Mauritania was the last nation to abolish slavery in 1981, and the practice was only criminalized in 2007. Today, slavery is more prevalent in Mauritania than in any other country. World Policy Journal spoke with Erin Pettigrew, professor of history and Arab crossroads studies at NYU Abu Dhabi, about the unique nature and evolution of slavery in Mauritania, and the future of the modern abolition movement.
WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: What does modern slavery in Mauritania look like in terms of its economic and social structures? How does it compare to historical slavery?
ERIN PETTIGREW: This is one of the biggest and most difficult questions. When people hear the word “slavery,” especially in an American context, they attach a very black-and-white (both metaphorically and racially) meaning to the term. In the American context, people understand slavery to be about big plantations and a form of chattel slavery that existed in North and South America. But in Mauritania and West Africa, and across the African continent, there are multiple forms of slavery, and it isn’t as simple as the racial dichotomy people have in mind. Today, what people call slavery depends a lot on who you are talking to. Generally, in Mauritania, what I would describe as slavery isn’t something most of us could easily identify as chattel slavery, in which a person is physically purchased, as happened in the Americas.
While that type of slavery did happen historically in the region, today what you often see are people working in other people’s homes or in oases or nomadic communities, but probably aren’t being paid a minimum wage, aren’t being paid regularly, and have enduring, ambiguous forms of dependency on the people they work for. It becomes very difficult when people start talking about legislating slavery because the unemployment numbers are also very high and there aren’t a lot of other options—though this is not to excuse any unfree or unfair labor.
Many people enter into restrictive and unfair relationships. On the one hand, people in Mauritania often have others working in their homes and it is unclear whether they are actually paying these workers a living wage. Are they being given room and board? If so, is that a fair exchange? Probably not. On the other hand, these workers don’t have many other options, so they are often stuck. The most problematic cases are when children grow up in those conditions, aren’t afforded access to education, and don’t have a sense of individual choice or freedom when it comes to marriage or leaving for another job. Those cases are more easily identifiable as slave situations.
When it comes to the racial aspect in modern Mauritania, historically and today, people who we might consider black have black slaves. And people Americans might consider Arab also have black slaves. So, there can be a racial dichotomy, but there isn’t always.
WPJ: Would you characterize the system of this labor structure as descent-based?
EP: In West Africa social structures are very much based on genealogical occupational status. People are born into a sort of occupation; they born into communities or families that are clerical and scholarly, families that have historically been warriors, families that are singers, and families of slave status. So, whether or not they are technically and legally free today, they still bear the stigma of being born into a family that carries that occupational identity.
WPJ: Could you expand on the relationship between the Arabs/Moors and Haratin groups in Mauritania?
EP: Race is a social construction. So, when Americans visually are looking at people that might be classified as Bidhan, which in Arabic means “white people” and the French called “white Moors,” and then Haratin, a local term that people debate the meaning of but refers to people of slave descent, there might not necessarily be a visual difference between the two. But, locally, those are inherited statuses that designate whether someone is genealogically seen as born free or born into a slave status. Among the Bidhan themselves, there are different occupational groups who are seen as animal herders, iron workers, artisans, and fishermen, who also have a low status. It is not as though all of the Bidhan are seen as having an elevated status. But, of course, people of slave status are seen as the lowest. Today, there are plenty examples of Haratin writers, professors, important businessmen—even the head of the National Assembly. Mohamed Said Olud Hamody, the former Mauritanian Ambassador to the U.S. and Ambassador to the U.N., was Haratin. It is not that there is never a possibility of social mobility, but those are unfortunately some of the exceptions.
WPJ: What is the population distribution between the Haratin and the Bidhan?
EP: This actually a political issue. The state in the last five or six years has been saying it’s doing a census for the first time in many decades, but certain populations feel as though the state has done everything it can to exclude them from participating. Those populations are primarily Haratin, Soninke, Wolof, and Pular communities—the same populations that might consider themselves black. There is a movement called Don’t Touch My Nationality, and those involved see the state as trying to prevent them from signing up as citizens and participating in the census.
Their argument is that the state doesn’t want to an accurate census because it would show that the Bidhan are a small minority compared to the rest of the other four language populations, which could threaten its rule. So, estimates are purely estimates at this point. We don’t even know how many people are actually in Mauritania—estimates are somewhere around 4 million people. The state officially says the breakdown is 30 percent Bidhan, 30 percent Haratin, and 30 percent belonging to three other language groups, but most people assume that the true numbers of Haratin are actually much higher. This would indicate that the number of Bidhan is much lower.
WPJ: How would you characterize the racial discourse in Mauritania? Does it play a role in how the government and civilians view this issue?
EP: The racial discourse has changed dramatically in the last 10 years. A lot of this has to do with a very prominent activist, Biram Ould Dah Ould Abeid. He is not the only prominent activist, nor is he the only one working on these issues, but he is notable for his aggressive discourse. He has had a lot of support in the country, and among the diaspora, for both his presidential campaign and a general opposition movement that addresses the discrimination that the Haratin and other non-Arab Mauritanian populations face. The discourse has changed a lot; this is anecdotal, but people are much more willing to talk about these issues and use terms like Haratin today than they were 10 years ago. I think there has been a dramatic change in that sense, but there is still a long way to go in terms of the daily lives of the people who are suffering.
WPJ: Was the shift in the last decade catalyzed by the surge of abolition movements? Or, was it catalyzed by other factors like international pressures, economic trends, or legislative efforts? What was the dynamic of the shift?
EP: Like a lot of things, it was contingent on many factors. Abeid’s political party, Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement (IRA), along with another political party, SOS Esclaves, played an important role. The leaders of those parties have been active for a long time, and their grass-roots movement has slowly gained ground. The changes came to a head when Abeid was arrested for burning legal texts in 2012 and when he ran for president in 2014. He was put in jail, which garnered a lot of international attention because there were fatwahs calling for his death.
WPJ: How did the French colonization of Mauritania impact the nation’s history of slavery?
EP: The French outlawed slavery twice in West Africa, first in 1903 and again in 1905. They had previously outlawed the trans-Atlantic slave trade, but allowed the domestic slave trade within Africa to continue. Even though the French formally outlawed domestic slavery, in most cases, they didn’t actually enforce it in Mauritania. This dynamic is largely the same in contemporary, post-colonial Mauritania. Mauritania is a desert country with few people actually living there. The French didn’t invest as much in administering anti-slavery laws in Mauritania as they did in other places, such as Senegal. There weren’t very many French officers actually on the ground. Many Mauritanians during the colonial period never even saw a French officer. This is not to say colonialism didn’t have an effect, but the fact was there weren’t enough people on the ground for the French to effectively enforce many of these laws. They also didn’t want to carry out enforcement because many of the families on whom they depended to sustain their rule had slaves. In the colonial archives, you see French officers blatantly saying they have to tolerate this practice but can’t acknowledge it. That allowed slavery to persist for another 57 years under French rule. There has been a similar pattern throughout Mauritanian history; the post-colonial government abolished slavery, but, probably for lack of political will, it did not actually do the work of enforcing that law.
WPJ: Looking back at the history of slavery in Mauritania, and more generally West Africa, what are the key elements that have influenced modern slavery?
EP: First, the trans-Saharan trade. We don’t have accurate numbers for the trans-Atlantic slave trade, but we do have detailed records of ships, so people try to estimate the number of Africans sent to the Americas. We don’t have the same record-keeping for the trans-Saharan slave trade, but we know that this trade system existed from at least the 8th century well into the 20th century. A lot of people would say it still exists with the human trafficking we see across the Sahara, through Libya, and into Europe, especially the young women who are taken to serve as prostitutes. This pattern is nothing new; over many centuries people from West Africa have been taken to North Africa and now to Europe.
Religion has also played a role in these practices. Some people have tried to claim that people south of the Sahara both historically and today are not fully Muslim, not practicing Muslims, or not piously Muslim. Often, this was used to justify taking people as slaves from those regions. That kind of discourse appeared with the arrival of Islam in the 8th century and can still come into play in discussions about why certain people have been enslaved.
WPJ: What is the future of the abolition movement in Mauritania?
EP: I think the IRA (Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement) has been severely weakened. It has had internal conflicts in the last year or two, and Abeid has been out of the country for a while, partly because he feels threatened by the state after being arrested several times and partly because there is a sense that he needs to build support among the diaspora. While people from IRA and other anti-slavery groups are still out in the streets protesting, their activity has slowed down. A lot of the energy in the past months has been targeted at building a coalition of opposition to a referendum President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz put forward for a vote on Aug. 5, which would limit the powers of the Constitution, dissolve the current Senate, and allow him to run for a third term. New coalitions, of which the anti-slavery movement is a part, have focused recently on the very specific goal of opposing this referendum.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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[Interview conducted by Madeline de Figueiredo]
[Photo courtesy of Erin Pettigrew]