I was repeatedly told that poverty and lack of economic development traps those in what I have described as the bottom “caste.” Oppression and abuse of women, including spousal abuse and forced early marriages, were raised as critically important issues. And, as mentioned earlier, the polarization of wealth in the country, keeping much of the population surviving on less than U.S. $2/day, was highlighted as a dramatic challenge for the country.           

The problems are compounded, in the opinion of one of the international organizations I interviewed, by a court system that combines Sharia law and “Positive Law.”  What appears to be a deeper problem, however, has been the historic reticence of the government to be pro-active in tackling human rights issues, including but not limited to the legacy of slavery.           

The unease with discussions concerning slavery is also compounded by the perception that there are domestic and international forces that have utilized the allegations of slavery in order to advance their respective interests. In an interview with a government representative, I was told of their utter frustration that an international news outlet would do a documentary on the situation in Mauritania without the government having a chance to respond. Though that reaction did not come as a surprise, what did come as a surprise was when several Mauritanian NGOs said almost exactly the same thing!

Whether those who raise the slavery question are doing it for sincere or opportunistic reasons is difficult to assess. They may be trying to highlight the continued existence of profound economic injustice. What is also possible is that the cry of “slavery” can be an effective fundraising tool as well as a means of shutting down discussions about the broader issues facing Mauritania. To a great extent the answer to that question falls into the lap of the Mauritanian government and how it is prepared to address its critics.

President Mohamed Ould Ghazouani and the Future

Mauritania does not have a good track record when it comes to democracy. Since independence from France, it has been subjected to multiple military coups and repressive regimes. The sincerity of various governments in tackling economic and social justice has been questionable. For these reasons I was not ecstatic when a colleague of mine who has extensive knowledge of Mauritania insisted that something was unfolding in the country and that I needed to observe it directly.           

The election of President Ghazouani appears to most of those I interviewed as something more than a change of face. The term that I believe best describes what I heard was “cautious optimism.” Ghazouani has an ambitious economic development program directed by an organization known as TAAZUR (translated as “solidarity” or “help”), which aims to build on Mauritania’s natural wealth in order to break the stranglehold of poverty.

Regional courts are being promoted to address the slavery legacy. An organization, the Mecanisme National de Prevention de la Torture, has the authority to conduct unannounced spot-checks on any law enforcement facilities to identify problems of prisoner abuse and to bring forward documentation of such allegations. And the Mauritanian government, in partnership with the German government, has developed a program of what they term “paralegals” to provide education on human rights issues, including through the vehicle of community meetings all held in various parts of the country.           

Those, from the government, with whom I spoke, more than anything, were looking for a pro-active approach to the challenges facing Mauritania. International representatives of governments and agencies with whom I spoke raised this issue of past passivity by Mauritanian governments as symptomatic of the underlying problem.

Yes, they would say, Mauritania has signed all sorts of agreements, but its former governments have done little to bring about the radical change so deeply needed. Ghazouani, according to various sources, appears to be interested in turning the situation around. One very significant example of this is, as earlier noted, his willingness to open the country to international guests and observers. In effect, he has said, come to Mauritania and decide for yourself.

The Challenges

The “cautious” in “cautious optimism” is well-rooted in the post-independence history of Mauritania. Economic development will not be easy, even if and when Mauritania is successful in obtaining foreign investment in its extractive industries. Though the Mauritanian government is keenly aware of the danger latent in a reliance on extractive industries – a challenge throughout Africa – they feel compelled to make use of the resources that they possess in order to gain the capital to undertake the economic transformation that the country badly needs.

The dangers are quite apparent. The natural gas that Mauritania has in excess contributes to global warming. The sum total of all the resources could end up enriching a Mauritanian elite, e.g., the Angolan experience, rather than benefitting the mass of people. Added to this, ultimately Mauritania will need economic diversification on some scale, though this may have to happen within the West African Economic Community (ECOWAS).           

Mauritania also has a major literacy challenge. Literacy estimates range at a high of 52%. Without a major breakthrough on literacy, economic development goes nowhere. One interesting approach by the government has been to link literacy efforts with human rights education, i.e., using the issue of human rights and the routes that citizens can take, as a method to address literacy.           

Mauritania faces additional challenges. It was traditionally a transit point for migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa moving towards North Africa and/or Europe. Over the years it has begun to become a destination point. Mauritania, according to international officials addressing migration with whom I spoke, is not known as particularly hostile to migrants. Contrary to the slave markets of post-Qaddafi Libya, for instance, the Mauritanian state has attempted to institute rules and regulations that are not onerous. The larger challenge has been one of gaining access to services and documentation for migrants so that they can achieve a legal identity. In the absence of such provisions, they will be detained and/or deported.           

The country also has a very weak and fragile trade union movement, symptomatic of a larger problem among civil society organizations. Its labor movement is divided between several different confederations, none of which appear to exert much power. This is not a problem limited to the trade union movement. Though there is a civil society which includes non-governmental projects, their power appears to be quite limited and their numerical strength is limited as well.

Leaving Mauritania?

The Nouakchott airport is approximately a 30-45 minutes’ drive from the center of the city. As we drove to the airport on the night of my return flight, I thought of the trials facing Mauritania. We drove past a new convention center not far from the airport and ultimately entered the new airport where I awaited my flight, both projects signifying what many people hope to be 21st Century Mauritania.           

The drive to the airport was a study in contrasts. The driving culture in Nouakchott is among the scariest I have ever experienced. What most of us would consider rules, e.g., stopping for red lights, are experienced as ‘suggestions.’  The cars all too often look as if a giant metallic claw had scrapped them, driving past you seemingly oblivious to road dangers.           

Yet once outside of the capital and well on our way to the airport, it felt as if we had entered a different world. Solar panels alongside the road reminded one that this is not a medieval site, but a country that has had a terrible time breaking free, less from the legacy of slavery, and more from the legacy of French colonialism.          

So far Mauritania has been successful in holding at bay jihadist terrorism. Its conception of an Islamic Republic appears to be far more tolerant than the experiences in the Persian/Arabian Gulf, for instance. Yet lying beneath the surface remain social and economic forces that could rip the country apart if not fully addressed with deliberate speed. The caste system, for instance, will have to be addressed in order to succeed in economic development. Attempts to retain the existing social division of labor, while at the same time “raising all boats,” will doom any transformative project as the inequities of society become more apparent to what will inevitably be a growing, educated population.           

Africa has experienced too many disappointments. Should the Ghazouani agenda fully materialize, it just might set in motion the forces that are necessary for the Sahel region to oppose the counter-revolutionary agenda of both the jihadists and the sycophants of global capitalism.           

When I looked at the faces of many of the Mauritanians with whom I met, I got this sense that much of the country was holding its collective breath.           

I am as well.


Bill Fletcher, Jr. is the executive editor of globalafricanworker.com and the former president of TransAfrica Forum.

Caption: Woman cooking broth for members of her family in the southern part of Mauritania

Credit: Cooperazione

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