Mauritania History

Mauritania Country Studies index

Mauritania - History


CONTEMPORARY OBSERVERS OF MAURITANIA, like the French colonizers of an earlier century, often have described the country as a bridge linking North Africa and West Africa. Certainly individual groups within Mauritania have maintained strong cultural and economic ties with their neighbors--to whom they were often related--in both regions. Yet although the country served as a geographical bridge, crisscrossed by merchants transporting gold, salt, and slaves between the northern and southern edges of the Sahara, it also marked a cultural boundary between sedentary farmers of sub-Saharan Africa and the nomadic Arab-Berber herders from the Maghrib. Throughout Mauritania's history, the interaction between the two cultures has been charged with social and political conflict that has defined and will continue to define Mauritanian politics. Even Islam, to which virtually the entire population adhered after the ninth century, provided but a veneer of unity.

The character of present-day Mauritania's population reflected the waves of immigration from north and south that had begun in the third century A.D. The first wave, Berbers from the north, migrated into what is now Mauritania in the third and fourth centuries and later in the seventh and eighth centuries. Local populations either became vassals in service to the Berbers or migrated farther south. In the ninth century, three Berber groups--the Lemtuna, Messufa, and Djodala--formed a loose confederation in order to better control the easternmost trans- Saharan trade route. The Sanhadja Confederation, as it came to be called, monopolized trade between the ancient empire of Ghana and the city of Sijilmasa. The historically important towns of Koumbi Saleh, Aoudaghast, Oualâta, Tîchît, and Ouadane flourished during this epoch.

In the eleventh century, following the breakup of the Sanhadja Confederation and a period of unrest and warfare among the Sanhadja Berbers, a small group of Sanhadja zealots established a religious center from which they preached a doctrine of Islamic reform and holy war. By 1090 the empire of the Almoravids--as the fundamentalist revolutionaries came to be known--extended from Spain to Senegal. Within forty years, however, the fervor and zeal of the original Almoravid reformers waned, and, at the same time, their foes to the north and south grew stronger.

The black Sudanic kingdoms of Ghana, Mali, and Songhai eventually expanded over the next six centuries into what had been Berber strongholds and constituted the second wave of immigration. A third wave, again from the north, saw various Yemeni Arab groups infiltrating southward, pushing the Berbers and Africans before them. By the late seventeenth century, one Yemeni group, the Bani Hassan, came to dominate all of what is now Mauritania. As the Berbers moved south, they forced the blacks toward the Senegal River Basin.

Mauritania's social structure in the late twentieth century dated from the late seventeenth century, when the Bani Hassan defeated a Berber force seeking to expel them. The nomadic Arab warrior groups subsequently dominated the Berbers, many of whom became clerics serving the Arabs. At the bottom of the social pyramid were the black slaves. All three groups spoke one language, Hassaniya Arabic, and became known as Maures. Meanwhile, free blacks, culturally related to Africans in the south, settled in the Senegal River Basin.

Europeans became interested in Mauritania only in the second half of the sixteenth century. French traders at Saint Louis in what is now Senegal purchased gum arabic from producers in southern Mauritania. Until the mid-nineteenth century, and then for only a short period when French forces occupied the Trarza and Brakna regions in southern Mauritania, Arabs and Berbers paid little heed to the Europeans. At the start of the twentieth century, French forces under Xavier Cappolani moved back into Mauritania and through brute force and co- optation pacified refractory Arab chiefs. But in contrast to its colonial administration elsewhere in West Africa, the French administered Mauritania indirectly, relying on existing Arab- dominated institutions. This laissez-faire attitude persisted until the 1940s. Following World War II, at a time when other French colonies were agitating for independence or at least substantial reform, there was only minimal political activity in Mauritania. France nonetheless implemented changes that corresponded to reforms demanded and accorded elsewhere in francophone West Africa.

The new political freedom touched perhaps 10 percent of the population; yet even among this group, sharp divisions persisted and threatened the political independence of the colony. Some Arabs and Berbers with strong family ties in Morocco favored union with Morocco, while black Africans in the south wanted to join the nascent Mali Federation, which joined Senegal and Mali. Only by co-opting the country's traditional leaders with vague promises was Mauritania's leading political figure and first president, Moktar Ould Daddah, able to achieve the pretense of unity as Mauritania celebrated its independence on November 28, 1960.

During the first decades of independence, Mauritania remained deeply divided. Southern (non-Maure) blacks resented Maure domination of the political process, which led, among other things, to the disproportionate representation of Maures in the bureaucracy and officer corps of the armed forces, the imbalanced allocation of development funds, and the imposition of Hassaniya Arabic as the language of instruction in all secondary schools. With the support of students, the Mauritanian Workers Union (Union des Travailleurs Mauritaniens--UTM), Mauritania's first trade union, protested a salary scale by which some West European expatriates received wages almost 1,000 times higher than their Mauritanian counterparts. Finally, Mauritania's costly involvement in the Western Sahara conflict was part of a Maure agenda and held little for southern blacks, who made up the bulk of the fighting force and suffered most of the casualties.

In 1975 Mauritania allied with Morocco against the Polisario guerrillas of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), ostensibly to obtain Tiris al Gharbiyya. But by 1978, after several surprise attacks by the Polisario guerrillas against Nouakchott and the iron ore mines at Zouîrât, it had become apparent that Mauritania's military was no match even for the smaller guerrilla forces. Nonetheless, the government continued its costly involvement, in part to stave off a possible invasion by Moroccan troops should Mauritania curtail its effort and in part to satisfy the Maures who saw the annexation of Tiris al Gharbiyya as the first step toward a rejuvenated Greater Mauritania (see Glossary). Mauritania's blacks in particular opposed the war on several counts. First, it siphoned off scarce resources that might otherwise have supported greater agricultural development in the south; second, it paved the way for military officers, most of whom were Maures, to insinuate themselves into the civilian government; and, finally, the majority of the enlisted men were black, although most officers were Maure.

Pointing to the debilitating costs of the war and the subsequent political dissension in Mauritania, a group of military officers staged a coup in July 1978 that brought Colonel Mustapha Ould Salek to power as prime minister. Salek proved unable to extricate Mauritania from the conflict, and in April 1979 Colonel Ahmed Ould Bouceif and Colonel Mohamed Khouna Ould Haidalla seized power. Shortly thereafter, Bouceif was killed in airplane crash, and Haidalla became prime minister.

Ruling through the Military Committee for National Salvation (Comité Militaire de Salut National--CMSN), Haidalla arranged a cease-fire with the guerrillas and pledged to remain neutral in the Western Sahara conflict, although his government later accorded diplomatic recognition to the SADR. Meanwhile, Polisario guerrillas continued to transit Mauritanian territory with impunity, inviting cross-border reprisals from Moroccan troops.

In response to alleged corruption in government and a discernible and apparently unwelcome political tilt toward the SADR, Colonel Maaouiya Ould Sid Ahmed Ould Taya staged a palace coup in December 1984. Proclaiming itself reformist, the Taya government was as anxious to institute the forms of democracy as it was to deflect responsibility for its inability to implement necessary economic and political changes and to defuse ethnic conflict. Taya pledged to hold elections for municipal offices in thirteen cities (which he did in December 1987), free political prisoners, uphold civil rights, and end corruption. A second round of elections, this time for approximately 500 town councillors (consillers) across the country, took place in December 1987 and January 1988. As important as the elections were to Mauritanians, they did little to reduce the ethnic tensions interfering with development.

In the late 1980s, Mauritania had six major ethnic groups: Maure, Toucouleur, Fulbe, Soninké, Wolof, and Bambara. The Maures included the white Arab-Berber descendants of the original Maghribi immigrants and blacks called harratin (sing., hartani), former slaves of white Maures who had assimilated Maure culture. The other ethnic groups consisted of black Africans, who lived in the south along the Senegal River or in cities. Given the large number of black Maures, the significant cultural distinction in Mauritania was not white versus black but rather Maure (white and black) versus black. But even black Africans had divergent responses, often class linked, to Maure hegemony.

The relative size of each group was in dispute both because census data were deficient and because the Maure-dominated government, to preserve its prerogatives, pretended to eschew ethnic labeling. According to Mauritanian government figures, however, Maures constituted 70 percent of the population, while blacks were said to be overrepresented in the bureaucracy and schooling. Others reported that blacks formed at least half the population but were intentionally undercounted and were underrepresented in high-level positions in the government. In any case, Maures openly discriminated against the black population, which, well into the twentieth century, was considered a source of slaves.

The most outspoken and resentful opponents of the Maure- dominated government were the Toucouleur. They constituted the leadership of the African Liberation Forces of Mauritania (Forces de Libération Africaine de Mauritanie--FLAM), an outlawed antigovernment organization based in Dakar, Senegal. In September and October 1986, the government arrested between thirty and forty suspected FLAM members, including thirteen prominent Toucouleur who were charged with sowing "hatred and confusion" and thereby "undermining the values and foundations of . . . society." Partly to protest those arrests as well as continued Maure domination of the government, a group of Toucouleur, some of whom had high-ranking positions in the military, reportedly plotted to overthrow the Taya government in October 1987. In all, 51 persons were brought to trial for the plot, although FLAM claimed that the government detained more than 1,000 people. Three of the defendants, all army lieutenants, were found guilty of attempting to overthrow the government and were executed on December 3, 1987. Subsequently, students in Nouakchott reportedly demonstrated to protest government racism, and violent clashes between supporters and foes of the government occurred in the capital and in Kaédi and Bogué.

A more immediate cause of the disturbances concerned landownership along the Senegal River. By permitting the government to cede otherwise fallow land to those committed to improving it, the 1983 Land Reform Act seemingly accorded Maures preference in acquiring irrigated land. Most blacks, and especially the Toucouleur, believed that wealthy Maures from Nouakchott or Nouadhibou would appropriate land along the river, displacing blacks whose families had lived in the area for generations. Complicating the issue was the fact that some wealthy black landowners living near the river supported the government's attempts to assemble large tracts of land for capital-intensive farming, even if the reforms dispossessed less fortunate blacks.

In the late 1980s, as other sectors of the economy stagnated or faded, irrigated agricultural land became extremely valuable. World prices for iron ore, long Mauritania's principal export, remained low. Fishing, which by 1983 had supplanted iron ore as the chief foreign exchange earner, appeared to be tapering off following years of overfishing by foreign fleets. Finally, as the worst effects of the drought attenuated, the government targeted agriculture for development. With encouragement and support from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the government raised producer prices by 40 percent and then expanded irrigation and flood control programs to bring more marginal land into production.

To finance its domestic investment, Mauritania relied on foreign assistance, which between 1980 and 1985 amounted to approximately US$170 per capita. Mauritania's principal benefactors included wealthy Arab states, France, and Japan. By 1985 Mauritania's foreign debt amounted to US$1.8 billion, or nearly 250 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP), making Mauritania one of the most deeply indebted nations in the world.

One of the reasons for its dependence on foreign funding was the size of the military budget. As in many other Third World countries experiencing domestic turmoil, the military absorbed a disproportionate share of the budget--25 percent in 1985. Military spending distorted the economy by diverting funds from economic development. At the same time, however, the military provided personnel with technical and administrative expertise that could be transferred elsewhere within the government. The military also participated in road building, public health campaigns, and disaster relief. Meanwhile, the hope that the armed forces might foster a sense of national unity transcending ethnic peculiarities proved illusory because most of the officers were Maure, whereas most recruits were black. The attempted coup in October 1987 aggravated that disparity; in its aftermath, approximately 500 noncommissioned officers, most of whom were blacks, were dismissed from the army.

Mauritania in the late 1980s held little promise for its citizens. By 1987 desertification, perhaps Mauritania's greatest enemy, had claimed over 90 percent of the land that had been arable at independence. Competition for increasingly scarce resources--which might include land, education, or slots in the bureaucracy--intensified, pitting Mauritania's non-Maure blacks against Maures. In spite of its reformist intentions, the Taya regime perforce relied increasingly on coercion to maintain order. Only the prospect for a negotiated settlement between Algeria and Morocco in the Western Sahara afforded even the possibility of positive economic change. The redeployment of Moroccan troops from positions just north of Mauritania's border with the Western Sahara and the removal of SADR refugee camps from Tindouf in extreme western Algeria would allow Mauritania to reduce the size and cost of its military, thereby freeing additional funds for economic development. The savings would probably be slight, however, and the net effect unimportant. Only an end to desertification, over which Mauritania had little control, would allow resources to expand to meet the needs of all Mauritanians, both Maures and blacks.

In early April 1989, a minor border dispute involving Senegalese farmers and Mauritanian herders escalated by the end of the month into the slaughter in Nouakchott and Dakar of hundreds of citizens. The rioting in Senegal, in which hundreds of small neighborhood shops belonging to Mauritanian retailers were also looted, followed a period of inflation, rising unemployment, and strikes, all of which aggravated discontent. The violence in Mauritania appeared to be one more chapter in the longstanding conflict between Maures and black Africans, many of whom farmed in the valuable irrigated lands along the Senegal River. To quell the violence, several countries, including France and Morocco, arranged an airlift to repatriate nationals from the two countries back across their respective borders.

Subsequently, Mauritania repatriated or expelled as many as 100,000 people, many of whom had been born in Mauritania and had never lived in Senegal; Senegal repatriated a similar number that also included Maures, mainly the small shopkeepers, who had never lived in Mauritania. The elimination of the mauritanian retailers was expected to exacerbate economic hardship among poorer Senegalese. Among those leaving Mauritania were perhaps, 5,000 or more farmers and herders, all nominally Senegalese, who had been living for generations on the flood plain on the Mauritanian side of the river (which, according to a French colonial document dating from 1933, belonged to Senegal). According to reports, their villages were burned and their assets confiscated. Presumably their lands will be appropriated by Maures. Observers speculated that the government of Mauritania--or elements within the government--were taking advantage of the situation to expel blacks, Toucouleur in particular, in order to obtain valuable agricultural land and at the same time eliminate the clamor of those seeking equal rights for blacks. It was all the more ironic that the government used harratine to carry out operations against the southern blacks.

You can read more regarding this subject on the following websites:

History of Mauritania - Wikipedia
A Brief History of Mauritania - ThoughtCo
Mauritania | People, Culture, & Facts |
Mauritania - Wikipedia
History of Mauritania | World news | The Guardian

Mauritania Country Studies index
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