International Institute for Justice and Development

Mauritania-The Height of Slavery in the 21st Century

Posted on August 27, 2012

By: Nana E Akuffo-Sagoe

The government of Mauritania abolished slavery in 1981, making it the last country in the world to officially abolish slavery. There have however been reports that slavery still exists in the country although the government denies it. These reports come from activists fighting against the practice as well as former slaves. According to the United Nations, 10-20% of Mauritanians live in slavery.

The main ethnic groups in Mauritania consist of the White Maures who are light skinned Berber people and speak Arabic. They make up 40% of the population. There are also the Black Maures, who are dark skinned people and make up 30% of the population while the Black Africans, who are made up of people from several ethnic groups such as the Wolof and Sonike, make up 30% of the population. The White Maures have traditionally been the slave owners, while the Black Maures have been slaves. The Black Africans, although dark skinned as well, have a different culture and language and have never been traditionally enslaved. Freed slaves are called Haratine.

Slave activist leaders and founders of anti-slavery organization (SOS Esclaves) Boubacar Messoud Abdel and Nasser Ould Ethmane along with the few anti-slavery organizations in Mauritania, have taken steps to bring about a complete abolishment of slavery and to help slaves. They interview freed slaves and make their stories known not only to the public but also to the world. They also try to help slaves gain their freedom, which is by no means an easy feat. This is not only because of the actual danger in trying to free the slaves but because some of the slaves have no desire to be freed.  Their minds are enslaved.

Many slaves do not understand the concept of freedom. To them, the idea of escaping their plight is ridiculous and unheard of. They believe that being enslaved is what is mapped out for them. Slavery has existed in Mauritania for over 2000 years. Since these slaves were born and not captured into slavery, they do not know any other way of life. Some even refer to their slave owners as family. The slaves that foster the idea of escape fear what awaits them in the outside world. If freed they may starve to death. Without skills, it is difficult for freed slaves to survive. SOS Esclaves have established a school for escaped slaves to learn skills in order to survive, however funding for the school is low and the school may soon be shut down.

In 2007, a law was passed that criminalized the act of slavery, however only one person has been convicted of slave ownership to date. Activist leaders believe that it was the government’s attempt to denounce the existence of slavery. Slavery is ingrained into the culture of the country and it has proven difficult to change the mindset of a nation.

An important solution to the problem is education. Co-founders of SOS Esclaves Boubacar Messoud Abdel and Nasser Ould Ethmane are a very unlikely pair since Abdel is a former slave and Ethmane a former slave owner. It was through education that the two co-founders realized that slavery was wrong. Education is an important key element to completely abolish slavery in Mauritania, however Abdel and Ethmane believe that, slavery will only end when a former slave becomes president.


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