Tyler Falish is a student in Fordham University’s Graduate Program in International Political Economy & Development and a former intern for the Council on Foreign Relations Africa Studies program.
The Global Slavery Index estimates that 45.8 million people are currently subject to modern slavery. Modern slavery can take the form of forced labor, domestic servitude, forced marriage, child slavery, and debt bondage, among other forms. Within this definition, it is estimated that India, China, Pakistan, and Bangladesh have the highest prevalence of modern slavery. In Mauritania—a former French colony in the Maghreb—a conservative estimate suggests that 43,000 (just over 1 percent of the population of four million) Mauritanians are enslaved. Although this figure appears to indicate an impressive drop from a 2014 estimate of 140,000, the change may be due in large part to more robust statistical techniques and improvements in survey methodology. Precision aside, thousands of Mauritanians remain enslaved.
Slavery in Mauritania is hardly ‘modern.’ It is an institution deeply rooted in the history of the country and region. The ruling minority Beydanes (Arab-Berbers) historically enslaved Haratin (or “Black Moors”). Afro-Mauritanians—black Mauritanians who do not have slave lineage—and the Haratin comprise 70 percent of Mauritanians, and both are largely excluded from political life and severely disadvantaged economically. But ethnic cleavages also exist between these groups, as the Beydane-dominated government used Haratin soldiers to kill and torture Afro-Mauritanians in waves of ethnic cleansing in the early nineties. Further, some Afro-Mauritanians were once slaveholders themselves.
In 1981, Mauritania became the final country to abolish slavery. But it wasn’t until 2007 that the government passed a law allowing slaveholders to be prosecuted. However, it is uncommon for slaveholders to be arrested and those who are often see immediate release or are handed meager sentences. The government—led by President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz—largely denies the existence of slavery in Mauritania (by referring only to “vestiges” of slavery), a stance that in and of itself hinders progress toward the elimination of the practice.
Abolitionists, such as Biram Dah Abeid, leader of the Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement (IRA), have risked much to keep pressure on slaveholders and the government, increase awareness abroad, and advocate for both freed and enslaved Mauritanians. On August 19, thirteen IRA members were handed prison sentences from three to fifteen years, after being found guilty of rebellion, among other things, for organizing a protest against the forced relocation of an informal settlement. According to their attorney, they were all tortured while in custody. A Mauritanian blogger, who had written posts criticizing the country’s caste system, remains on death row after his 2014 conviction for blasphemy.
Slavery in Mauritania is sometimes justified by an aberrant interpretation of Islam, though perhaps more importantly, it is largely an economic and psychological institution. Enslaved Mauritanians are often bound to their “masters” by economic necessity and a sense of loyalty. A dearth of economic opportunities inhibits the ability of freed slaves to support themselves and their families.
While abolitionists like those of the IRA attempt to create the space necessary for enslaved Mauritanians to envision and seize a life outside of bondage, the government’s continued denial of the existence of slavery perpetuates the institution and the caste system, from which the ruling elites benefit. Despite the efforts of the abolitionists and human rights groups, it is unlikely that President Abdel Aziz’s government will change tack. Abdel Aziz is an ally to the West in a region threatened by terrorist groups, which likely insulates him from any intense pressure from foreign governments. He recently expressed interest in a proposal for a referendum on constitutional changes that would allow him to remain in power for at least a third term, if not longer.