Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Are Haratines black Moors or just black?

The racialisation of the anti-slavery struggle in Mauritania has created a patchwork of identities and alliances.

Giuseppe Maimone
13 February 2018

Fish market in Nouakchott. Evgeni Zotov/flickr. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

In mid-September 2017 a US delegation of anti-slavery activists, including Jonathan Jackson, the son of Reverend Jesse Jackson and the spokesman of the US civil rights organisation Rainbow PUSH Coalition, was denied access to Mauritania. A few months before, the French journalist Tiphaine Gosse and the French human rights lawyer Marie Foray were expelled from the country under the accusation of working with the unauthorised local organisation Initiative pour la résurgence du mouvement abolitionniste en Mauritanie (IRA Mauritanie).

Slavery in Mauritania differs from what is often meant by ‘modern slavery’ in other contexts.

These events show the extent to which the Mauritanian authorities are sensitive to international inquiry into slavery in the country. The access denied to the human rights activists also reveals the ambiguity marking anti-slavery policies in Mauritania. On the one hand, the question of slavery has been high on the political agenda of various post-colonial governments for the past few decades. A number of laws and measures have been enacted to end slavery, including a law against human trafficking in 2003, a law punishing the practice of slavery in 2007, and a new one in 2015 that further increased penalties for slavers.

On the other hand, the governments have hindered, if not overtly repressed, anti-slavery activists. For example, state repression of the El-Hor movement, which has existed since 1978, reached its peak in 1980 with the prosecution of several El-Hor leaders in the ‘Trial of Rosso’. In the last decade, several Mauritanian abolitionists and HR activists have been imprisoned for their anti-slavery activities. In particular, IRA Mauritanie, founded in 2008 by Biram Dah Abeid, has become the main target of the repression carried out under the presidency of Abdel Aziz.

Slavery in Mauritania

Mauritania has become sadly popular for the issue of slavery over the past decade. The Walk Free Foundation ranked it the first country for the existence of modern slavery in the Global Slavery Indices 2013 and 2014. Because of its historical roots, however, slavery in Mauritania differs from what is often meant by ‘modern slavery’ in other contexts. Slavery within West African black communities ended during French colonisation, even if it often transmogrified into relations of dependence and new forms of exploitation like forced labour, taxation and military conscription – as Alice Bellagamba reported – as well as social stigma.

In contrast, slavery within the Arab-Berber society continued undisturbed in Mauritania during the colonial period and a decree of abolition of slavery came only in 1981, 20 years after Mauritania signed onto the 1948 UN Declaration of Human Rights condemning slavery in 1961. After abolition, slaves (‘ābid in Arabic) were formally freed and became Haratines (harātin, Arabic), a social group of former slaves and their descendants of black origin.

Haratines are sometimes referred to by scholars as ‘black Moors’ to distinguish them from the ‘white Moors’, the Beydanes (bidan, Arabic). At first sight, this is just a chromatic division of an apparent organic unity, a superficial re-proposing of a previous distinction between bidan (‘whites’) and sudan (‘blacks’). In fact sudan was the term used to refer to slaves and freed slaves within the Moorish society, thus revealing not only racial but also social connotations. If a slave (‘abd, singular of ‘abid) could be freed to become a hartani (singular of harātin), descent-based stigmatisation persisted, preventing him from becoming bidan. Crucially, the ‘chromatic demonisation’ of the Haratines accorded them stigmas and subhuman connotations, as this rhyme goes:

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Haratine baratine

Oulad a’m cheyatines

Jabou lek hal mene le khnaviss

Jabou le khneuz meun le’tariss

La kalou yeu balgou

La ja’ou yeu sargou

Haratines are grandchildren of devils

they received the colour of cockroaches

and the smell of goats.

If hungry, they steal.

If they eat, they bloat.


Nowadays about 7-10% of Haratines are estimated to be in slavery. A larger number live under different conditions of dependence on their former masters, and they also experience widespread marginalisation. In 2013, 25 Haratine leaders with different political orientations presented the ‘Manifest for political, economic, and social rights of the Haratines’, which contains a thorough analysis of the condition of the Haratines in Mauritania and programmatic guidelines of what should be done to reach equality among all citizens. The document describes the Beydanes and Haratines as “two entities more and more distinguished” and claims that Haratines form a “socio-ethnic category”.

It was El-Hor in 1978 that first identified the ‘cultural specificity’ of the Haratines, with their double belonging to both the black-African world of their ancestry and the Arab world in which they grew up. IRA Mauritanie goes a step further in emphasising racial dimension of slavery. For its founder Dah Abeid, the Haratines have their own black identity that distinguishes them from the Arabs: “Black Moors do not exist! There are Haratines and Moors. It is Moors that describe themselves as ‘White Moors’. It is not our problem…”

While Dah Abeid describes blackness as a key component of the Haratine identity, he also argues they form a community that is distinct from ‘black-Mauritanians’ (comprised of the groups: Wolof, Soninké, Halpulaar, Bambara). In Dah Abeid’s view, historical reasons for the exploitation of Haratines by Beydanes rest on ethnic elements: the ‘white’ leading class exploits the poorest, which is that of the Haratines. However Haratines, Dah Abeid says, are “black autochthones” (black indigenous) and thus their claims of equality and full citizenship is legitimate. Due to enslavement, they have been forcefully assimilated into the Arab society, thus causing their identity to be “African, Arab, and Berber, forged with pain by oppression”.

According to IRA, after having exploited them as slaves, nowadays the Arabs turn their affinities with Haratines against black-Mauritanians. This is a key point. Haratines are estimated to be 40-45% of the total population. They tip the balance as the biggest social group in the country, with the rest almost equally composed of Arabs (25-30%) and black-Mauritanians (around 30%). Biram Dah Abeid affirmed: “They [Arabs, ed.] claim the identity of the Haratines without asking to the Haratines. They claim the Haratines to be Arabs to grow in number to the detriment of Blacks, to lower the number of Blacks, to exclude Blacks”.

The ways Dah Abeid associates or distinguishes Haratines from other black-Mauritanians, depending on the issue at stake, may convey a sense of ambiguity regarding the alleged ‘blackness’ of both groups. However, Dah Abeid considers Haratines as ‘just black’, “black-African for their origin and direct cousins of black-Africans”.

They [Arabs] claim the Haratines to be Arabs to grow in number to the detriment of Blacks, to lower the number of Blacks, to exclude Blacks.

From stigmatisation to activism

IRA Mauritanie converts the stigmatisation of the black origin of Haratines into a keystone of community identification. In the last years, Dah Abeid has strengthened the cooperation with black-Mauritanian organisations, especially by promoting demonstrations that show the common marginalisation and violence suffered by these stigmatised social groups. Most notably, he has organised pilgrimages to the sites where black-Mauritanians were massacred during ethnic cleansing in 1990-91.

In so doing, Biram Dah Abeid hopes to spread his popularity and to become the spokesman of all the marginalised Mauritanians, who are mostly black. He claims that the fight against slavery is an economic fight, thus the end of slavery implicates the end of the exploitation of all the oppressed Mauritanians. This is part of the new strategy carried out by IRA Mauritanie both with the internationalisation of the fight against slavery and the construction of a national network of members and affiliations throughout Mauritania.

With IRA Mauritanie, Dah Abeid has created a deeply politicised organisation. Its novel structure and ideology pieces together experiences and ideologies of previous organisations and renews the fight against slavery. In 2014 Dah Abeid made a first attempt to evaluate his political weight in 2014, when he competed for presidential elections. Although he got only 8.67% of the vote against 81.89% obtained by Abdel Aziz, Dah Abeid legitimated himself as potential competitor.

Dah Abeid was arrested during a demonstration that same year, only to be released in April 2016 after several international campaigns proved the unprecedented popularity of IRA and its president. One of the most renowned anti-slavery activists worldwide, Dah Abeid has collected several international awards for his non-violent fight against slavery, among them the UN Human Rights Prize in 2013. This has made of Biram Dah Abeid the ‘Mauritanian Mandela’ – Nelson Mandela won the same prize 25 years earlier – and the term ‘apartheid’ has begun to appear in Western media to describe Mauritanian society.

We must be careful though, as the description of a country divided in two racial blocks – one exploiting the other – is a dangerous simplification. First of all, it favours allegations of racism against IRA Mauritanie by its opponents, who accuse Dah Abeid of being divisive and damaging to the unity of the country. As a consequence, this makes IRA Mauritanie unpopular amongst Beydanes with all but a few exceptions.

Moreover, the representation of Mauritanian society as divided in two racial blocks, Arab and black, obscures the process of community building among the Haratines, who would see their ethnic specificity dissolved within an indistinct big black community. Indeed, the racialisation of Haratines as black could be seen as just one of the elements that characterise their identity, a useful tool to highlight their marginalisation and exploitation within Mauritanian society. To make racial legacies the main trait of the Haratine identity could seriously damage the cohesion among the Haratine community that is still in progress.


This Guest Week week presents the results of research carried out by the team of ERC GRANT, ‘Shadows of Slavery in West Africa and Beyond (SWAB): a Historical Anthropology’ (Grant Agreement: 313737). The team has researched in Tunisia, Chad, Ghana, Madagascar, Morocco, Pakistan and Italy under the leadership of Alice Bellagamba. The team has invited Giupeppe Maimone, Luca Nevola, and an anonymous contributor to participate in the discussion.

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