Professor Henry Srebrnik

Professor Henry Srebrnik

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Political Evolution in Mauritania

By Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer

The Islamic Republic of Mauritania is almost twice the size of France, its former colonial overlord, and straddles the North African Maghreb (it is part of the Arab Maghreb Union) and Sub-Saharan Africa. It is 95 per cent desert, hence its image in the West of endless sand dunes dotted with camels.

Mauritania gained independence from French rule in 1960, but unelected military governments largely ruled the country in the decades to follow.

There are fewer than four million people (two-thirds of them under 26) but, despite being small, this population is exceptionally fractured. It’s divided by language and skin colour.

“Mauritania’s completely racist,” according to one observer. “Everyone knows, but no one talks about it. That’s off limits!”

At the top are the Bidhan, lighter-skinned Arab Berbers, or “white Moors.” They own almost everything. Then come the West Africans. And at the bottom there are the Haratin. They are Moors, too, and speak the same language as the Bidhan, but they’re Black. They used to be the Bidhan’s slaves.

Black and white Moors all speak Hassaniya, a regional form of Arabic. The West Africans speak Wolof, Pulaar and Soninke, plus French.

The country is one of the poorest in the world and has been criticized in the past for a series of social issues, including the force-feeding of women being groomed for marriage as well as an active slave trade.

Despite slavery officially being outlawed in Mauritania in 1981, it exists under a caste system of servitude that forces those in the “slave” caste to work as cattle herders or domestic servants without pay.

Mauritania has tried to crack down on slavery and passed a law in 2015 that made slavery a crime against humanity. But campaigners say this has not been enough to eradicate the practice.

Mauritania’s ruling Union for the Republic party candidate Mohamed Ould Ghazouani, a former general and defence minister, won the country’s presidential election on June 22 with 52 per cent of the vote. It was the first time Mauritanians voted to elect a successor to a democratically elected president in the state.   

Ghazouani’s nearest rival, prominent anti-slavery activist Biram Dah Abeid, came in second with 18.58 per cent. Sidi Mohamed Ould Boubacar, backed by the country’s biggest Islamist party, came in third with 17.87 per cent.

Both losers claimed fraud. “This seems like a coup d’etat,” declared Abeid. “We are united and will lead the contestation” of the outcome.

“We reject the results of the election and we consider that they in no way express the will of the Mauritanian people,” Boubacar added.

Economic issues dominated the election campaign, with outgoing president Mohammed Ould Abdel Aziz largely credited with stabilizing the country after seizing power in a 2008 coup. He was later elected as president in 2009 and 2014 in votes boycotted by the main opposition parties.

Ghazouani once headed the country’s domestic security service and was chief of staff to Abdel Aziz from 2008 to 2018. Not surprisingly, the latter backed Ghazouani. Both are from the ruling Bidhan group.

Mauritania has had its share of extremist violence, but intelligence work and the rehabilitation of imprisoned jihadis has led to a decline in Islamist attacks.

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