Monday,23 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1244, (30 April - 6 May 2015)
Monday,23 July, 2018
Issue 1244, (30 April - 6 May 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Slavery in Mauritania

Western news reports on slavery in Mauritania are exaggerated and lack secure statistical foundations. A more nuanced look is needed, write Ahmed Meiloud and Mohamed Al-Mokhtar Sidi Haiba

Al-Ahram Weekly

Over the past few years, Mauritania has regularly made headlines in world news. These occasions were not due to the country’s frequent coups, but rather to the issue of slavery. In 2012, a CNN documentary described Mauritania as “slavery’s last stronghold.”

The documentary, based on US reporter John D Sutter’s three-day visit to Mauritania, estimated that between ten and 20 per cent of the population was enslaved. Driving through the “reel of emptiness” for hours without seeing anyone, Sutter concluded that the country keeps 340,000 to 680,000 people, out of a population of 3.5 million, in bondage and hidden from the outside world.

Another report called this population of slaves “Mauritania’s best-kept secret.” Sutter’s most recent article presents a new estimate for the percentage of Mauritanians enslaved: four to 20 per cent. It is not clear why the lower digit is now four per cent instead of ten per cent, however.

Recently, the news website Middle East Eye featured two articles on slavery in Mauritania. One article spoke of 150,000 Africans enslaved by the Arab minority. The author, Michael Phillips, drew a parallel between the apartheid of South Africa and the Mauritanian case. He claimed that the Haratine, Africans identified as slaves, are denied access to schools, which is anything but accurate.

Members of the Haratine community have equal access to universal education and other state services, but they are often unable to benefit from them due to various impediments that are exacerbated by rampant corruption and nepotism.

Phillips also lavished praise on the former presidential candidate and anti-slavery activist Birama O Abeid, calling him a “modern-day Mandela.” He highlighted Abeid’s heroic acts against slavery, including the burning (of what Phillips thought were) pro-slavery books by the eighth-century jurist Malik Bin Anas.

Beyond correcting factual errors of this sort, the issue of Mauritanian slavery deserves further inquiry. Does this small West African country of 3.5 million people truly have a huge population of slaves? What does slavery really mean in the Mauritanian context? What kind of legal framework is in place to protect people from the scourge of human exploitation and forced labour?

We should make clear at the onset that our intention in this article is not to deny the real suffering of a community, much less whitewash a cumbersome historical legacy. Our goal is limited to elucidating a complex social phenomenon by painting a more nuanced picture where the dynamics at play are exposed.

This is simply a better picture and one that is far closer to reality than the one most often painted and hyped in the international press. What we hope to convey is that the figures published by international organisations about slavery in Mauritania are not only exaggerated but also lack any real statistical sources.

As the example of the Global Slavery Index (discussed later in this article) shows, the absence of solid data does not deter these organisations from making wild claims. Despite the absence of reliable data, our keen knowledge of the legal and social vicissitudes in Mauritania since independence leads us to believe that the numbers of slaves are far smaller than those currently circulated.

We also believe that no matter how small the existing slavery pockets may be, real measures must be taken to address the issue. Creating sustainable development programmes to better the lives of the larger number of already emancipated Haratine will help end these inequalities since there are no legal or administrative hurdles preventing the emancipation of the rest.


THE CONTEXT: Mauritania is a vast stretch of land and is sparsely populated yet ethnically and culturally diverse. The country is located at a major geographical crossroads separating two distinct regions: the Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa. Historically, it was also an ancient trade route and hence a convergence for a variety of influences. The modern country still bears the enduring hallmarks of these influences.

One of the key features of Mauritania is an age-old social stratification system that stands as a reminder of the country’s deeply entrenched African roots. At the heart of that system was the practice of slavery, whose lingering effects continue to fuel controversies at home and bring unwanted attention from abroad.

While the historical institution of slavery in Mauritania has crumbled, its residual effects continue to trouble the country and relegate former slaves, the Haratine, to a subaltern status. Although this very real problem receives less attention than it deserves, the international press and human rights organisations continue to stoke controversy over the issue of slavery using outdated stereotypes and shoddy statistical methods.

It used to be said that the French always fight the last war. In a similar fashion, the international organisations are addressing a problem of formal slavery that has mostly ceased to exist, while ignoring the legacy of slavery and the plight of former slaves.

This misapprehension of the problem has been compounded by a general lack of understanding of the Mauritanian social structure and the nature of the institution of slavery in Mauritanian traditional nomadic society.

Historically, slavery in this context is not the same as the type of human exploitation (involving systematic segregation) that formerly took place in the southern states of the US or in the Caribbean islands. In the Mauritanian case, slavery was a particular form of rural fiefdom within an agro-pastoral lifestyle, marked by social stratification and the division of labour.

Both landowners and livestock owners retained dependents who provided labour, tilling the land or tending herds in exchange for sustenance for themselves and their dependents. Slaves were one unique segment of that system of interdependence; their dependence was both permanent and inheritable, unless bartered or sold.

Despite their subordinate status, slaves lived and travelled with their masters and often shared the same domiciles. The system endured for many centuries, but in the past five decades it has been in steep decline. Although social clichés and cultural stereotypes persist, their translation into exploitation has become marginal over the years because of the rapid social and urban transformations the country has undergone.

Mauritania, where 95 per cent of the population was nomadic on the eve of independence in 1960, has become largely sedentary. Today, nomads constitute less than five per cent of the population.

It is in the encampments of these few remaining nomads and the small villages on the periphery of urban life that vestiges of slavery may continue to exist. Given the absence of dependable statistics, the numbers of slaves are hard to determine.

However, due to the country’s fast-paced social transformation in recent decades, we believe a more realistic estimate for the number of remaining slaves in Mauritania is several thousand.


LAW AND SLAVERY: In part, the collapse of slavery and the social transformations that accompanied it were brought about by legal interventions from the state. Legally, the practice was banned on several occasions.

In 1961 Mauritania ratified the international Convention against Forced Labour (1930), having already enshrined abolition, albeit implicitly, in its 1959 constitution. A more explicit abolitionist decree (No. 81-234) was passed by the military junta of President Haidalla in 1981, along with agrarian reform.

This decree was justified on Islamic legal grounds and supported by the clerical establishment. Another law (No. 025/2003) was passed in 2003, instituting penalties for crimes of human exploitation. These laws were further bolstered in 2007 with stricter legal measures criminalising all forms of forced labour.

In April this year, a new law increased the penalty, in certain cases, from five to ten years in prison and included new features to make Mauritanian law fully comply with international legal conventions.

Despite this legal arsenal, however, the elements that were absent were robust implementation and monitoring mechanisms. As a result, the impact of these progressive policies has for the most part been modest. Although technically free, the descendants of former slaves (the Haratine) continue to live in difficult socioeconomic conditions, making up the lion’s share of slum-dwellers and a majority of the unemployed.

Further complicating the issue of slavery is the perceived racial character of the slave-master relationship in Mauritanian society. This is precisely why a similar practice of slavery within the Mauritanian African community, where both slaves and their masters share the same skin colour, is mostly overlooked both as an area of research and as a sphere of state intervention.

The political upheavals that in the late 1980s led to the extrajudicial execution of Afro-Mauritanian officers and the expulsion en masse of civilians in the early 1990s have also contributed to a conception of a slavery-race correlation by outsiders unfamiliar with the complex anthropological landscape of the country.

A vocal segment of those who were unjustly expelled proceeded to claim they had been enslaved in order to secure refugee status and international sympathy, although almost none had ever been enslaved. Some in fact had had their own slaves. We have heard several testimonies to this effect from Mauritanians in the diaspora.

This same strategy was even used by some Moorish individuals to obtain similar privileges in the West. Yet the readily recalled stereotype of whites enslaving blacks became the most salient view of an otherwise complex system of social stratification.

Despite these shortcomings, an attenuation of racial tensions, including the ones arising from the increasingly pressing Haratine issue, must start with an appropriate resolution of the Negro-Mauritanian issue. Addressing the legitimate grievances (political and identity claims, etc.) of this community would be a good starting point.


THE STATISTICS: As stated earlier, the numbers circulated about Mauritanian slaves by international human rights organisations range from four per cent to more than one fifth of the population. These figures are fictive, but how do international organisations generate them?

The first thing to note is that the government of Mauritania does not disclose information about the ethnic constituents of the population in its censuses. Of course, a government this guarded about ethnic data is also unlikely to publish information about a phenomenon some reports claim it goes to extreme measures to conceal.

The second important fact is that no international agency of any standing has ever managed to conduct a census in Mauritania about slavery. All of the international agencies’ data about the country’s population come from the Mauritanian Office of Statistics. Of course, international slave investigators and local NGOs could carry out surveys to produce estimates of the population in bondage.

But no NGO has ever demonstrated that it has done so. International and local activists, as well as researchers, who have come to Mauritania to find slaves have ended up citing two or three cases of slavery, which get repetitively cited to justify claims of widespread slavery in the country.

It is true that one person in bondage is one too many, but in a country where up to one fifth of the population is supposedly enslaved one should easily be able to find hundreds of cases. In the absence of real cases and authentic data, international organisations rely on unreliable figures provided by locals who neither have the technical know-how nor resources to carry out real surveys.

These individuals’ careers depend on the impression of widespread slavery. Their estimates suggest that they substitute the paucity of information with guestimates, where descendants of former slaves who are no longer in bondage are counted as slaves.

Since their clients do not demand real statistics, such local approximations are what end up filling the pages of international organisations’ press releases. This explains the rarity of cases, contradiction of narratives and wild variance in slavery figures (ten to 20 per cent or four to 20 per cent, for example).

Furthermore, most of the cases brought before the Mauritanian courts often turn out to be cases of labour malpractices rather than cases of bondage. The US State Department, whose omnipresent gaze (via the US embassy) in the small Islamic Republic is ever watchful for issues of this nature, has been using the more neutral phrase “slavery-like practices” in its annual reports since 1999.

In fact, the State Department’s 1999 report says: “Anti-Slavery International [an NGO] has stated that there is insufficient evidence one way or the other to conclude whether or not slavery exists, and that an in-depth, long-term study was required to determine whether the practice continues.” Slavery should have declined since then, but in these reports it keeps on rising, even though no in-depth studies of any sort have been done.

Even as it scolds the Mauritanian government for its laxity in implementing its anti-slavery laws, the majority of the State Department reports conclude that “a system of officially sanctioned slavery in which government and society join to force individuals to serve masters does not exist.”

In contrast to the Arab-Black/master-slave binary, some of the reports suggest that slavery is likely to be found in the south of the country, writing that “widespread slavery was traditional among ethnic groups of the largely non-pastoralist south, where it had no racial origins or overtones; masters and slaves alike were black.”

This view is based on the State Department’s belief that even before slavery was banned in the 1980s and before the majority of the population became sedentary, “slavery among the traditionally pastoralist Moors [Arabs] had been greatly reduced by the accelerated desertification of the 1970s, [since] many white Moors dismissed their former black Moor slaves because the depletion of their herds left them unable either to employ or to feed slaves.” This contradicts Phillips’ suggestion that slavery is practiced by an Arab minority against Africans.


CONTRADICTIONS: From uncertainty about the existence of slavery, to a perception of its prevalence among Africans in the south where masters and servants are black, to a contrasting assertion that Arabs expect servitude from blacks, the portrait of Mauritania’s best-kept secret appears to have been painted in a dark room of ignorance, via the opaque ink of neoliberal policies by the latter-day saints of orientalism.

To their credit, the US State Department reports remain relatively cautious, but they and others nevertheless provide a background for a slew of cherry-picked quotes, running in a circuitous manner. For example, the numbers that Middle East Eye’s recent article cites, although smaller than the numbers cited by CNN, came from a report by the Global Slavery Index, produced by an international NGO, but the article says little about how the Index obtained that information.

Despite placing Mauritania at the top of its list of slave states, the Global Slavery Index’s methodology paper admits the shaky foundations of that ranking. “No random sample survey information is available; no census has been performed in the country for some time (even the number of people in the total population is in doubt),” it says.

The only justification for the speculative four per cent rate is that it is more conservative than the wild ten to 20 per cent range found in the reports of the local NGO SOS-Esclaves and the BBC, neither of which conducted empirical surveys in the country.

Global Slavery Index’s methodology paper explains this reduction as follows: “Because of these caveats, the Walk Free Foundation [another NGO] retained the more conservative estimate used in the 2013 Index. The proportion of the population estimated to be enslaved is 0.04.” It is not clear why the conservative percentage should be four per cent as opposed to five, six or one on the continuum from ten to zero.

In the chain of statistical production, international NGOs such as the Global Slavery Index rely on their local counterparts, which are financially dependent on these same or similar international organisations.

In a roundabout manner, local NGOs also tend to publish the same statistics, which they themselves first generated, after their release by international organisations have bestowed on them an aura of credibility. Thus, in order to understand the slavery figures one has to understand the objectives of the financiers of the local NGOs.

While it is a complex task to trace all foreign donors and to determine their level of investment, some of these groups have earned notoriety. A good example is the American Anti-Slavery Group (AASG). Since its creation in 1994, the AASG has provided various forms of assistance to a variety of individuals and NGOs working on the issue of slavery in Mauritania.

SOS Esclaves, whose unreliable data constitute the background of the Global Slavery Index’s 2014 figures, was for a period a recipient of AASG largesse. AASG has also lent its support to the former presidential candidate and anti-slavery activist Abeid.

AASG was founded by Charles Jacob, a man with close ties to the far right in Israel and various Islamophobic American organisations and personalities, such as the American Defence Initiative of Pamela Geller.

Jacob has used his public stature and academic work to instigate uproar against a supposed looming takeover of America by an Islamic tsunami. Both Jacob and Geller have sponsored anti-slavery advertisements and posts featuring deliberately erroneous facts and figures about Mauritania.

Jacob’s ties to Israel explain his relative silence about Mauritanian slavery issues during the decade between 1999 and 2009, the period in which Mauritania had an open diplomatic relationship with Israel.

They also explain how Jacob uses his campaigns against oppression perpetrated by non-Westerners (which to him means Arab Muslims) to divert attention from the atrocities committed by Israel and to combat the success of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement on American university campuses.


CONCLUSIONS: Despite the errors and contradictions in NGO and news reports, there are still small pockets of slavery in Mauritania. These exist in areas where governmental institutions have little presence and where their services are almost absent. Ironically, these are also the areas where national and international NGOs, which claim to fight slavery, never go.

This problem has to be addressed. But it is a relatively small problem when compared to a more pressing issue. While the country’s slavery problem is not of the scale painted in the Western media (especially since the country dissolved its relationship with Israel), Mauritania has a massive slavery-related problem.

In addition to the small pockets where slavery is practiced, hundreds of thousands of former slaves and their children are on average poorer and less educated than the rest of the population.

Instead of squandering considerable resources vilifying the country and stoking up racial tensions among its various ethnic groups, international agencies and foreign governments, if they were truly disinterested, could help create programmes of sustainable development within the areas where the most vulnerable (not the most vocal and internationally connected) members of the Haratine live.

This could also include real measures to reach out to such segments of the population in order to ensure that their members are properly educated about, and engaged in, the management of the programmes the government creates to improve their lives.

Ahmed Meiloud is a senior fellow with the Southwest Initiative for the Study of Middle East Conflicts (SISMEC) and a doctoral candidate at the School of Middle Eastern and North African Studies at the University of Arizona. Mohamed Al-Mokhtar Sidi Haiba is a social and political analyst whose research focuses on African and Middle Eastern affairs.

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