The Forgotten Slaves

In Mauritania, whites still have a lock on ethnic blacks

MAURITANIA is a country that most people, even within Africa, know little about. Nothing else could explain why, 10 years after the ``last'' emancipation, slavery for blacks in Mauritania remains a pernicious reality. Mauritania joins the descendants of Arabs and Berbers from the north, known as beydanes, [white men] and the black ethnic communities living in the south. Relations between the two have always been tense. Since independence in 1960, economic and political power have remained firmly in the hands of beydanes. Black slaves have been kept by beydane masters for centuries in the north. Slavery was first abolished in 1905 while Mauritania was a French protectorate, and again in the constitution adopted in 1961. But the life of slaves did not improve. A decree banning slavery was passed on July 5, 1980. But particularly in the north, servitude was abolished only on paper.

The 1980 abolition was a public-relations exercise prompted by external considerations. Haratines, free slaves, mainly the sons and grandsons of slaves who had been ``contributed'' to the French army by their masters, many of them well-educated, had created a pressure group, El Hor, which became active in '78-'79. Embarrassed by the negative publicity which El Hor's activities attracted, and anxious to forestall the possibility of political opponents using El Hor for other ends, the government rushed to abolish slavery. However, no concerted effort followed to implement needed economic, educational, and social policies.

In late May, I interviewed escaped slaves and haratines in neighboring Senegal. They were unanimous in their opinion that nothing has changed, particularly in the countryside. Although slaves are no longer sold on the open market, they reported sales continue through discreet arrangements, such as ``exchanges'' or they are given as lifelong ``presents.'' Slaves remain the property of the master's family, without any legal rights. Generally, slaves are still not permitted to marry, have a family, attend school, or go to mosque. The slightest fault is punished savagely. It is clear that the majority are still not aware that slavery has been abolished. Those I spoke with never heard it discussed among beydanes. They learned of it from other blacks. Highlighting the inadequacy of legal prohibition, they emphasized that the road toward emancipation remains the same - through purchase or escape.

Slaves are not only important as a status symbol. Major sources of income for the beydane community, such as animal husbandry and agriculture, continue to exploit slave labor. Only blacks cultivate the land, draw water from the wells, and look after the livestock without compensation. Even when they work as laborers in cities, they are frequently not paid a salary.

Successive governments have discouraged public discussion of population figures. The results of a census taken in 1977 and again in 1988 have never been published. Blacks and independent observers interpret the acute sensitivity about this issue as confirming their belief that the beydane community is in a fact a minority in the country - perhaps 25 to 30 percent. If haratines/slaves make up about 35 percent, they are potentially an important political force. It is therefore necessary to ensure that the two black communities remain mistrustful of each other, and consequently incapable of resisting a beydane monopoly of power. In order to exacerbate these divisions, haratines/slaves have been used to fight other Mauritanians.

Virtually closed to the outside world, Mauritanians live beyond the reach of international observation. The long-term persecution of its black citizens should be forcefully condemned by Arab states, France, and the US, all sources of aid to Mauritania. Other African countries who have been in the forefront of the anti-apartheid movement need to show that they are concerned about racial discrimination everywhere in Africa.

It has never cost governments in Mauritania anything to deny blacks their rights. It is now 10 years after slavery was last abolished and much remains the same. This is an opportune moment to ensure there will be a price to pay for violating the human rights of black citizens.

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