Rabat - The Islamic Republic of Mauritania, Morocco’s southern neighbor, is undergoing drastic changes. With a population of 3.89 million and a GDP of only 4.158 billion USD (as of 2013), it is not surprising that this nation is often overlooked. Mauritania leads the world in only one category: slavery. Yet this infamous statistic is a burden they have now set aside. While this country’s progress seems archaic by modern standards, it is nonetheless making strides towards modernity.
Rabat – The Islamic Republic of Mauritania, Morocco’s southern neighbor, is undergoing drastic changes. With a population of 3.89 million and a GDP of only 4.158 billion USD (as of 2013), it is not surprising that this nation is often overlooked. Mauritania leads the world in only one category: slavery. Yet this infamous statistic is a burden they have now set aside. While this country’s progress seems archaic by modern standards, it is nonetheless making strides towards modernity.
Whereas the small nation once led the world in its rate of enslaved persons, this number has dropped from 4% in 2014 to 1% in 2016, according to a joint survey by the Walk Free Foundation and Gallup. It now has the seventh highest proportion of slavery, and North Korea has claimed the top spot.
Slavery remains a significant obstacle to the nation, but the report indicates that “While Mauritania has been the focus of extensive interest and reporting in the past, it has not had the benefit of a national survey until now. The extent of slavery in Mauritania is still high; however more reliable methods indicate that it is not as high as previously thought.”
The practice had been officially abolished in 1981, the world’s last abolition law. As of 2007, the law established concrete punishments for slaveholding, including 10 to 20 years in prison, and has prosecuted two slaveholders since then.
Last year, specialized courts were established to punish slavery. This is a great step forward from the government’s usual denial of the problem. Despite this, it remains difficult to obtain accurate statistics.
Slavery exists along racial and class boundaries, with masters primarily light-skinned Arabs and slaves primarily dark-skinned Africans. Masters have full rights to slaves’ labor, property, and bodies. Government denial remains a daunting issue, with Mint Abdel Wedoud, chairman of the National Commission on Human Rights (which collaborates with the government), stating that “There are in fact no slaves here. In my whole life I have never seen a slave. Nor have my children. Slavery is a historical phenomenon that we used to see. But that’s all in the past.”
The practice, despite government crackdowns, continues to endure out of official sight. Among slavery’s most notable opponents is activist Biram Dah Abeid. Descended from slaves himself, he is sometimes compared to Spartacus, the leader of a Roman slave revolt, Malcolm X, and Nelson Mandela. Affiliated with abolitionist organizations such as SOS Esclaves and now his own L’Initiative pour la Résurgence du Mouvement Abolitionniste (IRA), he gained local and international recognition.
Abeid often blames the government for complicity in the institution of slavery, and he ran for president in 2014. He lost, however, against incumbent Abdel Aziz, and was shortly afterward sentenced to prison for membership to his own IRA, unlawful assembly, and disorderly conduct.
Following Mauritania’s recent prosecution of slaveholders, Abeid was released from prison in May this year. He continues his rhetoric against government collaboration with slavery, attributing his release to popular pressure rather than the state’s change of heart. “[President] Aziz failed because he underestimated our resistance. Both my resistance from within prison, and the resistance of our partisans and the international community outside. When he realized he could not win the battle, he got scared and withdrew. He just had to find a way to retreat honorably so he ordered his judges to set me free.”
His released was celebrated by hundreds of supporters. The day following Adeid’s liberation, he announced his candidacy for president in 2019.