Mauritanians have expressed their annoyance that their country is still linked to slavery, despite the fact that it was legally abolished at the beginning of the 1980s and, in 2007, parliament criminalized any practice of slavery. A few weeks ago, a ministry was formed to integrate former slaves into society and establish courts specialized in prosecuting slave trade crimes. In addition, there are scores of anti-slavery organizations operating in Mauritania.
Doing away with slavery requires, among other things, finding a financial replacement for slave owners and raising awareness among former slaves, who are still prisoners of the belief that letting go of their masters will inflict financial and moral losses on them. According to Ebrika Ould Mubarak, who was the first former slave to assume a ministry position at the beginning of the 1980s, Arab countries promised Mauritania that they would pump large amounts of money into Mauritania to compensate the former slave owners and develop the areas where former slaves resided. However, these countries did not keep their promises. In fact, some slave traders even exported thousands of enslaved women to wealthy families in the Arab Gulf region.
Where are slaves located in Mauritania?
There were no statistics or estimates conducted about the number of former slaves or those who were still slaves to this day, despite the issuance of the law. Yet, the remaining slaves are mainly concentrated in the “poverty triangle,” which comprises three Mauritanian provinces in the southeast of the country, namely Brakna, Gorgol and Assaba. However, in the other 10 provinces productive projects and modern means of communication are widespread. The Mauritanian government began development projects to reduce poverty in the three aforementioned provinces. The project of Afoot in the eastern part of the country, for instance, aims at providing potable water to residents who live in remote provinces and do not have access to clean water. The water will be distributed to residents by building canals in the river that is less than 10 kilometers [6.2 miles] from these areas. Some of them are still subject to slavery, which is practiced silently and limited to remote areas, while the capital Nouakchott has become a refuge for many former slaves.
Abdel al-Hal al-Baraka, 22, is one of many who were freed from the grip of the slave masters in far northern Mauritania. Baraka works as an office boy in the SOS Slaves Organization, which is one of the biggest anti-slavery organizations. He said that the organization attempted, with the support of the army, to free his mother and siblings from their master and his son after decades of slavery. Baraka is one of tens of thousands of former slaves who live in the slums of the capital, notably in Basra, Tal al-Zaatar and Dar Naim.
The slave owners were compelled to free the slaves because of the drought that hit Mauritania. Former slaves — the majority of whom earn less than a dollar per day — started looking for job opportunities as housemaids or workers in marginal sectors. Abu Baker Ould Massoud, a leftist in his 70s, is the founder of SOS Slaves and the oldest former slave activist. He says that the most prominent achievement today is that slave owners can no longer talk about slavery openly.
Ould Massoud believes that the absence of the state is the main reason behind the slavery issue. He gave the following example: Seven out of 223 judges are black Arabs and former slaves, while only one of them is an investigative judge. Former slaves have yet to assume any other judicial position. On the other hand, former slaves are members or parliament and have assumed the helm of key ministries such as the Defense Ministry, the Interior Ministry and the premiership of the Constitutional Council, in addition to other high positions. The Mauritanian president said that raising the issue of slavery today was mere Israeli propaganda aimed at galvanizing minorities, as a response to the decision of the Mauritanian authorities to cut ties with Tel Aviv.
Tracing the roots of slavery
Mauritanian families in various provinces continued to inherit “maids,” just as property and money would be inherited. Slave trading was considered as normal as sheep trading. According to researchers, wealthy Mauritanian women refuse today to work in the kitchen and cook for their families, considering these chores to be demeaning to their status. This feeling goes back to a cultural legacy, since slaves were tasked with housework.
Mauritanian scholars refuse to give religious justifications to slavery. The majority of these scholars say, “The slaves are treated under harsh conditions that are unacceptable in Mauritania.” Researchers such as Al-Hussein Ould Mohnad believe that slavery in Mauritania was based on the principle of “might makes right,” which is one of the strongest pillars of slavery. Ould Mohnad traced the roots of slavery back in history and said that the tribes of Izkarn and Ayernkanen established the first pillars of slavery in the country. The tribes of Izkarn clashed with the Sanhaja tribes, which came to Chinguetti at the beginning of the Christian era. The story of the Izkarn slavery is still told until this day as part of Mauritanian tradition. Mohamad al-Amjad Ould Mohamad al-Amin, a human rights researcher, believes that the popular culture of Mauritanian society, with all its adages and popular poetry, shows how slavery and social hierarchy is justified.