BY MICHAEL RICONDA
Though human trafficking has received significant attention over the past few years, a different form of slavery has gone largely unnoticed in the African country of Mauritania.
The country, which is located on Africa’s West Coast, has a long-standing and disturbingly prevalent tradition of slavery. Cultural practices in the nation sustain a system bearing strong similarities to pre-Civil War slavery in the United States and opposition is strong enough to drive protestors to set themselves on fire in extreme defiance of the perceived apathy and repressiveness of the nation’s leaders.
Kevin Bales, a professor at the University of Hull in the United Kingdom who specializes in contemporary slavery and co-founded Free the Slaves, explained that Mauritanian slavery is rooted in ethnic divisions between lighter-skinned Africans of Berber ancestry and the Haratin, a broad underclass of dark-skinned Africans descended from slaves who had been obtained from further south of the Senegal River or through the West African slave trade.
Though the trade stretches back to the times of the Roman Empire, the fundamental characteristics of the practice are similar to those of pre-Civil War American slavery. Mauritanian slaves work dirty, undesirable jobs, eat little more than leftovers, sleep in crude rock shelters, and do not attend school as children. In addition, they must often endure physical, emotional, and sexual abuse.
“A regular feature of slavery there is the long-term control, ownership – though not legal ownership – of one family by another through the generations,” Bales said.
Those who have studied the situation, say the number of slaves in Mauritania is estimated to be a whopping 300,000 to 680,000, meaning that 10 to 20 percent of the nation’s overall population are in forced servitude.
Though the practice is culturally-entrenched, there has been emerging opposition. Ould Cheikh, a Mauritanian activist with africanslavery.org, stated that anti-slavery activists often team up with other organizations seeking political and social reform, providing anti-slavery activists with a much needed support network. Most recently, a coalition of opposition groups organized a mass-protest on August 25, holding events nationally but focusing upon the capitol of Nouakchott.
In some instances, opposition has been extreme. Among the most dramatic demonstrations occurred on two separate occasions when two protesters set themselves on fire in an effort to bring international attention to Mauritania’s internal problems. Notably, one of these protesters was originally from Tunisia, the first so-called “Arab Spring” nation to overthrow its government, in a revolution also sparked by a man lighting himself on fire.
Cheikh, a former slave-owner turned anti-slavery activist, was a member of a slave-owning family. Cheikh stated that he was aware that slavery existed when he left Mauritania in his childhood, but was unaware of his direct link to the issue until years later when he received a call from a relative saying that his family’s slaves, whom Cheikh had inherited from his father, had requested their freedom.
“I not only freed them, but I apologized,” Cheikh stated. “I was shocked because I did not even know that I had slaves.”
Mauritanian lawmakers have made several attempts to end slavery, most recently with a 2007 law which banned the practice. The nation has passed laws to abolish slavery as far back as 1905 and again in 1981, before the recent efforts.
Anti-slavery activist Mark Svensson, a native of Rockland County who has fought human trafficking through the “Global Initiative” of former President Bill Clinton and who established the SUNY Rockland Anti-Slavery group, however, said the current government places almost no effort in enforcing the law.
The current government has gone so far as to state that the nation has completely wiped out the practice of slavery. “The situation in Mauritania is absolutely dire. They need to be more proactive,” Svensson stated.
In particular, Mauritanian President Mohamed Aziz, who seized power in a military coup before being elected president, has received strong criticism for what opponents claim is a failure to enforce reforms and attempts to mask the problem. According to Bales, real progress was made with an anti-slavery law’s passage in 2007 and subsequent public information campaigns, but Aziz’s 2008 coup marked the beginning of activist suppression and the refusal to allow the entry of human rights workers into Mauritania.
“Since then, things are pretty much as they were before the brief democratic government,” Bales said. “Suppression of human rights groups, censorship, and house arrest for anti-slavery workers or speakers.”
Some international focus has been turning to Mauritania. Organizations such as Free the Slaves and Anti-Slavery International have raised public awareness of the situation.
In particular, Free the Slaves worked directly with Mauritanian officials by advising the pre-Aziz democratic government and helping them to write a slavery elimination plan.
To some extent, the United States has also addressed the issue. According to Bales, the U.S. government has placed diplomatic pressure upon Mauritania, but with no significant Mauritanian policy changes, overall progress has been slow.
Additionally, Cheikh stated that because governmental support is virtually nonexistent and humanitarian work is difficult, several Mauritanian organizations such as SOS Slaves have stepped in to rescue, shelter, and educate slaves in order to integrate them into free society.
Nonetheless, convincing slaves to choose freedom has proven difficult and may take time. According to Cheikh, activists must often fight negative perceptions of freedom instilled into slaves by their masters, who often coerce slaves into remaining by claiming that there is no social safety net outside of servitude.
“They are afraid of what will happen next,” Cheikh said. “But there is help.”