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Behind the Imprisonment of Mauritanian Anti-Slavery Activists

[Mauritanian activists meet calling for action regarding the anti-slavery law. Image by Jemal Oumar/Flickr] [Mauritanian activists meet calling for action regarding the anti-slavery law. Image by Jemal Oumar/Flickr]

On 20 August, a Mauritanian court ruled to uphold a two-year prison sentence against anti-slavery activists Biram Deh Abeid, Brahim Ramhdan Bilal, and Sow Dijby, following an appeal trial held in the city of Aleg. The court initially charged these men in January after their arrest during a peaceful demonstration the previous November. 

The week of 17 August also saw some seemingly contradictory legislative steps in Mauritania relating to slavery and the groups that campaign against it. On the one hand, the Mauritanian government appears to have toughened its stance on the issue after passing a new law that deems the practice a crime against humanity and increases the prison term for offenders from ten to twenty years. On the other hand, the government proposed a separate piece of legislation that would severely limit the organizing abilities of civil society NGOs by introducing stringent new conditions for gaining recognition from authorities. This legislation would significantly broaden the pool of people that can potentially be charged with belonging to an unauthorized organization, an offense that the authorities incidentally used against the three anti-slavery activists whose prison sentence was recently upheld.  

A look at the broader context of their arrest and subsequent imprisonment may serve to shine a light on the government rationale underlying these developments.  

Silencing Unwanted Narratives 

On the morning of 14 November 2014, Mauritanian authorities arrested eight anti-slavery activists, including Biram Deh Abeid, Brahim Ramhdan Bilal, and Sow Dijby during a peaceful demonstration near the southern town of Rosso in Mauritania. On the same day, police raided and shut down the Nouakchott office of the Initiative for the Resurgent Abolition Movement-Mauritanie (IRA-M), the abolitionist campaign group headed by Biram, on the grounds of it being an “unauthorized organization.” Following a period of imprisonment without bail, on 15 January a Mauritanian court announced a guilty verdict and two-year prison sentence for the three activists. This ruling came in spite of sustained protests, international lobbying efforts, and a European Parliament resolution condemning the treatment of Biram and the other activists.  

Considering the unprecedented degree of international attention that the Mauritanian anti-slavery movement has garnered in recent years, the Mauritanian government seemed to have chosen a peculiar time to clamp down on the movement. This international attention was primarily directed toward the figure of Biram Deh Abeid who, in 2013, was awarded the United Nations Human Rights Prize and the prestigious Front Line Defenders Award. What prompted this move to silence Biram and IRA-M at a moment when it was likely to draw high levels of international criticism, thereby casting further unwanted scrutiny upon the issue of slavery in Mauritania? 

The answer may well lie in the nature of a new campaign that Biram’s organization had launched one week prior to his arrest. This campaign had as its focus what Biram labels as “property slavery” or esclavage foncier. According to its organizers, the goal of this campaign is to “force the state to initiate a true land reform which gives ownership and cultivation of the land to those who work it and who have always worked it” (translated from French).

This broadening of the movement’s critique to include the issue of land ownership has radical implications for powerful economic interests tied to the state in Mauritania, possibly even more so than the full implementation of the country’s existing anti-slavery laws would.

Slavery Abolition and Land Reform

IRA-M is one of a number of groups that raise awareness about and campaign on behalf of the Haratin ethnic group in Mauritania. Constituting roughly forty percent of the population and historically characterized by their status of enslavement, the majority of the Haratin remain at a significant and multifaceted social disadvantage. This marginalized position is the combined result of a lack of collective access to resources that the legacy of this historical status entails and the persistence of the practice of slavery within certain areas of the country. Estimates of the number who remain enslaved vary widely—typically between four and twenty percent of the population—with the Global Slavery Index placing the figure at 156,600. Others have disputed this figure, however, placing the number at several thousand. Although a presidential decree officially abolished slavery in Mauritania in 1981, it was not until 2007 that Mauritania passed any law stipulating punishments for offenders. Thus far, only one person has been charged under this law.  

The lack of legislative implementation with regard to slavery stands in sharp contrast to the effects of a land reform law passed two years after the official abolition of slavery, a law whose effects Biram and IRA-M have sought to highlight through their “property slavery” campaign. This 1983 law effectively abolished the traditional system of collective land ownership that had existed up until that point, whereby territory was distributed according to family lineage and tribal ties, replacing it with a system of private ownership.[1] Within the context of World Bank structural adjustment programs, international lenders viewed the domain of agriculture—in particular the arable belt of land in the south of Mauritania around the Senegal River—as being of significant potential for strengthening the role of the private sector in the country. There was thus an impetus to base land reform primarily on capital investment in the form of large-scale irrigation and dam projects.[2]

As with many other sectors of the Mauritanian economy, however, neoliberal economic policies have, in practice, served to perpetuate tribal nepotism and generate new means by which wealthy Arab Moors could expand their holdings and solidify their power. Within the context of land reform, this wealth consolidation was largely achieved through financial speculation, the manipulation of prices by wealthy owners of land along the Senegal River, and the facilitation of foreign investment in modern agricultural and rural development technologies through licensing provision. Meanwhile, those who lacked the material and financial resources to compete with industrial-scale agricultural projects often found themselves either working as employees on land that they had previously owned or else pushed off it entirely and into the chaotic sprawling urban peripheries of Nouakchott. 

Preventing Further Dots from Being Joined

Due to the persistent disadvantages associated with their social position, the Haratin have acutely felt the negative effects of this process, and this is likely to be true whether they have remained in a rural environment or moved to an urban setting. Indeed, the same speculative practices in the capital city of Nouakchott have exacerbated preexisting patterns of social stratification and reproduced them in new forms of urban inequality.[3] This is manifested  in a  gross disparity between  large Moorish-style villas dispersed throughout the capital and  makeshift shantytown constructions expanding at an exponential rate on the margins of the city and within pockets of its various districts. Needless to say, freedom from enslavement by no means implies freedom from the deprivation of urban slums or from other forms of rural labor exploitation and land dispossession.  

And this is precisely what Biram and IRA-M have highlighted by linking the campaign against slavery to the broader issue of land rights. Seen within this context, last month’s developments—the court decision to uphold the anti-slavery activists’ prison term, the new anti-slavery law, and the proposal to repress civil society organization—collectively represent a state effort to monopolize the anti-slavery narrative in Mauritania and maintain it within politically palatable confines. This effort necessitates setting strict limits on what can and cannot fall within the domain of public discourse and critique, let alone that of preventative legislation. The recent silencing of IRA-M and its activists is therefore logical when considered from this point of view, since the movement has sought to link issues in Mauritanian society that the state would much rather cosmetically treat in isolation.

[1] Jean-Philippe Platteau, Land Reform and Structural Adjustment in Sub-Saharan Africa: Controversies and Guidelines (Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization, 1992).

[2] Mohammeden Ould Mey, Global Restructuring and Peripheral States: the Carrot and the Stick in Mauritania (Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 1996).

[3] Armelle Choplin, Nouakchott: au carrefour de la Mauritanie et du monde (Paris: Karthala, 2009).

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