It is something the government is extremely sensitive about. The elite of Mauritanian society spin it convolutedly, but activists have tackled it vociferously and in the process of doing so, kindled a reaction from the state in the form of imprisonments for belonging in illegal organizations and engaging in advocacy activities capable of disturbing the public peace.
Mauritanian slavery is a complicated business characterized by multiple enablers: an anachronistic but deeply ingrained caste system, racism, and greed. A long time ago, Arabs and Berbers, also known as White Moors or Beydanes in Mauritarian Arabic, regularly swooped in from the northern desert sands to carry out raids on African tribes indigenous to lands along the Senegal River to the south. The invaders often made off with captives who they enslaved. The slaves were incorporated into the nomadic lifestyle of the Beydanes. They tended livestock, threshed millet, cooked and did every household and field chore imaginable. As their masters moved to the next water hole, they were brought along. Centuries of this symbiotic master-slave relationship ingrained in the African slaves a psychology of perpetual servitude, from generation to generation, to the Beydanes. The slaves came to be known as Haratine.
Haratine women were often raped by their masters, and the children resulting from these harrowing encounters were never accepted into Beydane society. They remained slaves by virtue of their maternal origin.
Mauritania officially abolished slavery in 1981 and criminalized its practice in 2007, but Beydane strange interpretation of Islam, which claims that a Haratine will get to see paradise only if he accepts his fate as a slave and dedicates his life to serving his Beydane master, is an invisible powerful psychological restraint on his thought process. The slave masters are thus able to circumvent the law cleverly in this manner to perpetuate the institution.
Unlike American slavery, which involved selling human beings like cattle, even herding the slaves in chains to auctions where they were bid on by buyers, Mauritanian slavery is not transactional in a monetary sense. Basically, Haratine families captured generations ago remain attached to their captors right through the generations. At times, a Beydane family may decide to give out a young boy or girl as a gift to a powerful figure, a tribal leader, a young boy coming of age, or to return a favor.
In the olden days when Mauritanian society was mostly nomadic, the slaves worked from camp to camp, tending animals and doing other strenuous field work from sunup to sundown. Modern Mauritania is largely sedentary today, and the field work of years gone by has been replaced with household chores and agricultural work on land owned by the slave masters. The percentage of slaves is estimated to be between 4 to 10% of the 3.8 million total population of the country—152,000 to 380,000.
The government disputes the numbers and routinely condemns international and human rights organizations for bandying about what it claims are inaccurate figures. It acknowledges the country’s difficult history, but insists adamantly that “Mauritanian Slavery,” has been abolished. Yes, there were tiny vestiges of it on the fringes of society, but those will die out over time, it avers further.
Biram Dah Abeid, a Haratine activist, and 2 other members of the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement of Mauritania (IRA) were sentenced to 2 years in prison in 2015, after a controversial trial, on charges emanating from their heroic work to free slaves. Biram has fought the system for years, participating in peaceful marches and hunger strikes to compel the state to take action against slave owners. In 2014, he ran for President against incumbent President General Mohammed Ould Abdel Aziz and placed second.
The government’s defenders assert that the successive generational attachment of Haratines to their masters is borne out of economic necessity—the slaves have known no other life and cannot fend for themselves. This argument however ignores the fact that the social order created by the Beydanes, which keeps the Haratine illiterate, perpetuates a culture of dependency. Slaves rescued by Abeid’s IRA, who went on to receive education and/or pick up a skill, now fend for themselves. Similar arguments were made by American slave holders in pre Civil War America, but a huge chunk of the slave population, following President Lincoln’s emancipation, moved on with their lives, albeit in very difficult circumstances after defeated Southern Whites threw obstacle after obstacle before the freed blacks to stop them from economic independence.
Mauritania’s caste system and the racism of the lighter skinned Arab-Berber (Beydane) population created a socioeconomic order that is unsustainable over a long period of time in this information technology age. Tight Beydane control of power, money and influence cannot last forever. The Harratines accepted their servile lot for centuries until the launching of the anti slavery movement currently led by the imprisoned Abeid. The issue is now significantly internationalized and will remain so as more Haratines acquire Western education and tell their stories.
That change will inevitably come to Mauritania there can be no question about.
Activism to overthrow oppressive social orders always tends to be ultimately successful. The road is typically arduous but persistence has historically led to great outcomes. Mandela went to jail for 25 years but South Africa was eventually rid of Apartheid. The Portuguese did not want to give up their African colonies and held on to them right into the 1970s when every other European colonizer had given up their territories and granted independence in the decade of the 1960s. But the freedom fighters kept fighting until Angola, Mozambique, Guinea Bissau, Cape Verde, and Sao Tome and Principe were liberated. The activists of the Soviet Baltic Republics never gave up the fight to restore their nation states as independent republics until the Soviet Union collapsed.
It would be wise of President Abdel Aziz to initiate a process of total and complete emancipation of his country’s slaves and investing massively in education programs for the freed slaves in particular, and the entire Haratine population in general. An educated and well informed population, rather than one steeped in anachronistic tradition wrapped around an interpretation of Islam that condones slavery, is the better option for a developed and prosperous Mauritania, currently ranked as the 14 poorest country in the world by the United Nations in its 2013 human development report.