In a world where the practice has become reviled, an estimated 18-20% of Mauritania’s population, up to half a million people, are slaves by descent – born into slavery as a condition of birth.
There are laws against slavery in the country, including 10 years imprisonment for holding slaves and two years for promoting the practice. But the laws don’t work and are not enforced. In fact, the state has failed to abolish slavery three times.
Ould Abdel Aziz’s government insists that the practice is officially abolished, and yet still the laws are in place. Recently, yet more laws were introduced to protect “domestic workers”. Slavery, we are told, “no longer exists, because it has been outlawed.”
The only person to be prosecuted under Mauritania’s anti-slavery laws, Ahmed Ould Hassine, was sentenced to two years’ prison in November 2011. On 26 March 2012 his sentence was converted to a fine of MRO 200,000 (about US$6,000) and he was released. SOS Slaves in Nouakchott discovered this sly move and issued a statement condemning the action on 23 April 2012. Shortly after, there was a book burning protest by members of the abolitionist group IRA in Nouakchott. They were arrested on 28 April and remain in prison at the time of writing, despite appeals from many human rights NGOs for their release, including Amnesty International (click to respond to urgent action appeal).
What is the background to this practice, and why is it still perpetuated?
Slavery of Africans by both Arabs and other Africans has ancient roots in Africa, as does racial inequality and prejudice. These customs and practices are so well embedded into the culture of countries like Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Ghana and Sudan, that descendants of those enslaved in a distant era are trapped into present-day slavery in order to survive. Forced expulsions of black Mauritanians from the country in the 80’s – over 70,000 were forced to leave – increased the scale of the problem, as thousands of children left behind were estranged from their parents, with no option other than to become chattels.
The unstable government of Mauritania hasn’t helped: there have been many coup attempts, and the factions attempting to take over haven’t wanted to lose the support of powerful elites by speaking out against slavery. Additionally, if a major slave-owner has 5,000 slaves, as one report claimed, that translates into 5000 votes.
Mauritanian slaves are forbidden from owning property, or having legal custody of their own children. Many do not have their own surname. The majority are uneducated, and their masters convince them that they have no choice or control over their fate, that they are “destined” to a life of servitude. The few that escape or are rescued tell dreadful tales of long days as forced labour, segregation, isolation and physical abuse, including rape.
Through recent efforts by human rights groups and activists, some media attention has been devoted to exposing the present-day realities, but there have been no practical suggestions about how to implement a satisfactory long-term solution to eradicate slavery and liberate those enslaved.
The current president of Mauritania, Mohammed Ould Abdel Aziz, has been facing opposition for well over a year in the form of popular protests, including black African Mauritanians protesting marginalization, but the lack of unity between these disparate movements robs them of the power to overthrow him. The state is in a holding pattern: genuine reforms are unlikely as long as Ould Abdel Aziz feels under threat. In addition to sporadic attempts to appease the international community, there are now signs that Aziz is under increasing pressure to conform to some semblance of democracy, and to move ahead with the long drawn-out national voter registration and postponed election process, otherwise his illegitimate government risks isolation.
It would be naïve to imagine that western powers – so obsessed with the domestic issues of Mali and the fabled Sahel terror threat – are likely to be of any real help on human rights issues. In return for ignoring injustice towards the people of Mauritania, these countries get to build their military bases in the desert. They are able to move shipments through the port, launch spy planes and covert missions across borders, and create a silo of humanitarian suffering by siphoning tens of thousands of refugees from the arid desert wasteland of Mali into an identical arid desert wasteland in Mauritania. Once there, they become the poster-children of yet another poorly managed aid campaign seeking millions, no, billions of dollars to not really solve the problems of famine, poverty and over-population that have plagued the Sahel for decades.
As ever, a nation’s social issues are there for that nation to solve and no one else. Unless of course, you want to trade 20% domestic slavery for being 100% in the thrall of a foreign power and beholden to it in every way for generations. Sadly for Mauritanians, they are already in this unenviable position, as the level of indebtedness to the World Bank and other international lenders and sources of funding is so vast that they will have to empty the mines of Akjoujt and Tasiast to pay it off, with interest. All this could change of course, for example, if the gold and uranium resources of northern Mali could somehow be appropriated. Then Mauritania and its partners could empty the mines of Mali instead to repay its debts to the West, the AFDB and the ISDB.
As long as the Aziz regime can maintain power through foreign funding, while closing ranks to protect itself, and while civil and political opposition fail to find their common purpose in the overthrow of this regime, the practice of slavery will continue in Mauritania, as will all the other social injustices and inequalities that marginalize the poor.
- EU MEP Q+A re arrest of anti- #slavery activist in #Mauritania (lissnup.wordpress.com)
- #Mauritania protests against slavery and military rule (lissnup.wordpress.com)
- Slavery under Islam: Human rights Activists Arrested in Mauritania following burning of Islamic Jurisdiction Books legitimizing slavery (atlasshrugs2000.typepad.com)
- Mauritania opposition demand president resign (nation.co.ke)
- Allain & Bales on the Definition of Slavery (lawprofessors.typepad.com)