Slavery and suppression of basic freedoms persists in Mauritania

SLAVERY survivor Mbarka Mint Essatim, 30, feeds her baby in her tent in a slum in Nouakchott, Mauritania, in this October 2018 file picture. Nellie Peyton Thomson Reuters Foundation

Slavery, ethnic discrimination and suppression of basic freedoms persists in Mauritania.  According to the 2018 Global Slavery Index more than two out of every 100 people still live as slaves. Slavery was formally abolished in 1981. It was criminalised in 2007. However, in reality it remains firmly in place. Discrimination, repression and treatment of communities who were slaves continues. Hundreds of thousands of others endure forced labour.

The minority Beydane or Arab Berbers, who are descendants of Berbers and Arabs, have all power in society, government and economy. The two main ethnic groups, the Haratines and Afro-Mauritanians, make up two-thirds of the population, who are African, are excluded from government, politics and the economy. The rest of the population is mix of all ethnic groups. The official languages are French and Arabic.

Government officials routinely make it difficult for members of the Haratine and Africa-Mauritanian communities to get registration documents. Once unregistered they cannot access essential services, and can conscripted into forced labour.

Almost all the Beydane elite, the dominant group in power, has either owned slaves or their family or close relations were slave-owners. According to a report by Amnesty International, opponents of slavery face arbitrary arrest, torture and detention. The government has banned meetings of civil society organisations opposing slavery.

Mauritania’s president Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz grabbed power in 2008 in a coup. Freedom of expression, association and the right to protest are brutally suppressed, in this mostly desert country, bordered by the Atlantic Ocean to the west, and the Western Sahara to the north. It straddles North and West Africa.

In 2017, Aziz changed the constitution, abolished the Senate and replaced it by regional councils. He changed the flag and the national anthem. The proposals were rejected by majorities of both upper and lower houses. Even the government’s own senators voted against the outrageously unilateral changes. Both upper and lower houses must support bills before it becomes law. The government has a majority in both houses.

Aziz called MPs who voted against his motions a “dysfunction in our democracy”. Aziz took the rejected changes to a vote in a referendum, which approved the changes. The new national flag was hoisted for the first time on the country’s Independence Day in November 2017. Two red bands were added to the country’s old green-and-yellow colours, to signify the fight for independence against France, the former colonial power.

Last year, the government released two leading Mauritanian anti-slavery activists Moussa Biram and Abdallahi Matallah who were in jail for more than 2 years for their opposition slavery, following international civil society pressure. They were incarcerated in a remote desert prison, where they suffer unspeakable abuse.  

Both Biram and Matallah have vowed to continue the fight for social justice. The government has refused to register their civil society organisation, the Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement (IRA), which means it can arrest its members for being part of an “illegal” organisation.

Repressive laws are used to restrict basic freedoms. The government has used the version of a 1964 law that requires civil society organisation to seek authorisation from the Ministry of Interior to operate. The ministry can refuse organisations which exercise “an unwelcome influence on the minds of the people”. Unregistered organisations cannot use public venues to hold meetings, cannot get foreign funding and the government can arbitrary close down the organisation.  

A 2017 law, called euphemistically an “anti-discrimination law”, punishes whoever “encourages an incendiary discourse” against the “official rite” (law) of the country, is punished with one to five years in prison. In 2014, blogger Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mkhaitir, was arrested and sentenced to death for blasphemy for arguing in a blog that the government should not use religion to discriminate against marginalised groups, such as M’alimin caste, to which he belongs. In November 2017 an appeals court reduced his sentence to two years in prison.

Alioune Tine, Amnesty International’s West and Central Africa Director said: “It is a disgraceful disregard for human rights that despite abolishing slavery in law nearly 40 years ago, the Mauritanian authorities continue not only to tolerate this practice but to repress those who speak out against it.”

Mauritania gained independence from France in 1960. Military coups have been a staple of the country. In July 1978, the country first post-independence president Mokhtar Ould Abdel Daddah was ousted in a coup. Former President Maaouya Sid’ Ahmed Ould Taya Taya banned the opposition party, Action for Change, which campaign for equal rights for blacks, slaves and their descendants.

The next presidential election is set for 22 June 2019. Aziz, already on two terms, is barred from standing again, according the country’s two-term presidential limits. Former Defence Minister Mohamed Ould Cheikh Mohamed Ahmed, a close ally of Aziz is favoured by the president to replace him. Anti-slavery and leading civil society activist Biram Ould Dah Ould Abeid has said he will also stand for the presidency to break the stranglehold of the military elite.

In February the Mauritanian opposition sent a letter to government demanding free, fair and transparent elections; and for the government to respect the constitution, not use public money to support its favourite candidates and put the state at the service of all its citizens. The opposition must unite behind one candidate for the presidential elections.

In spite of its dictatorial governments, modern day apartheid and slavery, the country has been supported by the West, because it seen as strategically important bulwark in the fight against Al-Qaeda linked groups, across the Sahel region. The US government last year withdrew Mauritania’s benefits under African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), the trade deal it has with African countries, unless the Mauritanian government ends slavery, discrimination and marginalised of opponents

African continental and regional organisations, as well as governments, must put pressure on Mauritania to end discrimination, release anti-slavery civil society activists and introduce basic freedoms. The government must pay reparations to former slaves and their descendants.

William Gumede is Executive Chairman, Democracy Works Foundation ( and author of South Africa in BRICS (Tafelberg).