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'Desert Inhabited by Nomads'

[Image of Mauritanians protesting against the census, which they argue discriminates against ethnic minorities. Image by Bakari Gueye/Flickr.] [Image of Mauritanians protesting against the census, which they argue discriminates against ethnic minorities. Image by Bakari Gueye/Flickr.]

In the latest edition of his highly regarded history of modern Africa, Martin Meredith mentions Mauritania only five times in the book’s 816 pages. His most detailed description of Mauritania consists of a single sentence in which he says that upon attaining independence in 1960, “Mauritania consisted of no more than desert inhabited by nomads which until 1954 had been ruled from the Senegalese city of St. Louis.”[1] Meredith’s overlooking of Mauritania is unlikely to have been a deliberate act on his part, and my mentioning of it is not intended to single him out for any criticism. After all, all writers, ranging from bloggers to university professors to journalists, are faced with space limitations. Instead, my purpose in mentioning Meredith’s book is to ask a question: Why is it that when faced with these space limitations, as well as the current demand for knowledge production, writers in a variety of interrelated fields (history, area studies, political economy, etc.) have consistently opted to overlook Mauritania? Mauritania should not be overlooked. It has been affected by a confluence of factors common in many states within the Middle East, and its recent history has paralleled events and debates elsewhere. In some instances these factors have affected Mauritania even prior to their occurrence in other states within the region. 

To give an example, Mauritania – rather than Egypt – was the first Arab League member state to hold presidential elections – in 2007 – that were regarded by many observers as free and fair.[2] It was also the first Arab League member state in which the military seized power from a long-ruling dictator, held presidential elections and then subsequently reassumed power from the elected President during a political crisis.[3] The parallel I just cited – between the widely covered events in Egypt from 2011 to the present and the overlooked events in Mauritania from 2005 to the present – may be an extreme one, but it illustrates how events in Mauritania have echoed those elsewhere. 

The assertion that prior to independence, Mauritania consisted of “desert inhabited by nomads” is pejorative and dismissive, but is not wholly inaccurate in the sense that prior to obtaining independence the inhabitants of Mauritania lacked a sense of loyalty to any idea of the state other than tribes or kinship groups.  However, Meredith’s claim carries with it the implication that a primarily nomadic society in a territory relatively lacking in both resources and agricultural potential would be therefore inherently uninteresting. However, Mauritanian society has ethnic cleavages that result from social relations originating long before independence, which resulted in the country’s roughly 3.2 million inhabitants being divided into three primary categories, including non-Arab Mauritanians of black African ancestry known as “Negro-Mauritanians,” Arabo-Berber Mauritanians who constitute much of the country’s cultural elite, and lastly haratins, another black African group comprising the majority of the population, some of whom are still enslaved in the twenty-first century, and the large majority of whom are the direct descendants of those enslaved only very recently.[4] In fact, as part of a political bargain prior to his victory in the 2007 Presidential election, Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi made a pledge to pass a law prohibiting slavery, and after the election such a law was enacted.[5] The law enacted in 2007 was not the first law that criminalized slavery, but it suffered initially from the same lack of enforcement as previously, before the emergence of an antislavery activist movement in 2010.[6 

It is wrong to adopt a reductionist interpretation of Mauritanian history that attributes events primarily to differences between these ethnic groups, but nonetheless they have been involved in complex patterns of social relations that extend throughout Mauritanian history for several centuries. These events and social relations deserve greater attention from outside observers than they have thus far received. For example, during the period prior to independence – including under French colonial rule – members of ethnic groups or tribes who were considered lower in ranking were sometimes forced to pay tribute to their higher ranking counterparts.[7] French colonialism ultimately worsened the ethnic tensions in Mauritanian society, partly because the French established control over Mauritania via their already-established colony of Senegal. The overlooking of Mauritania had an effect on French colonial policy, as it was considered an extension of Senegal and was not given its own representation in the French national assembly prior to 1946. The extension of French control from Senegal relied on non-Arab black Africans in their colonial administration. This caused the Moorish inhabitants – as a Moorish (but not a Mauritanian) identity already existed at the time – to feel that the French had benefited non-Arabs at their expense, leading some of them to believe – despite evidence to the contrary – that the French actually promoted non-Arab settlement in southern Mauritania at Moorish expense.[8] This would lead some to argue in the 1980s that when they expelled black Mauritanians into Senegal that they were merely reversing the effects of colonialism. 

The fractured ethnic makeup of Mauritanian society has had implications that continued after independence; the government adopted the name “Islamic Republic of Mauritania” as a highlight for the nation’s religious unity, even as it was ethnically fractured.[9] Initially in the period following independence, the government of President Ould Daddah (1960-1978) pursued a policy of strengthening his allies in the zawaya stratum while also largely deemphasizing tribal or ethnic affiliations within society among the Arabic-speaking population. He pursued this policy through management of a one-party system under the Parti du Peuple Mauritanien (PPM).[10] Following independence, the non-Arabic speaking black African population, by contrast, was subjected to discrimination stemming from an official Arab identity that defined them as outsiders. Black Africans were subjected to a thirty percent quota that limited the number of them who were allowed to work in the civil service, as well as the imposition of the Arabic language in state education and as the official language in the 1960s.[11] Mauritanians of black African ancestry felt especially threatened by these policies, because when the country first was granted independence they had a dominant position within the institutions of government,[12] perhaps a legacy of their role in the colonial administration. The policies directed against the non-Arab citizens were not unique in the Maghreb region, nor were they without precedent in French colonial policies within the region. For example, in Algeria, the French colonialists believed that the Kabyles were superior and more “civilized” than Arab Algerians.[13] In the 1980s, the Algerian state introduced Arabization measures directed against the Kabyle minority that included favoring the use of Arabic in education as well as reserving certain civil service positions for Arabic speakers.[14] 

Ould Daddah’s comparatively inclusive policies towards the Arabic-speaking population were ended following his overthrow in 1978, when the military seized power. The juntas that ruled until 1992 – after 1984 under the leadership of President Ould Taya – reintroduced a government strategy of favoring certain tribes at the expense of others. In particular, the zawaya favored under Ould Daddah began to lose official favor, which passed to the Hassan tribes, who had enjoyed favor prior to the establishment of colonialism. In addition, the Arabic-speaking Moorish population as a whole was heavily favored against non-Arab black African co-citizens, particularly during the late 1980s as Ba’athists and other pan-Arabists promoted policies of brutal government repression against the non-Arab population, which included arbitrary imprisonment, arrest, killings, and expulsions. There were most prominent during the 1989 war with Senegal and subsequently during the Gulf War from 1990 to 1991, when Ould Taya supported Iraq.[15] The ethnic violence directed against Mauritania’s black African inhabitants erupted when the state’s long-term promotion of an exclusionary Arab identity combined with regional and trans-regional conflict, as well as another domestic element. This domestic element was the violence partly caused by – but entirely blamed by the regime on – the Forces de Liberation Africaine de Mauritanie (FLAM), which argued that it was fighting in support of non-Arab Mauritanians who had been subjected to a long history of discrimination.[16] 

The foreign policy of Mauritania since independence is also worthy of greater attention than it has received thus far. If Mauritania’s domestic challenge following independence was the establishment of a common national identity, its foreign policy was driven by the need to protect itself from other states which claimed its territory. Initially, the consensus among Arab League members was that Mauritania was Moroccan territory. Indeed, prior to independence, King Mohammed V of Morocco proposed to Senegal that Mauritania be divided between the two countries, with the Arab-inhabited regions going to Morocco and the regions inhabited by black Africans along the Senegalese border going to Senegal. Senegal rejected this.[17] The claim that Mauritania belonged to a “Greater Morocco” – before Morocco abandoned this claim in 1969 – was repeated frequently in Moroccan rhetoric, with Mauritania described as the southernmost province of the territory Morocco sought to acquire.[18]

In its attempts to attain both recognition and aid, President Ould Daddah and his successors adopted a foreign policy that sought aid from a wide variety of sources, including France and Algeria, and sought to use Mauritania’s status as a country whose inhabitants bridged the gap between North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa as a way of attracting additional donor support. This strategy continued after Ould Daddah was overthrown in a coup in 1978, following a war triggered by his attempts to occupy Western Sahara after a 1975 agreement with Morocco in which the two countries agreed to partition Western Sahara between them (with the northern two-thirds going to Morocco and the remainder going to Mauritania.) Ould Daddah may have calculated that ethnic similarities would have ensured Sahrawi support for Mauritania. However, when the agreement was signed the Sahrawi liberation movement, the Polisario – backed by erstwhile Mauritanian ally Algeria – launched a major offensive, and defeats forced Mauritania to call for Moroccan and French protection, leading to Ould Daddah’s overthrow by the Mauritanian military in 1978.[19]

The military assumed power after the coup and ruled until 1992. In the interim, former President Ould Taya seized power in a 1984 coup, ruling until his overthrow in 2005. Ould Taya continued the foreign policy strategy of his predecessors, adopting Mauritania’s foreign (and domestic) policies with regard to pursuit of aid and regime preservation. He sought aid initially from Iraq, then repaired relations with Israel and the West following the Gulf War.

Domestically, Ould Taya ruled from 1984 to 1992 under the framework of a military junta and from 1992 to 2005 under a system of nominal – though limited – political liberalization. In his initial years, the state’s policies of promoting an Arab identity and disfavoring Mauritania’s black African citizens accelerated. One of the most serious periods of ethnic conflict in Mauritania occurred during the near-war with Senegal in 1989. A series of relatively local disputes erupted into a border skirmish, during which thousands of black African Mauritanians were driven out of the country into Senegal. The expulsions were, interestingly, carried out on the regime’s behalf by security forces that came from the community of haratin, Arabic speakers who nonetheless share much of their ancestral heritage with their black African co-citizens. There were also purges within the security forces themselves, with hundreds of black African officers executed and others arrested, tortured, and summarily discharged from the military without cause.[20]

Mauritania, like several of its counterparts in other Arab League states, adopted a program of limited economic and political liberalization in the 1990s. In 1991, Ould Taya formally ended military rule, and presidential and parliamentary elections were held the following year. Yet, he and his allies in the Parti Republicain Democratique et Social (PRDS) prevailed in the initial elections in 1992 and every subsequent election prior to the 2005 coup. Despite the formal trappings of democracy, the regime engaged in repression, including arrests of critics and media censorship.[21] One significant change contemporaneous with the end of military rule was the end of the state’s discriminatory campaign against Mauritania’s black African citizens.[22] The country endured a period of increased economic growth in the 1990s, and the country’s increased economic and state professionalism received IMF and World Bank praise (though it is worth noting that the state-owned mining company SNIM has always been operated in a relatively independent and professional manner.)[23] However, the oligopolistic, frequently corrupt, and clientelistic nature of much of the Mauritanian economy remained, contributing to the persistence of poverty among much of the population.[24] In the first years of the twenty-first century the enduring poverty contributed to instability which threatened Ould Taya’s hold on power.

When a group of military officers overthrew Ould Taya in 2005, the subsequent events included many factors that would appear later, in different forms, elsewhere in the region. The military officers who seized power may have done so with the aim of preserving what they could of the established order that they felt was threatened by Ould Taya’s behavior and the increasing economic difficulties of much of the Mauritanian population.[25] When the winner of the Presidential election, Ould Abdallahi, assumed office, he was faced with nearly insurmountable challenges. These stemmed directly from the effects of the previous regime’s policies, and included the challenge of compensation for victims of human rights violations that included both past ethnic cleansing and persistent slavery; the role of the security forces; and the persistence of corruption in an economy that recently enjoyed its first resource revenues from new oil discoveries. That many citizens felt that democratic reforms had failed to improve the material conditions of their lives posed another challenge.[26] Ould Abdallahi served as President for little more than a year before his ouster in another military coup.

The 2008 coup d’état that brought current President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz to power did not end the demands for democratic reform among the country’s population. Recently, Mauritania has experienced protests centered on the controversial municipal elections held beginning in November of 2013, which were boycotted by much of the opposition. This opposition viewed the elections as an exercise in legitimizing the regime of Ould Abdel Aziz, who had won a Presidential election in 2009 that many observers argued was unfair. For Abdel Aziz’s Western backers who see him as an ally against groups such as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the stakes for the legitimization of his regime are extremely high.

Despite the fact that he seized power in a coup d’état, Abdel Aziz has shown himself to be open to political pressure. For example, relations with Israel, as well as human rights abuses under Ould Taya, were deemed nonnegotiable prior to the 2007 Presidential elections.[27] On one of these issues – relations with Israel – the regime relented after the Gaza invasion in 2009 due to public pressure.[28] The prospect of losing critical international donor support following the 2005 coup may have been one of the reasons why the military decided to move forward with the subsequent presidential and parliamentary elections, which provided a democratic opening, at least at first.[29] These events show that the situation on the ground in Mauritania can be affected – positively and negatively – by both domestic and international pressure. 

Given these issues, the question remains as to why Mauritania has received relatively little attention in the fields of both media and scholarship, at least as it relates to publications in the English language. One factor, at least with regard to Western scholarship, may be the fact that Mauritania’s natural resources have long been seen as relatively insignificant in size related to the potential effect they have on the global economy. Indeed, at least for its Western donors, Mauritania only became significant in a strategic sense at all because of the presence of extremist groups within its territory following the attacks of 11 September 2001.[30] The geopolitics are undoubtedly important, but these factors only address attention to Mauritania at the government-to-government level. The relative lack of scholarship focused on Mauritania could be explained by the divisions emerging in the United States during the middle of the twentieth century, in which North Africa became increasingly to be seen as separate and distinct from Sub-Saharan Africa. This distinction – in which North Africa was placed as part of the Middle East – was initially adopted by the US government beginning in the 1950s, and academics subsequently adopted a similar bifurcation between the study of Africa and that of the Middle East.[31] Under this bifurcation, Mauritania would be difficult to categorize, as it is an Arab League member state that nonetheless has a significant population that could be identified more closely on the Sub-Saharan side of the perceived divide between North and Sub-Saharan Africa. However, this brings the question: should something be ignored simply because it is difficult to categorize, or does the position of a state such as Mauritania offer an opportunity to question many widely accepted assumptions about the existence of bright regional lines and the distinctions between them, which may upon closer examination seem to be something much more resembling blurred lines?

Mauritania has been overlooked for a variety of reasons that began even before the country achieved its independence from France. The country’s history of an altered social structure produced by colonialism and the consequent social tensions that this brought about along ethnic and tribal lines during the period following independence bears watching as an overlooked case study of the challenges that many states in the region faced following independence. The state looked to religion as a unifying force, but relied increasingly on a pan-Arabist outlook premised on the exclusion of the Afro-Mauritanians who were the very inhabitants who had experienced favoritism under French colonialism. Later, Mauritania’s period of limited liberalization, and the subsequent history following the abortive democratic transition in the mid 2000s, merits observation because it echoes – and has sometimes presaged – well-covered events elsewhere in the region, along with particularities unique to Mauritania.


[1] Martin Meredith, The Fate of Africa: A History of the Continent since Independence (New York: PublicAffairs, 2011), 70.

[2] Boubacar N'Diaye, "To 'midwife' - and Abort - a Democracy: Mauritania's Transition from Military Rule, 2005-2008," Journal of Modern African Studies 47, no. 1 (2009): 127-128.

[3] N'Diaye, “To ‘midwife’ – and Abort,” 136-144.

[4] N’Diaye, “To ‘midwife’ – and Abort,” 131.

[5] N’Diaye, “To ‘midwife’ – and Abort,” 142, 146.

[6] Adam Nossiter, "Mauritania Confronts Long Legacy of Slavery," New York Times, November 11, 2013.

[7] Anthony G. Pazzanita, "Political Transition in Mauritania: Problems and Prospects," Middle East Journal 53, no. 1 (Winter 1999): 45.

[8] Ron Parker, "The Senegal–Mauritania Conflict of 1989: A Fragile Equilibrium," The Journal of Modern African Studies 29, no. 01 (1991): 156, doi:10.1017/S0022278X00020784.

[9] Pazzanita, “Political Transition in Mauritania,” 44-45.

[10] Panzanitta, “Political Transition in Mauritania,” 46.

[11] Parker, “Senegal-Mauritania Conflict,” 157.

[12] Noel Foster, Mauritania: The Struggle for Democracy (Boulder, CO: FirstForumPress, 2011), 21.

[13] J. N. C. Hill, Identity in Algerian Politics: The Legacy of Colonial Rule (Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2009), 32.

[14] Hill, Identity in Algerian Politics, 99.

[15] Panzanitta, “Political Transition in Mauritania,” 49-50.

[16] Panzanitta, “Political Transition in Mauritania,” 49.

[17] Parker, “Senegal-Mauritania Conflict,” 156.

[18] Foster, The Making of Modern Mauritania, 25.

[19] Anthony Pazzanita, "Mauritania's Foreign Policy: The Search for Protection," Journal of Modern African Studies 30, no. 2 (June 1992): 285-287.

[20] Cedric Jourde, "Ethnicity, Democratization, and Political Dramas: Insights into Ethnic Politics in Mauritania," African Issues 29, no. 1/2 (2001): 26.

[21] Desha M. Girod and Meir R. Walters, "Elite-led Democratization in Aid-dependent States: The Case of Mauritania," The Journal of North African Studies, 2011, 181-185, doi:10.1080/13629387.2011.608515.

[22] Foster, Mauritania: The Struggle for Democracy, 38.

[23] Pazzanita, “Political Transition in Mauritania,” 56.

[24] N’Diaye, “To ‘Midwife’ – and abort,” 132.

[25] N’Diaye, “To ‘Midwife’ – and abort,” 136.

[26] N’Diaye, “To ‘Midwife’ – and abort,” 145-150.

[27] N’Diaye, “To ‘Midwife’ – and abort,” 140.

[28] Hassan Ould Mokhtar, "After Mauritania's Elections: Toward Reform or a Political Charade," Jadaliyya, December 23, 2013, accessed January 14, 2014.

[29] Desha M. Girod and Meir R. Walters, "Elite-led Democratization in Aid-dependent States: The Case of Mauritania," The Journal of North African Studies, 2011, 182, doi:10.1080/13629387.2011.608515.

[30] Girod and Walters, “Elite-Led Democratization,” 183.

[31] Mervat Hatem, "Why and How Should Middle East and African Studies Be Connected?," International Journal of Middle East Studies 41, no. 2 (May 2009): 190.

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