Nouakchott, Asharq Al-Awsat—Mauritanian presidential candidate and human rights activist Biram Dah Abeid stood in front of dozens of his supporters, adjusted his black turban, and began his speech by talking about his intention to free all slaves in Mauritania, known collectively as Haratin.
“I will free the slaves and bring them with me to the presidential palace.”
With his unique speeches and radical rhetoric, Abeid has brought the attention of human rights activists to cases of slavery in Mauritania. The country will go to the polls on June 21 to vote in a presidential election contested by five candidates, including two descendants of former slaves.
Abeid’s statements would have passed without comment had they been made outside the context of the presidential elections, but Sidi Ould Salem, campaign manager for incumbent president Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, called Abeid’s remarks an “attempt to exploit slavery in order to win votes of former slaves and seize power.”
“I am surprised,” Ould Salem said, “to see him exploit slavery, an issue which no longer exists. I am a descendent of the Haratin, and I can assure you that there is no slavery in my society.”
Much like the dispute between these two men, Mauritanians are divided over whether the practice of slavery continues or whether it has ended and merely a “legacy of slavery” remains. The latter is the official state position, and slavery has long been criminalized. In March last year, it established the National Solidarity Agency for the Fight Against the Vestiges of Slavery, for Integration, and for the Fight Against Poverty, and opened a special court to address related issues.
Meanwhile, international human rights organizations continue to raise the alarm, warning of the spread of slavery in Mauritania. Perhaps the best-known organization is the Walk FreeFoundation, which published a report last year ranking Mauritania first on its Global Slavery Index. The report said around 4 percent of Mauritanians were enslaved, or 140,000 to 160,000 people—figures which raised the eyebrows of many Mauritanians, but which legal specialists considered “logical.”
Human rights and political activist Mohamed Ould Samba told Asharq Al-Awsat: “The practice of slavery continues in Mauritanian society, and cases appear from time to time. The mentality of slavery is still prevalent and constitutes a moral authority in Mauritanian society. As long as this mentality exists and plays a role in social hierarchies, slavery will continue, even if it has become practiced in secret.”
But lawyer and activist Mohamed Ould Ashaddu says “there are neither slaves nor slavery in Mauritania.” He pointed to a recent initiative launched last year by activists and former slaves, the “Haratin Charter,” to demand political rights and social and economic development for former slaves. Ould Ashaddu says this initiative “addresses marginalization, poverty and injustice, rather than discussing an imaginary slavery.”
The legal arsenal that prohibits and criminalizes slavery has significantly developed in recent years. In 2007, slavery was redefined in the criminal law and penalties strengthened. Authorities then joined the fight against what they called the “legacy of slavery” by establishing the Solidarity Agency in 2013, and also drew up a “national roadmap to combat the legacy of slavery,” in collaboration with civil society activists and legal specialists, with the support of international organizations.
Still, Mauritanian authorities face wide criticism for not implementing the laws that criminalize slavery. Ould Samba, who participated for more than a decade in the human rights movement Support Slaves, says that slavery has declined, although it continues due to a lack of law enforcement: “The main reason the practice of slavery continues is the successive governments’ lack of serious application of the laws. The government enacts the laws with reluctance and without conviction, and thus avoids implementing them. The laws would be enough to end slavery, if they were applied.”
“The laws and actions taken by the government have to a large extent undermined the practice of slavery,” Ould Samba admits. “No longer does anyone boast that they are slave masters.” However, he explains that the practice has now gone underground like any other crime. “It has not been eliminated once and for all. It is still practiced on minors, the illiterate and those in rural areas.”
Mauritanian journalist Ahmed Ould Mohamed Mustapha is also skeptical. In an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, he says: “Official actions on the issue of slavery . . . primarily deal with circumventing international pressure and pulling the rug out from under local legal experts. Unfortunately, the Mauritanian state does not consider the thorny issue an obstacle that faces true citizens.”
Political analyst Mokhtar Salem Ould Ahmed Salem agrees: “The laws enacted by the Mauritanian authorities are nothing but empty words. The government of President Ould Abdel Aziz wants to tell the Black Arabs and the groups that have suffered under slavery in the past decades: ‘I freed you, and I wrote the laws that criminalized slavery.’”
Ould Samba adds: “The state, as an official organization, seeks to preserve the traditional structures and authorities of slavery that established its policies in order to stay in power.”
Slavery does not exist
According to some Mauritanian intellectuals, of Arab descent, slavery no longer exists in Mauritania. Political analyst Ahmed Salem says, “there is a segment of black Arabs,only some of whom have suffered from slavery, and others have never been subjected to slavery. The first Mauritanian constitution guaranteed equal freedom for all citizens and criminalized slavery. But after that, a larger emancipator of slaves came to Mauritania—a drought, which forced the masters to give up their slaves and move to the cities.”
Ahmed Salem says that Mauritania was governed for several centuries by an elite class that was formed by an alliance between tribes that carried the banner of science and religion, and those that carried weapons. For decades, this elite lived through an internal power struggle between soldiers and civilians. “The issue of slavery exploited this conflict,” he says, “but when we look at the facts on the ground and look at the capital, Nouakchott, home to one-third of the country’s population, we cannot find a single case of slavery. Thus, the issue of slavery has been exploited for political purposes. In the end, the former slaves, the Haratin, are victims because they suffer from poverty, illiteracy, and disease, and at the same time they are merely fuel for a political battle and nothing more.”
On the political regimes that have ruled Mauritania, defense lawyer Ould Ashaddu argues that both the country’s first president after independence, Moktar Ould Daddah, and the current president Ould Abdel Aziz have played important roles in the fight against slavery. He says, “as intellectuals, writers, poets, and scholars, the Moors are doing well in the fight against slavery, marginalization, and injustice—starting with Nassar Al-Din and Ahmad Baba Al-Massufi, to the poet and leader Mohamed Al-Hanshi Ould Mohamed Saleh and the sheikhs Mohamed Salem Ould Adoud and Mohamed Salem Ould Yahya. However, extremists fought against them rather than being grateful for their progress, and the issue of the Haratin for some of them is about climbing to the top of the pyramid and taking a share that they do not deserve.”
Even though the communities of former slaves comprise one of the poorest sections of Mauritanian society, and most are undereducated and live in remote and marginalized areas, some of the figures that have emerged from this group have held high ministerial positions. One served as the prime minister under former President Maaouya Ould Sid’Ahmed Taya. The current head of parliament belongs to this group, Messaoud Ould Boulkheir, who is also the president of the People’s Progressive Alliance and was a presidential candidate in 2003. He took over as head of the parliament in 2007 and currently chairs the Economic and Social Council.
The political presence of descendants of former slaves has increased in recent years. Three are presidents of active political parties in the opposition, both moderate and radical. Of the five candidates competing in the upcoming presidential elections, two belong to this community: President of the El Wiam Social Democratic Party Boïdiel Ould Houmeit, and Biram Dah Abeid.
Some observers of the presidential campaigns see the rhetoric as ethnically charged, as candidates set aside time in their speeches to discuss slavery and the rights of former slaves. Outgoing President Ould Abdel Aziz formed a special team to organize his advertising campaign that is personally led by a descendent of former slaves, Sidi Ould Salem. Political observers read the move as an attempt to rout his opponents whose rhetoric has more ethnic capital.
The heavy focus on slavery in the discourse of the presidential campaign has shocked many election observers. Salem believes that, “whoever listens to the candidates’ speeches would think there are still slave markets in Mauritania. I challenge anyone to find one slave in Mauritania. Slavery is currently isolated and underground. Much like drug vendors, slavery has become criminal, hidden, and rejected by society.”
Ould Samba says the rhetoric is divided between “Biram Dah Abeid, who is described as radical, Boïdiel Ould Houmeit, who is a right-wing extremist and is not a descendent of a former slave since he does not even recognize the existence of this part of society, and Abdel Aziz, who wavers on the subject of slavery and speaks without conviction but agrees on the importance of electoral competition.”
Ould Samba argues that candidates are vying for the votes of former slave communities, on the presumption that they are a majority that is both ignorant and poor, compared to the Arab Moors, which often have a high level of education and might be more responsive to calls from the opposition to boycott the elections. But Ould Samba adds that “these elections reflect the aspirations of the Haratin to occupy a natural position in society. Messaoud Ould Boulkheir’s run for president in 2003 was a message that the Haratin are ordinary human beings that deserve the same entitlements and rights as others and thus have the right to run the country.”
Between the aspirations of former slaves to reach the presidency of the republic and society’s perception of them as former slaves, observers agree that the fight to end slavery is in a “battle of mentalities,” to change the perception in Mauritanian society of the descendants of former slaves.
Ould Samba warns of “public television propaganda programs involving descendants of Moors sharing stories and poetry over cups of tea prepared by a descendant of former slaves, who sits on the sidelines as if he is a piece of decoration, not interested in the discussion. Such condescending scenes of slavery are ingrained in the mind of the viewer.”
Ould Samba concludes that “the struggle of former slaves in Mauritania was exemplary and peaceful. It was not a call for secession or to bear arms, rather it was based on persuasion rather than imposition, and I think that it has reached its final stage.”
In the struggle of Mauritania’s former slaves, a new stage has begun with the announcement of the “charter of political, economic, and social rights for Haratin.” Marches in Nouakchott are organized by and for former slaves, and there are increased calls for “affirmative action” to raise the living conditions of the descendants of former slaves. Other voices are calling for authorities to apply the laws that criminalize slavery, particularly in remote areas where slavery is still practiced away from the reach of the law, causing some human rights organizations to increase their activities in rural areas and expose new cases of slavery.