ANALYSIS David Malluche 28 May 2021
In the wake of the recent global rise of Anti-Racist movements, local activists and scholars have brought increasing attention to the racial legacies of slavery within the Arab-Muslim world. Whereas the opening of a public debate on racism is a relatively new development in many North African and Middle Eastern societies, racialized slavery and racial discrimination has been the subject of recurrent political mobilizations in the West African Sahel for decades. This short analysis describes abolitionist and Anti-Racist struggles in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, a country with the notorious reputation of having been the last in the world to abolish slavery (in 1981) and, nevertheless, to remain “slavery’s last stronghold”.
Ethnic Groups in Mauritania
The Mauritanian population comprises three main groups: (1) The Arab-Berber Bidan (an Arabic ethnonym literally signifying “the whites”) or “Moors”, the traditional ruling class in the desert stretching between southern Morocco and the Senegal river (2) the Haratin, descendants of enslaved blacks who have been culturally assimilated into the Bidan population but retained an inferior social status (also identified as “black Moors”, in opposition to their former masters, the “white Moors”) and (3) the black ethnic minorities indigenous to the southern regions of the country (Haalpulaaren, Soninké, and Wolof), who self-identify as “Négro-Mauritaniens”. All ethnic groups of the region have been historically involved in slave trade. Enabled by their political and military power the Bidan however have kept many of their slaves until Mauritania’s independence in 1960 and even beyond.
Early Movements against Slavery and Racism in Postcolonial Mauritania
In 1978, Haratin activists created the abolitionist movement El-Hor (“Freeman”) and started to organize protests against the persistence of slavery, which soon spread throughout the whole country. In response to El-Hor’s popular mobilization, the government was eventually pressured to issue the abolition decree, but then refrained from any further concrete measures to support victims of slavery or prosecute slave-owners.
Whereas Haratin activists led an emancipatory fight against slavery, the black minorities of the Senegal valley faced other forms of marginalization and exclusion in the postcolonial polity. Embracing the Pan-Arab nationalist ideologies that emanated from the Middle East (especially Baathism), the successive military regimes that ruled the country since a putsch in 1978 began to associate Mauritanian nationality exclusively with an Arab identity. This led to the emergence of a second “black” resistance movement: The African Liberation Forces of Mauritania (FLAM). FLAM activists accused the Bidan-dominated government of having created a racist Apartheid-system and called for a revolution. The government reacted with repression and further purged the state administration and military leadership of suspected FLAM supporters, replacing them with members of the Arab community. In the period between 1989-1991, the conflict escalated into open violence: Hundreds of black soldiers and officers were detained and executed, tens of thousands of black Mauritanian nationals deported to Senegal and Mali by the racist military regime.
New Politics, New Laws – A Positive Impact?
More recently, after the end of Colonel Ould Taya’s military dictatorship (1984-2005), the political arena seemed to move in a positive direction. Thanks to the initiatives of Haratin politicians and human rights activists, a new anti-slavery law that, contrary to the abolition decree of 1981, actually criminalizes slavery, has been passed in 2007 and was revised and further specified in 2015. Additionally, a constitutional reform in 2012 has declared slavery a “crime against humanity”. Most of the remaining refugees of the 1989-1991 crisis have been repatriated within a resettlement scheme between 2008 and 2012. Further, a new “anti-discrimination law” has been adopted by parliament in 2018. However, Mauritanian human rights activists contend that this mainly serves to deceive international observers. Authorities are continuing the protection of slave-owners, while harassing activists and victims; racist attitudes remain rampant among the “white” Bidan elite.
The NGO SOS-Esclaves, created by El-Hor co-founder Boubacar Messaoud in 1995 to raise awareness about slavery and support victims, regularly reports on new cases and the obstruction of justice by “masters” and the involved authorities (police and judges), a problem that persists despite the government’s official commitment to the fight against the “legacies of slavery”. In 2008, activist Biram Dah Abeid created the Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement (IRA) and took the fight against slavery and for racial justice in Mauritania to a new and unprecedented level. He has been repeatedly threatened and imprisoned for his activities, but nevertheless stood as a candidate to the 2014 and 2019 presidential elections with his vision of a more inclusive Mauritanian society. Other activists created the civil society platform Manifesto for the Rights of the Haratin in 2013 and since then organize an annual march in the capital Nouakchott.
Whereas the Haratin population still suffers from the legacies of slavery, the other black minorities continue to face racial discrimination based on the association of nationality and citizenship with Arab identity. In 2011, the government initiated a census to introduce a biometrical passport system. After the process was launched, it soon turned out that the local registration offices systematically discriminated against non-arabophone black Mauritanians and tried to obstruct their registration.  In response, the popular social movement Don’t Touch My Nationality (TPMN) emerged and eventually forced the government to change its course.
Anti-discrimination law, a Step Towards the Constraint of Human Rights?
Instead of protecting minorities and supporting the work of human rights activists, the anti-discrimination law of 2018 has been designed in a way that makes it seem more like an additional instrument of repression: It stipulates prison terms for anyone who “promotes inflammatory speech that is contrary to the official doctrine of the Islamic Republic of Mauritania” or “publishes, diffuses, supports or communicates terms which may reveal an intent to hurt or an incitement to hurt morally or physically, to promote or incite hatred”. Those vague formulations have been criticized on the grounds that the Mauritanian authorities have constantly relied on the strategy to accuse Anti-Racist movements like FLAM or IRA of “inciting racial hatred” against the Bidan.
The growing global awareness around issues of racism that was created through the Black Lives Matter movement brought renewed attention to the experiences of black Mauritanians. Nevertheless, issues of racism and racial discrimination in non-western societies often do not find the media attention, at least not to this extent. Like in western contexts, Anti-Racist struggles in Muslim Africa face the backlash of established hegemonies, but the current multiplication of voices that speak out against all forms of racism on a global scale brings hope for a better future.
David Malluche is a scientific assistant at the Department of Islamic Studies at the University of Bayreuth. Since 2019, he is working on a dissertation on Haratin identity and activism in Mauritania. From November 2019 to October 2020, he received a research scholarship from the ERC-funded project “CAPSAHARA: Critical approaches to politics, social activism and Islamic militancy in the western Saharan region” in Lisbon.