3. Mauritania’s Societal Complexities
Across the Sahara and the Sahel, the cultural roots of the populations reflect the region’s connections to both the Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa. In Mauritania the balance between ethnic groups, and the distribution of political and social influence, differs from that in countries such as Mali and Niger, where the Tuareg and Arab communities, however important in northern regions, represent a small share of the population. By contrast, Mauritania is genuinely a country of plural heritage including Beidane Arabs, the Haratine descendants of slaves and the Afro-Mauritanian settled populations of the agricultural south. Identity remains a significant and at times subtle influence, facilitated through a complex caste system.
Traditionally, it has been the light-skinned Beidanes who predominate in social authority and political power, while the legacy of French colonial rule saw many educated Afro-Mauritanians occupy administrative and technical positions. The Haratine have benefitted from a process of gradual social and economic emancipation, but campaigners for the community argue that they still suffer serious disadvantages. Census data do not record ethnicity. Government statements have generally reported the population to be majority Maure – meaning speakers of Hassaniya Arabic – and thus using the term to encompass both Beidanes and Haratines. But the term Maure is sometimes taken to refer only to Beidane and many, but not all, Haratine view themselves as quite distinct from the Beidane (who are sometimes also referred to as Maures blancs – ‘white Maures’). Meanwhile, Afro-Mauritanians are mainly of Peul-Toucouleur (Halpulaaren), Soninké and Wolof ethnicity. In 2014, the French Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless People (OFPRA) cited a local estimate of the population as 30 per cent Beidane, 22 per cent Afro-Mauritanian and 48 per cent Haratine, which is broadly in line with other estimates. However, a number of experts say that, in the absence of a proper census of ethnicity, all such estimates must be treated as speculation.
Calculation of the population breakdown is complicated by the legacy of the events of 1989, when the Taya regime expelled tens of thousands of Afro-Mauritanians to Senegal and Mali. Many have since returned, but many have struggled to secure access to full citizenship and there have been complaints that officials have frequently hampered efforts to recover their lost land.
Moreover, the authorities have never properly accepted responsibility for the abuses committed in the past – particularly as a 1993 amnesty law means that the individuals responsible cannot be legally called to account. In mid-2018, Afro-Mauritanian campaigners took advantage of the presence of many sub-Saharan heads of state in Nouakchott for the African Union summit, calling on them to pressure the government to establish a truth and reconciliation commission to address past human rights failings. The abolition of the amnesty law has also been a longstanding demand of some opposition groups and human rights organizations.
While questions of identity are significant in debates over Mauritania’s political and development challenges, the issues remain complex and cannot be simplistically translated into patterns of political allegiance or voting. For example, many Haratine in rural areas remain socially and economically subservient to the Maure families that once owned their slave forebears and they consequently tend to follow the lead of local elites in voting for the governing UPR party. And even in some predominantly Afro-Mauritanian southern farming areas, the party plays a major role in local politics, even as prominent local members complain that their communities are neglected by the government.
The influence of identity and social hierarchy is also overlaid by other powerful social influences and long-term trends, of which probably the most important is urbanization. Campaigns for Haratine rights gain more traction in poor districts of Nouakchott than in rural areas. The greater degree of political awareness around these issues may have been a reason behind the fact that the Sebkha district of Nouakchott, which has a mainly Afro-Mauritanian population, voted against the government constitutional reforms in the 2017 referendum, while in the 2018 municipal elections an opposition coalition won control of the capital’s Arafat municipality and was only narrowly defeated by the governing UPR in the El Mina municipality of Nouakchott.
Historically, the territory that constitutes modern Mauritania was a desert society. Ancient oasis towns such as Chinguetti and Ouadâne were part of a trans-Sahara network of trade and scholarship that stretched from Fes to Timbuktu. Most of the population was nomadic. Even when France eventually imposed control in 1902–03, its forces were confined to a few military outposts and the thin strip of settled farming communities in the Senegal River valley in the south. French authorities governed Mauritania from St Louis, over the border in Senegal, which they regarded as a far more important territory. At independence in 1960 the site for the new capital, Nouakchott, was selected because this was the point on the coast where the Sahara and the less thinly settled Sahelian belt converge.
At that stage a large majority of the population were still nomads. Today the overwhelming majority of the 4.2 million inhabitants live in towns and Nouakchott is home to perhaps one-third of the population. Despite this huge social change, the nomad desert inheritance remains a powerful influence. This is evident, for example, in the tents and small concrete family pavilions designed to look like tents that can be seen on the fringes of many settlements. Nomad culture even shapes attitudes to economic activity. Mauritanians mostly look inland, towards the desert or farming areas, and relatively few have become involved in fishing or maritime trade, a role that is largely left to their neighbours from Senegal (see below). Although it is located on the coast, and has a port, Nouakchott is a city laid out with its back turned to the sea.
Among the Maures, tribal loyalties are a significant influence on political life, underpinning the exercise of power. Former president Taya (now exiled in Qatar) was from the Smasside tribe, noted for its spiritual (maraboutique) connections; Abdelaziz is from the Ouled Bousbah tribe, which has strong commercial traditions. Family, tribe and political patronage networks are a powerful influence over government and public-service appointments as well as the control of sections of the administration. As a result, some public contracts are awarded through such connections rather than open competitive tender.
The Beidane and Afro-Mauritanian communities are stratified, with class structures that influence access to assets, economic opportunity and social status. This hampers the prospects for the social and economic emancipation of the Haratine. Slavery has long been formally abolished and the Haratine have the legal right to make their own choices – but large numbers of them remain trapped in situations of socio-economic dependence or even, in some cases, subjugation, without the personal sense of freedom, confidence or resources that would allow them to take more control over their lives. The military is sometimes perceived as more integrated. Its commanders argue that when it comes to matters of national security and trust among colleagues in situations of risk, soldiers cannot afford to let their effectiveness or security become hidebound by social tradition; many lower ranking members of the forces are Haratine.
This social context overlays the traditional contrast between the desert north and the agricultural far south – where these complex social factors are also an influence on access to land.
In contrast to its southern neighbours, Mauritania is an explicitly Islamic republic. The constitution requires all citizens to be Muslim and apostasy can be punished by death. But attitudes towards foreigners of other faiths are tolerant and there is a small Catholic cathedral in central Nouakchott. Essentially the entire indigenous population adheres to Islam, which is a powerful influence on social mores, the legal system and intellectual life. Effective French colonial rule, which lasted barely half a century and was largely indirect beyond the Senegal River valley, left indigenous religious traditions more or less untouched.
Mauritania has a rich Islamic history. Ancient oasis towns such as such as Chinguetti were centres of learning, part of the wider pattern of Islamic scholarship that extended across the Sahara, connecting North Africa to cities such as Timbuktu. Mauritanian Islam belongs to the Malekite strand of the faith. It is socially conservative but moderate, supportive of stability and eschewing an ideological view of the world, illustrated by the fact that in 1995 Mauritania became one of the few Arab League member states to establish diplomatic relations with Israel. An important role is played by Sufi brotherhoods, such as the Tijaniyya and Khadria, which prioritize spiritual matters. The strength of traditional attitudes has rendered Mauritania relatively resistant to radical ideology or to the purist Izala interpretation of the faith that is influential in parts of northern Nigeria – and equally unreceptive to Ba’athist secular Arab nationalism. But the Tabligh movement, promoting a simple pietist interpretation of the faith, has a presence in the country. Furthermore, many young Mauritanians study in the Gulf states, which has helped the spread of Wahabi fundamentalist ideas from Saudi Arabia.
There is a strong indigenous tradition of Islamic education and Mauritanian ulemas (preachers) have worked hard to counter any infiltration of extremist thinking. But in today’s interconnected world, Mauritania could not remain untouched and a significant number of individuals were drawn into jihadism. Mahfouz Ould Al-Walid (Abu Hafs al-Mauritani), from the southern town of Rosso, went to fight in Afghanistan and became a member of Osama Bin Laden’s inner circle. By the mid-2000s the government was seriously concerned about the threat posed by Islamist militant violence at home. Some young men joined extremist groups and on 4 June 2005 militants crossed the desert border from Algeria to attack an isolated army base at Lemgheity in the far north-east, reportedly leaving 15 soldiers dead. Subsequently there were reports that other attack plots had been uncovered. In northern Mali, the El Forkan katiba (fighting group), part of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, consists entirely of Mauritanian recruits. The Taya regime’s resort to arbitrary arrests and torture appears to have been counter-productive and the short-lived democratic administration of Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi (2007–08) was then deposed by Abdelaziz, on the grounds of its supposed ineffectiveness in countering the threat from jihadist extremism.
The current regime has pursued a serious and broad approach that seeks to tackle the problem from several angles – security, religious and socio-economic. The military has been re-equipped and retrained on a much more professional basis, with a specialist anti-terrorist patrol force. Militants are in jail and some high-profile fugitives have been extradited back to Mauritania: two gunmen thought responsible for the 2007 murder of four French tourists in the Sahara were captured in Guinea-Bissau and flown to Nouakchott and in 2016 the Guinea authorities detained Saleck Ould Cheikh, a prominent jihadist. There has also been a serious effort to tighten up the oversight of preaching and to reassert the promotion of indigenous moderate Malekite Islam, and even to change attitudes among imprisoned militants, including in one notable case through a televised theology debate. Meanwhile, in isolated and economically depressed provincial areas the government has built new settlements with good infrastructure and public services to tackle social deprivation and present the state in a positive light.
The strategy seems to have produced results, with few cases of militant activity reported in recent years. However, the government recently stepped up surveillance of preaching in Nouakchott, where an imam at the Dar Naim mosque was recently dismissed for sermons that promoted extremist ideology and violence. In September 2018, the authorities shut down the Arafat school for training ulemas that had been established by the preacher Mohamed el Hassen Ould Dedew – who comes from a highly respected family – on the alleged grounds that its strict ideology was a form of radicalism.
The government also remains wary of political Islam, in the shape of the Islamist party Tawassoul, despite the latter’s insistence that it espouses purely democratic politics, in a similar vein to Ennahdha in Tunisia or the Parti de Justice et Développement (PJD) in Morocco. With active social programmes, Tawassoul is particularly popular among urban youth and maintained its position as the strongest opposition group in the September parliamentary elections. In September 2018 it was the target of a fierce public attack by the president.