Are there still slaves in Mauritania? Legally, no. Are large numbers of ex-slaves and their descendants still trapped in exploitative systems? Yes.
"Slavery is alive and well in Mauritania" – Messaoud ould Boulkheir, President of Mauritania's Parliament, May 2013.
Google 'Mauritania and Slavery' and it is clear that Boulkheir's assertion above is public knowledge.
References to NGOs dealing with Mauritanian slavery – such as SOS Esclaves (SOS Slaves) and Association des haratine de Mauritanie en Europe (Association of Mauritanian haratin in Europe) – are widespread.
Mauritania's Initiative de résurgence du mouvement abolitionniste (Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement [IRA]) recently received international acclaim when its founder and leader, Biram ould Dah Abeid, was named UNPO's (Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization) 2013 recipient of the 'Front Line Defenders' award for his battle against slavery.
But slaves and slavery in 2013?
In 1948, in the aftermath of the Second World War, Article 4 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights stated that "No one shall be held in slavery or servitude: slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms". So, 65 years later, how do we explain the seeming anachronism that is Mauritania?
Setting the scene
The Islamic Republic of Mauritania straddles the 'white-black' West African divide between Arab/Berber desert and African sub-Sahara/Sahel. The desert bizan ('white') people speakthe Arabic/Berber dialect of hasaniyya; the Sahelian sudan ('black') Halpulaar, Soninke and Wolof people mirror the ethnic and linguistic mosaic of neighbouring Senegal.
Mauritania, like its Sahelian neighbours Senegal and Mali, has a long history of slavery. During its half-century as a French colony (1903-1960), 'trading in slaves' was suppressed, as was the institution of slavery across the Sahel.
In the Sahara, however, 'household slavery' was seen as an integral cultural element. The French reasoned that without trade to supply new slaves, the institution would die a natural death; in the meantime, they pragmatically decided they could afford to uphold their promise to bizan 'masters' to respect local custom.
But in this Muslim society, slave marriage and reproduction was widely encouraged; slave children belonged to masters and ensured future generations of slaves. Additionally, there was a formally recognised category of 'freed slaves': haratin.
In Mauritania, all former slaves and their descendants are haratin. When manumission (freeing a slave) followed Islamic law, the resulting relationship (wala) created an ongoing interdependence: former masters owed material, moral and legal assistance, while haratin shared in familial social obligations and religious payments.
The French strongly defended this institution which assured workers to their colonial economy and simultaneously supplied a built-in social security system.
A (not so) black and white story
In 1961, when President Moktar ould Daddah signed the UN Declaration of Human Rights, the newly-created Islamic Republic of Mauritania remained rooted in traditional social hierarchy, including slavery. The black-white divide between the south – which had gravitated towards French culture, education and economy, and the north – which had resisted Christian colonial influence in favour of its Arab, nomadic character – grew wider than ever.
Real change came in the wake of the Sahelian drought (1968-74) that drove thousands from the desert into urban centres like Nouadhibou, the Atlantic port, and Nouakchott, the new capital. Most were haratin or slaves whose masters could no longer support them.
In the late 1970s, the political group El Hor ('The Freeman') argued for improved conditions for these groups. Its success in publicising their plight internationally forced the government to formally abolish slavery in 1980. Between 1981 and 1983, additional legislation followed by land reform buttressed the historic announcement.
But religiously-sanctioned relationships such as slavery and wala were not jettisoned so easily, especially as few amongst slaves, haratin and masters found sufficient material compensation in the new reforms to risk leaving/rejecting the traditional security of slavery. The institution thus continued in all but the most public contexts.
El Hor's international campaign also continued. But it increasingly simplified and dramatised Mauritania's complex racial and social mosaic, seeking support from audiences familiar with American-style slavery. The campaign thus translated the situation into black and white, and by the late 1980s, Mauritania was known to the West as an 'Apartheid' regime in which 'a free-white elite' apparently exploited 'a black-slave underclass'.
The violent 1989 border war with Senegal reinforced this image. Between 1989 and 1991, 80,000 to 90,000 'free black' Mauritanians (mostly Halpulaar) were forced to flee the country.
Possessions were stolen, identification papers destroyed, women raped, and men tortured. Among the perpetrators of what some termed genocide, haratin police and army personnel were conspicuous in their numbers. But internationally, a different tale was told. Media reports spoke of 'black slaves being driven from their homes by white masters'.
And so, as Mauritania became defined by its own 'Apartheid regime', and the violence became seen as a 'civil war fought over slavery', distinctions between slave, haratin, refugee and black became permanently blurred. The main difference today is that now the country is the 'democratic'Islamic Republic of Mauritania, with colour and class alliances evolving accordingly.
Democracy and slavery: the making of strange bedfellows
Issues arising from the political racialisation of slavery in the mid-to-late 1980s prevented the united black opposition many outsiders expected to see emerge in the early 1990s as Mauritania crept towards democracy.
Historical roots held firm through the political instability characterising the period between the Senegal War and the military overthrow of dictator Maaouya ould Sid'Ahmed Taya (who had seized power in a 1984 coup d'état) in August 2005. On the political scene, the question of the haratin – a term which gradually replaced 'slaves' – remained central.
In March 1994, a special supplement to Nouakchott's political publication Espaces Calame explored the issues facing this troubled class. It was a telling moment, revealing publicly El Hor's internal debates over haratin and slavery, the ambiguities of which were captured in the lead article: "La Culture Esclave… y a-t-il conscience haratine autonome?" ("The Slave Culture: is there an autonomous haratin consciousness?").
In 1995, disillusioned El Hor members created SOS Esclaves. While attracting international audiences remained important (as the name implied), this non-governmental organisation was domestically focussed. In an attempt to unite haratin and slaves in political resistance, it argued that distinguishing between them obscured the fact that at some time, both had been slaves.
This was a hard sell to haratin who had long seen themselves as semi-autonomous extensions of bizan families. Immersed in Arabic/Berber hassaniya culture and language, and accessing political and economic opportunities through their 'family' connections, they were reluctant to disenfranchise themselves. Why associate with slaves recently cut adrift from masters by state law (not Islamic manumission), who consequently had no 'familial' (wala) resources to draw upon? Furthermore, why associate with other poor blacks whose histories tied them to slave-holding Afro-Mauritanians and/or Senegal rather than to 'their own' ethnicity and nation?
The local-level democracy that began under ould Taya became 'national' following his overthrow in 2005 – the military government held presidential elections within two years. But the regime headed by Sidi ould Cheikh Abdelahi, the winner of the March 2007 elections, was overthrown only a year later by General Mohamed ould Abdel Aziz. In the spring of 2009, Abdel Aziz resigned his military position and ran successfully in that summer's election, painting himself as the 'President for the Poor'.
In this highly volatile political era, what is notable is that from the moment of the 2005 military coup by Ely ould Mohamed Vall through to Abdel Aziz's 2009 democratic election campaign, 'slavery' – embracing returning refugees (from the 1989-91 expulsions), haratin and 'vestiges of slavery' – was central to political discourse.
To legitimate his seizure of power, Mohamed Vall made the issue international, arguing that: "slavery [is] something that all the world [has] known throughout history and it [is] something that the sharia [Islamic law and basis of the Mauritanian constitution], like the [Western] law, condemn[s]… [My government will] address the vestiges of slavery, no matter what form they may take".
Successive elected regimes, even the 2008 military junta, also realised the effectiveness of 'the slave issue' in mobilising support. In August 2007, six-months into power, Cheikh Abdellahi – whose anti-slavery election campaign had promised 'positive discrimination' in favour of poor haratin and newly-returned refugees – saw legislation through parliament criminalising practices of enslavement.
What that election underscored was the impact of democracy; potentially, all returning refugees (demanding compensation for the crimes of ould Taya) and haratin (including recently-freed slaves), had votes to cast, and to be won. And as haratin alone were estimated to account for over 40% the population, it became increasingly difficult for any presidential candidate to be elected without addressing 'slavery' in some fashion.
'Déjà-vu all over again… '? Abolition in the 21st century
Today, moderate political rhetoric rings hollow in the face of radical accusations by a group called the Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement (IRA) that the government in fact openly supports slavery and refuses to enforce its own 2007 law.
In April 2012, abolitionist Dah Abeid performed a highly-publicised 'book-burning' to underscore this point.
The materials were early Islamic texts on slavery that inform contemporary Mauritanian jurists. While this dramatic act alienated haratin reluctant to publically criticise Islam, Dah Abeid's subsequent four-month imprisonment and growing international support reversed local opinion, as reflected in his 15 June 2013 'welcome home'.
But is this support for his personal vision of the anti-slavery battle or merely people's desire for equitable governance? The answer is both.
Dah Abeid has succeeded where predecessors failed in enlarging the politics of 'anti-slavery' to embrace anti-black racism. Moreover, he has added anti-poor social and economic discrimination to his rhetoric.
Most recently, at the start of July, he likened black Halpulaar to haratin because of their shared difficulties in acquiring papers for the recent census registration – the former a legacy of ould Ta'ay's expulsions, he argued, the latter a legacy of slavery.
Are there still slaves? Legally, no.
But are there uneducated haratin herders and cultivators, hartaniyya young girls trapped into sexual relationships and/or forced marriages in isolated rural regions? Yes.
And are there haratin and hartaniyya 'domestics' in Nouadhibou and Nouakchott whose working conditions are pure exploitation? Also, yes. But most of the latter are women and children who have few alternatives other than prostitution or begging; all domestics are not 'forced' into these situations by slavery – except by enslavement to poverty itself.
The legal cases that have been brought forward since 2007 are few. Women have been reluctant to lay charges against masters. But accusations notwithstanding, there is no concrete evidence as to how widespread these cases are.
And over the years, sensationalised accounts of allegedly rescued slaves have raised questions about abolitionists 'playing to the media', thereby providing fodder for governmental denial and undoubtedly casting suspicion upon genuine victims.
Today, haratin are the poorest cultivators, fishermen, and herders; they are the urban street people, domestics, semi-employed manual labourers, and poorly-salaried workers (for example, the recently-striking Nouadhibou dock-workers).
However, haratin also account for some prominent middle-class professionals (teachers, nurses, journalists, lawyers, architects, professors) and wealthy businessmen.
Among them are elected government members: the hartaniyya wife of SOS Esclaves' director is a Member of Parliament; the President of Parliament (quoted above) is a haratin founder of El Hor. While still a minority among haratin, these 'successes' are as real as poor workers – including the largely invisible 'underclass'.
What constitutes slavery and what determines who is 'slave' in post-abolitionist Mauritania are not straightforward. What the government says about eradicating the 'vestiges of slavery' and what its agents (legal, police and military) do, seldom overlap. It is local experience – rural and urban, private and (sometimes) public – not statutes and laws that defines 'Mauritanian slavery' today.
Ann McDougall is a Professor in the Department of History and Classics, at the University of Alberta. She is currently focusing on the social role of (freed) slaves in Mauritania and Morocco in the context of democratization; Islam in West Africa; and the Saharan salt trade.Some of her most recent works include: Hidden in the Household: gender and class in the study of Islam in Africa; Who are the hratin?