Mauritania is a country in the Maghreb and West Africa. It is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean in the west, by Western Sahara in the north, by Algeria in the northeast, by Mali in the east and southeast, and by Senegal in the southwest. It is named after the ancient Berber Kingdom of Mauretania, which later became a province of the Roman Empire, even though the modern state covers a territory far to the southwest of the old kingdom. The capital and largest city is Nouakchott, located on the Atlantic coast.
The government of Mauritania was overthrown on 6 August 2008, in a military coup d’état led by General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz. On 16 April 2009, General Aziz resigned from the military to run for president in the 19 July elections, which he won. In Mauritania about 20% of the population live on less than US$1.25 per day.
The Bafours were primarily agriculturalist, and among the first Saharan people to abandon their historically nomadic lifestyle. With the gradual desiccation of the Sahara, they headed south.
Following them came a migration of not only Central Saharans into West Africa, but in 1076, Moorish Islamic warrior monks (Almoravid or Al Murabitun) attacked and conquered the ancient Ghana Empire. Over the next 500 years, Arabs overcame fierce resistance from the local population (Berber and non-Berber alike) and came to dominate Mauritania. The Mauritanian Thirty-Year War (1644–74) was the unsuccessful final effort to repel the Yemeni Maqil Arab invaders led by the Beni Hassan tribe.
The descendants of the Beni Hassan warriors became the upper stratum of Moorish society. Berbers retained influence by producing the majority of the region’s Marabouts—those who preserve and teach Islamic tradition. Many of the Berber tribes claimed Yemeni (and sometimes other Arab) origin: there is little evidence to suggest this, though some studies do make a connection between the two. Hassaniya, a Berber-influenced Arabic dialect that derives its name from the Beni Hassan, became the dominant language among the largely nomadic population.
Imperial France gradually absorbed the territories of present-day Mauritania from the Senegal river area and upwards, starting in the late 19th century. In 1901, Xavier Coppolani took charge of the imperial mission. Through a combination of strategic alliances with Zawiya tribes, and military pressure on the Hassane warrior nomads, he managed to extend French rule over the Mauritanian emirates: Trarza, Brakna and Tagant quickly submitted to treaties with the colonial power (1903–04), but the northern emirate of Adrar held out longer, aided by the anticolonial rebellion (or jihad) of shaykh Maa al-Aynayn. It was finally defeated militarily in 1912, and incorporated into the territory of Mauritania, which had been drawn up in 1904. Mauritania would subsequently form part of French West Africa, from 1920.
French rule brought legal prohibitions against slavery, and an end to interclan warfare. During the colonial period, the population remained nomadic, but many sedentary peoples, whose ancestors had been expelled centuries earlier, began to trickle back into Mauritania. As the country gained independence in 1960, the capital city Nouakchott was founded at the site of a small colonial village, the Ksar, while 90% of the population was still nomadic.
The great Sahel droughts of the early 1970s caused massive problems in Mauritania. With independence, larger numbers of indigenous Sub-Saharan African peoples (Haalpulaar, Soninke, and Wolof) entered Mauritania, moving into the area north of the Senegal River. Educated in French language and customs, many of these recent arrivals became clerks, soldiers, and administrators in the new state. This occurred as France militarily suppressed the most intransigent Hassane tribes of the Moorish north, shifting old balances of power, and creating new cause for conflict between the southern populations and Moors. Between these groups stood the Haratin, a very large population of Arabized slaves of sub-Saharan African origins, who lived within Moorish society, integrated into a low-caste social position. Modern-day slavery is still a common practice in this country. According to some estimates, up to 600,000 Mauritanians, or 20% of the population, are still enslaved. This social discrimination concerns mainly the “black Moors” (Haratin) in the northern part of the country, where tribal elites among “white Moors” (Beidane) hold sway, but low-caste groups within the sub-Saharan African ethnic groups of the south are also affected by similar practices.
Nouakchott is the capital and the largest city of Mauritania. It is one of the largest cities in the Sahara
Moors reacted to the change, and to Arab nationalist calls from abroad, by increasing pressure to Arabize many aspects of Mauritanian life, such as law and language. A schism developed between those Moors who consider Mauritania to be an Arab country and those who seek a dominant role for the non-Moorish peoples, with various models for containing the country’s cultural diversity suggested, but none implemented successfully.
This ethnic discord was evident during intercommunal violence that broke out in April 1989 (the “1989 Events” and “Mauritania–Senegal Border War”), but has since subsided. Some 70,000 sub-Saharan African Mauritanians were expelled from Mauritania in the late 1980s. The ethnic tension and the sensitive issue of slavery – past and, in some areas, present – is still a powerful theme in the country’s political debate. A significant number from all groups, however, seek a more diverse, pluralistic society.
The government bureaucracy is composed of traditional ministries, special agencies, and parastatal companies. The Ministry of Interior spearheads a system of regional governors and prefects modeled on the French system of local administration. Under this system, Mauritania is divided into thirteen regions (wilaya), including the capital district, Nouakchott. Control is tightly concentrated in the executive branch of the central government, but a series of national and municipal elections since 1992 have produced limited decentralization.
Mauritania, along with Morocco, annexed the territory of Western Sahara in 1976, with Mauritania taking the lower one-third at the request of former imperial power Spain. After several military losses to the Polisario – heavily armed and supported by Algeria, the local hegemon and rival to Morocco – Mauritania retreated in 1979, and its claims were taken over by Morocco. Due to economic weakness, Mauritania has been a negligible player in the territorial dispute, with its official position being that it wishes for an expedient solution that is mutually agreeable to all parties. While most of Western Sahara has been occupied by Morocco, the UN still considers the Western Sahara a territory that needs to express its wishes with respect to statehood: a referendum is still supposed to be held sometime in the future, under UN auspices, to determine whether or not the indigenous Sahrawis wish to be independent as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, or to be part of Morocco. The Moroccan government has thus far blocked such a referendum from taking place.
Ould Daddah era (1960–78)
After independence, President Moktar Ould Daddah, originally installed by the French, formalized Mauritania into a one-party state in 1964 with a new constitution, which set up an authoritarian presidential regime. Daddah’s own Parti du Peuple Mauritanien (PPM) became the ruling organization in a single-party system. The President justified this decision on the grounds that he considered Mauritania unready for western-style multi-party democracy. Under this one-party constitution, Daddah was reelected in uncontested elections in 1966, 1971 and 1976. He was ousted in a bloodless coup on 10 July 1978, after bringing the country to near-collapse through a disastrous war to annex the southern part of Western Sahara, in an attempt to create a “Greater Mauritania”.
CMRN and CMSN military governments (1978–84)
Col. Mustafa Ould Salek’s CMRN junta proved incapable of either establishing a strong base of power or extracting the country from its destabilizing conflict with the Sahrawi resistance movement, the Polisario Front. It quickly fell to be replaced by another military government, the CMSN. The energetic Colonel Mohamed Khouna Ould Haidallah soon emerged as its main strongman, and by giving up all claims to Western Sahara, he found peace with the Polisario and improved relations with its main backer, Algeria – but relations with the other party to the conflict, Morocco, and its European ally France, deteriorated. Instability continued, and Haidallah’s ambitious reform attempts foundered. Not only was his regime plagued by attempted coups and intrigue within the military establishment, but it also became increasingly contested because of his harsh and uncompromising line against opponents and political and military dissidents, of whom many were jailed and some were executed.
Ould Taya’s rule (1984–2005)
In 1984 he was deposed by Colonel Maaouya Ould Sid’Ahmed Taya, who relaxed the political climate somewhat, without relinquishing military control. Ould Taya moderated Mauritania’s previous pro-Algerian stance, and reconnected with Morocco during the late 1980s. Relations with Morocco deepened during the late 1990s and early first decade of the 21st century, as part of Mauritania’s drive to attract support from Western states and Western-aligned Arab states. However, Mauritania has not rescinded its recognition of Polisario’s Western Saharan exile government, remaining on good terms with Algeria. Its position on the Western Sahara conflict is, since the 1980s, one of strict neutrality.
The Parti Républicain Démocratique et Social (PRDS), formerly led by President Maaouya Ould Sid’Ahmed Taya, dominated Mauritanian politics after the country’s first multi-party elections in April 1992 following the approval by referendum of the current constitution in July 1991. President Taya won elections in 1992 and 1997.
Political parties, illegal during the military period, were legalized again in 1991. By April 1992, as civilian rule returned, 16 major political parties had been recognized; 12 major political parties were active in 2004. Most opposition parties boycotted the first legislative election in 1992, and for nearly a decade the parliament was dominated by the PRDS. The opposition participated in municipal elections in January–February 1994 and subsequent Senate elections, most recently in April 2004, and gained representation at the local level and three seats in the Senate.
Ethnic violences and human rigthts abuses :
Mauritania’s people is composed of several ethnics groups : the Moors (White in Arab) or Beidane, the Haratines who are black-skinned descendant of freed slaves still attached to their former masters’ culture, the Wolof , the Soninke , and the Hal-pulaar or Peuls which includes settled farmers called Toucouleur and nomadic stock-breeders . Since its creation in 1960 by the colonial France, Mauritania’s society has been characterised by a constant discrimination towards black population, Peuls and Soninké which are seen as contesting the political, economic and social dominance of Moors.. Mauritanian blacks faced discrimination in employment in the civil service, the administration of justice before the regular and religious courts, access to loans and credits from banks and state owned enterprise, and opportunity for education and vocational training . Between 1990 and 1991, a campaign of extreme violence particularly took place, across a process of arabisation, interference with blacks’ association rights, expropriation, expatriation and slavery, slaves being only black. In April 1986, the Manifesto of the Oppressed Black Mauritanian (Manifeste du négro-mauritanien opprimé) was published by the African Liberation Forces of Mauritania FLAM (Force pour la Liberation Africaine de Mauritanie) which documented discriminations against Mauritania’s black populations in every sector of public life. In response, in September 1986, thirty to forty black intellectuals were arrested, suspected to be involved in the publication of the Manifesto and were subjected to brutal interrogations. They were not allowed to have any visit until November 1987 . In the meantime, the authorities cracked down on black communities, using mass arrests as a form of intimidation.
In October 1987, the government allegedly discovered a tentative of coup d’Etat by a group of black army officers, backed by Senegal according to the authorities. Fifty one officers were arrested, and subjected to interrogation and torture without access to their lawyer. The torture consisted in “beatings, burns, electric shocks, applied to the genitals, stripping prisoners naked and pouring cold water over them, burying prisoners in sand to their necks, and subjected prisoners to jaguar, which consist in tying a victim’s hand and feet, suspending him upside down from a bar, and beating him particularly on the sole of the feet”. They were accused of “endangering the security of the State by participating in a conspiracy to overthrow the government and to provoke killing and devastation among the inhabitants of the country” and tried following a special summary procedure. Three of the officers arrested in October were sentenced to death; eighteen were sentenced to life imprisonment (including two who died in detention in 1988 due to prison conditions); nine were sentenced to twenty years; five were sentenced to ten years; three were given five years; six were given five-year suspended sentences with heavy fines; and seven were acquitted. None of those convicted were permitted to appeal. These ethnic tensions were catalysis for the events of 1989 which started as a result of a conflict in Diawara between Mauritanian Herders and Senegalese farmers over grazing rights during which Mauritanian guards crossed the rivers, killed 2 Senegalese and took 13 other hostages into Selibaby , Mauritania on April 9, 1989 . This incident has resulted in several events which provoked series of ethnic violence, expulsions of blacks from Mauritania, expropriation extrajudicial executions, arbitrary arrests, torture, rape, and confiscation of property. Following the incident several riots erupted in Bakel, Dakar and other towns in Senegal directed against Mauritanians which dominated the retails. A feature of this conflict is the tendency of Beydanes to see black Mauritanians as Senegalese which lead the latter to response to the attacks by attacking black Mauritanians. Therefore, anti-Mauritanese riots, added to the already existing tensions, lead to a campaign of terror against black Mauritanian. The voluntary confusion between black Mauritanian and Senegalese culminated during the international airlift agreed by Senegal and Mauritania under international pressure to prevent further violence. The Mauritanian Government used it as a way to extradite black Mauritanian, pretending they were Senegalese. It included intellectuals, civil servants, professionals, businessmen, militant trade unionists, those suspected of opposition, as well as farmers and cattle-herders from the Sénégal River Valley.
The main reason for expulsions and expropriation was economic. Indeed, Moors, usually nomadic, had lost their main source of revenue with the drought of 1968-1985 which decimated their camel, goats and other cattle and had lost their retails during the anti-Mauritanian riots in Senegal. Moreover, the Mauritanian part of the Senegalese river valley is the most fertile part of the country and, finally, the creation of the Organisation for the Development of the Senegal river ( OMVS , on March 11, 1972 by Mali, Mauritania and Senegal, enhanced the potential value of the valley, with the construction of dams which permitted to increase the territory irrigated. In villages of the South, blacks were indiscriminately expelled by security forces which forced them to cross the Senegalese River to Senegal, taking their identity card and their belongings. Those who resisted or who tried to flee with their belongings were arrested, imprisoned and sometimes executed. In the larger towns and cities, the authorities targeted black civil servants, employees of private institutions, trade unionists, former political prisoners and, in some instances, the wives of political prisoners.
However Peuls were mainly among those targeted. According to a study conducted by Christian Santoir for a French research company (ORSTOM who became the Institute for research on Development in 1998) some 21,500 Peuls were expelled, which accounts for at least 57 per cent of the Peuls.
Expulsions were accompanied by many violations, such as: arbitrary arrest , rape, confiscation of belongings and of all identity papers. Furthermore, Peuls’ liberty of movement was restricted, as they were subjected to harassment at checkpoints, being obliged to show their identity papers and sometimes detained.
The exact number of expulsions is not known but the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees ( UNHCR) estimates that, as of June 1991, there were 52,995 Mauritanian refugees in Senegal; in June 1993, 52,945 were registered. A smaller number of refugees have also fled into Mali; the official figure for those who have been registered there is about 13,000, but again, the real number is undoubtedly much higher because of the ease of integration into the life of local communities in Mali.
Starting from 1983, exportation started to be institutionalised through the Ordinance 83.127 of June 5, 1983 which nationalised the all land in the country, abolishing the traditional system of land tenure. The potential nationalisation of the land was based on the concept of dead land , being a land which has not being developed or which development cannot be seen. The Ordinance also made impossible any collective law suit regarding property rights which rendered impossible any law suit based on traditional rights of tenure. Indeed traditional systems of tenure were based on community rights that make them justiciable only collectively. Several methods were used for expropriation . Confiscations are the most used methods. Moors exploited Article 9 of the Ordinance, which provides that registered property rights take precedence, by registering their rights using their relations, in order to prevent blacks from claiming it. Moors also established fake cooperative by which they could become members of previously black cooperative, which were the only registered black rights of property, getting ownership of the whole property of the cooperative.
Massacre of 1990-1991:
From November 1990 to February 1991, between 500 and 600 Peuls and Soninke political prisoners were executed or tortured to death by government forces. They were part of the between 3000 and 5000 blacks arrested between October 1990 and mid-January 1991 and rounded up, detained and tortured, allegedly because they were involved in an attempt to overthrow the government. There were first black officers of the military but then civil servants.
The severity of the torture, combined with the complete lack of medical care, ensured a high death toll, between 500-600 deaths from torture or summary execution is widely accepted. In addition, an unknown number of blacks found death by extrajudicial execution by security forces.
A military investigation was put in place by the government and the results were never made public. However several officials were reportedly involved: Colonel Sid’AhmedOuldBoilil, Colonel CheikhOuld Mohamed Salah, Major Mohamed CheikhOuld El Hadi, and Major Ely Fall .
In order to guarantee immunity for those responsible and to block any attempts at accountability for past abuses, an amnesty was declared by the Parliament in June 1993 covering all crimes committed by the armed forces, security forces as well as civilians, between April 1989 and April 1992. The Government offered compensations to the families of victims but a very few accepted in absence of settlement.
Despite of this amnesty, some have had the courage to denounce the involvement of the government in the arrests and killings. In 1991 an opened letter was sent to President Taya , by 50 prominent Mauritanians, including former ministers, lawyers, doctors, and professors denouncing “the magnitude of the repression that was brought down upon the blacks civilians and military in the last months of 1990” and listing several hundred extrajudicial executions, atrocities, and disappearances. The Mauritanian Workers Union also called for an independent inquiry into the detentions. Women’s also played a role into denouncing the atrocities committed: in April 1991, more than seventy-five women – wives, sisters, nieces, and mothers of some of those presumed to have been killed in the detentions – signed a petition addressed to President Taya calling to the government to provide for the family left behind and break the silence.
Discrimination via arabisation :
Since many years and particularly since 1986, Arabisation has been a way to discriminate de facto black Mauritanians. Indeed, “[Arabisation] is the key to the dispossession of blacks in terms of political power, economic opportunities, and employment possibilities.”
Arabisation has been put in practice by a policy of interference with blacks’ rights of association, particularly by out righting private and public black gatherings. Although the law did not prohibit gathering and association to black people, the system of authorisation created by the Government and discriminately applied only to blacks, resulted in a prohibition.
Arabisation was also sought by the way of education. Since January 1966 study in Arabic were compulsory for student at secondary school. This provoked strike among students, which were supported by civil servants. These strikes lead to the issuing of the Manifesto of Nineteen which listed grievance against the Moors’ domination.
The process of making Arabic the primary language of the country culminated in a new constitution, passed by referendum in July 1991 which set Arabic as the official language of the Country, without any reference to French.
Mauritanian international relationship under Ould Taya’s rule :
During the late 1980s, Ould Taya had established a close co-operation with Iraq, and pursued a strongly Arab nationalist line. At the same time, bloody clashes erupted with Senegal in 1989, during which both countries expelled ethnic minorities to the other country. Mauritania grew increasingly isolated internationally, and tensions with Western countries grew dramatically after it took a pro-Iraqi position during the 1991 Gulf War. During the mid-to late 1990s, Mauritania shifted its foreign policy to one of increased co-operation with the US and Europe, and was rewarded with diplomatic relaxation and aid projects.
In 1999, Mauritanian Foreign Minister Ahmed Sid’Ahmed and his Israeli counterpart David Levy signed an agreement in Washington DC, USA, on 28 October, establishing full diplomatic relations with Mauritania. The signing ceremony was held at the U.S. State Department in the presence of U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Mauritania thereby joined Egypt, Palestine, and Jordan as the only members of the Arab League to officially recognize Israel. Ould Taya also started co-operating with the United States in antiterrorism activities, which was criticized by human rights NGOs, who talked of an exaggeration and instrumentation of alleged terrorist activities for geopolitical aims. (See also Foreign relations of Mauritania.)
A group of current and former Army officers launched a bloody but unsuccessful coup attempt on 8 June 2003. The leaders of the attempted coup were never caught. Mauritania’s presidential election, its third since adopting the democratic process in 1992, took place on 7 November 2003. Six candidates, including Mauritania’s first female and first Haratine (former slave family) candidates, represented a wide variety of political goals and backgrounds. Incumbent President Maaouya Ould Sid’Ahmed Taya won reelection with 67.02% of the popular vote, according to the official figures, with Mohamed Khouna Ould Haidalla finishing second.
August 2005 military coup
On 3 August 2005, a military coup led by Colonel Ely Ould Mohamed Vall ended Maaouya Ould Sid’Ahmed Taya’s twenty-one years of rule.
On 3 August, the Mauritanian military, including members of the presidential guard, seized control of key points in the capital of Nouakchott. They took advantage of President Taya’s attendance at the funeral of Saudi King Fahd to organize the coup, which took place without loss of life. The officers, calling themselves the Military Council for Justice and Democracy, released the following statement:
“The national armed forces and security forces have unanimously decided to put a definitive end to the oppressive activities of the defunct authority, which our people have suffered from during the past years.”
The Military Council later issued another statement naming Colonel Vall as president and director of the national police force, the Sûreté Nationale. Sixteen other officers were listed as members. Colonel Vall was once regarded as a firm ally of the now-ousted president, even aiding him in the original coup that brought him to power, and later serving as his security chief.
Applauded by the Mauritanian people, but cautiously watched by the international community, the coup has since been generally accepted, while the military junta has organized elections within the promised two-year timeline. In a referendum on 26 June 2006, Mauritanians overwhelmingly (97%) approved a new constitution which limited the duration of a president‘s stay in office. The leader of the junta, Col. Vall, promised to abide by the referendum and relinquish power peacefully. Mauritania’s establishment of relations with Israel – it was one of only three Arab states to recognize Israel – was maintained by the new regime, despite widespread criticism from the opposition, who viewed it as a legacy of the Taya regime’s attempts to curry favor with the West.
Parliamentary and municipal elections in Mauritania took place on 19 November and 3 December 2006.
2007 presidential election
The first fully democratic presidential election since 1960 was on 11 March 2007. The election effected the final transfer from military to civilian rule following the military coup in 2005. This was the first time that the president had been selected in a multi-candidate election in the country’s post-independence history.
The election was won in a second round of voting by Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi, with Ahmed Ould Daddah a close second.
2008 military coup
The head of the Presidential Guards took over the president‘s palace and units of the army surrounded a key state building in the capital Nouakchott on 6 August 2008, a day after 48 lawmakers from the ruling party resigned. The army surrounded the state television building after the president fired two senior officers, including the head of the presidential guards. The president, the prime minister and the minister of internal affairs were arrested.
The coup was organized by General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, former chief of staff of the Mauritanian army and head of the Presidential Guard, whom the president had just dismissed. Mauritania’s presidential spokesman, Abdoulaye Mamadouba, said President Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi, Prime Minister Yahya Ould Ahmed Waghf and the interior minister, were arrested by renegade Senior Mauritanian army officers, unknown troops and a group of generals, and were held under house arrest at the presidential palace in Nouakchott. In the apparently successful and bloodless coup d’état, Abdallahi’s daughter, Amal Mint Cheikh Abdallahi, said: “The security agents of the BASEP (Presidential Security Battalion) came to our home and took away my father.” The coup plotters, all dismissed in a presidential decree shortly beforehand, included General Muhammad Ould ‘Abd Al-‘Aziz, General Muhammad Ould Al-Ghazwani, General Philippe Swikri, and Brigadier General (Aqid) Ahmad Ould Bakri.
Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz in his home city Akjoujt, Mauritania, 15 Mar 2009
After the coup
A Mauritanian lawmaker, Mohammed Al Mukhtar, announced that “many of the country’s people were supporting the takeover attempt and the government was “an authoritarian regime” and that the president had “marginalized the majority in parliament.” The coup was also backed by Abdellahi’s rival in the 2007 election, Ahmed Ould Daddah. However, Ould `Abd Al-`Aziz’s regime was isolated internationally and punished by diplomatic sanctions and the cancellation of some aid projects. It found few supporters, among them Morocco, Libya and Iran, while Algeria, the United States, France and other European countries criticized the coup, and continued to refer to Abdellahi as the legitimate president of Mauritania. A group of parties also coalesced around Abdellahi to continue to protest the coup, causing the junta to ban demonstration and crack down on opposition activists. International and internal pressure eventually forced the release of Abdellahi, who was instead placed in house arrest in his home village. The new government broke off relations with Israel. In March 2010 Mauritania’s female foreign minister Naha Mint Hamdi Ould Mouknass announced that Mauritania had cut ties with Israel in a “complete and definitive way.”
`Abd Al-`Aziz had since the coup insisted on organizing new presidential elections to replace Abdellahi, but was forced to reschedule them due to internal and international opposition. However, during the spring of 2009, the junta negotiated an understanding with some opposition figures and international parties, which dramatically changed the situation. Abdellahi formally resigned, under protest, as it became clear that some opposition forces had defected from him and most international players, notably including France and Algeria, now lined up behind `Abd Al-`Aziz. The United States continued to criticize the coup, but did not actively oppose the elections. Abdellahi’s resignation paved the way for the election of military strongman Muhammad Ould `Abd Al-`Aziz as civilian president, on 18 July, by a 52% majority. Many of Abdellahi’s former supporters criticized this as a political ploy and refused to recognize the results. They argued that the election had been falsified due to junta control, and complained that the international community had let down the opposition. Despite marginal complaints, the elections were almost unanimously accepted by Western, Arab and African countries, which lifted sanctions and resumed cooperation with Mauritania. By late summer, `Abd Al-`Aziz appeared to have secured his position and to have garnered widespread international and internal support, although several influential parties and political personalities, notably Senate chairman Messaoud Ould Boulkheir, continued to refuse the new order and call for `Abd Al-`Aziz’s resignation.
In February 2011, the waves of 2010–2011 Middle East and North Africa protests spread to Mauritania, where hundreds of people took to the streets of Nouakchott.
Regions and departments
Mauritania is divided into 12 regions (régions) called wilaya and one capital district in Nouakchott, which in turn are subdivided into 44 departments (moughataa). The regions and capital district (in alphabetical order) and their capitals are:
Dakhlet Nouadhibou Nouadhibou
Hodh Ech Chargui Néma
Hodh El Gharbi Ayoun el Atrous
Nouakchott (capital district)
Tiris Zemmour F’dérik
At 397,929 square miles (1,030,631 km2), Mauritania is the world’s 29th-largest country (after Bolivia). It is comparable in size to Egypt. It lies mostly between latitudes 14° and 26°N, and longitudes 5° and 17°W (small areas are east of 5° and west of 17°).
Mauritania is generally flat, with vast arid plains broken by occasional ridges and cliff-like outcroppings. A series of scarps face south-west, longitudinally bisecting these plains in the center of the country. The scarps also separate a series of sandstone plateaus, the highest of which is the Adrar Plateau, reaching an elevation of 500 meters (1,640 ft). Spring-fed oases lie at the foot of some of the scarps. Isolated peaks, often rich in minerals, rise above the plateaus; the smaller peaks are called guelbs and the larger ones kedias. The concentric Guelb er Richat (also known as the Richat Structure) is a prominent feature of the north-central region. Kediet ej Jill, near the city of Zouîrât, has an elevation of 1,000 meters (3,281 ft) and is the highest peak.
Approximately three quarters of Mauritania is desert or semidesert. As a result of extended, severe drought, the desert has been expanding since the mid-1960s. To the west, between the ocean and the plateaus, are alternating areas of clayey plains (regs) and sand dunes (ergs), some of which shift from place to place, gradually moved by high winds. The dunes generally increase in size and mobility toward the north.
Mauritania has one of the lowest GDP rates in Africa, despite being rich in natural resources. However, a majority of the population still depends on agriculture and livestock for a livelihood, even though most of the nomads and many subsistence farmers were forced into the cities by recurrent droughts in the 1970s and 1980s. Mauritania has extensive deposits of iron ore, which account for almost 50% of total exports. With the current rises in metal prices, gold and copper mining companies are opening mines in the interior. The nation’s coastal waters are among the richest fishing areas in the world, but overexploitation by foreigners threatens this key source of revenue. The country’s first deepwater port opened near Nouakchott in 1986. In recent years, drought and economic mismanagement have resulted in a buildup of foreign debt. In March 1999, the government signed an agreement with a joint World Bank-International Monetary Fund mission on a $54 million enhanced structural adjustment facility (ESAF). The economic objectives have been set for 1999–2002. Privatization remains one of the key issues. Mauritania is unlikely to meet ESAF’s annual GDP growth objectives of 4%–5%.
Oil was discovered in Mauritania in 2001 in the offshore Chinguetti deposit. Although potentially significant for the Mauritanian economy, it remains to be seen how much it will help the country. Mauritania has been described as a “desperately poor desert nation, which straddles the Arab and African worlds and is Africa’s newest, if small-scale, oil producer.” There may be additional oil reserves inland in the Taoudeni basin, although the harsh environment will make extraction expensive.
The Government‘s current main problem is privatizing the economy.
Under the Abdallahi government there was a widespread public perception of governmental corruption and a lack of access to government information. Sexism, female genital mutilation, child labour, human trafficking, and the political marginalization of largely southern-based ethnic groups continued to be problems.
Following the 2008 coup, the military government of Mauritania faced severe international sanctions, internal unrest, and was accused by Amnesty International of practicing coordinated torture against criminal and political detainees. Amnesty has accused the Mauritania legal system, both before and after the 2008 coup, of functioning with a complete disregard of legal procedure, fair trial, or humane imprisonment. Further, Amnesty has accused the Mauritanian government of an institutionalized and continuous use of torture throughout its post independence history.
Discrimination against black population:
Since its creation in 1960 by the colonial France, Mauritania’s society has been characterised by a constant discrimination towards black population, Peuls and Soninké which are seen as contesting the political, economic and social dominance of Moors. Mauritanian blacks faced discrimination in employment in the civil service, the administration of justice before the regular and religious courts, access to loans and credits from banks and state owned enterprise, and opportunity for education and vocational training . This constant discrimination has been put in practice by a campaign of extreme violence particularly between 1990 and 1991, a process of arabisation, interference with blacks’ association rights, expropriation, expatriation and slavery, slaves being only black. ( see Part on Mauritania history under Ould Taya Rule)
Article 1 of the 1926 Slavery Convention defines slavery as “the status or condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised”. Slavery is still practiced today in remote part of Mauritania , although it has been forbidden since 1980 by President Mohamed KhounaOuldHaidallah.However, the abolition was only meant to show a nice face to the world in order to obtain scarcely needed funds.
Slavery is prohibited by many international law instrument ratified by Mauritania, such as Article 4 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 1951 Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others, ratified on June 6, 1986; the 1957 Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery , also ratified on June 6, 1986; the 1930 Forced Labor Convention of the International Labor Organization(ILO); the 1957 Abolition of Forced Labor Convention of the ILO; the 1981 African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights .
However Slavery is enrooted in Mauritania’s society for several reasons. First of all, because of the high rate of illiteracy, slaves are not aware of their rights and are forbidden to enter into contact with freed black which could inform them on the abolition. Moreover, Islam is manipulated by masters to make their slaves believing that serving them is the straight way to heaven. Slaves therefore regard serving their masters as a religious duty. Another reason is economic. Indeed, slaves are often unskilled and face troubles finding employment after escaping from their master or having been freed. Moreover, former master tend to play their relation in order to impede their former slave to find employment.
3,281,634 (July 2011 estimated)
Mauritania’s people is composed of several ethnics groups : the Moors (White in Arab) or Beidane (30%), the Haratins who are black-skinned descendant of freed slaves still attached to their former masters’ culture, the Wolof the Soninke Soninke and the Hal-pulaar or Peuls which includes settled farmers called Toucouleur and nomadic stock-breeders. The black population forms 40% of the population.
The country is nearly 100% Muslim, most of whom are Sunnis. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Nouakchott, founded in 1965, serves the 4,500 Catholics in Mauritania.
Hassaniya dialect of Arabic (official and national); Other languages spoken include: Pulaar, Soninke, Imraguen language, Wolof and French (widely used in media and among educated classes, see African French).
Life expectancy at birth was 61.14 years (2011 estimate). Per capita expenditure on health was 43 US$ (PPP) in 2004. Public expenditure was 2% of the GDP in 2004 and private 0.9 % of the GDP in 2004. In the early 21st century there were 11 physicians per 100,000 people. Infant mortality is 60.42 deaths/1,000 live births (2011 estimate).
The obesity rate among Mauritanian women is high, perhaps in part due to the local standards of beauty, in which obese women are considered beautiful while thin women are sometimes regarded as “sickly”.
On 18 January 2011, the Islamic leaders of Mauritania issued a fatwa, a religious opinion concerning Islamic law, outlawing female genital mutilation.
Qur’an collection in a library in Chinguetti
The name of the country is derived from the Latin Mauretania, meaning the land of the Mauri.
The French occupied the country in 1860 in close cooperation with Moorish religious leaders. Mauritania became a nation after the destruction of the kingdoms of Fouta Toro and Walo Walo and the Arab-Berber emirates of Trarza, Brakna, Taganet, and Adrar. As a result, the country has two main populations: sub-Saharan Africans and Moors. The sub-Saharan African population includes the Fulani, Soninke, and Bambara ethnic groups. The Moors include the “whites”, known as Beydan, and the “blacks”, known as Haratin. Both “white” and “black” Moors are Arabic and Berber-speaking peoples. The most important common denomination, if not the only one, is Sunni Islam.
Music of Mauritania
Islam in Mauritania
Status of religious freedom in Mauritania
Mauritania and Madagascar are the only two countries in the world not to use decimal-based currency. The basic unit of currency, the ouguiya, comprises five khoums. In practice, no khoum coins have been minted since 1973, and they are rarely used due to their extremely low value.
Filming for several documentaries and films has taken place in Mauritania, including Fort Saganne (1984), The Fifth Element (1997), The Books Under the Sand (1997), Life without Death (1997), Winged Migration (2001), and Heremakono (2002).
Since 1999, all teaching in the first year of primary school is in Arabic, French is however introduced in the second year and all scientific courses are taught in French for everyone. The use of English and the Weldiya dialect is also on the increase. The country has the University of Nouakchott and other institutions of higher education, but the most highly-educated Mauritanians have studied outside the country. Public expenditure on education was at 10.1% of 2000–2007 government expenditure.