Fatma Zeina Mint Sbaghou has climbed up from the bottom of the social ladder. A black woman born into a slave caste, she took office as one of Mauritania's 79 members of parliament Oct. 21.
In this desert nation, light-skinned Moors have traditionally enslaved blacks, a practice outlawed three times but still in use. But Ms. Sbaghou now has authority over the light-skinned clan chiefs of her district who not long ago enslaved her family. Few members of her lowly caste, known in the local Arabic dialect as Haratin, have risen to this position of authority in West Africa's only Islamic republic, and never a woman.
It may look as though a new political equality is sprouting from the sands of the Sahara. Many observers, however, say Sbaghou won a rigged election designed to put a slave-caste member in a high-profile position in order to meet foreign demands for social reform in Mauritania. Officials deny it.
The government has little real interest in changing the Mauritanian system of slavery, say members of the local emancipation movement, SOS Slaves. Lacking a popular mandate, President Maaouya Ould Sid'Ahmed Taya's power base comes from wealthy slave masters, says SOS Slaves' executive secretary, Habib Ould Nahfoudh. The Washington-based human rights group Africa Watch claims that at least 100,000 Haratin remain enslaved.
Why did President Taya pick a former slave for parliament? "Partly to placate Western demands to end slavery and democratize," says Hindou mint Ainina, editor in chief of Calame, an independent newspaper. Despite US State Department reservations, Congress passed a bill earlier this month suspending nonhumanitarian aid to Mauritania until antislavery laws are enforced.
But Ms. Ainina claims that putting a slave-caste member in parliament is Taya's means of weakening the "tribe" or clan chiefs who largely control how their members vote. One of his targets is the powerful head of the Mechdorf clan, Hamoud Ould Ahmedou. Sbaghou, a member of the Mechdorf clan, was made a member of parliament from Ahmedou's district in order to humiliate him, Ainina says. "It was a warning to other clan leaders not to challenge the state," she says.
Most blacks of the Mechdorf clan, who had previously supported Sbaghou, are believed to have been angered by the insult to their light-skinned chief and crossed racial lines to vote against her. Yet she was one of four government candidates who mysteriously won without their clan's support. The Army reportedly had a heavy presence in the polling centers of these candidates and may have tipped the vote.
As in nearby Niger and Gambia, Mauritania is ruled by an Army coup leader turned civilian president who has fashioned a tyrannical form of multiparty democracy.
The October parliamentary elections were the first since Taya took power in 1984 that were not boycotted by Mauritania's opposition parties, yet they won only one of 79 seats. International observers documented voter irregularities throughout the country, including instances of manipulated voter lists and coercion.
In Nouakchott, the capital, small groups of protesters stood near polling stations denouncing fraud. One woman who accused people of multiple voting was seen being beaten by soldiers.
Given the government's history of a carrot-and-stick approach, Ainina says, the Mechdorf clan chief probably will accept the humiliation of Ms. Sbaghou's election and will be rewarded later. "Probably one of his children will be given an ambassadorship," she says.