Mauritania’s Dark Secrets: Slavery and Government Indifference
Mauritania is an arid, desert country in Northwest Africa that has been in the news lately as a result of its recent discovery of oil and the ever-present danger of its capital city, Nouakchott, flooding to the point of near-submersion. While these stories illustrate some of the troubles that Mauritania is facing, there is a much darker, more disturbing, and grossly overlooked reality that exists within its borders. Mauritania was the last country in the world to ban legal, institutional slavery, officially banning it in 1981. Although it is documented that slavery is “illegal,” the government did not make slavery a crime until 2007. The question in Mauritania, however, is not whether slavery is illegal, but rather whether it still exists. The answer, according to a report by the United Nations’s special rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, Gulnara Shahinian, is that yes, it does. Between 10 and 20 percent of Mauritania’s population is enslaved without any significant consequences for the enslavers.
The socio-cultural dynamic of Mauritania has not drastically changed since its independence from France in 1960. The population is segregated into two social groups: the light-skin Arabs, known as the White Moors, and the dark-skin Arabs, the black Africans. Throughout the past 50 years, and especially before the official banning of slavery, the White Moors in Mauritania have asserted control over impoverished black Africans by forcing them to unwillingly perform arduous labor, mostly for personal and economic reasons.
Dominating much of Mauritania’s social-political realm, the White Moors have been known to turn a blind eye to slavery, and much of the government’s rhetoric about slavery indicates that they do not directly take blame for its implications. It appears that the government's willingness to acknowledge slavery has decreased over time. In an interesting contradiction, however, the government is also taking action against those who dissent against its blasé attitude. About a year ago, two anti-slavery activists were arrested during an anti-bondage protest and over two months ago, were finally tried in a court of law for public dissent. According to Al-Jazeera, the two activists were tried for “belonging to an illegal organization, leading an unauthorized rally, and violence against the police”.
While there are those that declare that “slavery” is not a result of racism between the two or three groups that make up Mauritania’s society, it is difficult to ignore the fact that racism is ubiquitous throughout the country’s politics. Even if there is resistance in the form of anti-slavery protests, these protests fall short of making any real progress because of the country’s government is run by the same social group as the alleged slave-masters. In the 2007 “democratic election,” a profoundly small number of candidates (only three) of the total number of candidates were not of the White Moor class.
However, one of the most interesting forms of resistance and awareness rising within Mauritania’s borders comes from its recent expansion of socially-conscious hip-hop music. Many of the rappers in Mauritania write rhymes over instrumentals about the country’s past involvement with slavery and how this history relates to tackling it and destroying. Rapping allows the anti-slavery population of Mauritania to come together and form a collective voice against the atrocities that are not recognized by the government, even if that means they become the next targets of government imprisonment campaigns.
Many of the dissenters’ methods of activism have raised awareness to the point that American news sources, such as CNN, have created articles and documentaries to do the same locally.
These activities have also aided in forcing the Mauritanian government to pass a new anti-slavery law that declares slavery as a “crime against humanity.” While this law may illustrate that Mauritania may be gradually moving in the right direction, several UN-affiliated and non-UN affiliated NGOs, claim that the new law will hinder their efforts to aid the victims and carry out prosecutions. The law itself may also be weak and unenforceable, as there has been a history of a lack of government prosecutions despite the fact that slavery is illegal.
Though whatever progress has been made in Mauritania legally, the efforts of NGOs and social activist groups, including rappers, should not be overlooked. Because of their brave actions, the international community is aware of what has been occurring as a result of the Mauritanian government’s “blind-eye” approach to slavery.