Nouakchott, Mauritania: On August fourth Mauritanian anti-slavery activists staged a sit-in before a Nouakchott police station to prevent them from releasing a woman the public prosecutor had just indicted for slavery. The police intervened. Thirteen abolitionists were hospitalized and nine arrested with one sentenced to prison for “unauthorized gathering and rebellion”. The suspected slave owner has disappeared as has the young girl allegedly enslaved.
The Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement in Mauritania (IRAM) says there are still 600 thousand slaves in Mauritania, almost one in five of the country’s 3.2 million people, despite a law voted in September 2007 making slavery a criminal offense, punishable by ten years in prison. “Nothing has changed in Mauritania,” says Balla Touré, an agricultural engineer and IRAM secretary for foreign relations. “No slave owners have been jailed.”
Western diplomatic sources disagree with the figure saying the number of slaves is much lower. They do admit the government shows little enthusiasm in enforcing the 2007 law. “No cases have been successfully prosecuted under the antislavery law despite the fact that de facto slavery exists in Mauritania,” writes the US State Department in its 2010 Human Rights Report.
But a high ranking US Embassy official in Nouakchott tells me they received confirmation one slave owner did go to jail this year although this is not information they verified in person.
The truth is slavery continues unpunished but nobody knows the real number of slaves in the country and investigating is very difficult. The French based NGO, SOS – Esclaves, estimates “approximately 18% of the Mauritania’s population lives in slavery.”
If you wanted to investigate, you would have to go out into the desert villages. Balla Touré says you can find communities of ten thousand people where “150 are the owners and the rest are slaves.” Western embassies have told their nationals most of Mauritania is off-limits because of the danger of being kidnapped by bandits or al-Qaeda. A slave owner could easily see that a bothersome reporter was disappeared.
The government is also determined to keep slavery out of the limelight. As of this writing CNN has been waiting for over five weeks to get a visa to do a story for their modern slavery series. US Embassy efforts have not worked. CNN may have to forego a slave story on the country which is perhaps the world’s biggest slave state.
Three ethnicities and two races
The slaves and descendents of slaves are a group called the Haratine. They are of sub-Saharan origin but after centuries of servitude took on Moorish culture and language, the Hassaniya dialect of Arabic. They make up between 40% and 50% of the population. “Ninety-nine percent of them are illiterate,” says Mohamed O., the son of a former slave owning family who denies slavery is still widespread in the country.
The Haratine are Black but have little in common with Mauritania’s more educated Black Africans who make up about 30% of the population and live in the South along the Senegal River. What the two share is perhaps the poverty imposed by a regime dominated by a minority of wealthy White Moors.
But the racism goes both ways. “All those in government are slave owners,” says Salé, a Haratine militant with IRAM. “White Moors own everything,” adds Bella Touré who is not a Haratine but a Pulaar speaking Black from the south. “My condition as a Black,” he explains, “is linked to the condition of the slaves.”
Tourad, a rare educated Haratine and a teacher, insists the White Moors are attached to slavery more than anything else. “The Army, Gendarmes and Police are all led by Whites,” Touad says, “while 99% of their personnel is Black.” These figures are contested by progressive Moors who point to the occasional successful Black.” Six of the country’s 40 diplomats are Black I am told, although it does not mean they are Haratine which makes sense if less than five percent of the slave caste ever received any schooling.
IRAM, unlike the two other anti-slavery groups in the country, is made up of young, mostly Haratine, people. Their radicalization has western embassies worried that it could create political and ethnic instability. “The IRAM Chairman, Biram Ould Dah Ould Abeid, said recently he “will bring down the government,” a US embassy official warned me. “This is not the language of an NGO.”
Many IRAM members were either babies or not even born in 1989 when deadly ethnic and racial violence broke out in Mauritania and almost led to armed conflict with Senegal. The 12 young men I met are angry and therefore impatient and lack the historical perspective of their elders who remember all too well the bloodshed of a generation ago. The Moor run military and police are better equipped and trained than ever thanks to the west — France and the US in particular.
Don’t rock the ‘war on terrorism’ boat
Mauritania is a major ally of the US and France in the fight against al-Qaeda in the Maghreb, AQMI, and any instability in Mauritania could hurt American efforts in the ‘War on Terrorism’. All talk of slavery in the country could push western public opinion against foreign aid to the regime of General Ould Abed Aziz who seized power in a coup d’état in 2008.
IRAM members say the government has offered them “money and jobs on numerous occasions” if they would scale back their anti-slavery activities. The US embassy encourages them to be more moderate in their actions and words. IRAM’s Chairman is even being offered a trip to the US to meet with NGOs and discuss their practices in the hopes it will help temper his language.
The situation between Black Mauritanians and White Moors is tense. “White Moors have fired 60 thousand Black workers in the past few months out of fear,” says Mohamed O., a former official with the Information Ministry. In April Moorish students and Blacks clashed at Nouakchott University over what the Blacks called “the complete Arabisation of the Administration.” The Moors want to see Arabic take over while the Blacks, who in this case are not Hassaniya speaking Haratine, are better versed in French and insist both official languages be used. The linguistic battle is just another element indicating extreme ethnic animosity.
This is the powder keg of racial and ethnic tension western diplomats do not want to see people like IRAM ignite. A racial explosion with a background of slavery could raise questions back home about the intense military cooperation Washington and Paris enjoy with the Mauritanian regime.
Mohamed O. admits there is a Haratine problem but says it is not ongoing slavery. “Nothing has been done to help the Haratine integrate society,” he says.
Corruption does not help. In August 2010, the Human Rights Commissioner, Mohamed Lemine Ould Daddeh, was fired when he was unable to reimburse nearly one million dollars that went missing. This is the amount of money set aside for the assimilation of the Haratine.
Balla Touré says in villages where slavery exists the master holds on to the voter registration cards of his ‘slaves’ and negotiates the way they will vote with the politician who offers the most favors. This, along with tribal loyalties, could explain why a candidate obtains impossibly high percentages in different regions. Such practices make a mockery of democracy in Mauritania, a country which Transparency International lists among the most corrupt in the world: n° 148 out of 178.
Those who see slavery in Mauritania as a thing of the past say what destroyed the institution was the drought of the 1970s and not the never enforced 1981 presidential decree abolishing the practice, and even less the un-enforced 2007 law. The drought wiped out the country’s livestock, litterally millions of head, and devastated agriculture. “The master became poorer than their slaves,” Mohamed O. says. The result was the slave owners abandoned their slaves and flooded into Nouakchott leaving the helpless to fend for themselves.
Those Haratine who found themselves abandoned did not fare well and many followed their masters to the city. Under slavery “the master took care of the slaves needs,” Mohamed O. says, “his food, clothing and health. All of a sudden that stopped.”
But activists deny recurrent drought ended the practice. “If slavery disappeared,” asks Moulai, a Haratine now in Nouakchott, “then who takes care of their livestock in the countryside?” Still today, they say, any child born to a slave belongs to the master, even if the former slave’s freedom was bought. In Mauritania “slavery is an inherited status,” the NGO Anti-Slavery International writes.
The situation is complicated. Many Haratine fear leaving their masters with no way to survive on their own. In the early 1970s Mohamed O. asked Maria, the slave who breast fed him and his siblings, why she did not go away and live her own life as a free person. “She grabbed her breast in her hand and said ‘I fed you from here and now that you are a big boy you want to send me away?’” The scene still brings tears to Mohamed O’s eyes today, as it did to Maria’s all those years ago.
It is not rare for people like Mohamed O. to receive phone calls about people who are in trouble and say their father or grandfather was a slave of his family’s 40 years ago. Mohamed O. feels obliged to help “people I don’t even know. I am paying for sins I never committed.”
The West is concerned about the instability Islamic guerrillas could cause in the region and they have found a willing ally in President-General Ould Abdel Aziz but they may not be seeing an even more pressing cause of instability: the anger of a generation of young Blacks left out by a small minority of Moors who own and control the country. These Blacks are becoming more vocal, more active and more radical.