Slavery and its legacy – Mauritania

For many Haratines, slavery has simply developed into new forms of discrimination

Aboubekrine e Yehdhih

Mauritanian society has been shaped by a long history of political, economic and social exclusion, with large segments of the population stigmatized on the basis of their origins or social status. In particular, Haratines – arguably the country’s most marginalized community, comprised mostly of former slaves and their descendants – are still confronted with injustice on a daily basis. This is due in no small part to the fact that the state continues to regard them as second-class citizens. 

Even if there is no official figure, according to SOS Esclaves the Haratine community represents more than 40 per cent of the Mauritanian population. While the number of Haratines living in slavery has greatly reduced, compared to even a few decades ago, many community members continue to be subjected to exploitation and are still affected by the legacy of slavery today: these people live under the direct control of their master or mistress, treated as private property and unremunerated for their work. Since slave status is passed down through the mother, children born to an enslaved mother will be ‘inherited’ by the master’s children. Though the majority of Haratines are now nominally free, in practice most still lack access to education and basic social services, let alone wealth or political power. 

On paper, since independence the Mauritian government has taken steps to address these feudal hierarchies. The various Mauritanian Constitutions (1959, 1961 and 1991) all affirmed the equality of its citizens and proclaimed their adherence to the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. On this basis, and to meet the requirements of domestic and foreign policy, the government took action against slavery and its consequences. Mauritania has ratified all international conventions around human trafficking, prohibits forced labour and, in 2007, passed a law formally criminalizing slavery, subsequently strengthened with further legislation in 2015. These measures were accompanied by the creation of an agency whose main mission is to combat the legacy of slavery and promote the implementation of development programmes in areas where former slaves were concentrated to improve their access to basic social services. Despite the ratification of the main conventions and the main international protocols, however, slavery still remains an ingrained practice in Mauritanian society. 

Alongside these tentative signs of progress, new forms of exclusion and modern slavery have also emerged. Thousands of Haratines are trapped in pockets of misery: they live in makeshift dwellings in slums in central Nouakchott or on its outskirts and those of other large cities such as Nouadhibou and Kiffa. Worse still is the situation of those who remain in the countryside: most of them live within arm’s reach of their former masters in bush ghettos known as adwabas, characterized by extreme poverty and high levels of illiteracy, leaving them with few options if they manage to move from the countryside for the city. 

Many magistrates believe that slavery cannot be abolished by the state: in their eyes, Haratines remain slaves unless they have been explicitly freed by their old masters.

The Haratines still deprived of their freedom are almost all women enslaved by dominant rural families. But if the scale of slavery has significantly diminished, compared to what it was half a century ago, its after-effects continue to be felt through various forms of discrimination and social division. Descendants of slaves frequently internalize a sense of inferiority, borne from the repression suffered by generations before them, reinforced by the arrogance and self-belief of the local land-owning elite. The persistence of the barriers between these two groups becomes apparent whenever this order is challenged by a Haratine seeking to marry ‘upwards’ to someone outside their class. In other areas of life, too, the legacy of slavery lives on. In court, for instance, though all citizens are declared equal, many magistrates believe that slavery cannot be abolished by the state: in their eyes, Haratines remain slaves unless they have been explicitly freed by their old masters. This viewpoint explains why so many members of the judiciary still turn a blind eye to slavery crimes. 

Even with slavery formally abolished, the most difficult and onerous work is still undertaken by Haratines. As manual labour is regarded as the preserve of former slaves, Haratines are typically employed as cart drivers, servants, masons, carpenters and in other arduous occupations. In the countryside, on the other hand, the social classification remains feudal in the medieval sense of the term, with production organized around agro-pastoral activities. Indeed, the social divide is most evident in the rural land tenure system where many forms of slave-like exploitation still exist. Haratines remain in a precarious position and still pay various forms of tribute to landowners, although in theory they are free. As former slaves, they still suffer oppression, even if they have the illusion of freedom and equality. The piece of land they work on is still dependent on the will of the tribal chief and their own compliance. 

In rural areas, sharecropping arrangements can be so harsh that they effectively conceal a slave relationship. Even in irrigated areas, where major development programmes have been carried out by the public authorities, Haratine peasants continue to exist in a state of servitude to the traditional landowners. For example, nearly 90 per cent of landless farmers due to traditional land tenure or feudal slavery exploitation belong to this group. In addition, barely a tenth of the 30,000 hectares legally set aside and developed in the Senegal River valley have been allocated to small local farmers; the remainder has benefited a privileged circle of civil servants, traders and businessmen, often natives of non-agricultural provinces. Less than 10 per cent of the 2 to 3 billion Mauritanian ouguiyas of loans granted annually by Crédit Agricole to finance agriculture has been channelled to the thousands of local farmers, most of whom are Haratines: the more than 90 per cent left over has been absorbed by well-placed, affluent entrepreneurs in the agro-business sector. 

Mauritania has yet to eradicate the injustice and abuse associated with its long history of slavery. Until the profound inequalities that Haratines face in work, education and other areas are meaningfully addressed, then it is likely that their exploitation will continue in other forms (whether tied to religion, discrimination or land). At present, the most powerful forces of change are brave antislavery activists who are courageously leading the fight against slavery in the face of vested interests, prejudice and institutional complicity.

Photo: Haratine women learn to sew in workshops set up by SOS Esclaves in order to improve their economic situation. Nouakchott, Mauritania. Credit: Seif Kousmate