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The politics of slavery, racism and democracy in Mauritania

The history of slavery is central to racism, activism and democracy in Mauritania. Much of what happens next will reflect the decisions of former slaves.

A scene from Mauritania. Geraint Rowland/Flickr. Creative Commons.

The Islamic Republic of Mauritania officially abolished slavery in 1980-81. In 2007 the practise was criminalised, and in 2015 actual punishment for enslavement was legislated. While the Mauritanian government continues to speak of ‘vestiges’ of slavery, local anti-slavery activists such as Boubacar Messaoud and Biram Dah Abeid continue to insist that slavery remains alive and well. As Messaoud recently observed, why would new legislation against slavery be repeatedly necessary if there was no longer a slavery problem ?

Racism, slavery and political activism

While Messaoud and Abeid share a common cause against slavery, they approach the issues of slavery and race in different ways. Messaoud grew up during the last years of French colonial rule (1940-50s), and much of his adult activism took place in the context of political dictatorship (1984-2005). He founded the NGO SOS Esclaves in 1995 in order to agitate for reform and bring international attention to slavery and discrimination against the descendants of slaves (known in Mauritania as haratine. Messaoud insists that slavery in Mauritania is not a matter of whites-enslaving-blacks, as it was in the United States; masters are both ethnically black (Fulani, Soninke) and white (beidan), ‘white’ being a relative term given generations of miscegenation. Thus he maintains that it is slavery as a social institution that is the key problem.  

Abeid’s approach places broader patterns of racism within Mauritanian society at centre stage. Having grown up in the then newly independent nation of Mauritania (1960-70s), he rejects the moderation of Messaoud’s generation. While he initially worked with SOS Esclaves between 2002 and 2008, he subsequently left to found the Initiative pour la Résurgence du mouvement abolitionniste (IRA-Mauritania), a self-declared ‘abolitionist’ NGO. IRA articulates a racially-based message: “Black Mauritanians have either been exploited as slaves or discriminated against—the most dramatic example being the expulsion of 70-80,000 (mostly Fulani) between 1989 and 1991”. According to the IRA, being black should constitute a political identity.

Abeid’s most infamous act to date took place in 2012, when, following Friday prayer, he burned medieval Islamic texts addressing slavery. Given that these texts are foundational to the state, the government declared this to be an ‘act of treason’. He was subsequently tried but not convicted. Other acts of defiance have led to further arrests. He currently languishes in a provincial jail for leading a local protest, well-exiled from the political action in the capital of Nouakchott.

Both Messaoud and Abeid are of slave parentage, making them first-generation haratine. Estimates suggest that 40 percent of the population are of this status. Each has a post-secondary education, is an articulate speaker and has an international reputation that defies enduring stereotypes regarding the limited capacities of slaves and their descendants. After all, Abeid even ran for president in 2014! However, the political fortunes of their cause are tied to the actions and outlooks of the haratine more broadly considered.

The haratine: slaves and their descendants

Those who have ‘succeeded’ represent about 20 percent of Mauritania’s haratine. The other 80 percent constitutes Mauritania’s poorest, most exploited citizens. Mostly descendants of former slaves (some claim ‘client-ship’ ancestry), they have traditionally seen themselves as extensions of former masters’ beidan families (wala in Islam). Through this affiliation they have assurances of economic security—especially land—and access to political networks. They reciprocate in numerous ways including ‘gifts’ of agricultural produce and contributions to family festivities. Religious and familial ties are strong in some instances, attenuated in others.

It is this group of slave descendants which is critical to Mauritanian democracy. At the moment it largely continues to identify with the current regime, and its votes frequently go toward candidates identified with the beidan culture and power structure. Haratine share their former masters’ language, music, poetry and religion, as well as actual family relations through forms of marriage. While many are attempting to use this support as leverage for their own needs, the practice does simultaneously help maintain the status quo, including beidan racism where it exists. However, there are dissenters, looking not for a mediated identity but some form of autonomy. This is already visible among the rural and landless, as well as the urban and jobless. Could a different form of solidarity be emerging around class, even in this post-Marxist age?  Or, as Abeid advocates, will ‘being black’ trump all?

The many faces of the haratine

The research I carried out with Mauritanian colleagues between 2008 and 2012 found that haratine saw themselves differently depending on their region of origin and their experience with colonialism. The extent to which they wanted to remain members of a particular beidan family varied, as did their desire to be associated with a given tribal status (traditionally, ‘warrior’ or ‘cleric’). Many simply wanted to be seen as ‘Mauritanian citizens’. The urban-rural divide also emerged as significant. Haratine in Nouakchott were more politically aware than those in the countryside; they were also more radical than those in smaller towns and even in the working-class port city, Nouadhibou.

In November/December 2009, we asked people who they voted for in the previous summer’s presidential elections. One of the candidates, Messaoud Boulkheir, was a well-known hratani (sing. of haratine) and activist. Among haratine who supported him, no one identified with his social status. If they voted for him, it was because he had promised them something they needed—a school, medical clinic, road. Non-supporters commented that he had ‘not bothered’ to visit them. These reasons help explain the success of his beidan opponent, Mohamed Abdel Aziz, who ran as the ‘president for the poor’. Additional haratine support came from those who still voted traditionally, in other words in accordance with their local beidan. By the time we were finishing up our interviews in 2011, Abeid’s IRA activism and international CNN journalism had government administrators extremely sensitive to anything haratine or ‘slave’ related. Political questions were no longer permitted in our interviews.

Aziz was re-elected in the same 2014 election Abeid fought unsuccessfully, with the former purportedly garnering more than 80 percent of the vote. Controversy over the legitimacy of this statistic and low voter-turnout notwithstanding, these results suggest that a majority of haratine still saw their interests as being best served through traditional relations with the beidan.

A new form of politics?

The strongest indication that this might change is rooted neither in NGOs nor opposition political parties per se. The ‘Manifest for the Political, Economic and Social Rights of the Haratine’, published in April 2013, outlines the ways in which haratine constitute a second-class citizenry (the 20 percent or so who have achieved ‘privilege’ notwithstanding) and details the steps needed to rectify the situation. Messaoud, one of its signatories and spokespersons, described it in an interview as a plan for moving forward that ensures a “peaceful future” for the country as a whole. It puts haratine rights front and centre; ‘slavery’ itself is but one of several crucial issues. Its signatories cross all segments of Mauritanian civil society, including human rights, anti-poverty, gender inequality, ethnic integration and anti-slavery groups. Thousands, including beidan, ethnic black Mauritanians, and haratine from all over the country marched through the streets of Nouakchott in 2014 and 2015 to support its goals.

We are seeing a new stage in the evolution of a country emerging from slavery. There is growing recognition that real growth—be it economic, cultural, social—cannot happen when almost half the population is considered to be ‘second class’. While many haratine continue to hope that the status quo can be ‘adjusted’ to this reality, a newer generation, united with the more politicised of its predecessors, does not. Whether or not the momentum of the 2013 manifesto—or some new ‘Arab Spring’—will bring about a change in government by 2019, the next scheduled presidential election, remains to be seen.

This article builds upon research conducted for a project titled The Invisible People: a history of the haratine of Southern Morocco and Mauritania, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (2008-12).

About the author

E. Ann McDougall received her PhD from the University of Birmingham in 1980 and has been at the University of Alberta since 1986. Her research explores Islam, slavery, and identity in the Saharan societies of Mauritania and southern Morocco.


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